The Austin Chronicle

HD 50: How Many Dems Does It Take to Hold a District?

By Christopher Hooks, October 11, 2013, News

Early voting for the Nov. 5 election begins Oct. 21, and in the House District 50 race to serve out Mark Strama's unexpired term, the election's three Democratic aspirants are each touting their ground strength and making final efforts to reach voters before the ballots are cast. And in private, they're handicapping a potential runoff – should no candidate win a majority, a runoff would take place Dec. 10.

Austin Environmental Democrats met last Friday and gave a split endorsement to Celia Israel and Rico Reyes, and on Satur­day, those candidates were joined by Jade Chang Sheppard at Austin's just-christened Asian American Resource Center. On Wednesday, the supporters of Celia Israel met at Chez Zee to shore up Israel's campaign funds in advance of the final push.

Jollyville Chiropractor Mike VanDeWalle is the only Republican in the race, and thus likely to win one of the two runoff slots. HD 50 leans Democratic, but not heavily so – Attorney General Greg Abbott won a modified, slightly more Republican incarnation of the district with 50.4% in 2010. In private, though, the Democratic campaigns express doubts about VanDeWalle, and the strength of his field operations. VanDeWalle's only Texas Ethics Commission report (Oct. 7) had him raising almost $38,000, plus a $10,000 self-loan — and $25,000 of those contributions came from the Texas Chiropractic Association PAC. Last week, Justin Perez, Israel's campaign manager, suggested that the Democrats, by appealing to different demographic groups and issue blocs, might be able to drive turnout and squeeze VanDeWalle out of the runoff. That would require VanDeWalle to severely underperform at simply taking the default GOP vote – but anything is possible in an off-year special.

The Dem candidates express similar levels of confidence about their own ground games. Israel, a longtime Dem activist, has lagged behind in fundraising — and though she's experienced a surge in donations in the last month, she still reports only $27,000 in cash-on-hand as of Oct. 7. She considers her campaign's field work as her ace in the hole, and said on Tuesday her campaign had knocked on more than 12,000 doors in the district. But Sheppard's and Reyes' campaigns each counter that they have the best organization in the district. Sheppard's campaign touts her long lead time, while Reyes' argues his history in the district and professional background give him an edge.

"We're talking to hundreds of voters a day, 1,500 voters a week," says Matt Glazer, Reyes' campaign manager. "He's the only lawyer in the race. He's worked for the [Trav­is County District Attorney's] Public Integrity Unit" He adds: "He's one of three lawyers on the Planned Parenthood case [the lawsuit just filed against House Bill 2]. He's still working to kill that bill, even though he's running for public office. That should show you what kind of guy he is." Glazer also argues that bipartisan appeal will be necessary to win and hold the district. "It's one thing to be an activist," he says. "It's another thing to be a consensus builder and a lawmaker." As of the Oct. 7 report, Reyes has a little over $38,000 on hand.

Anthony Gutierrez, a communications adviser on Sheppard's team, agrees on bipartisanship. "To win in Texas, you can't be a hardcore ideologue. You've got to appeal to people on both sides of the aisle," he says. "That's how [state Sen.] Wendy Davis won in a split [Fort Worth] district."

The Sheppard campaign took an early and considerable lead in fundraising, and with 30 days to go, reported almost $110,000 in the bank, more than the three other candidates combined (although it's qualified lead, in that the funds include a $100,000 loan from the candidate herself). Gutierrez says they've repeated what has worked. "We've been in this district for months. The same things that Mark Strama was doing, we're doing." Maggie Nelson, Sheppard's campaign manager, announced in a statement that the campaign had also knocked on 12,000 doors — and said that the campaign's organizational ability and financial health would "prove pivotal as we head into the home stretch."

And Gutierrez responded sharply to Israel's criticism of his candidate's campaign contributions to Republican candidates, including City Council ­mem­ber Elisa Chan, who ran into trouble when a tape of her private gay-bashing comments surfaced and gained national attention. Sheppard, who aides said was aghast when she learned of Chan's views, asked that her contribution be returned. "When Mark Strama resigned, he told us he wanted us to keep it positive," Gutierrez said. "These are dirty attacks that are taking the race in the wrong direction. And they're not going to work. While [Israel's] out there saying this, we're in the district, talking to voters about the issues."

Some Notable Supporters*

Celia Israel

Valinda Bolton

Maria Canchola

David Escamilla

Dianne Henson

Ann Kitchen

Lee Leffingwell

Diana Maldonado

Mike Martinez

Karen Sonleitner

Bruce Todd

Rico Reyes

Gonzalo Barrientos

Victor Gonzales

Bobby Ray Inman

Garry Mauro

John Montford

Richard Moya

Nelda Wells Spears

John Trevino

Carlos Uresti

Bill White

Jade Chang Sheppard

Hubert Vo

Gene Wu

Aimee Boone

Robbie Ausley

Laura Scanlan Cho

Bonnie Mills

*For full endorsement lists, see the candidates' websites.

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