Primary night was humming along swimmingly for Humble school board president Dan Huberty, and after the early vote he seemed headed to victory. Then the numbers dipped and his fortunes changed, and now he's in a heated GOP run-off contest with anesthesiologist Dr. Susan Curling.
Huberty, who finished primary night with 48 percent of the vote, and Curling, who finished with about 20 percent, are fighting to take on Democrat Joe Montemayor in the November general election and represent House District 127 — the suburbs north of Houston, including Humble, Kingwood and Atascosita. Huberty, a vice president at Clean Energy, argues he's the one with the governing experience to best represent the region. Curling says she's got the expertise to do the job best. Now, with another Election Day drawing closer, the contest is getting personal.
In the days before the primary, Huberty's opponents, particularly the previously little-known Curling, began questioning a vote he made while on the school board — a vote to approve a contract with an advertising company his wife would soon join as a volunteer. They called it a conflict of interest, and Republican strategist Sue Walden filed a criminal complaint with the Harris County district attorney, who has since dismissed it.
Did the attack drag Huberty down and saddle him with a runoff? “I’m not certain that that’s the case,” he says, “We know who our voters are, we were able to get them out to go vote, and we got them out early. In a four-person race, we got 48 percent on Election Day. I think that’s pretty good.”
Pretty good, but not good enough to transition smoothly to a general election race. Curling, who got just more than 20 percent of the vote to come in second, now has the chance at a come-from-behind win, and she’s all in. She’s been on sabbatical for the duration of her effort, allowing her to campaign full-time for the last six months, during which time, by her count, she has knocked on more than 5,200 doors. Still, she knows it’s an uphill climb to beat Huberty.
“T. Boone Pickens says it’s always great to be the underdog,” says Curling, “which is funny because my opponent works for him.”
Curling believes she has a good shot at swinging the backers of the candidates who didn’t make it beyond the March 2 election — physician Martin Basaldua and former Houston City Councilwoman Addie Wiseman — over to her side. “The people that are out of the race now are one, a woman, and one, a physician. I am both of those things.”
Curling says with an MD, MBA, fluency in three languages and 20 years of leadership experience, she's more qualified than Huberty. Despite it all, she's had to go negative with her campaign, because she says the Republican establishment is backing her opponent.
She has hit Huberty in mailers and online for approving two tax hikes as school board president while spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists, donating $1,000 to a Democratic candidate of U.S. Senate in Kentucky, and taking the money of “liberal special interest groups” like the Texas State Teachers Association, and receiving money from employees of an architecture firm that won a big contract with the school district.
“I don’t want to get into her mud pool,” Huberty says. “But if she continues to talk about something that’s just not true and just irrational, then I’m happy to have that debate.”
Before Huberty approved the two tax hikes in question, they were approved by voter referendums. “We have a responsibility as board members to administrate and administer what the voters want us to do,” says Huberty. The donations from the architecture firm employees — Huberty just calls them supporters — came in many months after their contract approval and, Huberty notes, represent a fraction of his total money raised. By using a donation to a Democrat that he says was made at a golf tournament on a business trip a decade ago, Huberty says Curling is “trying to diffuse her own history” — specifically a history of donating money to U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston. As for TSTA’s support, Huberty says, “Who wouldn’t want the support of the teachers?”
Curling isn’t buying it. “Well, if the voters elect him, then I guess he’s allowed to push for higher taxes in Austin and it will be our fault,” she says. “The bottom line is, when you’re in a leadership position you’ve got to take responsibility. And that’s one of my main issues. Morally, I don’t see much effort to take responsibility for his choices.” She says she has been open about her affiliation with Green. “As a medical leader, he’s on the health care subcommittee. I’m forced to work with him in some capacity. I’m not happy about it, I’m not proud of it, but I’m stuck with it," she says. "There is no doubt that I am a loyal Republican."
With regard to the criticism of his leadership on the school board, as Huberty sees it, voters have the option of believing his supporters — State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston; state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands; Constable Ron Hickman, Houston City Councilman Mike Sullivan, Humble Superintendent Guy Sconzo, and others. “Or,” he says, “you can believe one person who doesn’t have any limitations on whether it’s true or not.”
That list is just a small slice of Huberty's Republican backing, which includes every long list of precinct chairs. Williams says he particularly looks forward to working with Huberty. “One of the biggest challenges that I’ve had as a legislator, is getting people to understand the challenges that fast growth, low-property districts face," he says. "Humble ISD is one of those districts, and Dan is intimately familiar with what’s going on over there.”
For her part, Curling says, “Clearly I’m an expert in health care, but I wouldn’t say I’m not an expert in education, because I’ve spent my career being educated. Once you have skill sets to lead, to solve problems, to deal with finances, to make a budget work, to hire and fire people, I think you can address most every problem.”
Not having the backing of established political players doesn’t faze her. “I think that helps me, actually,” she says. “When you talk to people and you knock on they’re doors, they don’t want someone who’s an established politician.” Though it’s smaller than her opponent’s, Curling’s endorsement roll has picked up a few names since the run-off began — including retiring state Rep. Joe Crabb, R-Atascosita, who the two are running to replace; former state Rep. Peggy Hamric, and the Texas Association of Business PAC have all recently joined her side — which already boasted state Rep. John Zerwas and former State Sen. Kyle Janek. Her campaign sent out a release touting former candidate Wiseman’s endorsement, but had to retract it when Wiseman informed them she wouldn’t be backing either candidate.
The Huberty campaign, with the comfortable position of a 28-point lead coming out of the March 2 primary, has not returned every shot fired his way. “This is an issues campaign,” Huberty says, “We’re going to continue talking about the issues. If she wants to continue going down a rat hole that doesn’t make any sense, then she can.”
Curling believes her efforts are doing the voters a service. She says, “Dan hasn’t been in this state for as long as I have, and therefore I think it’s more difficult for people to look beyond a façade and find out what that person really stands for, other than taking their word for it — and it’s our job as candidates to really look.”