LUFKIN — During her first run for the state House in 2010, Marva Beck said a consultant told her to get rid of her Mini Cooper and buy a truck to drive around her rural Texas district.
Instead, she outfitted the little yellow car for the campaign, with large, black lettering on the side announcing her as “Marva Beck, A True Texas Conservative Republican.”
“I told my consultant, this is going to be my campaign slogan: ‘See the little yellow car, you'll know that Marva's here,’” said Beck, of Centerville.
That year, she knocked off state Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, a 12-year Democratic incumbent. Now, she and her little yellow car are back — and facing a stiff GOP primary challenge in a redrawn House District 57 that covers six counties in the piney woods of East Texas.
In his bid to unseat her, Trent Ashby has raised more than $300,000, much of that from in-district donors. The Lufkin school board president and former Texas A&M University yell leader has run an energetic campaign and presents an attractive choice for voters concerned about the consequences of last year’s deep budget cuts to the state’s public schools. He also hails from the population center of HD-57 — Lufkin is the seat of Angelina County, home to 52 percent of the district’s residents.
“They've known Trent Ashby for a long time; Marva Beck is a new kid on the block,” said Angelina County GOP chairman Bob Flournoy, who added that despite that, Beck has attracted strong support from Tea Party groups in the area.
The winner of the GOP primary has a clear path to the HD-57 seat, as no other party is fielding candidates in the race.
Beck represented Leon and Madison counties previously, but now her district sweeps to the east instead of the west toward Waco. As of the latest campaign finance filings, she has raised $183,000 since January.
She has also racked up the endorsements of statewide officials like Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — and has received significant financial support from Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Houston homebuilder and GOP megadonor Bob Perry. (TLR has contributed more than $680,000 to her coffers since 2010, all but about $45,000 of that going to fund her race against Dunnam.)
The slashed budget has become a campaign issue, acknowledged Beck, who added that she was doing the job that voters had sent her to do.
“Rather than just changing something out because you are feeling under assault, I would hope the voters would take a long look at what we have to work with,” she said.
She also said that voters who cared about education issues should look at Lufkin ISD, where Ashby leads the board. A mailer from Beck’s campaign recently attacked his record there, saying that he voted to raise taxes “two times in five years” in order to fund a raise for Lufkin Superintendent Roy Knight.
Knight called the claim “extremely dishonest” in a statement to the Lufkin Daily News, saying that Ashby had voted to approve a tax hike to pay for bonds that local voters had already passed.
The back-and-forth has energized supporters on both sides, according to Flournoy, who said that up until last week, the race had been “milquetoast.” It also highlights a “fairly significant” distinction between the two candidates on education, one that is not lost on voters, with Ashby’s background on the school board and Beck’s record of cutting spending.
“In rural communities, your schools and your churches are the backbone,” Ashby said, “If people aren't happy with the way their schools are being treated, they notice.”
Beck said though the budget vote was “extraordinarily difficult, if she could go back, she wouldn’t do it any differently. With one legislative session under her belt, she said she’s learned that the job is a balancing act.
“When you represent an area you've got their interests at heart, but you've also got to balance that with what’s best for the state as a whole,” she said. “If your constituents are for a particular thing but it's not good for the state overall, then that has to play into your decisions.”
Along with the budget, the Leon County rancher another tough vote was on a bill that would have banned texting while driving. Beck said her small-government values vied with the desire to do what she could to prevent car accidents — the tragic consequences of which she knows first hand because she has lost a son that way.
“It was a battle with myself over smaller government over what happens with this bill when some teenager flips his car,” she said, adding that at one time her home county had the highest teen death rate because of automobile accidents.
Ultimately, she voted in favor of the texting ban as it left the House floor. But when it came back from the Senate, she said it was a different bill, overly laden with restrictions, so she could no longer support it. It passed anyway, only to be vetoed when it reached Perry’s desk.
She said that experience showed her — like the vote on the budget — how difficult it can be to weigh the competing interests in a bill and how quickly the legislative process can move.
“Unless you pay real, real close attention to what happens in Congress, I don’t think you can have a full understanding without having worked around it,” she said.
Ashby said that he couldn’t “sit here and say with certainty as a candidate” how to navigate the complexities a lawmaker faces, but he said that he knew the budget had to be balanced and that could require difficult choices.
Neither Beck nor Ashby has publicly pledged support for Perry’s budget compact, which asks candidates to comply with its Tea Party-like tenets of smaller government and lower taxes.
“There's nothing on that list that gives me a lot of heartburn,” Ashby said. “But I do think ultimately it's up to the Legislature to decide on what we send to the governor, while I may agree or disagree with the governor, ultimately when it comes down to it, I am going to vote my district on the issue.”