The Austin Chronicle

A Lively Crowd Seeks the Open House District 51 Seat

A lively crowd seeks the open House District 51 seat

By Brant Bingamon, February 11, 2022, News

Lulu Flores is in full campaign mode. "Yesterday was crazy, today there's a lot of things to do. Meet my canvassers, go block walk, raise money, wash the dishes, do the laundry" – she laughs – "feed the cat, give him his meds. It's all in a day's work."

Flores is a front-runner in the seven-candidate Democratic primary for Texas House District 51. It's a race without an incumbent, as state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who has represented this swath of southeast Travis County for two decades, is campaigning for a seat in Congress.

Lulu is on a first-name basis with Eddie. In fact, she ran against him for this very seat at the beginning of Rodriguez's political career in 2002. She led in the primary but lost the run-off by 100 votes and hasn't campaigned for state office since. "I wasn't sure I would ever get the opportunity again," she said. "But I'm feeling good about it – 'OK, how much money do I have to raise today? How many endorsement meetings do we have today?'"

A Microcosm of Texas

Flores grew up the youngest of nine children in Laredo and moved to Austin in the 1970s to attend the University of Texas. As she worked her way through law school she took a job with the first Mexican American woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives, Irma Rangel of Kingsville. She went on to spend her life in grassroots politics and to help elect many candidates, mostly progressive women.

Flores neatly summed up the issues that each of the District 51 candidates are addressing to one degree or another. "I'm running on having respect for each and every Texan," she said. "And that means repealing [Senate Bill] 8 and honoring the autonomy of women. It also means stop picking on our kids, especially our trans kids. And stop the attacks on our voting rights. Also I want to take care of the health care system by pushing for Medicaid expansion – we can't afford to be the state with the highest number of uninsured residents in the country, especially during the pandemic. And I also want to stand by our teachers and fund public education."

The most recent campaign finance filings show that Flores has far more cash to spend on the race than her fellow candidates – approximately $142,000. She also has endorsements from many of the elected officials she's worked for over the years, including state Reps. Celia Israel (also retiring this year to run for Austin mayor) and Donna Howard, state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, and Travis County District Attorney José Garza, as well as the AFL-CIO, Education Austin, and AFSCME, the union that represents most city and county employees.

Matt Worthington also has money to spend on the race, with $40,000 on hand. The 36-year-old data scientist and his young family have lived in District 51 for eight years, currently in the newly built Easton Park neighborhood near McKinney Falls State Park. The district is "a microcosm of what we see across the state," Worthington said. "There are very urban areas, skyscrapers, places like Rainey Street and South Congress, things that are postcards of what we know about Austin, Texas. And then there are very isolated, rural areas that might feel to an outsider like they have more in common with West Texas." *

Indeed, while District 51 takes in Downtown and some of South and East Austin,, it's mostly made up of the poorest part of Travis County, the area south of Texas 71 and east of I-35. In recent years, investors have brought major developments to these formerly empty and cheap expanses of land, creating a study in contrasts. It is now home to Austin-Bergstrom Inter­na­tion­al Airport as well as the Del Valle Cor­rectional Com­plex; the Circuit of the Amer­icas and a string of auto salvage yards; the Tesla "gigafactory" and the Travis County Landfill. The district's neighborhoods reflect this mix of affluence and poverty: million-dollar homes in Bouldin and Travis Heights, trailers in Del Valle and Mustang Ridge.

Worthington rose from an impoverished childhood, raised by his single Latina mother, to work at UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs, a job he loved. But he quit in December, disturbed by Republicans' performance during the last legislative session. "The Lege does a lot of really, really important things and it has the ability to also wreak havoc on people's lives," he said. "So these seats are important. They're worth quitting a job over."

Worthington wants to overturn SB 8 and protect LGBTQIA rights and is particularly interested in properly funding public education. "School districts are not just important for education purposes," he said. "When you think about what happened last year with the winter storm, what were the places that were providing relief and shelter? They were setting up cots at Mendez Middle School in southeast Travis County. So for me, it's about making sure that we're investing in our public schools because they're bastions of community."

Mike Hendrix is the last of the three contenders with significant money to spend on the race, with $94,000 raised and close to $20,000 on hand. The 43-year-old has lived in District 51 for seven years.

"I've been knocking on a lot of doors, about 2,600 doors so far," Hendrix said. "And you really have a split in this district. You have a lot of progressives who have moved in, who have been able to afford to buy, and they're really concerned about their property taxes, property tax reform. And then you have younger people, younger families, who have moved in who are just trying to afford rent – so housing affordability. Those are probably the two top issues that I hear."

From Marijuana to Medicaid

Hendrix is a community organizer – he's worked with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the Marijuana Policy Project – and his personal passion is criminal justice reform. He is also a member of the LGBTQIA community and suffered from conversion therapy from the age of 7 to 13. "If I'm elected I'll be the only gay man in the House – openly – out of 150 reps," he said. (Rodriguez's predecessor and mentor Glen Maxey, who held the District 51 seat for a dozen years, was the first-ever openly gay member of the Texas Legislature.) "And what we've seen is the LGBTQ community constantly getting attacked. It's aggravating. And I think having an LGBTQ gay man in the Texas House could help bring another perspective to different issues that are important to the community."

While Hendrix represent a young Anglo energy in the race, Cynthia Valadez-Mata is a product of a golden age of political engagement on Austin's Eastside. Her parents and neighbors marched with La Raza Unida and other groups from the 1960s onward, fighting for human rights and equal resources for their neighborhoods around East Cesar Chavez Street, where Valadez-Mata still lives. While Hispanics comprise 55% of the district's population, only around half are registered to vote.

Valadez-Mata has been organizing for 20 years and has nursed a fascination for state politics since she was a teenager. Her biggest issue is expanding Medicare. "Texas still has the largest amount of those who are uninsured in the nation," she said. "There's over 700,000 Texans who don't qualify under the ACA [Affordable Care Act] or any local government programs. So there's this gap. And there is a bipartisan effort at the Legislature [to address the issue], so if we could just get leadership to open its eyes, that would be great."

Claire Campos-O'Neal is also a Latina, as the daughter of a first-generation Mexican American. The young mother of two is calling herself the "mom candidate" and wants to focus on providing adequate funding for public education. She's surprised that state Repub­licans are pushing for vouchers, particularly after the last two years. "I thought with the pandemic and with people having to keep their kids home, people would be like, 'Wow, schools do so much,'" she said. "They educate our children but also they, in some ways, watch them and take care of them for us. But instead of coming out of that with a deeper respect, in some ways we're going in the other direction."

Campos-O'Neal is also concerned about affordable housing and wants to bring infrastructure to the Del Valle area. "As we go east we have fewer things," she said. "Del Valle ISD doesn't have a single grocery store, we don't have a hospital. Whenever I leave my house I have to go west."

Like the other candidates, Cody Arn was dismayed by last year's legislative session, particularly the dozens of anti-LGBTQIA bills pushed by Republicans. "I am a member of the LGBT community and growing up here in Texas as a gay, queer, or trans person, it's an incredibly anxiety-ridden position," he said. "Seeing those things come up in the Legislature, there was the idea that, hey, my community is under attack right now."

Arn has only lived in the district full time for two years, but he's running a policy­-driven campaign that touches on all of the issues in the race. His obsession with politics began during his work on Beto O'Rourke's 2018 Senate race, and he also volunteered with Homes Not Handcuffs to advocate for the unsheltered in last year's battle over restoring criminal penalties for public camping. He said he doesn't really expect to win but hopes his candidacy will focus attention on affordable housing and LGBTQIA rights. He's been impressed by his opponents. "I'm very excited that my district, the district where I am a constituent, where I am a resident, where I am a voter, will be represented by someone who is great," he said. "And I really appreciate that we've kept this race very positive throughout."

The final candidate in the race, Bino Cadenas, is a 10-year veteran of the Austin Police Department; he did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Chronicle. Cadenas is a lifelong Eastside resident who refers to himself as a "servant leader." There is no indication on his campaign webpage of where he stands on women's rights, LGBTQIA rights, voting rights, fixing the grid, affordable housing, and so on, but he is clearly in favor of increased staffing at APD.

Early voting begins Monday, Feb. 14, for the March 1 Democratic and Republican primaries. See Chronicle endorsements and more election info at

Editor's note Feb. 10 1:30pm: We've edited this story since publication to fix some details in Matt Worthington's biography. We regret our errors.

The Rest of the Map

As you can tell looking at the new Texas House map adopted during last fall's third special session of the 87th Legislature, the constitutional "county line rule" provides a hard check on redistricting. This rule, which only applies to House seats (not the Texas Senate, Congress, or the State Board of Education), states that each of the lower chamber's 150 districts must either include one or more entire counties or be wholly included within a county. Rarely are exceptions allowed, often in hard-to-draw-otherwise places iike the Rio Grande Valley.

In the first category are several suburban seats expected to be retained by Republicans. HD 17, which includes all of Bastrop and Caldwell and three other counties, is being vacated by retiring Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart. The newly redrawn HD 19 now combines scarlet-hued portions of western Travis County with four Hill Country counties. It was formerly anchored by Comal County, which now pairs up with the western half of Hays in a new HD 73 (the former district by that number was in the DFW Metroplex).

In the latter bunch, there are now six seats in Travis County, one in Hays, and three in Williamson that lie entirely within those county lines. The new map has given incumbent Dems Vikki Goodwin of Austin (HD 47) and Erin Zwiener of Driftwood (HD 45) pretty safe paths to reelection, as their GOP challengers from 2020 are now running in the new neighboring seats (Justin Berry in HD 19, Carrie Isaac in HD 73). Meanwhile, in HD 20, GOP Rep. Terry Wilson will be moving from Marble Falls to Georgetown to continue to serve his district, while HD 52 Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, has moved to Travis' HD 50, the seat being vacated by mayoral candidate Celia Israel. While Talarico's current and prospective districts touch each other across the Travis/WilCo line, the redrawn HD 52 has ceded those Dem-friendly borderlands to HD 136, held by Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin. Bucy, Goodwin, HD 48's Donna Howard, and HD 49's Gina Hinojosa are all unopposed in the primary; HD 46's Sheryl Cole is also unopposed in November and thus has a free pass back to the pink dome.– Mike Clark-Madison

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