Dem Candidates Wendy Davis & Jennie Lou Leeder Take the Stage

South Austin “Indivisible” forum considers TX-21 race

Saturday evening at Opal Divine’s featured a TX-21 Democratic primary candidate showcase between Wendy Davis and Jennie Lou Leeder, sponsored by the district “Indivisible” activist group. GOP incumbent Chip Roy (invited) did not attend.

Jennie Lou Leeder, Wendy Davis, moderator Susan Schorn (not pictured: Chip Roy) (Photo by Michael King)

About 60 people filled the restaurant (I-35 at Live Oak) for a polite but engaging exchange of views generated by audience-submitted questions, addressing health care, the environment, education, inequality, “the partisan divide” … and other topics. There were not sharp divisions between Leeder and Davis, each advocating a range of progressive solutions to the problems facing the congressional district and the country.

Leeder pushed somewhat harder on health care reform (advocating a restored Affordable Care Act leading eventually to "Medicare for All") and climate change (endorsing the Green New Deal), for which Davis offered more incremental strategic proposals. More surprisingly, Leeder suggested congressional term limits as a solution to an unfair economy, citing as an example the accumulated wealth of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell: “With longevity in office comes power.”

On the whole, the candidates differed in emphasis more than policy proposals, with Davis touting her experience as a public official (state Senate preceded by Fort Worth City Council) and Leeder hers as a Democratic activist and party official (Llano County chair and executive committee member, and a 2018 run against Rep. Michael Conaway in TX-11 – “the reddest district in the country”). They each seek to represent a heavily gerrymandered district that on the east stretches along I-35 from Travis to Bexar County, billowing out westward through the Hill Country.

Incumbent Roy was nominally invited to attend, but the event organizers said he had not bothered to reply. He was represented instead by an empty chair and sign for “WhoIsChipRoy.com,” an Indivisible website devoted to opposition research on Roy. Forum emcee Susan Schorn took a couple of teasing shots at Roy (“Are you here?”), but the candidates mostly stuck to the issue questions and avoided aggressive partisanship. Indeed, the name “Trump” never crossed their lips, and each argued that if Congress is going to function, members will have to find ways to work across the divide.

A few thumbnail responses:

Climate change: Leeder noted her family’s longtime experience as Hill Country dry-land farmers, while diminishing rainfall reduces their crops – she endorsed the Green New Deal and “proactive” moves to achieve carbon neutrality by as early as 2035; Davis said the first step is to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, and to implement a bipartisan “fee-and-dividend” system to move forward

Health care: Davis advocated expanding Medicaid and adding a public option to the ACA “as a competitive driver in the insurance marketplace,” Medicare negotiation of drug prices, and “subsidized care for the most vulnerable”; Leeder said the ACA should be “restored to its original condition,” with a “public/private option” as a step toward single-payer or Medicare for All; both candidates mentioned the limited health/hospital care available to TX-21 rural residents.

Partisan Divide: Leeder cited her work as a Llano Democratic party official in working across party lines for fair elections (“Our goal is to have a strong nation and a strong state … We have to work together”); Davis cited her cross-party lines work in Fort Worth (nonpartisan City Council) and in the state Senate (“I delivered results for you because I worked across the aisle.”

Major Priority Issue: An omnibus question asked the candidates with “so much broken” in our political system, what did they see as the priority issue to address first; Davis argued that the overarching issue is the fight against “active [Republican] efforts to dilute people’s voices at the ballot box,” and resisting voter suppression (e.g., restore the Voting Rights Act) and gerrymandering; Leeder returned to health care as the necessity for any quality of life: “Health care is the issue of our nation right now.”

There was more in that parallel vein, covering disability rights, economic fairness, immigration (both candidates sharply denouncing Trump administration policies), campaign finance reform, gun violence … with most of the differences matters of nuance rather than policy divisions (livestream available here).

There was also a subtext throughout the conversation, with Davis highlighting her experience as an elected official (and indirectly, her renown as a fighter for reproductive rights in the state Senate), while Leeder repeatedly emphasizing her family roots in the district and her knowledge of rural Texas. In brief sidebar conversations with the Chronicle, the candidates discussed their specific approaches to the primary campaign, and the question of campaigning across a GOP-gerrymandered, very disparate district.

Leeder reiterated her historical roots in the district (she’s recovering from painful injuries from a fall at her Sunset Valley home, and noted how far she would have been from a hospital at the Hill Country family farm). She said she’s not intimidated by Davis’ relative fame and fundraising prowess, and insisted that the primary is going to be won by “person-to-person, one-on-one” campaigning. She also argued that even headline endorsements (e.g., the End Citizens United endorsement touted by Davis) come “with expectations,” and she’s committed to being an independent voice for TX-21 voters. “I am very grassroots, people-oriented.”

Davis acknowledged there is difficulty working from Travis to Bexar County and then outward across the district, but that she’s committed to town halls across the district, and that much will depend on turnout – in the primary and, for the eventual nominee, in the November general election. “Consider Travis County,” she said, “where there is 92% registration, but only 64% turnout. That represents a real opportunity to get more people out to vote, and especially to turn out young people who haven’t voted before.” As for the “bipartisan” refrain of the forum, she said that a candidate needs to be committed to finding solutions, and that means committing to working across the aisle. “We want Washington to work, and we as a country and a nation feel that it’s broken. People want to hear us talking about, and being sincere, about finding solutions.”

A livestream of the entire forum is available on the TX21 Indivisible Facebook page.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

TX-21, Primary Election 2020, Jennie Lou Leeder, Wendy Davis

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