Primary Color: HD-98

A pervasive image in Northern Tarrant County
A pervasive image in Northern Tarrant County

Giovanni Capriglione says he was not recruited by an Austin lobbyist to run against state Rep. Vicki Truitt, did not campaign door-to-door with another candidate who is also challenging Truitt and did not try to get his name changed to get something that looks better on the ballot. And, he says, he didn't have anything to do with that cemetery scandal outside of Chicago, either.

Truitt, R-Southlake, says she is not a tax-and-spend Republican who wants to raise state taxes to pay for roads, isn't for unfunded state mandates and business regulation and that she is in tune with her district on those and other issues and hasn't been in Austin so long that she's gone native.

Rich DeOtte — making his first foray into campaign politics — says he's amazed at all of the gossip, how widespread it is, how fast it travels and how much of it is just wrong.

Diane Thorpe, candidate No. 4 in HD-98, didn't return calls, e-mails or Facebook messages. Her opponents say she's been relatively inactive in the race but could still pull some votes.

The question, with that many people in the race, is whether there will be a runoff. Truitt has won and won easily since wresting the district from former State Rep. Nancy Moffat in a 1998 GOP runoff. She won the rematch two years later with 66 percent of the vote and has prevailed in every contested election since with at least 70 percent of the vote each time. But this round is different.

"There is a lot of growth here and a lot of turnover," Truitt says of the district. "You'd better be on the ball. ... People are angry about what's going on in Washington, and a lot of people aren't distinguishing between Washington and Texas."

This time, her support for a local option gasoline tax and other issues have inspired more competition, raising the specter of a runoff — never a great sign for an incumbent. The district stretches across northern Tarrant County and includes Southlake, Grapevine, Keller, Colleyville and parts of two major airports. It's littered with strip centers and chain coffee shops; everyone who sat for an interview had a favorite Starbucks in the district. No Democrats are running — locals bill this as the most Republican House district in the state's most Republican county — and the winner of the primary will face only a libertarian in the general election in November.

Truitt tracks her current troubles to a series of "robocalls" made to conservatives in the district by Empower Texans, an Austin-based political action committee that promotes low taxes, small government and other issues. She has special scorn for Michael Quinn Sullivan, who runs that outfit and who voiced some of the recorded messages last year.

The first call into her district came in May, while the Legislature was still in session. It attacked Truitt's support of legislation that would allow voters to approve local increases in gasoline taxes to pay for local roads. Four other messages went into her district in the late summer and fall. One spanked her for voting for a Pre-K bill that "benefitted one Houston-area district." Another said she was trying to raise taxes and fees for "non-transportation spending" — apparently based on the idea that some transportation funding goes to things like the state police and assuming that proposals to raise gasoline taxes with local voter approval would do the same thing. One recorded message said she wanted to increase the number of entities funded by property taxes. The last one said she was for more business regulation and unfunded mandates. All of the calls end with the line, "Learn more about her irresponsible record for taxpayers. ..."

Truitt says the calls ginned up controversy and prompted her three Republican competitors into the race. She dismisses most of the jabs as ridiculous, but it's evident that she's hearing a lot about that local option gas tax. "The bill raised not one penny of tax," she protests. "What's more conservative than local control?"

Sullivan says he didn't recruit anybody, but he proudly owns up to making the robocalls in her district (and those in the districts of other lawmakers who didn't score well on his organization's report card). Empower Texans hasn't endorsed anyone in the race; though he's opposed to Truitt, Sullivan says he's waiting to see if someone makes it into a runoff before diving in. "We always endorse for someone, never against someone," he says.

Truitt's challengers say there's more distance between them and Sullivan than she admits. But since they got in, the accusations have been flying, mostly at Capriglione, the first challenger to jump in and the one who seems to have Truitt's most serious attention.

He works for a Richardson-based venture capital firm, Pacesetter Capital Group, a financier to Arizona-based Perpetua, which in turn owns and manages the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. That graveyard was in the news last summer, after families found that the bodies of some 300 people had been dug up to make room for new burials in resold plots. It's a notable cemetery; the lawsuit filed by the families of the people buried there alleges the moved remains included those of former heavyweight boxing champion Ezzard Charles and singer Dinah Washington.

Capriglione says his firm — the lead defendant in the lawsuit — invested in the company that operates that and other cemeteries but isn't involved in the operations. Plus, he says, he never worked on that particular investment. "First and foremost, this is the finance firm I work for ... and we're a lender and an investor ... but it's not my deal, and we're financial investors only," Capriglione says. "I'm not involved."

He says the attorneys who sued his company were fishing around for deep pockets when they found the people who actually committed the crime weren't wealthy. "We need tort reform," he says. "I'm living it." The lawsuit is pending in federal court in Illinois.

He decided to run against Truitt around the end of the session, convinced his three kids "were sunk" if he or someone didn't do something about Austin. No particular thing set him off: "It's just the morass of what goes on, the lobbyists, all of that. ... It wasn't so much issues-based as philosophy-based." Capriglione accuses Truitt of becoming "increasingly liberal" and says she's not trying to stop "taxpayer-funded lobbyists" as vigorously as he'd like. If he loses, he says, DeOtte would be his second choice.

Since he got into the race, he says, Truitt has been relentlessly negative. "You'd think I was Ted Kennedy's godfather," he jokes. He had a conversation weeks ago with some supporters who suggested he change his name to "Gus" for the purposes of running, and he uses the story as a crowd-warmer when he's speaking. But it comes back to him as an accusation that he tried unsuccessfully to change his name. "I wouldn't choose Gus," he says of the rumors. "Reagan would be my first choice, actually." He's been blamed for Empower Texans' robocalls, too, but says he had nothing to do with those.

His top issues? "Life, more than anything else," he says (and he defends Truitt's record on that issue, unprompted). He's against government employees lobbying the Legislature for funding, wants to reform school finance so that rich districts like Southlake don't have to export money to other districts and thinks lawmakers working on transportation should encourage people to use the Internet for telecommuting to ease the burden on the roads.

DeOtte, a civil engineer, supported Truitt for years but is unhappy with Republican officeholders in general and her in particular. "There seems to be an idea among Republicans that Democratic tax increases are bad and ours are good," he complains. "We should have a more moral, peaceful, noble environment" in government, he says. "I've had enough of this, and I want to do something about it," he says later in the conversation.

DeOtte, who also puts his pro-life position ahead of his other political issues, says Truitt should be doing more to pass end-of-life legislation that would put those matters in the hands of the families involved. He identifies with some Tea Party sentiments but adds, "I'm not a secessionist, not an isolationist ... but I have a deep personal desire for personal freedom." And he says the government isn't good at many things: "Best they do is the military, whose job it is to kill people and break things."

DeOtte got into the race after seeing Capriglione at a forum and thinking he was too green to beat Truitt. But he says Capriglione would be his second choice if he himself is not in the runoff. His take on transportation? Move 1 to 1.5 percent of the state budget back into transportation, he says, calling it a solution that would raise about $1 billion and would "require no hard choices."

He, like Capriglione, says the incumbent has lost touch. The gasoline tax isn't the only reason he's in the race, or even the main one, but it illustrates what he's talking about. "Just because they don't stand up and scream at you doesn't mean they support you," he says of the voters. "We'll see if there's enough anti-incumbency out there."

The Tea Party movement is evident here, though it's not at clear how big it is. Capriglione says he won a straw poll of about 1,000 adults — Debra Medina won the governor's race in that group. And he and DeOtte both think a runoff could produce an anti-incumbent surge, particularly if Medina is the candidate (most of the interviews were done before her 9/11 interview on the radio last week). Clearly, their chances would be better with her on the ballot. Truitt thinks she can win on March 2.

"It's a little funny that people who never called my office are saying I'm out of touch. ... I didn't hear a word from them," she says. "I'm a native and lifelong resident of this area. I don't work for [special interests] — I work for the people here. ... I just want to do my job and take care of my folks."

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.