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HD 50: Will Dem Split Enable GOP?

Front-runners emerge in the race to replace Strama

By Christopher Hooks, Fri., Oct. 4, 2013

(l-r) Celia Israel, Rico Reyes, Jade Chang Sheppard, & Mike VanDeWalle
(l-r) Celia Israel, Rico Reyes, Jade Chang Sheppard, & Mike VanDeWalle

Earlier this summer, the race to replace Mark Strama as the state representative for North Austin's House District 50 seemed wide open, with three unique Dem­o­crats and a Republican political novice in the open special election. With early voting starting on Oct. 21 for the Nov. 5 election, the campaigns have settled into a rough hierarchy, amidst small-ball political intrigue.

Jade Chang Sheppard, the best-funded candidate, has receded from the campaign trail, and a fracture has appeared in Austin's major Hispanic Democratic organization as Rico Reyes attempts to build local support. Celia Israel, the Democrat with the least fundraising success, has nearly swept the Dem­ocratic club endorsements, while the race's lone Republican, Mike VanDeWalle, is quietly building his campaign.

Much of the recent activity has engaged the endorsement meetings of Austin's myriad Democratic clubs – a competition that Sheppard, ostensibly the early front-runner, has largely avoided. She continues to hold a substantial fundraising advantage, but has been hit by opponents over her true place of residence – she has a lot of connections to San Antonio, where her contracting business is based.

There's also the observation, first made by Celia Israel in a post for the online Burnt Orange Report, that Sheppard donated to George P. Bush's political action committee, the Hispanic Republicans of Texas, as well as to Richardson Republican state Rep. Angie Chen Button+. Sheppard also donated $500 to San Antonio GOP City Council Member Elisa Chan in 2011, though she asked for her money back after recordings surfaced of Chan calling homosexuality "disgusting" and "against nature."

This month's meetings would have been a good opportunity for Sheppard to clear the air with passionate Dem activists, but she's largely declined to do so. Campaign manager Anthony Gutierrez said the no-shows were simply a matter of a packed schedule. "It's just a matter of time," he says. "There are a lot of voters to talk to, and only so much the candidate can do."

Her competitors think she's preparing a last-minute ad push with campaign funds, but campaign operatives argue that a low-turnout special is a "ground-game" election. "The face-to-face connection is what wins you voters," says Justin Perez, Israel's campaign manager. "Without that, it's hard to get people to turn out." Sheppard's absence has left Israel and Reyes competing for the support of the major Democratic organizations, and Israel has an edge there. That became apparent on Sept. 18, when the University of Texas Democrats and the Central Austin Democrats held a joint endorsement meeting. If the two clubs endorse the same candidate, that candidate also gets the endorsement of the Austin Progressive Coalition, which comes with major GOTV benefits: doorhangers, volunteers, etc.

Sheppard didn't appear, citing a scheduling conflict. Her absence made more apparent the stylistic and philosophical differences between Israel and Reyes. Israel speaks slowly and deliberately, selling her experience with state policy and her history with local Democrats. Reyes' pitch seems more rehearsed. He touts his education and professional background; he's an impeccably suited Marine with a Marine's haircut. His political connections are with the higher echelons of state Dems (from Bill White on down) while Israel's are primarily from the local party. Reyes sometimes seems like he's already running for higher office – at the tail end of one candidate forum, he told Democrats that he was ready "to go toe-to-toe with Ted Cruz."

Israel more openly embraces liberal and progressive causes, while Reyes shows more caution. At the UTD/CAD event, Israel criticized the gun-show loophole, while Reyes expressed fear that "the cat was out of the bag" on gun regs. At another event, Israel supported a state income tax to fund education; Reyes told the crowd the time hadn't yet come. And Reyes was willing to tell the Austin Tejano Democrats that little could be done legislatively to stem the market forces behind Austin's gentrification.

The truth is, a lone state representative's ability to address these issues is virtually nil. Nevertheless, Israel's tune seems to be the one that Democrats want to hear, and she's swept most of the club endorsements – from the APC card, to the South Austin and Austin NxNW Democrats, to the influential Central Labor Council, a confederation of unions which plays a pivotal role in local elections.

Reyes hasn't been completely shut out. He's got the Northeast Travis County Democrats, and the Capital Tejano Democrats, a splinter group of the well- and long-established Austin Tejano Democrats. Former state Senator Gonzalo Barrientos joined the group in its infancy*[Corrected: see note below]; he also happens to be Rico Reyes' godfather. CTD has no web presence, and has had trouble achieving a quorum. For his part, Reyes says he'd never spoken to Barrientos about the club.

The Tejano newspaper La Voz de Austin poked fun at Barrientos in an editorial, noting that Barrientos helped found the Tejano Democrats when he walked out of the Mexican American Democrats in 1993. "Next time you see Mr. Barrientos," La Voz wrote, "ask him how he plays marbles." Fred Cantu, the chair of the Austin Tejano Democrats, said there was no bad blood between the groups, but seemed bemused; he passed around the ATD a typo-heavy letter from Barrientos promising to explain his actions at the club's next meeting. The club handily endorsed Israel.

Other Dem aspirants haven't been above a little meddling. At the Central Austin Democrats' endorsement meeting, representatives of Ramey Ko, planning to run in next year's regular-election primary, tried to prevent the club from making an endorsement in the special. Though the club had endorsed the district's past contenders, Mykle Tomlinson, Ko's campaign manager, forcefully argued that CAD's constitution prevented an endorsement outside the club's boundaries. Ko's proxies lost handily, and the club endorsed Israel.

While HD 50's Democrats fight in the trenches for club endorsements, the race's lone Republican seems pretty relaxed. Jollyville chiropractor Mike VanDeWalle had just jumped in the race the last time the Chronicle talked to him. Since then, he reports, he's been getting educated on policy with Texas Public Policy Foundation, the state's leading conservative think tank – "the wealth of information there was amazing," he says, "just amazing" – and meeting the district's GOP activists.

His strategy seems pretty uncomplicated. "We wanted to be the lone Republican in the group," he says. "That worked out." Quixotic libertarian gun-store owner Michael Cargill dropped out of the race and endorsed VanDeWalle right before the filing deadline. That, combined with the split Democratic vote, could provide VanDeWalle a spot in a run-off – if not better. The GOP didn't even field a candidate here against Mark Strama in 2012, but they earned 41.7% of the vote just two years earlier. When asked if Cargill's endorsement came with pre-conditions, VanDeWalle demurred, but said the two were in broad agreement on the "liberty issues" Cargill cares most about, and especially gun rights. "I'm in agreement with him on that; that's a constitutional issue. ... That's one of the reasons Japan didn't attack us with ground forces, is because they saw all the guns here. And Chairman Mao, they asked him once, 'how do you control the people?' And he said, 'take away all their guns.'"

As early voting approaches, the outlines of the race have formed. Unless Sheppard starts to show unexpected momentum, the run-off could be between VanDeWalle, the square-jawed Republican neophyte, and Israel or Reyes. Asked if he has a preferred opponent in the run-off, VanDeWalle said genially, "I think it's kind of nice to have a real contrast between people that are running. A lot of times, you don't see that."

*Correction: This sentence originally described Sen. Barrientos, in error, as a "founder" of the Austin Tejano Democrats; the passage has been corrected. + Correction: Rep. Angie Chen Button was described in error as a San Antonio Republican; her district is based in Richardson.

HD 50: MAJOR CLUB ENDORSEMENTS*

Celia Israel

University Democrats

Central Austin Democrats

Austin Progressive Coalition

South Austin Democrats

Austin Tejano Democrats

North by Northwest Democrats

Austin Young Democrats

Stonewall Democrats of Austin

Central Labor Council

Victory Fund (National)

Equality Texas

Rico Reyes

Northeast Travis County Democrats

Capital Tejano Democrats

Jade Chang Sheppard*

State Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston)

State Rep. Hubert Vo (D-Houston)

*Note: This list has been slightly updated from the Oct. 4 print version. It is not exhaustive, and as of Oct. 4, Jade Chang Sheppard has received no club endorsements. We'll update periodically as Election Day nears.

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