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The Runoffs: HD-14

"The 2011 session is no time to test the learning curve a freshman member," says state Rep. Fred Brown, R-College Station. But former Brazos County Tax Assessor-Collector Gerald "Buddy" Winn thinks new leadership is precisely what this Central Texas House district needs — even if he's "not the shiniest penny in the pile."

Gerald "Buddy" Winn and Fred Brown

State Rep. Fred Brown, R-College Station, and his GOP run-off challenger, former Brazos County Tax Assessor-Collector Gerald “Buddy” Winn, have at least three things in common: a long history in public service, far-right values and high name ID. But the incumbent's campaign war chest gives him a big advantage.

Brown raised more than eight times what Winn did in the month leading up to the primary — $29,000 to $3,600 — and spent 10 times as much in that time period. Brown got 44 percent of the primary vote in the four-way race, not enough to avoid a runoff. But Winn, who came in second with 26 percent, said he thinks he’s got the momentum to pick Brown off in April. (The winner of the runoff is the winner of the seat, as there’s no Democrat running in November.)

“There’s not gonna be but 8,000 votes” in the runoff, Winn said matter-of-factly in a booth at the Bryan/College Station Denny’s, dousing a stack of pancakes in butter and syrup. “It’ll be interesting to see if money buys the position back for Fred or if the people take it back for me.”

An auto dealer, real estate businessman and health care entrepreneur, Brown is facing his first competitive campaign since being elected to the House 12 years ago. Despite his plum post on the House Appropriations Committee, his name has rarely been linked to high-profile legislation. In Texas Monthly’s 2009 review of the best and worst of the 81st legislative session, the magazine's senior executive editor, Paul Burka, labeled Brown “furniture,” a designation reserved for those who accomplish little to nothing. 

The fact that Brown faces a runoff is less of a surprise than the fact that he faced three competitors in the primary. (It's hard to win outright in a four-way primary.) Brown considered a bid for U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards’ congressional seat and for the District 5 state Senate seat that incumbent Steve Ogden toyed with vacating before running again for his House seat — and his deliberations led several other candidates to jump into the ring.

Brown, who declined to be interviewed in person, said over e-mail that he ultimately decided the Texas House felt like home. “Here, I get to meet and talk with the people I’m working for each and every day,” he wrote. “I see them in the supermarket, they call me on my cell phone when they have a problem.”

He challenged the Texas Monthly slap, which he regards as the bogus opinion of a single journalist. “Being an effective legislator isn’t a contest to see who can create the most new laws, expand the bureaucracy or sign their name next to the greatest number of bills,” he wrote.

And he said he thinks the runoff will be “challenging” because of Winn's name ID. But he said the upcoming legislative session will “not be one for the inexperienced or faint of heart.”

“Experience matters,” Brown wrote, “and in my opinion, the 2011 session is no time to test the learning curve of a freshman member.”  

Winn spent more than 30 years as Brazos County’s tax assessor, frequently traveling to Austin to lobby lawmakers on “bad bills.” In that time he got a taste for the Legislature, becoming friends with many longtime members, and in 2008 he told Brown that he intended to run in 2010. He said Brown asked him to “give him one more term.” But when others jumped into the race, Winn, who had retired to his working ranch in 2007, figured he wasn’t getting any younger and decided to join them.

“I’m not the shiniest penny in the pile, but I didn’t fall off the turnip wagon yesterday either,” Winn said. “It’s not about what Fred’s done. It’s about what he hasn’t done.”

Winn said he’s running on a platform of rural representation, private property rights and fiscal responsibility — which he demonstrated by haggling with a grinning Denny’s waitress for a better deal on his Grand Slam meal. “It was my birthday last week,” he cajoled. “Isn’t it retroactive?”

He said being tax assessor was so rewarding because “you work with and for the people.” He’s a staunch believer, he said, in the idea that elected officials aren’t entitled to anything from the state but their paycheck. “So many people go over with their personal agenda and forget the people who sent them over there,” he said. “I think that’s kind of where Fred is.”

Winn, who’s got the warm, good-old-boy demeanor and familiar country drawl of state Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, said he’s someone who can work across the aisle with Republicans and Democrats. He’s got experience there — he left the Democratic party in 2002.

“I don’t want this job to hold it for 10 or 15 years like some of them do. If I win, I might serve two or three terms, four at the most, if I’m not dead by then,” he said. “That would be an automatic term limit, wouldn’t it?”

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