When Mark Strama abruptly announced his decision to resign as North Austin's representative in the Legislature, he triggered a sprawling, complicated election calendar. Those hoping to replace him would have to contest four elections in the space of a little over a year, with a special election in November 2013 followed by a run-off to determine a placeholder for Strama, and then a regular election cycle in 2014.
It could have been a real mess, but so far, things have gone smoothly for Democratic contender Celia Israel, who emerged from a heated three-way primary last year to oppose Jollyville Republican Mike VanDeWalle in the runoff election. The heavily-gerrymandered district has a Democratic slant, making Israel the favorite. But the run-off could have a very small turnout, and very unlike the electoral makeup of the district – so a win for Israel is by no means assured. Early voting starts on Tuesday, Jan. 21, for a Jan. 28 run-off election – but Israel and VanDeWalle are set for a rematch this November, so expect to be hearing their names for a while.
The two campaigns slowed their efforts to a standstill over the holiday break, but are getting back in gear in advance of early voting. Justin Perez, Israel's campaign manager, says their team isn't taking any chances, despite HD 50's built-in Democratic advantage. "You should never feel confident in a race like this," he says. "Anything can happen in a run-off." The unusually timed run-off means the campaigns are aiming to drive turnout, and not necessarily win over new voters: Perez says that while "you can never predict how many voters are going to turn out," Israel's campaign is "confident" in its ability to use the same organizational skills it used to place second in the special election to win the run-off.
The open primary that resulted in Israel taking the nomination – VanDeWalle, the sole Republican, placed first, Israel second – was for the Democrats a sprawling three-way brawl that turned sharply negative in the last month, with heated charges over campaign finance issues and Israel's willingness to talk openly about the future possibility of a state income tax. But Perez says Israel's competitors have since joined a united Democratic effort to hold Strama's seat. Jade Chang Sheppard and Rico Reyes, Perez says, have both donated to Israel's campaign and have helped Israel in other ways.
Israel has a long background in state politics and is presenting herself as a strongly progressive candidate – which may have helped her defeat two candidates who presented a more moderate profile. And while her policy portfolio is by no means limited to LGBTQ advocacy, she's made her ties to that community a cornerstone of her campaign. In a recent interview with Lone Star Q, a statewide LGBT news source, she recounts the story of how a former boss – the late Texas governor Ann Richards – first casually acknowledged she knew Israel was a lesbian.
"Back then, it was kind of a big deal that your boss knew you were gay," she told the blog. "It was kind of a relief that she said it. I learned at a relatively young age to just be open and honest and be who you are. It was refreshing. That was a great gift that she gave me at a young age."
Meanwhile, VanDeWalle, the affable Republican who was asked to run in the race this summer by the Texas Chiropractic Association, of which he is a practicing member, says he's in it for the long run. Something of a political neophyte when he jumped into the race, he talks more comfortably and capably now about the political calculus involved with his chances – and he's looking forward to November, when he will once again be his party's standard-bearer. He discussed his campaign's precinct-by-precinct strategy, and expressed his pleasure with participating in the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation's education sessions for candidates. (He was delighted at meeting Rick Santorum the previous day.)
His messaging continues to be on "smart regulation," promoting "effective, affordable health care," and encouraging economic growth in the district. He'd been enjoying meeting people around the district, and said they shared his concerns. "There's a low employment rate here – but I think there's a lot of underemployment." Particularly, he said, he'd seen a lot of older homeowners with jobless millennials stuffed in the basement or over the garage. "That's a sign of underemployment," he said.
VanDeWalle said his campaign had been hitting Israel for her past comments regarding the state income tax. "It sounded like she was saying any kind of tax is favorable," he said. Israel, for her part, has been tagging VanDeWalle as a Tea Party candidate wherever possible. Is he? "If that's defined as meaning less government, I'm on board with that," VanDeWalle said. But for those who see the Tea Party as "hateful," he said: "That's not me."
If anything, the campaign is an easy one to wage because the two candidates are so different ideologically: VanDeWalle appears as conservative as Israel is progressive. "It makes it kind of easy, actually," said VanDeWalle. The run-off's "strong contrast" will provide a mini-referendum on what kind of state the voters of House District 50 want.
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