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How U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia Of Houston Landed In The Middle Of Impeachment

Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas
Associated Press
Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas

The chosen seven strode across the U.S. Capitol rotunda before the eyes of history and a live television audience. It was late in the afternoon on Wednesday, Jan. 15. On their way to the Senate to formally deliver impeachment charges against Donald Trump, six of the impeachment managers appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi walked in pairs. The seventh followed by herself.

To be among that group was an opportunity to take center stage in a landmark moment of American politics, to burnish one’s oratory gifts from the well of the Senate live on prime cable news in the political equivalent of "American Idol."

No surprise, then, that Democratic House members from across the country intensely lobbied Pelosi, coveting such a shot at political stardom.

But the one Texan to earn Pelosi's nod, the one who walked alone that day, didn't ask for the job.

A veteran Houston politician mid-way through her first term in Congress, U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia has repeatedly told reporters she did not lobby for the post. Instead, Pelosi approached her, grabbed her hands, pressed Garcia on why she had not sought the assignment and asked if she would accept the post if it was offered.

“If I’m called upon, I’m ready to do it,” a Garcia aide recounted Garcia telling the speaker.

Now as the president stands trial before the Senate, Garcia is literally at the center of the country’s latest three-ring throw down.

“It’s been a very personally exhausting and emotion-filled week,” Garcia told reporters on a Sunday conference call.

Credit J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press
Associated Press
Clerk of the House Cheryl Johnson, front left, and House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving pass through Statuary Hall at the Capitol to deliver the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the Senate on Capitol Hill on Jan. 15. Rep. Garcia is at the rear.

The first Texan ever to serve as a presidential impeachment manager was a virtual unknown in national politics, a quiet freshman not noted for flash or self-promotion, one who hasn't logged hundreds of hours on cable news shows like others on the impeachment team.

But back home in Houston, the 69-year-old is a political giant, and even some of her closest allies find themselves forgetting that she only recently finished her first year in the U.S. House.

Garcia got to Congress and landed in this impeachment role through quiet competence — resilience amid the rough-and-tumble nature of Harris County politics — and an ability to develop key relationships with friends and rivals alike, according to interviews with over a dozen Texas Democrats.

She made history as one of the two first Texas Latinas to serve in Congress. Born in 1950, Garcia grew up in Palito Blanco the eighth of 10 children. The town is about an hour west of Corpus Christi, and was so small at the time that her immediate family constituted about one-fifth of the town’s population.

She met one of her closest early political allies, former Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire, at the 1973 National Women's Political Caucus convention in Houston, when Garcia, was a recent graduate of Texas Woman’s University in Denton. Garcia went on to law school at Texas Southern University, a historically black public university, and spent the 1970s deeply enmeshed in the feminist movement and the push for the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1977, Garcia attended the National Women’s Conference, also in Houston. Widely considered the pinnacle moment of the second wave feminist movement, Garcia’s fellow attendees included Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalyn Carter, Coretta Scott King, Barbara Jordan, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, future Texas Gov. Ann Richards, tennis star Billie Jean King and future Houston Mayor Annise Parker.

Whitmire was on the ascent in Houston politics and became the first female mayor in 1982. Garcia was central to her campaigns and to her kitchen cabinet, serving as an adviser and helping rally the Hispanic vote.

“She was always someone I could count on to look at an ethical question and give me good advice,” Whitmire said of that time.

Whitmire appointed Garcia to a slew of positions. But Garcia is best remembered for her tenure as the director and presiding judge of the Houston court system. It is that role senior House Democrats and their staff point to as the foundation for Garcia’s role in impeachment.

As the top municipal judge, Garcia sometimes presided in court. But mostly she supervised dozens of full-time and part-time judges who oversaw city legal matters. The court dockets consisted mostly of misdemeanors — speeding tickets, building code violations and public intoxication. But the volume of cases in such a large metropolis demanded a deft administrator, several Houstonians interviewed for this story stressed. Whitmire described the post as the equivalent of a cabinet position within her mayorship and a major driver of city revenue.

In 1992, Garcia ran for a newly created U.S. House seat in northeast Houston. She missed the runoff, placing third and losing to future longtime U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Democrat. She served six more years as a judge before winning the post of city controller.

In 2003, she moved further up in local politics, winning a seat on the powerful Harris County Commissioners Court. She wielded vast power over much of the nuts and bolts of Harris County's daily life, including transportation projects. And then, in 2010, she lost in a shocking defeat amid the national Republican wave. Many around her say the most stunned person of all was Garcia herself.

In 2013, she was back on the ballot and won a seat in the state Senate. During her time in Austin, Garcia overlapped with former state Sen. Wendy Davis for the 2013 legislative session.

“[Garcia was] not the kind of person who needed to be the loudest voice in the room, which is probably one of the reasons Speaker Pelosi chose her, along with her qualifications,” Davis said in an interview.

When it came time to pick the impeachment managers, Pelosi cast her eye towards Garcia not just because of her political record, but because the two were already close — a relationship that developed years before Garcia ever took federal office.

Most of the dozen or so Texans interviewed for this story conceded the Garcia was not the obvious delegation member to take on the impeachment role. But with hindsight, it makes seems obvious.

“Because she’s a freshman, it’s a little surprising that they included [her], but when you consider her background and her career path, then it makes sense,” said state Sen. Carol Alvarado, who unsuccessfully ran against Garcia in that 2013 state Senate Democratic primary.

In part, it came about because Garcia showed up to fundraising events when other local officials did not.

Amber Mostyn, a prominent Houston trial attorney and one of the most influential Democratic donors in the state, has known Garcia for 15 years.

“She has always been a steady, measured public servant with a good head on her shoulders, but still doggedly true to her values and her constituents,” Mostyn said. “That’s a hard thing to balance as an elected official, but Sylvia does it with grace.”

Mostyn and her late husband, Steve Mostyn, fiercely backed Garcia in her local races. They also hosted fundraisers for Pelosi and the U.S. House Democratic campaign arm. Garcia was one of the most frequent attendees at these events. It is often rare for a politician to show up at fundraisers when he or she is not the direct beneficiary.

Garcia’s consistency was noted. In the process, she began a friendship with Pelosi.

Then, in 2017, Green announced his retirement. Garcia swiftly cleared the field of potential ambitious Hispanics who'd long coveted the seat, picked up Green's endorsement and soundly defeated an out of town self-funder in the Democratic primary.

Whenever Pelosi came to Houston in 2018 to fundraise, local Democrats noticed a close alliance forming between the two women. In August, the local press noted Garcia taking Pelosi on a tour of a Houston Mexican food restaurant.

And in November 2018, she officially became one of the first Latinas from Texas to serve in Congress - a distinction she shares with U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso.

Despite her outsized status in Houston, Garcia was initially overshadowed amid a boisterous freshman House class. When she took her oath in January 2019, she was joined by the squad, a pack of camera-friendly retired soldiers and spies and a former Cabinet member.

Even within the Texas delegation’s freshman class, others earned more notice. There’s the former-NFL-player-turned-freshman-class-president (Dallas Democratic U.S. Rep. Colin Allred), the eye-patch-wearing-war-hero from Houston (Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw) and Escobar, who was recently elected to House leadership.

Initially, Garcia was overt in her apprehension about impeaching Trump. She was one of the last Texas Democratic members to support an impeachment inquiry, and several Houston Democrats noted to the Tribune her measured questioning during a December House Judiciary hearing on the matter.

But now, along with her six co-managers, she’s in the thick of impeachment more than anyone else in the House.

For three days last week, Garcia was one of seven House Democrats who implored the Senate to remove Trump from office. For hours on end, they took turns making separate points, in an effort viewed as futile.

“You have to have a certain legal background and that’s were the congresswoman has that ability make complicated issues and break them down into their simplest form,” said Houston state Rep. Armando Walle. “That’s what your legal training is supposed to do.”

The rhetoric of the group’s leader, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, and of rising star U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York electrified Democrats nationally. Garcia was much drier in her delivery. Some who have watched her over the years say that soaring oration, back-slapping and glad-handing are not her strongest suits.

They suspect her contributions are quieter and more behind-the-scenes, and they say her understated manner is her greatest asset. In interview after interview, Texans described her as a force of calm amid bombast.

Mostyn said she “knows what it means to look at all sides.” Local attorney and Garcia donor Beto Cardenas called her “a work-horse and always offers a seasoned perspective, drawing attention to details others may overlook.”

“She’s very studious,” added Alvarado, her former Democratic opponent. “Even when we were debating each other, she was obviously very prepared. She takes her work very seriously.”

Each day since the Senate trial gaveled into session, two policemen have followed Garcia as she walks past the Sam Houston statue in Statuary Hall. She will usually stop off in Pelosi's speaker's office to meet with the other managers and to prepare for the trial. All of the managers have either legal or law enforcement experience and most share a common trait: They think before they speak.

Garcia will often disappear to a conference room to review her notes with committee staff, according to a source close to the impeachment team.

Once she is ready for the day, she and her security detail make their way through the rotunda, past Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office and into the Senate chamber on the wing of the Capitol where House members rarely dare to venture.

Inside the chamber, she sits at the end of a table in the well of the Senate, along with her fellow managers. When she looks directly in front of her, the state’s two senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are in her direct line of sight, as is occasionally Republican U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler, who has attended some of the sessions seated on a bench in the back of the chamber.

Above her, the national press and the interested public - including actress Alyssa Milano - sit in the viewing galleries to watch her argue from a podium. Stenographers stand a mere five or ten feet in front of her, typing furiously for the historical record as she reads from her leather-bound padholder.

Beyond the trial, House staffers say Garcia's fluency in Spanish is a clutch contribution. When she’s not in the Senate chamber, the Democrats deploy her on both English and Spanish mediums to make their case.

Last week, she took to a podium to prevail upon the Senate to throw Trump out of office. This week, OJ Simpson’s criminal attorney Alan Dershowitz stood in the very same spot to argue why she and her colleagues are, in his view, wrong.

Unprompted, Alvarado described it as a point of pride to see her old rival, a fellow Texan and Latina, in such a spot. She and the other Democrats back in Houston concur: Garcia took the long way to this circus

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Abby Livingston joined the Tribune in 2014 as the publication's first Washington Bureau Chief. Previously, she covered political campaigns, House leadership and Congress for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. A seventh-generation Texan, Abby graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Fort Worth and has appeared in an episode of "The Bold and The Beautiful." Abby pitched and produced political segments for CNN and worked as an editor for The Hotline, National Journal’s campaign tipsheet. Abby began her journalism career as a desk assistant at NBC News in Washington, working her way up to the political unit, where she researched stories for Nightly News, the Today Show and Meet the Press. In keeping with the Trib’s great history of hiring softball stars, Abby is a three-time MVP (the most in game history —Ed.) for The Bad News Babes, the women’s press softball team that takes on female members of Congress in the annual Congressional Women’s Softball breast cancer charity game.