Hector Mendoza, played by Benito Martinez, was one of the few characters in the first season of House of Cards who seemed able to hold a candle to Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) political scheming. Democrats on the show viewed him as a strong contender for the Republican presidential nominee in the upcoming presidential election. Then, suddenly, Mendoza was written out of the show. What led to the change? (Heads up, this article doesn’t shy away from spoilers.
Hector Mendoza as the Underwoods’ Foil
Hector Mendoza was the senior senator from Arizona, and for the majority of the show served as the Republican Leader of the US Senate. Some small amount of backstory is given to Mendoza’s character, that he worked as a staffer during Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign.
In the second season of House of Cards, Frank Underwood, then the Vice President under President Walker, tried to work with Mendoza to push a spending bill through the Republican-controlled Senate. However, pressure from within the Republican Party by Tea Party-aligned senators forced Mendoza to back out of the agreement. Mendoza ordered the Republican senators to leave the Senate chamber during the middle of a vote, so that Frank Underwood was unable to take a vote on his American Works spending bill, which was Underwood’s attempt to find a bipartisan approach to stabilizing America’s economy..
Underwood responded by getting the Senate Minority Leader to compel the attendance of absent senators, a motion which was passed nearly unanimously due to the absence of Republican senators which precipitated the motion. This led to the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest any absent senators and escort them back to the chamber. Hector Mendoza and the rest of the Republicans were therefore put in handcuffs and led back into the chamber by Capitol Police. The action meant Underwood was able to pass his bill, but drew the ire of both the Republican Party and many moderates within the Democrats.
Hector Mendoza later antagonizes Frank Underwood’s partner and wife Claire Underwood during her bid for appointment to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. After saying he would not actively oppose her, he aggressively questions her, goading her into calling the U.S. military irrelevant. IN private, after her appointment fails, he clarifies that the questions were meant to test her ability to withstand pressure, so he was not opposing her, simply testing whether or not she was truly qualified for the role.
As the Underwoods prepared for the upcoming 2016 presidential campaign, Bob Birch, Minority Leader of the Democrats in the Senate, cautions Underwood that Mendoza was likely to be the Republican nominee. This was a strong motivation for Birch, and his fellow Democrats Terry Womack and Jackie Sharp, to try to push Frank Underwood from being the Democratic nominee in that same race.
Then, rather abruptly, it is revealed later into the third season that Mendoza has resigned. Hounded by scandal of accepting undeclared payments for speeches, he was replaced as Senate Majority Leader by Henry Mitchell. Mitchell works with Birch and the other Democrats to protect against some of the damages caused by Underwood’s aggressive politics, most notably restoring funding to FEMA that was drained by the America Works program.
Mendoza’s departure from the show was unexpected, considering the repeated allusions to the greater role he would play in the presidential election. This left audiences with two questions: who would replace Mendoza as the presumptive nominee, and why did he leave?
After Mendoza’s resignation, the mantle of representing the Republicans in the presidential election fell to William Conway, who is serving as Governor of New York. A traditional liberal, which in today’s political climate means a conservative, Conway is charismatic and represented as an All-American. After 9/11, Conway immediately joined the United States Air Force, and from there launched a political career. In many ways, Conway is a much larger threat to Frank Underwood than Mendoza ever could have been. Young and married with two young children, Conway represents much of what the middle-aged Underwood, without kids and with an unstable marriage, isn’t.
Why Did Mendoza Resign?
Hector Mendoza was written out of the show rather abruptly, for a reason that is all too common in television productions: the actor got a better gig. Benito Martinez, the actor who played Mendoza, was previously most known for his role as David Aceveda is FX’s crime drama The Shield. This, combined with earlier similar roles, helped him secure a prominent role as Alonzo Gutiérrez in the first season of American Crime.
American Crime, broadcast on ABC, has a significantly larger budget and viewership than House of Cards, despite House of Cards being more critically acclaimed. This simply translated to what was likely a much larger salary for Martinez, and like his House of Cards character, Martinez was clearly more inclined to follow money than loyalty. Not that I can really fault him – if I had the choice of working on a major show for one of the Big Four networks, I would drop anything to take it.
American Crime, like several other contemporary shows like American Horror Story, follows a different plot each season. This means Martinez’s character won’t be coming back for the second season. This may mean that Martinez is available to reprise his role for House of Cards, but at this point, the series and audience have moved past him, making it unlikely.