Meet the Candidates: Dunaway, Johnson, Shrum
Three low-profile contenders in HD 49 race hope to make their mark
In a seven-horse race, someone will be back of the pack. That's proven true in HD 49, where the Democratic primary has become a struggle for name recognition for several contenders.
The front-runners have become familiar names. Austin ISD trustee Gina Hinojosa is the establishment favorite, vacuuming up institutional endorsements, while UT Law professor and affordable housing advocate Heather Way is leading on campaign contributions. Lobbyist and attorney Blake Rocap benefits from name recognition after several sessions working as a lobbyist for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, and he recently picked up the personal endorsements of many leading lights of the reproductive rights movement. Then there's the big dog of the underdog candidates, Huey Rey Fischer: The former legislative staffer and ex-U Dem president has seemingly tapped into a rich vein of discontent among the district's massive student and renter population.
But there are three other candidates – all attorneys – who are struggling to break out of the stigmatized position of also-rans.
Personal injury lawyer Aspen Dunaway is running as the anti-establishment candidate. As the only one of the seven born in Austin, he describes his as "a people's campaign, to show that we can keep this a people's district and out of the hands of the establishment." The cornerstone of his campaign is what he calls his "Formula for District 49," a 10-point agenda he formulated the night he decided to run. The list includes populist measures like raising the homestead exemption and a tenants' bill of rights; progressive standards such as decriminalizing marijuana and state funding for police body cameras; and some more radical and potentially controversial proposals, including expanding gambling and potentially opening a casino in Austin. On that point, he argues he's being wholly pragmatic: Every year, Texans spend billions in casinos in neighboring states. Through the taxes they spend there, "we pay for schools in those states," he said, and it's a big enough money-earner that those same states are hiring lobbyists in Texas to push against gambling here and ensure that money keeps flowing over state lines.
Kenton Johnson has his own list: His campaign website includes 10 fun facts about the candidate (loves Pluckers, can never remember lyrics). However, he's not a joke candidate, but a municipal judge, a former municipal prosecutor, and past managing editor of the Texas Environmental Law Journal. After he and his wife adopted a son last year, Johnson said he found his priorities shifting, and his concern about the continual rightward drift of the state, and the long-term future of Texas, made him consider a future in politics. Describing himself as "a fiscally responsible, socially progressive Democrat" he says the position of state representative is an extension of "my current job of helping people."
And then there's criminal defense attorney Matt Shrum. If the race were decided by sessions spent under the dome, he'd be well positioned, having served as a House staffer during the 78th and 79th sessions. Considering the back-and-forth between Fischer and Rocap about who has more legislative experience (Fischer argues his three terms as a staffer outweigh Rocap's two terms as a staffer and three as a lobbyist), that should at least put Shrum in contention. However, he spent the last decade as a lawyer: first with the Travis County Attorney as a prosecutor specializing in domestic violence cases, then in private practice.
With all three trailing behind the leaders, both in terms of name recognition and in terms of cash, it's a struggle to get any traction. Dunaway believes the strength of his platform will see him through. By contrast, Johnson is taking a more strategic approach: "There's a race to get to the run-off, and then there's the race after you've got to the run-off." In that first phase, he argues that none of the candidates are particularly high-profile, because everything on the ballot is overshadowed by the presidential primary. "That's an opportunity for an outsider," he said, "because people are going to come out of the woodwork to vote."
See the Chronicle endorsements for the March 1 primaries, and see lots more coverage at austinchronicle.com/elections.