The March Democratic primary election in House District 46 came down to the wire; a mere 202 votes separated Jose "Chito" Vela from Sheryl Cole. But neither garnered enough votes for a simple majority, extending their campaigns into a run-off. Voters in the district, which stretches from East Austin to Manor and up to Pflugerville, will get another chance to decide who will represent them at the Lege in the May 22 run-off, one of the most competitive races constituents have seen in years.
When 12-term incumbent Dawnna Dukes was ousted after a nearly nonexistent campaign in a race that drew five competing candidates, it marked the end of an era. Once hailed as a determined fighter for Democratic and progressive values, Dukes' dependability eroded after a series of scandals, including a criminal probe for abuse of public office. Plagued by health problems spurred by a 2013 car accident, her attendance at the Capitol diminished. And while it appeared she might mount a comeback after the District Attorney's Office dropped indictments against her, Dukes instead vanished from public view, limiting appearances and leading opponents to pointedly advertise how they plan to "show up." The longtime incumbent only garnered 10% of the vote in the March primary, a stinging defeat after two decades of largely honorable service.
While Dukes' days are now numbered, two formidable opponents have stepped up to replace her. This time, thanks to the district's left-leaning demographics, 202 votes could make the difference between losing or winning the seat outright. A November face-off against Republican school teacher Gabriel Nila is but a formality. So who's who, and who deserves your vote?
Chito Vela began working as an attorney in 2011, specializing in immigration law (he's fluent in Spanish) out of a small space behind the Juan in a Million restaurant in East Austin. His practice has since banded with attorneys Jennifer Walker Gates and Jackie Watson to become Walker Gates Vela PLLC, with an office near ACC Highland.
Vela has taken a hiatus from that work to focus on the campaign, but it's obvious from speaking with him that he's eager to get back in the saddle. He talks passionately about assisting an East Riverside man who was arrested when an ICE agent pulled him over while purportedly looking for another person during the sweep of raids last February, then jumps over to knock the Trump administration's since-reversed stoppage of a 15-year-old federal program that granted detained immigrants legal advice. The recent attacks on immigrant communities have proven a continual source of anger and frustration for Vela. "I needed that time off for mental and spiritual separation and renewal – it's a horror show," he told me in April. "But it prepared me for the Texas Legislature."
His decision to become an attorney – and to eventually enter politics – felt almost inevitable; his late father practiced law and served as both a justice of the peace and county commissioner in his hometown of Laredo. Politics were the topic of conversation at dinner. The 43-year-old grew up in his father's office, shuffling legal documents, and generally soaking up the environment. He started school at the University of Texas in 1992, at 17, studying history and Mexican-American studies, and was involved in campus politics as a member of a Chicano student group. He sharpened his chops at UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs, where he studied political economy, then scored a fellowship to be the city manager of El Cenizo, a small impoverished South Texas border city. (It's coincidentally the town that last year started the multi-city lawsuit against the state's anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4.) Vela helped pass an interlocal government agreement to collect property taxes, inspiring him to write his master's thesis on the prospect of city-county mergers. But his favorite gig was right before grad school, when he worked as a lifeguard at Barton Springs: "That still may be the best job I've ever had."
Vela's father passed away one day before he graduated, so he spent the next two years back in Laredo, helping settle his father's practice. He eventually returned to Austin for law school, graduated in 2004, and took a position at the state Attorney General's Open Records Division. Then he got an enticing call from a friend who told him former Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr., D-Corpus Christi, needed a legal advisor and policy chief. And so from 2007 to 2011, Vela got his first real taste of Capitol business.
Of course, the political landscape wasn't what it is today. "Democrats had a voice and influence," he said. "We were part of the process, and you're more engaged when your opinion matters." Vela helped draft a handful of bills to strengthen open records laws, a direct result of his experience denying requests at the A.G.'s Office.
Then came the 2010 tea party wave that swept up both Ortiz and his father, a 27-year incumbent in the U.S. House of Representatives, and replaced the latter with now-disgraced former Rep Blake Farenthold. Nearly two dozen other Democratic Texas House incumbents suffered the same fate. Many considered the loss to be a bloodbath, but it led Vela to demand more from his state party. "I was so upset and fired up, I wanted to see a come-to-Jesus-moment from Texas Democrats. There was never any soul-searching after that horrible defeat. I thought there would be some meaningful conversation about how to rebuild the party and move forward, but instead there was crickets."
Vela believes that conversation and strategy have still yet to transpire, in part because of the lack of any proactive agenda. "I know what we're against as Texas Democrats," he said, "but it's not at all clear to me what we would do if we controlled state government. Until we answer that question, I don't see how we can grow as a party."
Vela hopes his campaign for HD 46 – which he bills as a progressive grassroots effort aligned to the left of his opponent – can help start that conversation. When Dukes briefly teased her resignation before the 2017 session, Vela says Cole was broadly considered the "heir apparent" by the local business and political establishment. "I wanted there to be a real contested election and wanted a candidate that was a strong liberal Democrat and social justice advocate that came from the grassroots," he said. He believes Democrats failed voters in 2016, and voters were "not in the mood to just anoint" whoever the political institution might have picked. "They wanted a fighter, someone who could cut against the grain. And that's why I jumped in: I really want to be the people's voice."
Vela stresses that even while outfunded, he took that 202-vote edge in the March primary. A snapshot of their campaign finance reports indeed shows Cole with far more cash. From Jan. 26 to Feb. 24, Cole secured nearly $54,000 in contributions while Vela got only $8,000. Most of his donations are modest (with the exception of one $1,500 donor), while Cole's include $20,000 from Annie's List and several $1,000 donations. That disparity isn't lost on Vela: In a statement issued earlier this year, he noted how his donations came from many individuals rather than a few generous donors. And from Jan. 1 to Jan. 25 Vela attracted 63 donations of $100 or less, while Cole had only seven.
"I'm not the hand-picked candidate of those big-dollar donors who think they can buy any House District in Travis County, but I am humbled by the outpouring of support we've earned from the hardworking folks who live in House District 46," he said at the time. His endorsements reflect that grassroots spirit. The Tejano Democrats, Our Revolution, Stonewall Democrats of Austin, Austin Young Democrats, Left Up to Us, Teamsters Joint Council 58, and Northeast Travis County Democrats have all rallied behind Vela. (The Chronicle's editorial board endorsed him in the March primary.)
Vela believes rural Republicans and urban Democrats are increasingly seeing common interests. He points to the benefits of expanding Medicaid, as hospitals and doctors slowly disappear from rural areas. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured individuals of any state in the country, yet has steadfastly refused to expand Medicaid, leaving nearly a million eligible residents without access. "We can sit down and talk to rural Republicans and explain how much they'd gain from it," he said. "You can call it TrumpCare or the Texas Plan or whatever. I don't care as long as it gets done."
If elected, Vela will also push to decrease felony drug possessions to misdemeanors and work to legalize marijuana, dedicating the tax revenue to public education. There's little chance that any such bill would go far in a GOP Capitol, but Vela is determined to at least set it for a legislative hearing: That way it gets a fiscal estimate from the comptroller. "Once we have that number I think we can start to change some minds," he said.
As Austin City Council Member Greg Casar's appointee to the city Planning Commission (he resigned when he filed to run for office), and as a former board chair of the nonprofit Workers Defense Project, Vela has worked to protect workers' rights and make affordability a reality. With that experience and those aims in mind, Vela suggests the state build affordable housing Downtown for its employees to help ease the burden of the city's ballooning cost of living on current and retired state employees. He supports a modest gas tax raise dedicated to urban transportation needs, and bumping up the minimum wage. And with his eight years of experience defending immigrants in the courts, Vela considers himself a "point person" for defending Republican attacks on immigration.
Cole was in high spirits when we sat down together at Cherrywood Coffeehouse last month. "Should we tell her?" she asked her campaign manager. "Yeah, go for it." Cole revealed a pair of recent, previously unreported endorsements from two political titans: Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and former state Sen. Wendy Davis.
"Go girl, go!" exclaimed the enthused candidate.
It's no surprise more big names have given their nod to Cole; she's a longtime figure in local politics. The 53-year-old attorney is enjoying a boost from what feels like every politico in town, including Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Sen. Kirk Watson, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, Hon. Wilhelmina Delco, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, former mayors Lee Leffingwell and Will Wynn, and current county commissioners and members of the City Council. Cole can also claim the support of major organizations like Annie's List, Texas AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, the Austin Firefighters Association, Black Austin Democrats, Education Austin, Capital Area Progressive Democrats, and Central Austin Democrats.
For Cole, HD 46 runs deeper than an election: It's a mission to continue the legacy of black representation in the district. Should she lose, an African-American voice for Austin will be lost at the Capitol. Of the six Travis County seats in the Legislature, only HD 46 is held by a black person. "I can't walk into a church and not hear about it," said Cole, underscoring the pressure. "The thought of losing an African-American seat to represent Central Texas by such an alleged progressive city, it would be devastating." An African-American has held the seat for nearly four decades, but it's recently seen a dramatic shift in demographics: While black residents were the largest group when Dukes took office in 1995, Latinos now overwhelmingly hold that distinction. About 48% of the district is Latino; only 18% is black.
With a sizable fundraising advantage and political stalwarts in her corner, Cole feels confident she will carry on that legacy. A fifth-generation Texan, Cole says her ancestors served as slaves to Stephen F. Austin's Old Three Hundred settlers. Growing up in Wichita Falls amid modest means, she started cleaning the homes of mostly wealthy, white families with her mother and grandmother at age 7. She attended UT on scholarship, graduating in 1986 with an accounting degree. After two years of work she decided to enter UT law school, completing her degree in 1991. From 1994 to 2000 she worked for the Texas Municipal League, testifying at the Capitol to defend the rights of cities, an experience she says makes her uniquely qualified to tackle the barrage of state-led attacks on city government. And she's no stranger to civic engagement, having sat on boards like Planned Parenthood and the Urban League.
Of course, Cole is most recognized for her eight years of service at City Council. As mayor pro tem, she helped spur a $65 million affordable housing bond package, which passed with 60% of the vote in 2013, and she spearheaded the Waller Creek revitalization. She prides herself on passing a 2012 resolution to support marriage equality, the first of its kind in Texas. "That was an issue that was very controversial in the African-American community at that time, but I stood up for it because it was the right thing to do," she said. She was also instrumental in pushing back against Council's 2010 decision not to settle a wrongful death suit after Austin police fatally shot black teenager Nathaniel Sanders II. (Council eventually voted for a $750,000 settlement to his family the following year.) "I was making calls all around this city," she said. "This was before Black Lives Matter, before the Austin Justice Coalition."
If elected, Cole will focus on school finance and education, and work to strengthen and revise pension plans. She's a proponent of stricter gun control, such as preventing firearm sales to people who have been identified as dangerous to themselves or others by mental health providers, and raising the minimum age for gun purchases. Expanded funding for community policing and mental health care are also on her agenda. Like Vela, she's adamantly for the expansion of Medicaid and the legalization of marijuana, with tax revenue flowing toward education, infrastructure, and health care. Perhaps her strongest edge is her decade of valuable knowledge about local governmental policy. She said she's "fought against the erosion of local control and unfunded mandates for years. I can't wait to get over there and defend the tree ordinance that I worked on."
Cole said people often assume her to be bitter about losing the 2014 mayoral race to Steve Adler, but she called that campaign one of the "best experiences" of her life. "It was the case of one door shutting and many more opening," she said. "My relationship with Mike [Martinez, a colleague on Council and fellow competitor in that race] and Steve today alone was worth it. I simply adore them both and if I hadn't run I probably wouldn't have that."
She calls this current race the "hardest" she's ever been in, in part because of efforts to shed the shadow of Dukes, with whom some voters have confused her. "I'm not Dawnna!" she said, exasperated. "But I feel like I'm getting the negative spillover."
Another contributing factor to the race's difficulty in Cole's eyes is the sexist language attributed to her by both media and community. While Vela is often described as a "tough fighter," she's routinely labeled as "quiet and compromising" – characteristics she says do not provide for the full picture.
"I'm a black woman who has been cleaning toilets since she was 7 years old," Cole said. "I've been fighting my whole damn life – and I will fight hard for this seat. I didn't get here being weak. I got here with dogged determination and the love for the least among us."
While the run-off hasn't waded deep into mudslinging, both candidates have their share of criticisms for one another. The race has become somewhat of a litmus test of progressive bona fides, as a result of Vela's characterization of Cole as an "establishment" candidate in comparison to his own grassroots background. Cole highlights her long record in the community representing the needs and interests of diverse groups. "I'm no one-trick Democratic progressive community pony," she said.
Vela has also pointed to Cole's position as a registered city lobbyist as a potential conflict of interest at the Lege. Cole says she represents the Fairmont Hotel and has represented Scenic Texas, the American Heart Association, and AISD in governmental relations matters. "I'm not going to do anything unethical," she said. If a vote happens to come up that seems like a conflict, she's already vowed to recuse herself. As a Democrat, her $250 donation to GOP County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty in 2016 has also come into question. Cole says Daugherty helped her on a "ban the box" measure to assist formerly incarcerated people secure jobs, and other issues important to the African-American community, "even before Democrats got on board."
Meanwhile, Cole calls out Vela's own liberal credentials for his relationship with Chuck McDonald. While the public relations specialist once worked for former Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, he later retained the conservative Texas Association of Business and tobacco bigwigs Philip Morris as clients. Vela says he "doesn't really know much" about McDonald's other clients and says his work with the campaign is loose. However, early campaign emails show McDonald as a campaign spokesperson. His sister Nancy Siefken serves as campaign manager, and his son Patrick was once employed by the campaign, though Vela says he fired him after learning of an alleged incident of "inappropriate workplace behavior" while working on another local campaign.
All told, they're relatively minor criticisms, and point to the comparative strength of both candidates, who should both be glad to campaign on their credentials. Voters in HD 46 have their work cut out for themselves this month.
Six other races remain up for grabs locally in the Democratic primary, scheduled for Tuesday, May 22, with early voting May 14-18. They're listed below. See next week's issue for more on those races, plus voting info and our endorsements.
Governor: Lupe Valdez, Andrew White
CD 10: Mike Siegel, Tawana Walter-Cadien
CD 21: Mary Wilson, Joseph Kopser
CD 25: Chris Perri, Julie Oliver
CD 31: M.J. Hegar, Christine Eady Mann
HD 47: Elaina Fowler, Vikki Goodwin
459th Judicial District Court: Maya Guerra Gamble, Aurora Martinez Jones
This year's primary run-off is scheduled for Tuesday, May 22, with early voting May 14-18. Because there are run-offs in statewide races for both parties – with nominees for Democratic governor and Republican agricultural commissioner still up for grabs – everybody who's registered with either party has been given good reason to vote. So do it!
Travis County Dems have the added reason of selecting a nominee for the new 459th District Court, and those who live in a number of state and congressional districts (including Republicans in CDs 10 and 21) also have races to decide. See next week's issue for preview coverage of the six other Democratic run-offs, as well as our endorsements for each race.
See next week's issue for polling info.
VOTER ID: Texas law requires registered voters to show one of seven valid, current photo IDs issued by either the Texas Dept. of Public Safety or U.S. government. No photo ID is required when voting by mail. For additional election info:
Travis Co.: www.traviscountyelections.org or 512/238-VOTE(8683).
Williamson Co.: www.wilco.org/elections or 512/943-1630.
Hays Co.: www.co.hays.tx.us/elections.aspx or 512/393-7310.
– Chase Hoffberger
This story has been updated. It reported in error that Vela worked for Solomon Ortiz Sr., a U.S. representative, when in fact he worked for Solomon Ortiz Jr., a representative in the state House.
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