In politics, there's a simple equation. You can have youth, or you can have experience. House District 49 incumbent Elliott Naishtat has two and a half decades of experience under the Texas dome, but that explains why he's ready to retire.
So now residents of his Central Austin seat are faced with seven fresh faces in the Democratic primary to replace him. Each claims to be the most progressive, and with the greatest skills applicable to the baroque mechanics of the Legislature. However, Huey Rey Fischer is trying to convince voters that, not only is he the youngest and most progressive, but he's also the one with the most legislative experience.
The 23-year-old describes himself as "the LGBT son of an immigrant mom from Mexico and a Jewish liberal dad from Brooklyn," and he moved to Austin from the Texas coast to study at UT. By his sophomore year he was president of the University Democrats, and he's spent three sessions as a Lege staffer. Starting under Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, he parlayed that into a position in the office of Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio ("no relation"), before switching to a new role with Austin's Rep. Eddie Rodriguez. He said, "I've been mentored by the best."
While he's hoping those three sessions give him added credibility as a potential legislator, he also argues that he is the candidate to truly represent the district. He asks: If HD 49 – arguably the safest, most diverse Democratic seat in the Texas House – can't elect a left-wing Democrat, then what seat can? Fischer said, "This is one of the few places where we value diversity, and that's what makes us progressive Democrats."
Fischer says every Democrat running in HD 49 agrees on the basic tenets of public schools, environmentalism, health care, and a living wage. However, he's as proud of his arrest for helping stage a sit-in protesting UT's efforts to fire a thousand campus workers as he is for his time under the dome. Questions like rising tuition, living paycheck to paycheck, and access to affordable health care providers like Planned Parenthood, aren't a matter of political dogma, but realities of his own life. If voters are looking for a real successor for the highly principled Naishtat, he argued, "It's clear that I'm the candidate of the left."
He argues that, with noted liberal figures like Naishtat, Sylvester Turner, and Ruth Jones McClendon all retiring, House Dems could benefit from a little new blood, and a little fire in the belly. He said, "I'm tired of seeing us running defense to the Republicans. It's gotten us nowhere for the last 20 years, and it's a strategy that doesn't work. If we want to start winning again, I believe Democrats have to start offering an agenda that's truly proactive and positive."
He also argues he can balance that passion with hands-on experience to be an effective lawmaker – even in a Republican-dominated House. "You can be the most liberal member, like [former state Rep. Glen Maxey] and pass children's health insurance, or you can be a Jonathan Stickland and get nothing done." He points to his mentor Martinez Fischer as a case study in efficacy: "He was one of the most progressive liberal members, but he was always at the table with Speaker Straus."
But in this eight-week primary, there's one big question, and Fischer poses it himself: "How does a 23-year-old beat six attorneys?"
Normally, the big indicator of competitiveness is money. When the first campaign finance reports were filed on Jan. 15, covering only the first month of fundraising, Fischer had raised a surprising $18,564 – not bad for a recent graduate with $44,000 in student debt, and not that far behind the leading fundraisers in the race, UT law professor Heather Way ($52,750) and AISD Trustee Gina Hinojosa ($26,405).
While Way and Hinojosa have both sunk their money into advertising and mailers, Fischer's not depending on cash to dig him out of the name-recognition ditch. Instead, he's going face-to-face with voters. "We knocked on over a thousand doors last weekend; we're looking at two to three thousand next weekend," he said. "We're talking to them about schools, we're talking to them about their property taxes, we're talking to them about health care, we're talking to them about workers' rights. We're not sending them eight glossy mail pieces, we're not wasting our money on consultants."
That tactic could potentially be his key. The three groups that his candidacy may speak to most clearly – minorities, renters, and students – are historically some of the lowest-turnout voting blocs in Texas, and the hardest for campaigns to reach. If he can get them out on March 1 for the Democratic primary in sufficient numbers, then he might be able to get through to the near-inevitable run-off. The unspoken minefield for him there is that that run-off is scheduled for May 24 – the week after UT commencement, when thousands of potential student voters will have left town. Still, he's optimistic that Austin's traditional voters will see his determined progressive message as a way to continue Naishtat's legacy and turn the Republican tide. He said, "We're not going to win this state every time we sell out."
Feb. 1 is the deadline to register to vote in the March 1 primary.
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