Lege Races Take Shape
Seats open up as veterans bow out
With a seemingly never-ending succession of special elections going on, the 84th Legislature almost felt like a regular election season. But now it's over, and the races for the 85th Legislature have already begun, with several legislative veterans announcing they will not run again.
The first names were the least surprising, but they mean the House loses two of its most senior and experienced members. Public Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, had led the fight for school finance reform this session. However, he had done so with the unstated expectation that, even if it failed this time, he wouldn't be back for another campaign. Similarly, the Appropriations Committee loses ranking Democrat and Vice Chair Sylvester Turner. After years of calling out the flawed budget process, he now leaves to run for mayor of his native Houston.
The most surprising departures may be the most recent. On June 16, respected veteran Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, announced he was stepping down after 10 sessions. This came only days after Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he would not run again. Both men are often seen as being among the more liberal – or at least level-headed and pragmatic – members of their Republican caucus. Eltife's departure triggers an electoral cascade, with two House conservatives – Bryan Hughes of Tyler and Longview's David Simpson – headed for a primary fight to succeed him. There's already a replacement lined up for Simpson's seat: Longview Mayor Jay Dean, who had previously pledged to primary Simpson for his House seat.
The exodus continues with more familiar faces, including one with a local connection. Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, holds one of Central Texas' most ridiculously gerrymandered districts, stretching from Bee Cave to Abilene. Then there's Rep. Joe Farias, R-San Antonio, who leaves high on a major victory after successfully defending the Hazelwood education grants for veterans. He enters actual retirement, unlike fellow five-termer Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Houston, targeted by hardcore conservative group the American Phoenix Foundation in their attempts to illicitly record lawmakers. Republican infighting is regularly cited as part of the reason for her decision to not run again.
That's seven empty seats, but there's a broad slate of contested primaries challenging incumbents already shaping up. Unsurprisingly, the Tea Party is after Speaker Joe Straus again, through the proxies of his Republican committee chairs. Challengers have already been named for Reps. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth (House Administration) and Dan Flynn of Van (Pensions).
If those three lose their primaries, that's yet more seniority and experience gone, in a Legislature that's already dominated by freshmen and sophomores. And even in gerrymandered Texas, not all the fights will be intra-party. Democrats in Bexar County are already sending up warning flares after former Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, lost that city's run-off mayoral race to interim Mayor Ivy Taylor, whom they accuse of being a Republican stalking horse. If an experienced Latina Democrat can't take that post, they warn, what seats can the Dems hold?