Though four candidates have packed the Republican primary in House District 52, covering a large swath of suburban Austin, the race actually breaks down pretty simply.
Two of the four, Stephen Casey and Allyssa Eacono, have raised relatively little money, and thus are long shots, at best, in the March 2 primary. And the two more serious contenders, Larry Gonzales and John Gordon, offer a clear choice, though one based less on issues than personal style and political background. Gonzales is a 40-year-old Capitol insider, having worked on the staffs of several House members, the Lieutenant Governor and the Attorney General. Gordon, 63, is the consummate Williamson County insider, having dogged local hot-button issues for years and worked in community organizations. He calls himself “the father of the Williamson County Republican Party” and harshly ridicules Gonzales's Capitol experience.
According to the latest campaign filings, both Gordon and Gonzales have banked about $130,000, and both say they're planning last-minute ad blitzes. Gordon appears to be largely self-financing his race. He lists about half of his donations as coming from himself, and almost all of the other half comes from relatives. Gonzales has collected donations from a comparatively broader swath of people, but most of his money comes from one dominant player: Bob Perry, the Houston homebuilder, tort reform advocate, and the leading financier of Republican campaigns across Texas. Perry and his wife, Doylene, gave a total of $90,000 to the Gonzales campaign, records show.
The candidates are vying for the chance to carry the conservative flag into the general election against incumbent Diana Maldonado, D-Round Rock, a freshman Democrat in a district that has historically leaned Republican (until 2009, it was represented for eight two-year terms by Mike Krusee, R-Austin). The Democrat won in a year when her party was energized by Barack Obama's campaign; without him on the ballot, it’s among the districts the GOP has the best shot at reclaiming.
But recapturing the district could turn into a dog fight, as the demographics of the fast-growing area have trended more Democratic over the years. After years of cake-walk elections, Krusee barely crossed the 50-percent line in the 2006 general election, beating Democrat Karen Felthouser and a Libertarian candidate who drew 5 percent of the vote. Krusee declined to seek re-election in 2008, opening the door for Maldonado, a former school board president who narrowly beat Republican opponent Bryan Daniel. Gordon ran unsuccessfully that year, drawing nearly a third of the GOP primary vote and finishing narrowly behind Daniel and Dee Hobbs (Daniel won a runoff).
Gonzales touts his political background as his biggest asset. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in government, Gonzales spent the next nine sessions down the street, including stints as chief of staff for Reps. John Otto and Wayne Christian. He also worked on the staff of then-Rep. Robert Talton and Reps. Kevin Brady and Jim Pitts, as well as, early in his career, then-Attorney General John Cornyn and then-Lt. Gov. Rick Perry. He believes that experience and those connections give him the edge going into a tough budget session. With little difference among the candidates on the larger conservative issues, he says, what matters will be the ability to execute. “The four of us would probably push the same green or red button [signaling a yes or no vote on the House floor]," he says. "So in that case, you’re voting for the person who can walk in on day one and get the job done. Where you don’t spin your wheels on ideas that have been exhausted, or you have a great idea and can’t get it done. I have no learning curve.”
Gonzales comes off rehearsed and polite, reflecting experience at deal-making and compromise. He acknowledges Gordon’s strong connections and background in the community, but believes he’ll do a better job for the district. “We’ve tried to run a positive campaign and stick to the issues,” he says.
Gordon, by contrast, comes off anything but polite. He pours derision on his opponents, insisting that he’s the only candidate with even the barest of credentials and that he’ll win in a landslide. The mere mention of Gonzales sends him into a near rant.
“You mean the career political lobbyist-staffer?!” Gordon growls. “All he knows is government. … He just popped into this county and has never done anything for the community. He makes all his money at full-time government. I’m a registered professional engineer. I’ve run a business and made a payroll. … He won’t know when somebody’s telling him some B.S. I know when stuff is overpriced and when it’s been wasteful. Are we about words, or about actions?! I’m a person who has proved I believe what I say. When are we going to quit electing people based on what they say? No other candidate has ever stood for anything in this county.”
Gordon dismisses any suggestion that Gonzales presents strong competition in the race. “There’s not going to be any runoff. I’m going to win outright,” he insists. “I’ve got 40 volunteers knocking on doors. We’ve covered 20,000 homes not once, not twice, but three times … He hasn’t hardly even walked. I’ve got 170 signs up; he’s got 40. Have you heard my radio ad? My wife’s got the best radio ad you’d ever want to hear.”
Gordon doesn’t come by the attitude without work. In a meticulously detailed resume, he chronicles civic and political activities since 1978, when he pushed for setting aside park land and against density of apartment complexes. Since then, he says, he’s been instrumental in everything from youth soccer to symphony to a campaign against late-night drinking on school nights. He managed or advised more than 30 campaigns and worked in a slew of positions in the Williamson County Republican Party, including stints as chairman in the 1980s.
Gonzales takes a different approach, concentrating on statewide concerns rather than what he views as a myopic and contentious obsession with local concerns. First and foremost, the district's next representative will have to tackle a budget with a huge hole in it, he says. He proposes focusing on the core missions of public and higher education, transportation and public safety. The Legislature should close any expected budget hole of up to $15 billion by taking about a third of that from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, he says, and cutting roughly $10 billion in spending to avoid a tax increase.
“There’s a big difference when one campaign is talking about city issues and another is talking about state issues,” he said. “Some things are better meant for the city council.”