Senator who led wave of RGV political visits not running for president

Jose Luis Magana | The Associated Press Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., speaks during the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting Jan. 24 in Washington, D.C. (Jose Luis Magana | The Associated Press)

McALLEN — Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who announced Tuesday that he will not run seek the presidency, began hinting at a White House bid when he visited the Rio Grande Valley in June. The Trump administration had been separating immigrant families at the southern border, and Merkley traveled to Brownsville to call attention to the issue and to livestream his attempt to enter a youth migrant shelter, only to have the police called.

National attention on the border and on immigration intensified following Merkley’s visit, with the senator conducting countless interviews after his trip and attempting to lead a fight against Trump’s immigration policies. Merkley’s kicked off a flurry of political visits, with more than 50 members of Congress and other politicians touring the region throughout the summer and fall. And of the 14 announced 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, four visited South Texas in the wake of Merkley’s trip to the Valley.

The four candidates who visited — Corey Booker, Julian Castro, John Delaney and Kirsten Gillibrand — won’t be the only ones to have spent time in South Texas this campaign. In fact, when Booker, Castro and Gillibrand traveled here, they had not announced presidential bids. Two Valley congressmen said they plan to bring every 2020 Democratic candidate to the region — Delaney was the first, in the fall.

Merkley’s visit last summer, however, was not an extended offer. Some locally saw it as a stunt.

“We’re actually going to visit the Willamette Valley next week,” one Texas Republican congressional aide joked in June, referencing the picturesque region along the Oregon coast.

“Merkley’s visit back in June was a media ploy,” U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said on Tuesday. “It’s the first time we had ever heard of him weighing in on border issues.”

Such is the local danger with political visits to the border, a region where analysts warned about possible traps for candidates unfamiliar with issues pertinent to the area. But South Texas has become something of a rite of passage for politicians looking to elevate their brand.

“The danger here is candidates thinking that Hispanics care about one issue,” Bob Stein, a Rice University political science professor, said on Tuesday. If any presidential candidates campaign in the Valley, he said, “they better know exactly who they’re talking to and what they’re talking about.”

Stein added: “I haven’t done any polling on this, but there’s a potential for it to be offensive. ‘You only want to talk to me about a border?’”

Delaney witnessed this firsthand. He was the first candidate Vela and his Valley colleague, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, brought down. During meetings with voters, Delaney talked about his own immigrant story. But he also spent time in areas that had hardly anything to do with immigration. He came away impressed with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.

“The wall didn’t come up all that much,” Delaney recalled on Tuesday. “What came up were the economic impacts, the public health issues.”

Vela, who drove Delaney around the Valley in his minivan, wasn’t quite sure how the day would go. But he, and Gonzalez, came away satisfied.

“That was pretty good, huh?” Vela said at the time. “Sometimes you never know when people come in. But that went well. He was really good, wasn’t he?”

As far as getting the rest of the field to the Valley, Vela said he has spoken to Booker, Castro, Tulsi Gabbard and possible candidates, U.S. Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Eric Swalwell, D-Calif, about visiting South Texas. Gonzalez said invites have been extended to every candidate. Perhaps the one in waiting for Gonzalez and Vela, though, is their border friend, Beto O’Rourke. The two Valley congressmen campaigned alongside O’Rourke last year as he ran to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX.

“Of course, everyone is waiting to see what Beto is going to do,” Vela said.

O’Rourke, an El Paso native, understands the border, and has a strong following in South Texas, having made 10 trips to the region during his senate campaign. He is unlikely to fall into the trap that Stein described.

While a bulk of Delaney’s trip focused on economics and public health, with a bit of immigration, Gonzalez said each candidate could have a different itinerary.

“It’s important to remember, Delaney is a middle of the road candidate,” Gonzalez said. “So his platform and visit will be different from Bernie Sanders coming down.”