Meet Juan Garcia – District 32

June 29th, 2006

Juan Garcia with former Harvard roomate Sen. Barack Obama

District 32 (pdf. map) presents a mosaic of virtually every environmental concern found across Texas, with strong forces often pulling the area toward opposite ends.

It covers most of Corpus Christi, all of Port Aransas and stretches north through Aransas and Calhoun Counties. It’s home to the Padre Island National Seashore, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail and boasts some of the richest hunting and sport fishing in the country.

The area also has a high concentration of heavy industry, particularly petrochemical refineries. Forecasts show tourism and service industries growing faster and representing an increasingly larger part of the economic pie, but industrial sources of pollution will continue to present serious public health challenges well into the future. The district also maintains a sizable cattle ranching sector, an Army Depot and a major Naval Air Station – each with its attendant environmental challenges.

For the past nine years, District 32 has been represented by Gene Seaman – a man who seems blind to the ecological richness of the coastal bend and harbors little interest in protecting his constituents from toxic industry. Seaman managed to get an 8% on TLCV’s 2005 Scorecard. He racked up a big Zippo-Nada-Zilch on the 2003 Scorecard.

The district historically swings Republican, but in the Sharp/Dewhurst race of ’02 it broke 50-50 – revealing an independent streak in voters there. And Seaman has been weak in recent elections. It looked like he would lose in 2002, but he got a last-minute infusion of Tom Delay’s scandalous TRMPAC money and squeaked that one out.

Juan Garcia may be the perfect candidate to provide some much needed balance, energy and leadership. And really, that’s under-selling the guy. The truth is, you can’t make up candidates like this.

Garcia is a naval aviator who flew multiple armed missions in the Persian Gulf and in Kosovo and, now retired from active duty, serves as a naval flight instructor. He has a Harvard law degree, a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and now works as an attorney. He was selected as a White House Fellow, where he worked with the Secretary of Education. He’s served on boards of numerous community groups and is a legal volunteer for the Corpus Christi Women’s Shelter. He’s a young, articulate family man.

…Oh, and he’s a charter member of Surfrider Foundation in Corpus, a group dedicated to preserving the Texas Open Beaches Act, protecting dune systems and enhancing water quality and the ecological health of the coast.

When it comes to natural resource issues, Garcia really gets it. That’s why TLCV was proud to endorse his candidacy earlier this year. We believe that Juan Garcia will do more than just replace Gene Seaman’s consistently wrong-headed votes with good ones. We think he’ll provide actual leadership – and that he’ll be able to do so much earlier than is typical for new House members. Juan is a charismatic and persuasive guy – the kind of person who you’d expect to round up an extra handful of votes on any given measure.

We sat down with Juan to talk shop not long ago, and he started rattling off details about the environmental challenges facing his district.

Air Quality. Garcia says that as a father of four kids, he’s deeply concerned about industrial pollution and its effect on public heath. “We have six refineries and a disproportionate incidence of asthma on the north side of town. And now we’re talking about putting a new one in at Ingleside.” Garcia says. The military base in Ingleside was shut down as part of the Base Relocation and Closure Act, and the site’s fate is now under debate. “We could flip a switch and have a college there,” Garcia says. “That’s what we need. We’re on the edge of non-attainment of federal air quality standards and we have asthma rates shooting up. Is another refinery the best answer? Why don’t we get some clean industry in there that will provide jobs and education opportunities?” Don’t expect that kind of talk for Seaman, whose campaign finance reports are loaded with contributions from industrial polluters.

Energy. While recognizing the importance of the traditional energy industry to Corpus, Juan says he sees great potential for wind power in and around the district. “Wind power should be a big part of our future,” he says. “The technology has moved forward by leaps and bounds. There are issues that still need to be resolved, like dealing with flight patterns of migratory birds. But the potential here is huge.” He points out that Corpus will be confronting its past for years to come – with two unfunded Superfund sites sitting on the north side of the bay. “We need to start moving in the right direction today. We have a great spot for a wind farm on Hope Diamond,” he says.

Bays and Estuaries. Garcia goes first to his experience as a founder of the Corpus Christi chapter of the Surfriders Foundation when talking about the health of the bays. Needless to say, when pollution causes beach closures, you get some pretty angry surfers. But he also talks about the economic health of the region depending on vibrant ecology. “Tourism is a leading industry here. If the bays are hurt, that all goes away. The anglers leave. The bird watchers leave. And all the businesses that support them go away. It would be pure disaster.”

Open Beaches. The community has struggled in recent times with a City Council vote to close to vehicular traffic 7,200 feet of the beach near Packery Channel to accommodate a new resort development. Regardless of the outcome ultimately reached by the community in this local government issue, he’s worked to ensure that the requirements of the Open Beaches Act are met and exceeded, with multiple access points to the beach. Philosophically, Garcia and Seaman couldn’t be farther apart on this issue. During the last regular session, environmental bad-guy Dennis Bonnen had a bill to gut the Open Beaches Act – a move widely opposed by Corpus Christi citizens. The bill was repeatedly knocked down on the House floor for technical issues and sent back to committee. Each time, Gene Seaman had an opportunity to single-handedly stall the bill – since he sits on the Calendars Committee, which sets bills for floor hearings. And each time, Seaman refused to exercise his prerogative to “tag” the bill.

In addition to conservation issues, Juan’s campaign themes have focused on education, health care, public safety and restoring integrity and fairness to the political process. On each count, he skips the platitudes and lists specific, detailed proposals for helping Texans and the citizens of District 32 lead richer lives.

We’re guessing that the power structure in Austin – backed by the big polluters and insurance industry – will pour a lot of last-minute money into this race, trying to hold on to one of their lock-step voters. But
we think Juan will peel off a fair number of voters who traditionally vote Republican, and bring people to the polls who usually don’t vote. He needs our help. We’ll bring you more news on this race as the election nears. Stay tuned.