Grassroots Organizers Take on Erin Zwiener in Redrawn HD 45

Shades of blue, red, and brown


l-r: Jessica Mejía, Erin Zwiener, and Angela Villescaz (Photos courtesy of the candidates)

When the redistricting process began last year, to create districts of roughly equal size meant GOP mapmakers had to move nearly 50,000 residents out of House District 45, flipped in 2018's blue wave by Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, and formerly including all of Hays and Blanco counties. Those mostly Republican voters in Dripping Springs, Wimberley, and Johnson City are now in neighboring districts, and the portion of Hays that remains is "more solidly suburban," Zwiener says. It's also majority non-Anglo and about 43% Hispanic, and her two primary challengers, Jessica "Sirena" Mejía and Angela "Tía Angie" Villescaz, see change that they feel requires new representation: "I'm running because the demographics of HD 45 are mi gente," says Villescaz.

Both Mejía and Villescaz are active volunteers in San Marcos, though Villescaz lives up the road in Kyle. Mejía gets her nickname "Sirena" – meaning mermaid – from the virtual storytelling program for children that she runs through the Centro Cultural Hispano and San Marcos Public Library; she's also coordinated winter storm relief and delivered diapers and formula to families in need. Active in river cleanups, she is running to prioritize the environment, childhood mental health, and teen pregnancy prevention – she had her son at 16. "We lived under the poverty line, so I know what it's like to struggle and be active in my community ... [it's] given me the life experiences these politicians need to hear about."

Villescaz, who resigned from SAFE Alliance to run for office and has also worked for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault and the League of United Latin American Citizens, is running to tackle domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. She's been active in pandemic outreach and wants to eliminate disparities in COVID-19 response – "I don't like seeing my community make the national news for numbers of cases." Villescaz notes that she is a Christian, and hopes to "use the common ground that I have with fellow believers that are on the red team" in the Legislature.

Zwiener sees HD 45's exponential growth as its inherent challenge and plans to increase local control mechanisms to "help our city councils and county commissioners manage it." Last session Zwiener successfully supported increasing the homestead property tax exemption as a way to direct more state money into local school systems: "It both helps shift the burden toward commercial property taxes and lowers the taxable property value in the community, [which] determines how much the state is responsible for giving that school district. [It] needs to pay its fair share, because folks move here for affordability."

Zwiener established the House Caucus on Climate, Environment, and the Energy Industry in 2021 and continues to push the "Texas Commission on Environmental Quality [to have] big enough teeth to protect our air and water." Next session, she hopes to increase TCEQ's maximum fines and permanently tie them to inflation. She also plans to cultivate resilience in the face of another winter storm by "upgrading infrastructure in water systems and investing in demand response."

Both Villescaz and Mejía claim there was a lack of outreach from Zwiener during both the pandemic and winter storms, though Zwiener, who serves on the House Public Health Committee, says, "I pivoted my office into crisis communications in March 2020. Legislation is a key job of a legislator, but getting resources to your community – thousands of tests and vaccines on the ground, and information sharing – is critical, especially in a time of misinformation. One thing my constituents appreciate about me is knowing they can come to me for no-bullshit answers."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

March 2022 Primary, Texas House district 45, Erin Zwiener, Jessica Mejia, Angela Villescaz, Texas Legislature

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