With early voting entering its last week in the November 5 election to replace state Rep. Mark Strama in north Austin’s House District 50, rifts are deepening between the race’s three Democratic candidates, as they compete for one of two spots in the special election’s likely December runoff.
Intra-party tension has increasingly defined the last few weeks of the race. 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 Republican candidates or contributors. And last week, Israel joined U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, and Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who’ve each endorsed her, in another push to shore up her endgame campaign funds.
The October 17 YNN debate was the most high-profile campaign moment thus far. The three Democrats – Republican Mike VanDeWalle passed on the invitation – expressed general agreement on most issues. But in the most heated exchanges, Reyes and Sheppard hit Israel for past comments before Austin-area Democratic clubs signaling her support for a state income tax – a long-time 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 joined the charge. “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,” he said, later rendering it as 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. I’m absolutely open to it,” 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. I’m not ashamed to simply say I think we should be open to other alternatives.”
As Sheppard and Reyes turn more of their attention to Israel, their campaigns are making the argument that she’s too liberal for the district, which leans Democratic but not heavily so. The argument about the income tax is a way for the campaigns to make this point: 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 one of Sheppard’s advisors, Anthony Gutierrez.
Matt Glazer, Reyes’ campaign manager, echoed Gutierrez. “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 was causing voters to give his candidate “a second look,” adding that “we are all frustrated that Celia is changing her opinions based on the room she is in.”
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.”
Elsewhere, the candidates drew subtle distinctions between themselves and the man they’re vying to replace, ex-Representative Strama. Strama was a notable (and lonely) defender of the education framework built around the state’s testing requirements. All three candidates came out against what they called the state’s “high-stakes testing” regimen, with Sheppard calling it her “signature issue.”
And Reyes knocked Israel for her endorsement by Education Austin, the teacher and staff union for Austin ISD. “One of the reasons she was endorsed by them is because she pledged not to take money from anybody that would consider any other [education] alternative that didn’t come from public education,” he said. “Mark Strama considered other alternatives. Good ideas can come from many different sources.”
Meanwhile, there persist a series of attacks between Sheppard and Israel that have become a drumbeat in this last stage of the race. They stem from an August 28 post, written by Israel for Burnt Orange Report, that observed Sheppard had made donations to a number of Republican politicians in the last six years. (Weighing in on Republican intra-party politics is something of a tradition for largely disenfranchised Texas Democrats; none other than state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis was donating money to GOP candidates and voting in Republican primaries as recently as 2006.)
But one of the candidates Sheppard donated to was San Antonio City Council Member Elisa Chan – who, in a recently leaked private recording, called homosexuality “so disgusting” and “against nature.” Sheppard says she was aghast at Chan’s views once they emerged, and asked for her money back. But 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 hit back, releasing 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 now doing outreach on her behalf, starting with a $63,000 media buy. The group has also donated to the state’s top Republicans, as is the custom of general interest groups. Sheppard’s campaign slammed Israel’s “hypocrisy,” and Sheppard’s campaign manager, Maggie Nelson, leveled the accusation the donations would leave Israel in hock to the Texas realtors, wondering aloud “what exactly the realtors expect from Israel in return for this large contribution.”
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 in a statement. “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 to criticize Israel’s supporters. On Thursday, the Austin 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 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.
Earlier this month, Sheppard advisor Gutierrez chided Israel for failing to run a “positive campaign,” saying that “when Mark Strama resigned, he told us he wanted us to keep it positive.” As the race enters its final days, none of the three Democratic campaigns appear to be heeding that advice.
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