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Texas This Week: Sema Hernandez, candidate for U.S. Senate

The environmental activist from Pasadena, Texas, is one of 12 Democrats fighting to challenge incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn.

AUSTIN, Texas — Early voting is underway in the Texas primary election – and Austin's longtime state senator is stepping down.

Three things to know in Texas politics

State Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) is resigning from the Texas legislature and will become the founding dean of the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs. Watson made the announcement Tuesday. 

Watson was first elected to the Texas Senate in 2006 and served as the Mayor of Austin from 1997 until 2001. His last day in office will be April 30.

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U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) was back in Austin this week. He cast his ballot early in the Texas Republican primary election. Four Republicans are running against Cornyn, along with a dozen Democrats.

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More than 110,000 people tuned into the KVUE U.S. Senate Democratic Primary Debate on Tuesday. KVUE partnered with KUT and the Texas Tribune to host a debate with 11 of the 12 Democrats running against Cornyn. Re-watch the debate on KVUE's YouTube page.

The University of Texas and the Texas Tribune released new poll numbers from Democratic primary voters ahead of the debate. Combat veteran MJ Hegar leads the pack with 22% of the vote, followed by political activist Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez with 9% and former Houston Congressman Chris Bell with 7%. Former Houston City Councilmember Amanda Edwards and Dallas State Senator Royce West (D) are tied with 6%.

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Sema Hernandez (D), candidate for U.S. Senate

Sema Hernandez ran against former Congressman Beto O'Rourke in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary in 2018 and is again trying to clinch the nomination in 2020. 

She sat down with Ashley Goudeau to discuss her campaign.

Ashley Goudeau: For our viewers who aren't familiar with you, tell us a little bit about yourself and why you're running for the U.S. Senate this time around.

Sema Hernandez: "Well, many of you know that I ran in 2018. I'm running in 2020, using my 34 years of experience as an organizer, activist, as a human being to bring a little bit more of the humanity that needs to be brought to the U.S. Senate to reform our government and undo 40 years of neoliberal policies that have led to [the] policy violence that we have currently today."

Goudeau: Tell us a little bit about your background. 

Hernandez: "So, I've worked in health care for six years. I was an insurance agent for six years as well. I have been an activist and advocate for environmental justice in our community, whether it's organizing against the fossil fuel industry to hold them accountable, attending hearings at the TCEQ and just mobilizing our communities. That's kind of my background, environmental justice."

Goudeau: Is there something in particular about Sen. John Cornyn that made you want to challenge him this time around?

Hernandez: "Well, in general, John Cornyn is, represents the old guard, represents the political establishment as we know it. The hatred, the animosity towards people of color, black and brown communities, people who are affected by income inequality, people who are impacted by the climate crisis. He represents what is wrong with our government, with the State of Texas and corruption. And going up against John Cornyn, with the progressive policies that we have, we've been building up from 2018 – and we saw that the people who voted for our campaign 2018, there was a strong showing that they, that Texas is ready for someone who is going to represent them instead of representing the industries that corrupt our government."

Goudeau: You felt the same way about Sen. Ted Cruz when you ran in 2018. You know, that campaign for you against, in the primary, former Congressman Beto O'Rourke was not successful. Why come back and try again?

Hernandez: "Well, that depends on your theory of successful. Yes, we actually spent about $4,000 campaigning across Texas, got a quarter of a million votes – that's a great return on investment compared to the $80 million that was spent and still no defeat of Ted Cruz on progressive policies. And we earned the trust of many voters across Texas. And we've been continuing to build on that movement. So, I consider it a great success."

Goudeau: Let's chat a little bit about some of the issues impacting people right here in Texas. Our state continues to rank as having the highest rate of uninsured adults and children in the country. What are your ideas on how we begin to address health care and the need for access to care? 

Hernandez: "Right now, the courts have deemed the ACA [Affordable Care Act] unconstitutional, which means there is no ACA to save, there is no public option. What we have now is literally nothing to hold on to. So, the next realistic thing that we can do is embrace Medicare for all, which is already an existing framework. It's just expanding it and fully funding it. Medicare for all would eliminate deductibles, co-payments, premiums, out-of-pocket costs. It would ensure that people now have a choice, even when they are unemployed, that they are still covered with health care. Right now, our health care insurance is tied to employment and most people who are tied to their jobs because of that mandate that is no longer going to be protected. And the important thing to know about Medicare for all is it already begins with a public option and for your transition and ensuring that there is a continuum of care and that people get to keep their doctors and don't have to travel outside of their coverage because we're all covered."

Goudeau: I want to chat with you about immigration because that is something that impacts a lot of people right here in Texas, with us being on the border. There is "no one size fits all" pill that's going to fix immigration or secure our borders, but what do you think we can begin to do as a country to address the issues we're seeing?

Hernandez: "Well, one, we have to understand and know how we got to this point. And we're talking about the concept re-authorization of the Patriot Act, the constant funding of the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] and where that money gets funneled to, whether it's to a militarized border, to funding more detention centers across the state across the country and funding the wars and tackling those issues are systemic issues so that we can solve the issues that are currently that we're currently seeing and we're currently being impacted. As someone who is a daughter of immigrants and who has witnessed ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] come in and take our families away, I'm deeply and personally impacted by immigration policies. But we also have to remember that immigration policies is decided by the legislative branch and it should not be influenced by a president."

Goudeau: And so, are there any policies that you would want to put into place that you think would impact, you know, have a good impact?

Hernandez:  "Yes, absolutely. One is dismantling the Department of Homeland Security and giving authorization of immigration back to the Department of Justice. And implementing an immigration policy reform that ensures that we are no longer seeing children being caged up at the border. And that we have a direct pathway to citizenship that doesn't take as long as it currently taking now, and that is not as expensive."

Goudeau:  The Department of Homeland Security does so much more than just, you know, oversee ICE. I mean, we're talking about FEMA, we're talking about a multitude of agencies – you think we should get rid of the whole Department of Homeland Security?

Hernandez: "We're talking about dismantling it and putting it back to where it used to be prior to 9/11. So, specifically to the process in which it is handled right now, the president gets to dictate how much money goes into FEMA. And right now ... that money is being diverted to building the wall instead of being diverted to Puerto Rico, to rebuild Puerto Rico, or rebuild our crumbling infrastructure or just rebuild our levees after Katrina. We're talking about reauthorizing and putting it in places where it's going to be easier to access in times of an emergency. And right now, with putting that directly under the authorization of a president who is unstable and is stubborn in building a wall and vilifying people of color, immigrants Muslims, we have to reallocate those agencies to where they were prior to 9/11."

Goudeau: Talk to us a little bit about climate change. That, for you, is, has been one of sort-of the cornerstones of your campaign. What are the changes, what are the policies that you want to see put into place to begin to address some of the climate change issues we have?

Hernandez: "Well, one, I'm directly impacted by the climate crisis. I live in Pasadena, which is the belly of the beast of the fossil fuel industry here in Texas. And all of that is, is culminating in this huge climate crisis right at our doorsteps. We flooded during Harvey, we flooded during Imelda, we've been flooding for any kind of thunderstorm you can think of, we flood. One thing that I do not want to see is us continuing to flood and that means funding in [a] Green New Deal that rebuilds our crumbling infrastructure, that ensures that we fund money into a program, that rebuilds our communities rather than prioritizing communities that happen to have a lot more money."

Goudeau: Before you can face off with Sen. John Cornyn, you would have to defeat 11 other Democrats who are also running for this Democratic nomination. Why should our viewers vote for you over them?

Hernandez: "Well, one thing that is extremely important is that I'm not your typical politician. I am unapologeticly human, and I tell people the very uncomfortable truths to empower them and know how their government works and what our job is as their representatives in the U.S. Senate. Two, I am one of the only candidates who is not getting any money from billionaires. And therefore I am not constantly catering to the billionaire class. I'm out there campaigning, listening to constituents, talking to constituents and having conversations which will shape our legislative branch and shape the kinds of policies that I'm going to represent. I'm not compromised. I tell you who I am upfront because you need to know who you're getting to go up against John Cornyn in the U.S. Senate and know that they are not compromised. And I am proud to have done that and continue to have been building the coalition of organizations and volunteers and workers across the entire State of Texas and have been building coalitions across the country with other people running for office or already legislative officials."

Early voting in the Texas primary election ends Feb. 28. Election Day is March 3.

WATCH: Sema Hernandez expands on policy regarding climate change

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