Elliott Naishtat Retiring, Dems Brace for Primary

Update: six candidates already filed to replace veteran rep

After 26 years, Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, is leaving the Texas legislature (Photo by John Anderson)

A tectonic shift just rumbled through Austin politics: Democrat Rep. Elliott Naishtat, the dean of the Travis County House delegation, has announced he will not run for re-election. His departure has already sparked a flurry of filings in the Democratic primary to be his successor.

Along with Congressman Lloyd Doggett, Naishtat has been the defining face of Austin progressive politics for over two decades. Since his first election in 1990, he has focused on the often heartrending but detail-laden politics of health and human services, while keeping his more populist appeal high as the Legislature's most vocal advocate for marijuana and medical marijuana legalization.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, has known Naishtat as a colleague, a mentor, and as "a dear friend." With his exit, Rodriguez said, "We lose a lot of institutional knowledge. [Naishat] was by far the expert on public health issues, not only in the delegation, but he's one of the very few in the house that knows public health and human services issues as well as he does."

The inevitable byproduct of this departure is that Center City Democrats face a primary for one of the safest seats in the state. House District 49 (in its current, gerrymandered incarnation) runs between I-35 and Mopac from Braker to William Cannon. With UT and the rapidly growing Downtown population in its core, its demographics skew younger, with a large population of renters.

Naishtat had originally filed for re-election next year (Rodriguez said that he was one of the people encouraging him to run again "because I didn't feel he was ready to retire, I guess he heeded that advice for a little while.") Yet while his reversal is unexpected, it is not too shocking. At age 70, he is one of the oldest members of the Legislature, and his retirement has been expected for the last few sessions. Moreover, ever since a bike accident in 2014, there has been a question mark over his health.

That meant that, before Naishtat filed, there was a list of names lining up to potentially take his place: Council Member and former state rep Ann Kitchen; AISD Board President Gina Hinojosa; former Congressional staffer Katie Naranjo; and former Rodriguez staffer Huey Rey Fischer (he resigned this morning).

In a statement announcing his decision, Naishtat said that it was the caliber of these candidates that made him reconsider his run. He said, "I concluded that in the event I chose not to run, the people of District 49 would be in good hands. There is a next generation that stands enthusiastically ready and prepared to serve, and that has an energy toward and passion for public service that I cannot in good conscience ignore. Perhaps the best gift I can give to the people I represent is the gift of new leadership, fresh perspectives, and renewed energy.

Discount one name from that list already, with Kitchen telling the Austin-American Statesman today that she is too busy on Second Street to run.

But two names are already in. Rodriguez confirmed that Fischer has already filed today (in fact, that's why he's left Rodriguez's office, so he can concentrate on campaigning, and to avoid any presumption of conflict of interest on his now-former boss' behalf).

As for Hinojosa, she said, "I am filing, I am going to get down there today." She does not have to give up her seat to run, but since her current term as AISD board president expires next November, running for Naishtat's seat will trigger an election for her current seat. She expects her AISD post to give her a big head start, since education and school finance are two top issues in the state today. She said "I think I've proved that I'm a fighter at the school district. Taking on that job was no easy task, and I'm proud to have been a part of that and have left that recently."

As for Naranjo, she said this morning that she is "leaning towards running." She had actually been talking with Naishtat every other day as he went "back and forth. He called Tuesday to say he's definitely running, then he called me this morning to say 'I'm going to withdraw.'" With the news only a couple of hours old, she is still considering her options, especially how running would affect her own existing obligations. However, she said, "The more I get involved, the more I get inspired."

Naishtat's exit removes one of the leading liberal voices from Texas politics – arguably the biggest departure since El Paso senator Eliot Shapleigh quit in 2011. Naranjo praised Naishtat for being the "unabashed voice of liberalism in Texas, standing for not having to work two jobs, having access to healthcare". She expects any successor to follow in those footsteps, "The nature of HD 49 allows the next representative to be an unabashed liberal."

The odds of a Republican even running, never mind taking, this profoundly Democratic seat are slim to none. That makes the primary a de facto general election and, as Naranjo explained, it will be "a family struggle, because it's a lot of really good people." They've all traveled in the same circles for years. As the daughter of Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa, Gina comes with some serious party credentials in this safely blue seat. Aside from his time with Rodriguez, Fischer previously worked for Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Chuz Hinojosa, D-McAllen), as well as serving on a bunch of tough local and statewide campaigns. Naranjo's no slouch either: the former president of the College Democrats of America and CEO of established Democratic campaign team GNI Strategies, she's got a lot of experience mobilizing young voters – potentially a huge plus in a student-heavy district like 49.

Rodriguez said he looks forward to working with whoever wins. He also noted that he will not be endorsing in this race, nor does he expect Naishtat to do so. And while his old friend will not be on the floor any more, Rodriguez expects he will stay involved in legislative issues. He said, "I don't think we'll not see Elliott Naishtat around."

Update 3:56pm: HD 49 has officially become a three-way Democratic primary race. However, one of the names is a little bit of a surprise. According to Travis County Democratic Party executive director JD Gins, criminal defense attorney Matt Shrum has submitted his paperwork.

He joins Hinojosa, who filed this afternoon. However, both were beaten to the punch by Fischer, who was officially the first candidate to file after Naishtat withdrew. "It's been an up and down day," Fischer said this afternoon. "I was eating donuts, and my phone was on silent, and casually I looked down. The second I realized, I leapt in my car and drove over to the party headquarters."

He was quick to praise the liberal lion of the Texas House. He said, "Elliott's done a tremendous job, and he's going to be missed. He's been the progressive voice in the Texas house, and we're going to have to elect someone to fill some pretty big shoes."

HD 49 has changed its shape since Naishtat took office in 1990, but "the core values are the same," Fischer said. "This is a progressive community, the same as it was when Elliott was first elected." When it comes to finding a replacement to represent one of the most solidly Democratic districts, "We need someone who will do more than just vote correctly." After three sessions of experience as a legislative staffer, he said, "I know the rules and procedures, and I won't compromise my values."

Update 5:47pm: Disappointing news for those excited about the opportunity for a Naranjo candidacy. She announced via Facebook that her commitments to other campaigns (including the newly-confirmed sheriff run by Constable Sally Hernandez) preclude running at this time. She writes, "Today has been an adventure. I am incredibly grateful for the calls, texts, emails and messages of support. I love Austin and would love to serve the public. However, I have work commitments that I am dedicated to completing and unable to run for HD49 at this time. I look forward to exploring opportunities in the future to serve our community."

Update Dec. 14: The list keeps growing, with three more names filed: personal injury attorney Aspen Dunaway; former NARAL Pro-Choice Texas legislative counsel Blake Rocap; and housing rights advocate (and lawyer) Heather Way.

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Texas House of Representatives, Elliott Naishtat, Primary election 2016, Ann Kitchen, Eddie Rodriguez, Katie Naranjo, Huey Rey Fischer, Katie Naranjo, March 2016 election

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