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HD 50: Circular Dem Firing Squad

Rifts deepen among candidates

By Christopher Hooks, Fri., Nov. 1, 2013

Clockwise:  Rico Reyes, Jade Chang Sheppard and Celia Israel
Clockwise: Rico Reyes, Jade Chang Sheppard and Celia Israel

As early voting closes out Friday in the Nov. 5 special election to succeed retired state Rep. Mark Strama (gone to Google Fiber) in North Austin's House District 50, rifts have deepened among the race's three Demo­cratic candidates, as they compete for one of two spots in the likely December runoff. (The other place will likely fall by default to the only Republican candidate, Mike VanDeWalle.)

In recent weeks, Jade Chang Sheppard and Rico Reyes have increasingly focused their campaigns on the race's third Demo­crat, Celia Israel – suggesting perhaps that they consider Israel the de facto front-runner. At a televised Oct. 17 debate, Israel faced strong attacks from Reyes over her interest in exploring a state income tax. Meanwhile, Sheppard debuted her first TV ad – while engaging in a firefight with Israel over each other's alleged ties to GOP candidates or contributors.

At the Oct. 17 YNN debate, the three Demo­crats (VanDeWalle passed on the invitation) expressed general agreement on most issues. But in the most heated exchanges, Reyes and Shep­pard criticized Israel for past comments signaling her support for a state income tax – a longtime progressive wish list item that's also been a third rail in Texas state politics. Sheppard led the attack, saying she is "absolutely against a state income tax," and that revenue should come first from "closing corporate loopholes" and reducing government waste. Reyes chimed in: "I will not support a state income tax. It's unconstitutional. I believe it's irresponsible to bring [it] up in this campaign," he said. "I can say I'm firmly against it. I am absolutely against Celia Israel's state income tax," which he later called the "Celia Israel State Income Tax Plan."

Israel maintained her ground. "I said at the Austin Tejano Democrats [meeting] that I'd be open to working on this issue," she said. "Eighty percent of our state revenue comes from sales taxes. Those are regressive taxes that hit the poorest among us." She added: "'Cutting waste' and 'outsourcing' are buzzwords in the Republican Party, and in my opinion I think we need to take a fresh look at how we're funding our state government."

Sheppard and Reyes are effectively arguing that she's too liberal for the district, though it leans somewhat Democratic. Shep­pard's campaign pointed to a 2010 poll that indicated only 6% of Texas voters support an income tax. "If we put up a Democrat who favors a state income tax against a Repub­lican in this district we might as well gift wrap this seat and hand it over to Rick Per­ry," said Sheppard advisor Anthony Gutierrez.

Matt Glazer, Reyes' campaign manager, said much the same. "She wants to run as a hyper-partisan in a seat that is simply not," he said. "She's being endorsed by legacy Dem­o­cratic groups because they think HD 50 is like Central or South Austin, and it's not." The issue of electability, Glazer said, was causing voters to give Reyes "a second look."

In response, Justin Perez, Israel's campaign manager, said attacks on his candidate represented her opponents "desperately trying to catch up for lost time and their misreading of Travis County voters." He added: "From the start, Celia has been Celia. Not a manufactured image, just herself."

Meanwhile, Sheppard and Israel have exchanged a drumbeat of attacks based on each other's contributions and funders. In an Aug. 28 post on Burnt Orange Report, Israel noted Sheppard had made donations to a number of Republican politicians in the last six years. One of those was San Antonio City Council member Elisa Chan – who, in a leaked private recording, called homosexuality "disgusting" and "against nature." Sheppard says she was aghast at Chan's views and asked for her money back. Israel, a lesbian who's made her support from LGBT groups a pillar of her campaign, used the incident to raise the matter of Sheppard's GOP donations in general.

Sheppard's campaign responded with a statement criticizing Israel for funds she'd received from the Texas Association of Realtors PAC. Israel, herself a Realtor, received $25,000 from the group – and the PAC's also doing outreach on her behalf, including a $68,000 media buy. The group has also donated to the state's top Repub­licans (as is the custom of general interest groups), so Sheppard's campaign slammed Israel's "hypocrisy." Israel's campaign responded with another broadside restating Shep­pard's past personal donations to Republicans. Shep­pard's campaign immediately upped the ante, demanding Israel return campaign funds to the Realtors PAC. "Celia has gone to great lengths to try to paint me as a horrible person on this issue even though I denounced Chan's disgusting remarks," said Sheppard. "I trust she will stand by her convictions and return the $88,000 in special interest funding her campaign has received from Chan supporters."

Then Reyes found another angle from which to criticize Israel's supporters. Last week, City Council endorsed a proposal to require companies that receive city tax incentives for local projects to pay their construction workers a living wage. The plan passed easily 6-1, with the only negative vote by Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Reyes' campaign condemned the mayor's position as "anti-worker," and Reyes, in a statement, said that "the other candidates in this race should join me in denouncing the mayor's position" and present evidence of their support for the middle class. Left unsaid by Reyes: Council Member Mike Martinez, who sponsored the resolution in question, has also endorsed Israel.

Eight-Day Reports

Campaign contributions and expenditures are reflected for the reporting period Sept. 27-Oct. 26, eight days before the election. "On Hand" totals reflect overall campaign funds still available.

Israel had her best fundraising period of the year, thanks to about $80,000 worth of in-kind contributions from the Texas Association of Realtors PAC for TV ads and polling, while Reyes and Sheppard haven't been able to match their initial fundraising success. Sheppard took in the lowest total while spending more than her two competitors combined, yet with a substantial loan she made to her campaign in June, she still has the biggest war chest.

Raised Spent On Hand
Celia Israel $112,755 $57,920 $18,521
Rico Reyes $18,055 $45,571 $6,858
Jade Chang Sheppard* $7,010 $116,390 $78,050

*($159,000 outstanding loan)

Source: Texas Ethics Commission

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