AUSTIN — AUSTIN -- After 11 terms in office, Texas House Representative Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin) fell in the March Primary to Jose "Chito" Vela, who got 40 percent of the vote and Sheryl Cole, who got 38 percent of the vote.
The two will face off to see who will be on the November ballot. They joined us in the KVUE studio for a debate this week and, in this edition of Texas This Week, we're recapping the debate.
Sheryl Cole is an attorney who spent nine years serving on the Austin City Council. The last three of which she was Mayor Pro-Tem.
Chito Vela is an immigration attorney. He previously was general counsel for a Texas House representative and an assistant attorney general in the Open Records Division of the Texas Attorney General's Office when Greg Abbott held that seat.
Each candidate gave brief opening statements, then it was time to talk issues.
Ashley Goudeau: Speaking to people within the district and across the state, their number one concern is property taxes. Now specifically looking at District 46, it encompasses East Austin, Pflugerville and Manor. As we know, East Austin is experiencing rapid gentrification. The historic communities who have lived there being forced out and many of them are moving to Pflugerville and Manor among other areas. So, Sheryl tell us, if elected, what action would you like to see passed to help property owners struggling with high property taxes?
Sheryl Cole: Property taxes and their rising value is essentially a function of the problems with the school finance formula. And we have to get in there and really fight with the other party about how that formula is being crafted. And I think that we can find commonality with the rural republicans who also are not finding enough funding available for their school districts. We know that Austin sends approximately $500 million out of Austin because of that formula. So we've got to look at it, look at it carefully and fight about it and find allies to make that pass. In addition to that, we also have to look at ways that we can partner with local government so that our dollars locally go further. And that also applies to the district. When I was on council, I was the one that worked with Representative Gina Hinojosa on having the City of Austin actually cover the cost of parent-teacher specialists and also after school care so that those dollars were not subject to recapture. And I believe there's a lot more work to be done in that area and that we can use that vehicle. It's very similar to the ideas that have been put forth by Mayor Adler with the tax swap, it's just much more specific and you could also do those types of things on a statewide basis to save money for all the school so there's more money in the pot so we can argue about how much we get and that we get more than what we're giving away.
Chito Vela: I was knocking on doors in Windsor Park yesterday and I had a conversation with one of the neighbors there who's property taxes over the last 10 years have probably gone from about $3,000 a year to about $12,000 a year. And unfortunately his salary has not kept up. And so people are really feeling the pinch and oftentimes having to relocate or sell their East Austin home and move to Pflugerville, Manor or even Elgin. I know a lot of people are moving out to Elgin to find cheap housing. And that's a real problem, we're losing diversity within our community and not just racial and ethnic diversity but financial diversity. I don't want Central Austin to be a playground for the rich. I want it to have a mix of people of all different types, including working class folks who are getting forced out. School taxes drive property taxes. We need to address that and we need to limit the growth of school property taxes. But the only way that we're going to do that is if we find new revenue so the state can properly fund its public education system and not force local school districts to raise taxes, continue to lean so much on property taxes. And one of the ideas that I've put forth is to legalize and tax marijuana and dedicate that revenue to education. I would much rather legalize and tax marijuana than continue to raise property taxes. Another possibility is gambling. In the state, the three states around us, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico have all legalized gambling and we're seeing Texans go there to vacation, to spend money, but we're not getting any of that tax revenue. I think it is time for Texas to make those changes in order to generate some tax revenue. Sadly, I think sin taxes are just about the only taxes we're going to be able to get through a heavily anti-tax Republican legislature.
Goudeau: We'll get back to the education piece of that in just a minute, but obviously we know that the market dominates a lot of things when it comes to property values and appraisals. Is there really anything that you feel lawmakers can do to address that aspect of property taxes? Mr. Vela we'll start with you.
Vela: One of the issues with our appraisal system right now is that homes, your personal home is often appraised at 100 percent of its value. You know, they're pretty good at appraising homes and sometimes more than 100 percent, sometimes it feels like appraised at 110 percent of its value. But commercial buildings, not just in Austin but throughout the state, are often only appraised at only a fraction of their value. When I was working for State Representative Solomon Ortiz from Corpus Christi, there are a lot of refineries in Corpus Christi and you would see the refinery on the tax rolls appraised at, let's say $150 million but then there would be some kind of sale, corporate sale and you would see it reported in the financial news that it was sold for $600 million. And so that is a huge amount of revenue that the local school districts should be getting, that the city should be getting that they're not getting. So I would look at commercial appraisals and see what we can do to make sure that the wealthiest people in the state, the folks that own your large office buildings downtown, the folks that own The Domain, you know your large malls and shopping centers, your oil refineries, your chemical plants, to make sure that they are paying their fair share. If they pay their fair share, then I think that will help take some of the burden off of your residential homeowner who is really getting pinched by high property taxes.
Cole: I believe your question was what can you do given that there are market forces at play. Is that correct? And I couldn't agree with you more that that is a major problem because in a capitalistic society what can you do to stop people from coming here? And that is a tough question but the answer is, you've got to look on the other side of what government can do because I don't think we can pass a law, you know stop at the State of Texas, the Red River. So you know, given that, at the state level, I think that there is a formula that is used to approve affordable housing projects. And that formula is used to approve it and then that goes back to the local entities. I think that there is some work that can be done on that formula to make approval easier and then if approval is granted, then other requirements to it. And we've, I've done this before, like are you going to have construction with the hard to employ? Will you make a contribution to charitable organizations? And then also we can partner at the state level with the local entities like I was discussing before on affordable housing bonds and ask that same question, to what extent will the state back those so that more dollars can actually be expended.
The candidates also answered questions about transportation, gun reform and the "Blue Wave" before addressing things they've said and what's been said about them during the campaign.
Goudeau: I think both of you have raised a few eyebrows when it comes to support of a few republican candidates. So we'll just come out and ask you, have you ever supported, voted for or donated to a republican and why? Mr. Vela we'll start with you.
Vela: Sure, in 2010 when I was working in the Texas House as a democratic staffer, I voted in the 2010 Republican Primary when Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson had left the Senate to run for Governor against Rick Perry. Rick Perry was awful he was always a conservative but by 2010 he had completely embraced the tea party and was just going completely in the wrong direction. He was really just a perfect example of the crony capitalism that was the whole kind of toll road boondoggle where he was really just trying to sell off state assets. It was a real bad situation and as democrats, we were hoping to knock Perry out and put the general election make it Kay Bailey Hutchinson versus Bill White. Of course I voted for Bill White in the November election. But because there was nothing on the democratic side of the ballot that year I did cross over and support Kay Bailey Hutchinson against Rick Perry in 2010. That's the only, the one and only time I've ever voted in a republican primary.
Cole: Yes, I have donated to a republican who was also a government official that I worked with on a number of health and human services issues, specifically ban the box, but had served in that capacity for a number of years and been very friendly to the minority community, African-American and Latino community on issues that effect them such as everything, criminalization of marijuana, ban the box. And I believe, just like we did with the bathroom bill in supporting something that helps the people that we are there to represent.
Vela: So if I can just say one thing about that, you know my concern with Gerald Daugherty is the democrat that was running against him. David Holmes was President of the Texas Young Democrats, he was on the state democratic executive committee. I worked with David actually in the House of Representatives. He was Legislative Director to Representative Dawnna Dukes among many other positions that he had filled. And so my concern there was that there was such a good democrat opposite Gerald Daugherty and Daugherty is anti-environment, anti-choice. You know he should be a moderate republican here in Travis County but he's not. And so that would be my concern with that donation to Commissioner Daugherty.
Goudeau: Any rebuttal?
Cole: I don't know of any items that the proposed candidate for the democratic nomination had actually worked on for the minority community, African-American or Latino. As I don't know those items now from my opponent. I think that it does not necessarily mean that he is a bad democrat as you have suggested. It's just that I have been hit with this attack for six months now and these other items related to his record, whether it was voting in the 2010 Republican Primary, being associated with his boss with the NRA A+ rating or his spokesperson Chuck McDonald having dealings or relationships with the Tom Delay and nuclear waste. All of these things don't mean he is a bad democrat, it just means he has a credibility problem when he tries to make an issue of my one donation to a elected official who had helped on the issues important to the people I represent.
Goudeau: Race has become become a talking point in this runoff. For more than 40 years, this seat has been represented by an African-American. And it's the only seat in the Travis County delegation that is represented by an African-American. Sheryl, you've used the term "political extinction" when talking about this seat and what this seat brings to the table. What did you mean by that and are you suggesting that Mr. Vela shouldn't win because he's not black?
Cole: I'm not suggesting that Mr. Vela should not win because he's not black. I'm suggesting that Mr. Vela should not win because he has not done outreach, not only to the black community or any work in the community associated with the black community, but as far as I know, the gay community, the women's community, any of the communities that the democratic party is to represent.
Goudeau: Your response?
Vela: This is a very diverse seat. It is 47 percent Latino, 27 percent White, 22 percent African-American and I didn't mention this before but five or six percent other. And there are a number of Asian-Americans that are in the community and we should be inclusive of all communities when we discuss a State House District as diverse as 46. ... It's a very diverse community, it's a very working class community but what unites it is it's a very liberal community. And what the district wants is someone that's going to be an advocate, someone that's going to be a fighter, someone that's gonna be a democratic party champion. That's my history as both a litigator with Workers Defense Project, working as a democratic house staffer. That's what I want to do, that's the kind of attitude that I want to bring into the seat.
You can watch the full debate by clicking here.
Early voting runs May 14 through the 18 and election day is May 22.