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Rare Swing Seat Sparks Two Hot Primaries in HD-144

The race to replace state Rep. Ken Legler, R-Pasadena, in House District 144 has sparked competitive races in both the Republican and Democratic primaries.

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PASADENA, Texas — It’s one of the ills of modern American politics: Most legislative seats are drawn in a way that heavily favors either a Republican or a Democrat.

Southeast Texas’ House District 144, though, is about as close to a toss-up as they come. According to the Texas Weekly Index, which gauges the partisan tilt of districts, it is arguably the most competitive House seat in Texas. It leans Democratic, but just barely.

Not surprisingly, there are contested primaries on both sides to fill the seat. Rep. Ken Legler, R-Pasadena, decided to retire rather than run in the heavily redrawn district, now overwhelmingly Hispanic.

There are three Democratic candidates fighting for their party’s nomination, making a runoff likely. Two candidates, neither of whom has held public office, are running for the GOP nomination.

If money and endorsements are any guide, Mary Ann Perez is the Democratic front-runner.

A trustee of the Houston Community College governing board, Perez has racked up the support of virtually all the major state Democratic elected officials in and around the district, including Sens. Mario Gallegos, John Whitmire and Rodney Ellis, all Houston Democrats.

“I’m definitely the most experienced, and I definitely have the most endorsements,” said Perez, who owns a Farmers Insurance agency branch. “I’m hoping to win without a runoff. Finances are coming in nicely.”

At last count she had $40,700 in the bank, more than any other candidate on either side. Perez, 50, raised $48,000 from January to mid-April and spent $20,000 over the same period.

Pasadena City Council member Ornaldo Ybarra, 33, says that Perez is the “choice of the establishment,” and that’s fine with him. The former U.S. Marine says he will make up with energy and enthusiasm any institutional support that other candidates may have.

Besides serving on the City Council, he is a police officer and SWAT team member at the Pearland Police Department.

“Do you want somebody in Austin that is still in touch with the working class and the people? I think I’m it,” Ybarra said. “All you’ve got in Austin is lawyers and insurance people and consultants.”

Ybarra has spent $7,500 on the race since January and had only $26.78 in the bank as of mid-April, reports show.

Kevin Risner, who has deep political ties to the district, is also seeking the Democratic nomination. Risner, 31, is the son of longtime Justice of the Peace George Risner, and he is counting on support from labor unions to help him across the finish line.

Risner predicts less than 2,000 voters will pick the next Democratic nominee, and he says he has a pretty good idea which ones will turn out to vote. And he is focusing heavily on them.

“We’ve got a real good strategy in place,’’ he said.

But Risner could have trouble winning the seat in the fall if he emerges victorious in the May 29 primary, or the July 31 runoff. He is sure to face criticism over the three DWIs — in 1999, 2005 and 2007 — which he acknowledges he has gotten. Risner pleaded guilty to the first one and was convicted twice after that.

The criminal history came to light in a blog written by lobbyist Robert Miller, who is supporting Perez. Miller said Risner is a strong contender thanks to goodwill for his father and because Ybarra and Perez are likely to split the Hispanic vote. But he warned Risner might be a “fatally flawed” candidate in a general election.

“I suspect the Republicans will be licking their chops to face him in the general election,” Miller said.

Risner said the airing of his criminal record was “unfortunate,” but he admits he “made some mistakes in the past.”

“I fixed what needed to be fixed, and that’s all I have to say,” Risner said.

District 144 is 70 percent Hispanic, and Latinos make up about 48 percent of the registered voters. John McCain beat Barack Obama 51 percent-48 percent there in the 2008 presidential election. But in 2010, former Houston Mayor Bill White beat Gov. Rick Perry in the district 53 percent-45 percent.

In other words, it’s a swing seat, one of about 10 that will be up for grabs in November. So for Democrats, it’s a prime pickup opportunity, while Republicans are playing defense to try to hang on to the seat.

Two Hispanics are fighting for the Republican nomination. One of them, Gilbert Peña, 62, retired from his job as a commercial refrigerator installer, has run unsuccessfully for office twice before — in 2008 against Gallegos and in 2010 against Rep. Ana Hernandez Luna, D-Houston.

He said he considered running against Gallegos in the Democratic primary, but began some soul-searching about his party affiliation. He read both party platforms from cover to cover and, “much to my surprise, I was a Republican,” he said.

“I’m trying to convert that Hispanic vote into Republican,” he said. “Right now they tend to vote Democrat.” Peña reported a cash-on-hand balance of zero in April and had spent just $3,200 in the last three and a half months.

By contrast, former U.S. Marine David Pineda, 28, had almost $20,000 in the bank as of mid-April and had spent $6,600 since January.

Pineda, a substitute teacher at the Pasadena Independent School District, has lined up high-profile support, from state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and the political arms of groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Texas Association of Business.

He said his “worldwide experience” serving abroad with the Marines make him an ideal candidate to win his primary and then a competitive general election.

“I’ve always wanted to serve. I’ve got a record of serving,” Pineda said. “I’m committed to all the way through the end and I think I’m well positioned.”

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