When Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, announced his retirement from the Legislature last year, both constituents and Capitol policy insiders mourned the loss of a legislator known for his thorough understanding of public education and school finance, as well as his attentiveness to his district.
Hochberg’s 20-year political legacy has set the bar high for those who hope to succeed him in representing southwest Houston’s House District 137.
“Rep. Scott Hochberg will leave a definite hole in our state Legislature,” said Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party. “His example in public education and state budgeting is an absolute example of what to live up to.”
Observers say the winner of the contest for HD-137 is likely to be decided in the Democratic primary, whose four candidates are former Capitol staffers Joseph Carlos Madden and Jamaal Smith, Harris County prosecutor Gene Wu and Alief Independent School District board member Sarah Winkler.
“It’s a [minority-opportunity] district,” Lewis said. “People from all around the world are attracted to the district when they move to Houston. I’ve heard some people refer to it as the United Nations of Harris County.”
Only one Republican candidate, former Houston City Councilman M.J. Khan, is running for the seat. Several Democratic candidates said Khan’s name recognition could make him an opponent to be reckoned with in the general election. Khan has not filed any campaign finance reports with the Texas Ethics Commission.
Khan and the Harris County Republican Party did not return interview requests.
There are no clear indications that there is a front-runner in the Democratic primary. Madden is a former chief of staff for Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, and a past executive director of the Legislative Study Group. Smith is a former policy analyst for Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and has held multiple positions with the Harris County Democratic Party, including executive director. Winkler is a past president of the Texas Association of School Boards. And Wu is a prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney’s office.
According to the latest campaign finance reports, Madden raised the greatest amount of funds between April 20 and May 19, drawing in $51,650 in contributions, and has $28,338 in cash on hand. During the same period, Winkler raised $4,848 and reported $24,659 in cash on hand. Wu raised $8,764 and had $38,897 in cash on hand. Smith raised $16,025 and ended with $5,485 in cash on hand.
In HD-137, an ethnically diverse, mostly low-income district in which 40 different languages are spoken, the candidates said that crime, job opportunities and the previous Legislature’s cuts to education funding are voters’ dominant concerns.
“Going door to door, the issues that are most often mentioned are public education, safety and security,” Winkler said. “Many of the women are upset about what’s happened with Planned Parenthood and what’s happened to access to health care for women.”
Crime is also a concern in the lives of the district's residents.
“I want officers to focus their time and attention on crimes that have victims,” Wu said, adding that minor juvenile drug charges cut extensively into law enforcement officers’ time. “I want officers to focus their attention on patrolling our neighborhoods and dealing with break-ins, burglaries, car thefts, carjackings, armed robberies and serious assaults.”
In the Gulfton and Sharpstown communities, 62 percent of households have school-age or preschool-age children, according to Neighborhood Centers Inc. Fewer than half of the adults in those neighborhoods have graduated from high school. The education of young children has become a community priority.
“[Hochberg] has definitely affected the expectations of the district, because everyone has talked about how responsive he’s been,” Winkler said. “Of course he’s a renowned expert on public education and school finance. I think everyone in the district expects that whomever wins this seat will follow in his footsteps.”
“I can’t match his expertise [in public education] yet, but I can match his passion,” said Smith, who added that public education has been important in the area since Rep. Paul Colbert, Hochberg’s predecessor, helped create the Rainy Day Fund.
Voter turnout in the primaries is expected to be low. From 2002 to 2010, an average of 1,587 individuals voted in each HD-137 Democratic primary. In 2006, it dipped to 377. Winkler said her last school board election drew about 5,000 voters.
The Democratic primary has remained fairly uncontentious, the candidates say. And Hochberg has not endorsed any candidate in the HD 137 race.
“We’ve got four well-qualified candidates in the Democratic primary,” Madden said. “I’d be more than happy to vote for any of them. I think the blessing is that all of the candidates are that good. We all bring something different to the table.”
The candidates' main challenge is to prove to voters that they can take on the role that Hochberg held in the district.
“People are used to a representative who goes to their civic association meetings, who hears their concerns about a nightclub opening that could be a haven for crime, who hears their concerns about neighborhood safety and is engaged with them,” Madden said of Hochberg. “They’re looking for someone who’s willing to spend that time in the community.”