Following the death of former Rep. Eligio "Kika" de La Garza, D.-Texas, on March 13, the onetime chairman of the House Agriculture Committee was primarily remembered in the national press as a trailblazer for the Hispanic-American community.
De La Garza (who died at age 89) was, press reports noted, one of only two U.S. House Members of Hispanic heritage when he was first elected in 1964 and the first Hispanic-American to represent the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in Congress. He was also a founder of the House's Hispanic Caucus.
But the man who called himself "just a shoeshine boy from Mission, Texas" and admonished Capitol Police and cafeteria workers to call him "Kika" rather than "Congressman" was iconic for another reason: in an era in which the Democratic Party moved increasingly to the left, de la Garza remained a conservative Democrat who worked closely with the business community as well as Republicans.
He was, to use a term from his Lone Star State, one of the last of the "Tory Democrats."
When Rep. Joe Kilgore, D.-Texas, unexpectedly announced he was stepping down in 1964 after a decade in the House, then State Rep. de la Garza emerged as his natural successor. Like Kilgore, de la Garza had strong backing in the business community and was a close ally of the state's conservative Democratic Gov. John Connally.
Cut from the same cloth was Kilgore's predecessor and fellow Democrat, Lloyd Bentsen. Bentsen, who represented the Rio Grande Valley in Congress from 1948-54, was a World War II veteran and backer of a strong U.S. military. At one point during the Korean War, then-Rep. Bentsen made headlines by calling for the U.S. to defeat North Korea by dropping an atomic bomb on the Communist nation.
De La Garza, a decorated veteran of the U.S. Army in Korea, was also vigorous backer of the military. In 1970, with de la Garza's help, Bentsen made a successful political comeback by unseating liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough in the Democratic primary.
Bentsen, Kilgore, and de La Garza were all vigorous backers of the civil rights agenda of their friend Lyndon Johnson during his Presidency. But de la Garza also worked closely with Johnson's successor, Republican President Richard Nixon. On September 22, 1972, Nixon spoke at the Rio Grande High School in de la Garza's district and saluted the congressman's 46th birthday by playing "Happy Birthday" on the piano in the school auditorium.
"Kika was anti-abortion, pro Second Amendment, a defense hawk, a fiscal conservative who favored the Balanced Budget Amendment, and felt the "safety net" of government should favor the needy and not the welfare cheats," recalled Bert Pena, who served as director of the House Agriculture Committee during de la Garza's chairmanship, "He was great on family values, pro-Israel, and of course had Dick Nixon down in South Texas."
In 1981, de La Garza assumed the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee. John Napier, a freshman Republican lawmaker from South Carolina, told Newsmax how "We were writing a new farm bill. We were reauthorizing the tobacco program which was highly important to the southeast and controversial in other parts of the country. Kika was helpful in reaching compromises among the commodity interests and the food stamp program to produce a bill President Reagan could sign."
Napier also recalled how de la Garza "was even-handed. [Virginia Rep.] Bill Wampler was the Ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee. They worked well together. Kiki and Bill instructed the professional staff to treat all members with respect. He believed in 'comity,' and thus was a great leader."
After Republicans took over the House in 1994, de la Garza relinquished his chairman's gavel. Two years later, he retired from Congress and returned to his beloved Rio Grande Valley. As the political parties continue to move farther apart, it seems highly unlikely that Congress will know his kind again.
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