MERCEDES, RGV – Although Rubén Hinojosa officially leaves Congress today, once the 115th Congress is gaveled in, the Mercedes Democrat gave serious consideration to retirement ten years ago.
By 2006 he had achieved his No. 1 target, which was to oversee a significant reduction in the level of unemployment in the Rio Grande Valley. He thought it was time for someone else to take over.
However, in late 2006, Hinojosa was told by the Democratic leadership in Congress that there was a good chance his party could win back control of the House and if it did, he would be in line for chairmanship of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training.
“We took our unemployment rate from 22 percent down, which is what it was when I took office, to six percent at the end of 2007. And I was ready to come home. I was called by the leadership of my party and they said, I do not know if you have seen the polls, but they say we are going to take the majority,” Hinojosa said.
“It was the unanimous view of the leadership that I chair the higher education committee. I told my wife, Marty, we may not go home because this has happened. She asked, what do you think we should do? I said, if they give me the gavel, I can make some great things happen, not only for the Rio Grande Valley, but for the state and the nation.”
The rest, as his supporters are keen to point out, is history.
Hinojosa led the effort to create a separate federal designation for Hispanic Serving Institutions. Federal investment in Hispanic Serving Institutions now stands at over $200 million a year.. One of the largest gains in Pell grants occurred under his watch, allowing students to obtain Pell grants for almost $6,000, making college more affordable and within reach for millions of students. And, through the enactment of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, Hinojosa championed the inclusion of $2.5 billion in targeted investments for Historically Black College, Hispanic Serving Institutions Tribal Colleges and Universities and other Minority Serving Institutions.
One of Hinojosa’s biggest supporters over the years has been developer Mike Blum of McAllen. Blum pointed out that historically, Black Serving Institutions received additional funding, not Hispanic Serving Institutions.
“Congressman Hinojosa focused on Hispanic. Boom. Suddenly, we have nine million dollars. He did not create money, he just allocated it differently. That was a watershed. I do not know how many millions of dollars made it into the Valley because of him. But it is not just the Valley. It is across the country. He has been a transformative member of Congress, no question about it,” Blum said.
Another supporter has been Tom Torkelson, co-founder of IDEA Public Schools. Torkelson said: “There is probably not a person who picked up the newspaper a couple of months back and did not shed a tear or at least have a moment of passing sadness, when they read that our wonderful congressman for the past two decades has announced his retirement. Rubén Hinojosa has been a champion for the RGV, he has helped us transition from an agricultural economy to the booming, robust economy that it is today. Really, I know this because I interact with so many legislators, there is no member of Congress or any legislature in any state who is more pro kid, more pro education than our Congressman, the Honorable Rubén Hinojosa.”
Although Hinojosa has been in Congress for 20 years, his public service goes back 40 years. He has served on the Mercedes High School board, the Texas State Board of Education, and was a founding member and co-chair of South Texas College and South Texas Independent School District.
Looking back at his decision to run for Congress, Hinojosa said: “I saw an opportunity to be able to speak up and fight for a bigger piece of the then $2 trillion budget. I said to myself, my goal is to check the double-digit unemployment rate of Hidalgo County, which had hoovered at double digits for three and a half decades. I said, I want to bring it to a single digit and that was the plan. It was written out that we were going to do it by investing in education for three- and four-year-olds all the way to a doctorate degree; that we were going to do it by investing in education and healthcare and infrastructure, as well as doing something for immigration reform and make it something to be very proud of.”
And looking back at his second ten years in Congress, Hinojosa said: “We doubled the investment in the GI Bill, we took the Pell Grant and we doubled that. And then I said, what if we eliminated the middle men that make student college loans and make direct loans, instead of paying interest rates of ten to 12 percent, we can cut that in half. And, sure enough, we did that.”
Hinojosa said that soon after President Obama signed a major education spending bill into law he received visits in Washington, D.C., from Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp and then-UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. Both predicted enrollment in their schools would soar as a result of the increased funding. “We made a 2.5 billion-dollar investment. And, we saw a 30 percent increase in enrollment in higher education as a result of some of these bills I mentioned,” Hinojosa pointed out.
Hinojosa added: “It makes my heart swell with pride. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the people of the 15th Congressional District.”
Tributes from Valley leaders
Among those who have paid tribute to Hinojosa are former UT-Pan American President Blandina ‘Bambi’ Cardenas.
“Congressman Hinojosa was right for the Rio Grande Valley for the last 20 years. His passion, his vision, his hard work, his energy, was a key element in this incredible transformation that we have seen in this Rio Grande Valley over the last 20 years,” Cardenas said.
“I was always trying to get more resources. Let me tell you, when he (Hinojosa) took office, the education of Hispanic children was on nobody’s mind. Nobody thought of it. It was like talking to a brick wall to say we were on the verge of a demographic revolution in this country and that we had to prepare for it. He (Hinojosa) started a journey to bring resources to the education and higher education of all of those populations that had never had access to them.”
UT-Rio Grande Valley President Guy Bailey agreed.
“How do you begin talking about the legacy of someone, whose fingerprints are on everything in higher education in the United States,” Bailey said. “If you look at everything that has happened in the last 20 years, and I mean every piece of legislation; the congressman’s fingerprints are on those.”
Bailey said that as he thought about Hinojosa’s legacy he started to do some math.
“Seventy five percent of students are Pell Grant eligible throughout the Valley, and when you start thinking that’s 75 percent of our student body who would not be able to go to school without Hinojosa’s work. I started calculating that number over 20 years. How many people did that affect? That’s more than a quarter million people in the Valley alone. What a legacy.”
Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD, said Hinojosa’s passion for education can be traced as far back as 1972, when he was elected to Mercedes school board. “He knows education is the key to all the other areas. It’s about having young people here having great educational opportunities,” King said. “Congressman Hinojosa has been a great champion for innovation, an initiative that is leading the nation. That is in the area of dual enrollment and early college work. He has been a huge champion of expanding that work in so many ways.”
“Tears have been shed because I know what a powerful advocate he has been for students in deep South Texas. I know this because I have seen it,” Region One’s Atkins said. “I have been involved with the Congressman first at the Gear Up project with Region One. I am so proud to have been able to work with you and your staff, working on the idea of college readiness for all students.”
Region One ESC administrator for college, career and life readiness, Dr. Tina Atkins, said the world of education will forever be grateful to Hinojosa.
“Tears have been shed because I know what a powerful advocate he has been for students in deep South Texas. I know this because I have seen it,” Atkins said. “I have been involved with the Congressman first at the Gear Up project with Region One. I am so proud to have been able to work with you and your staff, working on the idea of college readiness for all students.”
Dr. Carlos Cardenas, co-founder of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, said Hinojosa has left his mark not only on education but also healthcare.
“There is no question that the work Rubén Hinojosa has done over the last 20 years has revolutionized what has happened not just in the education front, but in healthcare,” Cardenas said. “He is a champion that stands for education that has transformed this entire area. I would tell you that our healthcare system has been transformed because of his work and his staunch support in the development of South Texas Community College, and all of the work that has been done in every single level of our community.”
State Sen. Juan Hinojosa congratulated Congressman Hinojosa on his 40 years of public service.
“Congressman Hinojosa has left a legacy for education, not only for us in South Texas and in the state of Texas, but the whole country,” Sen. Hinojosa said.
Editor’s Note: Reporter Apolonio ‘Apol’ Sandoval contributed to this story from McAllen, Texas.