Congress

Diversity fuels biggest population growth in country’s suburbs

Shift could affect the political landscape locally and nationally

Rep. Pete Olson’s district in the suburbs of Houston is among the fastest-growing in the country. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Increasing ethnic diversity has fueled population growth in the country’s fastest-expanding congressional districts, particularly in suburban Texas, according to census data released Thursday.

Concentrated in areas outside major cities in the South, the growth represents a trend across the nation: The suburbs are growing younger and including more minorities, potentially changing the political landscape both locally and nationally.

In many cases, the new growth comes from immigrants or their children and “there’s no party loyalty,” Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida told CQ Roll Call. Her district, which ranges from south of Miami through the Florida Keys, saw an increase of 90,000 residents from 2010 to 2018, and almost all came from people identifying as Hispanic.

“I’ve said this many times: What’s important to them is what’s important to all Americans,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “Primarily, giving their children a good quality education and making sure that they have the opportunities that they didn’t have in their home countries.”

Congressional Republicans currently represent four of the five fastest-growing districts in the country, including Texas’ 22nd District held by retiring Rep. Pete Olson. More than 930,000 people lived in his suburban Houston district in 2018, an increase of more than 200,000 from the 2010 census, making it the fastest-growing district in the country.

With their districts shifting under them, Republicans must work harder to keep up with all the changes, said Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, whose Central Texas seat is also in the top five.

“We’re keeping in touch with it, but I think our party has to keep up with those changing demographics too,” he said.

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The nation’s fastest-growing districts are located in suburbs outside major cities. Four are in Texas: Besides Olson’s district southwest of Houston, the others are outside Fort Worth, Austin and Dallas. McCaul said the population growth will factor into Texas’ likely gain of several congressional seats in the next round of reapportionment after the 2020 census.

A district just south of Orlando, Florida, represented by Democrat Darren Soto, rounds out the top five.

Population growth also comes with a changing profile of issues important to constituents, as problems like transportation, housing and health care become more prominent, according to several members.

California Democrat Ro Khanna, who represents one of the districts with the fastest-growing Asian American population, said his constituents have become particularly concerned about housing prices and traffic on the area’s highways.

“There’s a huge presence in critical states, battleground states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida,” Khanna said. “Both Republicans and Democrats are now recognizing the need to court the Asian American community’s support.”

Political targets

The growth in Olson’s Texas district has been fueled by more than 60,000 residents who identify as Asian American and 80,000 residents who identify as Latino. His seat also ranked among the top five districts that grew in Asian American residents. Texas’ 3rd District in Plano was another.

The demographic changes in Olson’s rapidly growing district has made it a target for Democrats. Olson won reelection by only 5 points in 2018, after pulling in 60 percent of the vote two years earlier. His Democratic opponent last fall, Sri Preston Kulkarni, made reaching out to the district’s growing Asian American population a priority in his campaign.

Olson said in a statement that he made headway in his diversifying district by advocating “growth, prosperity and opportunity” for people in the community. Republicans advocating on those lines will do well in the district in future, he said.

“So many people who have moved to Texas from other regions or other countries left those areas because of the lack of opportunity, the stifling government control, and the outrageous costs that are placed on middle-class families,” Olson said.

Rep. Grace Meng worked in Olson’s district with the Democratic National Committee and ASPIRE PAC to help elect more Asian Americans. The New York Democrat said Kulkarni and other political organizers “laid the groundwork” during the 2018 election cycle for more Democratic gains in the district.

That included efforts like hiring more door-knockers from the local community and phone bank workers who spoke relevant languages.

But Meng cautioned that minority communities are not monolithic, even with individual issues like immigration. She said an older crowd, or those working in the tech industry, may be more concerned about worker visas, while the issue may lack the same resonance among younger voters.

That may not be the same among Latino communities where there are frequently families with mixed legal status. There, the national debate over immigration can take on outsize importance, Mucarsel-Powell said.

“The attacks on the immigrant population here in this country is going to have an effect,” Mucarsel-Powell said.

Florida has long demonstrated the diversity within the nation’s minority communities. Cuban Americans in a district represented by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart have continued to vote reliably Republican. Diaz-Balart said his district, which added 50,000 Hispanic residents since the 2010 census, has a suspicion of aggressive government control in minority communities because of personal experiences.

“In south Florida, socialism does not play. And it’s not an issue of liberal or conservative. It’s that there’s a serious realization from other places of what socialism really is,” he said.

Various local parties have continued their outreach in these communities, Diaz-Balart said, keeping Florida as the “ultimate swing state” through the last several elections.

Meng said she thought Republicans have at times done better outreach to Asian Americans, ranging from a better presence at local community events to national efforts like broadcasting a response to the first Democratic presidential primary debate in Mandarin.

“That’s just laying an important foundation, if not for the most imminent race, but for the future,” Meng said. “Asians are the fastest growing community in this country. It would be a good idea for our party to pay more attention to our communities.”

The Census Bureau released the new data as part of the American Community Survey program, which sends surveys to American households on a rolling basis.

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