AUSTIN -- After spending five sessions in the Texas Legislature, former state Rep. Mark Strama's (D-Austin) decision to retire and work with Google fiber has led to a four-way battle royal in a special election on the November 5 ballot to finish his term representing House District 50.
Of the three Democrats on the ballot, Celia Israel boasts scores of endorsements from elected officials, organizations and local publications, including Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and the Austin Chronicle. A longtime Democratic activist and former staffer for the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Israel is backed by a lion's share of the Austin area Democratic establishment.
"I'm the only candidate in this race with any experience in state government," said Israel, a 32-year resident of Northeast Austin who served in the appointments division of the Richards administration while in her twenties. "I'm ready to hit the ground running from day one, but there are so many misplaced priorities out there that we can't afford to put anybody in this race but the varsity team. I see myself as the varsity team."
"The mainstream Texan sees a lot of misplaced priorities at the Capitol, whether it's our inability to expand Medicaid and take our own federal dollars back, underfunding our public school children who are our economic future, considering immigration as an emergency issue as if it were a state issue," said Israel. "We need to keep this as a good, progressive, experienced Democratic seat."
Israel has served on more than a dozen local boards and committees, including the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, GENAustin, and city and county bond committees. Citing years of experience in mental health, public school advocacy, land use and transportation issues, Israel says fixing the deeply flawed public education system will be her top priority.
"Ninety-five percent of our school children attend public school," said Israel. "There's no easy answers on how we remedy that situation, but cutting public education during an economic downturn certainly wasn't one of them."
Israel has also fielded a number of attacks from her opponents. At a recent forum, Israel suggested she would be open to repealing the state's property tax if it were replaced with a progressive income tax -- considered by many the third rail in Texas politics. Israel explains her statement as reflecting a holistic approach to rectifying what she sees as a state revenue structure that regressively taxes lower income homeowners.
"It is not to suggest that we should lay any new taxes on them," said Israel. "It was simply to say I have the experience to bring to bear on how we reconfigure all of the ways in which we derive revenue. Eighty percent of the state’s budget comes from consumer taxes right now. That burdens the least among us, and as Democrats we should be standing up for those people."
Endorsements have also been the subject of questionable mailers distributed by Democratic opponent Jade Chang Sheppard, which feature an image of Israel flanked by Republicans Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz. The mailers seek to obliquely connect Israel to the two Republican icons through their shared endorsements from the Texas Association of Realtors.
While endorsing many Republicans, the Texas Association of Realtors has also endorsed scores of Democrats, including some of the legislature's most liberal members and Austin's entire Democratic delegation. Recent endorsements from the association went to Strama, state Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Lloyd Doggett, none of whom have ever been compared to Perry or Cruz.
"I take that as a sign that I’m leading," said Israel. "We’ve talked to a number of voters since the attacks have been coming and they’re turned off by it. They’re standing by us and they know it’s politics as usual."
"I think that’s voter education," argued Sheppard, who denies the mailers are misleading. "It’s something voters need to know. I think it’s really important for candidates not to be beholden to special interest groups."
The first candidate to air a television ad in the race, Jade Chang Sheppard is a longtime Austin resident who immigrated with her family at the age of two from Taiwan. The mother of two young boys, Sheppard left a job with Dell nine years ago to launch a successful construction business.
“I’ve really enjoyed the opportunities and experiences that I’ve had here in the United States and in Texas, and want to make sure those opportunities are available for everyone," said Sheppard, who serves on the board of Planned Parenthood in Austin. "I’ve always loved public service and have been a servant in the community for many years, and thought that helping to shape the laws of the community is one great way to help our people."
"One of my biggest priorities is the continued reduction of high-stakes testing," said Sheppard. "We’ve made good progress with [House Bill] 5 this last session, but we need to continue to make sure that teachers have that freedom to teach to learn and not teach for standardized testing."
Sheppard has been endorsed by state Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston), who made his freshman debut during the 83rd Texas Legislature. Watching the political polarization that marked parts of the previous legislative session, Sheppard feels that some lawmakers are losing sight of their greater responsibility.
“I think that there are a lot of partisan issues that people don’t necessarily consider what’s best for our children, what’s best for our women and communities, and they’re beholden to their, for example, conservative voters. I think that we need to prioritize our children,” said Sheppard.
"People are really excited about having a young mother as a candidate. There’s only one other young mother in the legislature right now," said Sheppard, who believes her business experience sets her apart from other candidates. "I make payroll for many Texas families, I’ve had to make those health care decisions for my employees, so I think we need to have someone with business sense.”
A candidate who hopes to combine legal practice, military service and business schooling in his bid for the Texas House is Austin attorney Rico Reyes. Born in Austin and raised in Bastrop, Reyes is the son of longtime community organizers in Travis County. After graduating in 2001, Reyes says, "The towers burned and the trumpets called, so I answered."
Reyes served four years active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps before returning to Austin to work as an assistant district attorney. His education includes college at Harvard and an MBA and law degree from the University of Texas.
"I feel like we’ve had the chance to live the American dream, and we’ve done so through public education, healthcare and middle class jobs," said Reyes. "And I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure that all families have that same opportunity.”
"I’ve got a family legacy of community service, and it’s a legacy I’d like to continue,” said Reyes, who is currently a member of the legal team working to block portions of the controversial anti-abortion bill House Bill 2 in federal court this week. Yet Reyes says his focus in the Texas House will be singular.
"There’s no question that my signature priority will be public education," said Reyes. "I’ll say that over again. Public education, public education, public education. All kids can achieve the American dream with hard work as long as they have a good education.”
Also dismayed by the episodes of partisan gridlock in the Texas Capitol, Reyes believes leadership skills gleaned from military service, along with business education and work as a legal professional give him a unique tool kit among the HD 50 candidates.
"I’m also recently a valedictorian of Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and you learn how to sequence things in time and space and plan for a government, plan for an organization twenty years in advance," said Reyes. "All of these are technical skills, but they’re important skills that can help government.”
The lone Republican in the race is 30-year Travis County resident Dr. Mike VanDeWalle, a chiropractor who has raised generations of family in the greater Austin area. Supported by the Travis County Republican Party, VanDeWalle says the decision to enter politics came together like a "perfect storm."
"I had this idea planted in my head a couple years ago, and it's been growing," said VanDeWalle. Over the years, VanDeWalle says his main focus has been on his family and patients, but the call to public service has led him to seek broader problems to solve.
"I've seen what abusive government can do with regulations," said VanDeWalle, who has previously served as education chair for the Texas Association of Business. "I’d like to see government limit itself in intrusion into our personal lives and freedoms, and I’d like to see government limit itself in taxation.”
VanDeWalle describes the most recent legislative session as a mixed bag. He chalks up the final measure to fund water projects through the upcoming ballot initiative Proposition 6 as a "good thing," despite some concerns among more Libertarian-leaning voters. Like his Democratic opponents, he agrees the partisan rhetoric during the session was unsatisfactory at times.
“I’ve always been about relationships, and I think we’ve polarized ourselves. Whether you’re Democrat or Republican, even within each party there’s polarization," said VanDeWalle, offering a quote from Evangelical Christian speaker Josh McDowell. "Truth without relationships equals rebellion."
"If we had more of a relationship in the Legislature, in the Senate, maybe we could tell people the truth and they wouldn’t rebel," explained VanDeWalle, adapting McDowell's message of improving communication by improving relationships to the Capitol. "They may not agree, but they won’t rebel, and the reverse is true, too. We may not agree with someone who’s telling the truth as well, but we’ve got to find out what that truth is. And that’s what this is about.”
“My strength is I’m not a politician and I’ve been a problem solver for over 30 years," said VanDeWalle, pointing to his medical practice. "As you have a patient, you do a history, find their problems, do an examination, find out the facts and you come up with a conclusion. Those are the things I’m about now, so I’m listening as much as I am talking.”
The special election just two weeks away will determine who serves out the remainder of Strama's term. They will represent HD 50 until a new, full-term representative is elected in November 2014, which means Democrats will begin the primary contest soon after the special election ends. The same situation could face Republicans if more GOP challengers enter the race for 2014.
In an open special election, it's possible -- if not likely -- that a Republican candidate could win the seat with a plurality of the votes if the three Democratic candidates split the majority. Asked what percentage of the vote he believes would constitute a clear mandate from HD 50 voters, VanDeWalle answered flatly: "Fifty-one percent."
“That was our strategy to start with," said VanDeWalle, who points out winning the campaign with a majority vote November 5 simply makes good business sense. "Save time and save money so we can be more productive about helping the people in district 50, versus raising more and campaigning more.”