Carona, Huffines Face Off in Contentious SD-16 Primary

*Correction appended.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, a colorful maverick known to cross party lines and entertain his colleagues with angry outbursts from the Senate floor, is in the fight of his political life.

After years of cruising to one re-election victory after another, Carona's long tenure in office is being turned against him. Multimillionaire businessman Don Huffines, carrying the Tea Party banner and promising to shake up Austin, has unleashed a torrent of negative advertising against Carona in the Senate District 16 Republican primary race, portraying the senator as too liberal and too corrupt to represent a conservative Senate district.

For the most part, Carona, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1990, hasn't responded in kind. Instead, he has mostly focused on his own campaign and criticized Huffines for straying from the issues. He said that Huffines' campaign is purely an attack on him and lacks substance.

Carona reached out to Huffines in a letter on Jan. 28 and other occasions, urging Huffines to focus on the issues rather than his record and offered to debate his competitor — all to no avail, he says.

“I’ve tried repeatedly to get Huffines to debate me, and in every instance he refuses to debate. He simply attacks my record while offering no solution.” Carona told The Texas Tribune. “I’ve never faced a candidate as unethical as this.”

Huffines, however, said that he has little time until the March 4 primary, and that he needs to publicize Carona’s extensive record to the district.

“He’s been in office since before there was an internet, to give you perspective,” Huffines said in an interview. “He has a long record, and it takes awhile to get all that out there.”

Huffines' tactics have included a persistent anti-Carona mailer campaign, mudslinging Twitter accounts and a website nicknaming the incumbent John "Crony" Carona. 

Huffines has highlighted Carona at times diverging from the rest of his party, especially on some tax issues. Huffines is claiming that Carona has used his position in the Legislature to pad his pockets and help his company Associa, the largest homeowners association management business in the country, and he's criticizing Carona’s cordial relationships with Democrats.   

Over the years, Carona has repeatedly faced questions about whether he has used his power in the Legislature to further his business interests. Carona's sometimes stunning candor hasn’t helped his cause.

“I feel like I have a right to protect my business interests,” Carona told the Tribune last spring. “Part of my job for my clients, which are the associations and their members, is to come down here and try to stand in the way of legislation, some of which is rather impulsive.”

One of Huffines' frequent criticisms is that Carona supported Sen. Royce West’s 2009 bill to rename a portion of Interstate 20 to Barack Obama Freeway. Carona said he agreed to assist West out of “senatorial courtesy.” There was no support for the name change, and that was the end of the discussion until Huffines raised the issue.

While Huffines tries to characterize Carona’s experience as a detriment, Carona is doing the opposite.

Because there has been a large turnover of seats in Austin, Carona said that experience is exactly what Austin needs right now. Carona chairs the Business and Commerce committee, co-chairs the Oversight Board, and sits on the Windstorm Insurance, Administration, Criminal Justice, Jurisprudence and Nominations committees, as well as the Select Committee on Redistricting. He has sponsored or authored 550 bills that are now law.

“We are facing critical issues that require veteran support.” Carona said.

Huffines said that he is against career politicians like Carona because he said they lose sight of where they are from. Huffines is committed to passing a three-term limit if elected. Carona is currently serving his sixth Senate term.

Huffines said that he would instead bring a fresh perspective and definitive plans to Austin, which would include eliminating the business and franchise taxes, which Carona supported, and restoring infrastructure for public transportation. He plans to govern by the slogan that has propelled him at his real estate company Huffines Communities: “seeing beyond the obvious.”

Huffines said that SD-16 is a strong Republican base, and that he is giving the voters an option that they have never had.

“My opponent has never faced a true conservative,” Huffines said. “I’m a true conservative. I’m not going to compromise my faith, my constitutional convictions or core beliefs in liberty,” 

The SD-16 race has gained plenty of attention, which Carona credits to a larger issue inside of the Republican Party. He said that Huffines represents a sect that has diverted from the mainstream party.

“Mr. Huffines is a Ron Paul libertarian,” Carona said. “I’m proudly a conservative. I’m a proud Republican. I’m not a libertarian.”

However, Huffines said that the attention is because conservatives are frustrated.

“We don’t have to worry about liberals turning our state blue," he said. "We have to worry about liberal Republicans.”

District 16 leans Republican but is becoming more Democratic. The district, which is home to about 800,000, is only 48 percent white. In the 2012 presidential election, President Obama won 42 percent of the district’s vote. In 2004, John Kerry only received 37 percent.

However, there is no Democratic canidate running in SD-16. The only other candidate to file for this race is Libertarian Mike Dooling. 

Jay Root contributed to this report.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Education among his current Senate Committee assignments. He is a past, but not current, member of that committee.

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