Rep. Kirk England of Grand Prairie is switching parties, saying he'll seek reelection as a Democrat.
That's the last party switch in the Texas Legislature in years, and it's been a long, long time since a legislator left the Republicans for the Democrats and survived the switch.
England was elected to the House in a special election in 2006, when Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, resigned. England won a full term last November, running as a Republican and netting 49.2 percent of the vote. He finished just 235 votes ahead of a Democrat who ran an underfunded campaign. Election wizards from both parties thought the result might have been different if the Democrats had decided to really compete in that district last year.
During the legislative session, England often found himself with the Democrats, and he cited his dissatisfaction with House Speaker Tom Craddick in a statement issued to the press:
"In December of 2005, when I filed to run for office, I made a promise to the hardworking families in our community to fight for our public schools, fight for affordable health care and to fight for them on pocketbook issues. After one session in the House, I found that the Republican leadership in Austin had no tolerance for the values and priorities of the folks I represent.
"... I trust the voters in District 106 and I am confident that my friends and neighbors agree that doing what is right is more important than partisan politics.
"I am prepared to roll up my sleeves and work hard to be reelected in 2008. I am confident that the voters in our district want a representative who will fight for public education and the Children's Health Insurance Program, and who believes that the folks struggling to pay skyrocketing utility bills every month are more important than TXU's profits. I am committed to returning to Austin to keep the promises I made to citizens of District 106."
He was even more pointed in an interview, saying he he "came to the realization that the leadership didn't have the tolerance for an independent-minded Republican." England said House committee chairmen — he wouldn't name names — had been trying to recruit Republicans to run against him next year. Nobody bit, but he said the calls made his decision a little easier.
"I haven't changed, from the time I filed to run for office in 2005. Kirk England hasn't changed one bit. [The party switch] will allow me to make the same kinds of votes without my party leadership making threats against me in my district."
He found himself at odds with "the leadership" over teacher pay raises and other education issues, and over efforts to limit rises in appraisals and local property taxes. "My dad's been a mayor for 16 years, so I get local control," he says.
He says his local supporters — with a couple of exceptions — supported his decision to switch parties.
England says he voted for Ronald Reagan for president in his first election as a voter, but never has voted a straight party ticket. "I always liked [former U.S. Rep.] Marty Frost," he says. And he expects to get an opponent in the primary as well as next year's general election.
England's district is marginally Republican, but it's a thin margin. Republican statewides in the last two cycles beat Democrats by an average of 10.8 points in HD-106. There's one Republican in the House — Pat Haggerty of El Paso — in a less conservative district; there are ten Democrats in the House who represent more conservative districts than England's.
England's switch brings the partisan balance of the House to 79 Republicans and 70 Democrats. One seat, which had been held by Rep. Anna Mowery, R-Fort Worth, will be filled in a special election in November.
The last Democrat to switch was Bernard Erickson, a Cleburne Republican who jumped in 1994, prompting Arlene Wohlgemuth, who had worked on his first campaign, to run against him. She won the election a bout so close it went to an official "contest" on the floor of the House and beat him again (handily) in a rematch two years later, with Erickson again running as a Democrat.
House Appropriations Chairman Warren Chisum of Pampa left the Democrats for the Republicans before the 1996 elections, changing his official alignment but not his votes. He'd been siding with Republican colleagues in the House for years before changing. His last election as a Democrat and his first as a Republican had something in common: He was unopposed both times. And Rep. Billy Clemons of Groveton switched from blue to red in 1995. He'd pulled in 68.2 percent of the vote as a Democrat in 1994, but after switching, lost to Democrat Jim McReynolds of Lufkin in 1996.
And leading up to the elections in 2004, Rep. Robby Cook of Eagle Lake thought hard about leaving the Democrats for the Republicans it went right to the eve of an announcement then decided not to run for reelection, then reconsidered and won reelection as a Democrat. He won again last year, again as a Democrat.