After seven terms in the Texas House, state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, one of the chamber's staunchest conservatives, told people in his district last year that he was ready to reel it in.
The 76-year-old retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel said he changed his mind when he met the man who wanted to follow in his footsteps. Republican Matt Schaefer, a lawyer and a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, took his resume to Berman and asked for his support.
“He was extremely arrogant, and I wasn’t going to give my seat up to him,” Berman said.
Now, Berman is not only fighting off a primary challenge from Schaefer, who is decades younger; the veteran legislator is also fighting cancer. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he has undergone four chemotherapy treatments. He has one treatment left, and said doctors tell him the cancer is in remission. He is certainly strong enough to endure the rigors of another legislative session, he said.
But it’s not only Berman’s health that has some GOP voters in his Tyler district worried. His opponents say Berman has broken too many promises and has overstayed his welcome in the Texas House.
“If we’ve got an incumbent who’s broken his pledge to voters, that’s not something we can overlook,” said JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America — We the People, a group that has pledged its support to Schaefer. “Supporting someone and wishing someone the best in health are not mutually exclusive.”
When Schaefer brought his resume to Berman to get his blessing, the legislator said he offered to host a joint press conference to announce his retirement and his support for the newcomer. Schaefer demurred.
“He didn’t want to cooperate with me in any way to where I would give him the seat or give an advantage to him in winning the seat,” Berman said.
That soured the deal. Berman decided not to endorse Schaefer and to run against him instead.
Despite the cancer and the chemo, Berman said his campaign has been “doing everything we’re supposed to do. We’re doing our radio and TV commercials, we’re putting out signs and sending out letters."
He has raised money, too. He brought in more than $17,000 between January and April, and he reported more than $20,000 in the bank in April, according to the Texas Ethics Commission.
Schaefer raised almost $13,000 from January to April, spent more than $21,000 and had nearly $5,000 in the bank.
Schaefer has criticized Berman for breaking two major campaign promises from his first campaign in 1998, when he unseated incumbent Republican Ted Kamel. Berman promised that he would serve no more than four terms and that he would not participate in the legislators’ retirement program.
Schaefer has also chastised Berman for voting for state budgets that have increased the size and scope of state government during his tenure.
“If you never vote against a spending bill, you have to take responsibility for some of that growth in government,” Schaefer said.
Berman acknowledged that he broke his earlier campaign pledges, but he explained the reasons for both. He decided to run again after his fourth term because Gov. Rick Perry and then-House Speaker Tom Craddick asked him, he said, arguing the chamber would benefit from his consistent conservatism. And he decided to participate in the retirement benefits after his first wife died of cancer and he remarried. Berman said his second wife would have been unable to draw his Social Security payments after his death. He enrolled in the legislators’ retirement fund and allocated the funds to her.
“Times and circumstances change, and you have to change with them,” he said. “People know that you’ve got to take care of your spouse.”
And Berman said nearly all of the Republican legislators voted for the state’s two-year budget last year, which was cut by some $16 billion. His opponent, he said, probably would have done the same.
“If that’s the major criticism, I’m not concerned about it,” Berman said.
If elected, Schaefer said he would advocate for more local control of public schools, for fewer regulations and for business friendly policies.
“We’re getting a very positive response as we go door to door,” Schaefer said.
Though he hasn’t been at his best physically, Berman said, he has been working hard to both represent his constituents and keep his job.
“It’s rough going through chemo and running my office and running a campaign, but I did it,” Berman said. “I expect to win the election.”
Whoever ekes it out, it's likely to be close, said Smith County Republican Party Chairman Ashton Oravetz III. “I don’t know which way it’s going to go,” he said.