Frank Tejeda: a Candidate Who Sidesteps Stereotypes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FRANK TEJEDA, a Texas state senator, is in a rather enviable position. Running unopposed for a newly created seat in the United States House of Representatives, he's virtually assured of election next November.

In fact, a member of the Congressional Quarterly staff called to congratulate him on being the first member-elect in the 103rd Congress. Says Mr. Tejeda with a shrug: "We were preparing for opposition. No one showed up."

Tejeda, a Democrat, is running for the 28th District seat, one of three new ones created in Texas to reflect the increased population after the 1990 census. The census gave Texas and seven other states a combined 16 additional seats in the House of Representatives.

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Although not all have completed redistricting and candidacy filings, the CQ staff believes Tejeda will remain unique in being the sole candidate in a new district. In fact, they say, it may not have ever happened before in US history.

Despite the cake walk, Tejeda says he intends to campaign to make himself known. His state Senate district was limited to south and east Bexar County, which contains San Antonio. US District 28 embraces nine whole counties and parts of four others stretching from the Alamo city to the Rio Grande.

With no opponents to force him to take positions, Tejeda unabashedly confesses ignorance on major issues and the absence of a legislative agenda. "My message is that I'm a hard worker, I'm a caring and compassionate individual," Tejeda says. "And I will listen. I'm here to serve the people, not to dictate."

The former Marine captain who served in Vietnam says health care, veterans' affairs, public education, and national defense are his top priorities. But, asked to comment on force reductions, Tejeda says: "I don't want to get into specifics because I'm not prepared enough. I haven't been briefed. There's a lot of things that some congressmen and senators are briefed on that perhaps the public is not privy to."

"I know the cold war is over ... yet at the same time we need to be prepared for any emergency," he adds.

In 15 years in the Texas House and Senate, Tejeda helped pass bills establishing Martin Luther King Day, requiring school crossing guards in San Antonio, allowing the Texas Railroad Commission to regulate the trans- portation of hazardous materials, establishing a crime-victims' bill of rights, providing a veterans' housing assistance program - mostly routine stuff.

Legislative staff members say Tejeda was easy to overlook. Pam Beachley, a pro-business lobbyist, describes him as "not a flamboyant or noisy advocate like some people are, but very strong and persuasive, a very smart man."

In 1989, though, Tejeda was caught up in the bitter fight over reform of workers' compensation. At the time, Texas employers were paying double the workers' compensation premiums of five years earlier. Yet, while those premiums were some of the nation's highest, injured employees received some of the lowest benefits.

Tejeda, a member of the legislative committee that studied the problem, was instrumental in passing the business-backed reform over the objections of the powerful Texas Trial Lawyers Association, says Tom Blanton, a pro-business lobbyist.

Says Tejeda: "Some of the trial lawyers did not like it. I wanted the injured worker to receive the bulk of the money" rather than the lawyer.

Furious, the trial lawyers bankrolled three candidates, including another one named Tejeda, to run against him in 1990. It was a dirty race in which his chief opponent made allegations about the personal life of Tejeda, who is divorced. "People were not fooled," he says about the other Tejeda. "When it was all over, I think I received about 77 percent of the vote."

Mr. Blanton calls Tejeda "consistently, reasonably pro-business," and adds that his strong stance for the business-backed reform stung the lawyers because they didn't expect it from a Hispanic Democrat. Indeed, on some issues Tejeda doesn't sound much like a Hispanic or a Democrat.

Is he pro-business? Tejeda says he looks at issues individually. Desert Storm? Had he been in Congress, he would have voted for authorization. Free trade with Mexico? He favors it, but calls for a program to retrain workers who consequently lose their jobs.

On public education, he notes that 45 percent of Hispanic students drop out. "That's shameful that we allow that to happen," he says. "We need to do something to reverse that." But what? Tejeda says he won't look to the national Democratic Party for answers, but will get ideas from within his district.

Asked if lower interest rates have helped his district, he brings up the willingness of banks to lend - a business issue - rather than the consumer issue of home refinancing. Is the recession is President Bush's fault? m not an economic expert. I think we all have to share responsibility," Tejeda says, adding that he'd rather find solutions than point fingers.

Asked point-blank if he favors a Democrat for president over Bush, he merely notes that several Democratic candidates would make outstanding presidents.

Isn't his Hispanic district counting on him to be a Hispanic voice? Says Tejeda, "We're Americans first."

Blanton says that the business lobby intends to raise money for Tejeda's campaign even though it is uncontested. "He needs to know that there are people out there that are interested in him."

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