Meet the Candidate: Heather Way
Affordable-housing advocate runs for HD 49
There was never supposed to be a competitive Democratic primary in House District 49. Rep. Elliott Naishtat had represented Austin's most central and most solidly Democratic seat since 1990, and when he filed for re-election last Dec. 1, it was clear no one would be running against him. Then within days he withdrew, announcing instead that he was retiring. This triggered a flurry of candidate filings for this unexpectedly vacant seat, with names both familiar and new in Austin political circles across the ballot.
Heather Way may never have run for office before, but she's undoubtedly one of those recognizable names. A UT law professor and a constant fixture in discussions about affordability and density, she said, "I've dedicated my whole career to fighting for people and working to create a more just society."
Politically, Way describes herself as "an Elizabeth Warren Democrat," and argues that the election comes just as the Republican party seems set to push the state further, potentially irreversibly, to the right. That makes the timing of legendarily progressive Naishtat's departure all the more significant. There had been speculation about his retirement since at least the 2012 primary, and names of potential replacements have been floated around for even longer than that. Not that anyone would be fool hardy enough to run against the beloved incumbent, but Way wasn't thinking about running for any office. However, Naishtat's abrupt departure made her reconsider. She actually heard word he was thinking about withdrawing two days before his announcement, and when it was confirmed, she decided that this was the time to get her name on a ballot. "The stars had aligned," she said. "This is a point in my career when I think I can be most effective."
Raised in the Hill Country, Way moved to Austin as an undergrad at UT-Austin and, aside from a year clerking for noted jurist and civil rights hero Judge William Wayne Justice in Tyler, has been here ever since. Way called Justice a role model because "he stressed the importance of how the law should always be just, above all things." As an influence on her career, Justice was up there with another iconic Texas Democrat: Governor Ann Richards. Way worked on Richards' 1990 gubernatorial campaign before interning in her administration, and it was that experience that inspired her to head to law school. That led her to Justice's office, and from there to a lengthy career in law, starting with a fellowship providing legal assistance on housing issues to low-income families and people with disabilities, to her current position as director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at UT Austin's law school.
For many Austinites, Way is most familiar as an affordable-housing advocate, as well as serving stints on both the Downtown Commission and the Bond Election Advisory Task Force. As such, she argues she is best positioned to focus on "our society's growing economic divide and our growing affordability crisis, which I think are the two most pressing issues facing our state and our city."
Almost inevitably, Way's experience – combined with pure geographical proximity – led her into the Capitol. Unlike some other HD 49 candidates, such as former Eddie Rodriguez aide Huey Rey Fischer or former House Pensions Committee staffer and NARAL Pro-Choice Texas lobbyist Blake Rocap, she may not have had a formal position there. But she's used to the to-and-fro under the dome, having worked in an advisory capacity on multiple bills, including the 2011 homestead preservation district legislation recently used by Austin's City Council. She added, "I've also been part of several coalitions to defeat laws that would be harmful to communities." That included mustering opposition in 2005 to the extremely controversial House Bill 1167, which critics said would have damaged efforts to increase minority home-ownership rates.
So even if she's never been formally employed beneath the dome, Way hopes that her experience in drafting bills, as well as building bipartisan coalitions to help get them passed, will prove she's ready for the 85th Legislature. Moreover, while she's known as a legal expert, she says her experience running law clinics for the poor and underserved makes her more than simply an affordability expert. She said, "Every problem I get with my clients is new, so I have to figure out, OK, what is this problem, what are the solutions we can come up with? ... Having worked on so many different pieces of legislation, and working within the public policy arena, I have the ability and intellect to figure out that issue, and work with others to develop really creative and innovative solutions."