The Republican candidates vying to fill three open seats in the Dallas area include Tea Partiers, moderates and a former state representative. In the crowded North Texas field, it's likely all of the races could end in runoffs. Here's a look at who's running in HD-67, HD-114 and HD-115.
In the battle to replace state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, voters will have five candidates to choose from. Many staunch conservatives in the district are still fuming over Madden’s decision in 2009 to back House Speaker Joe Straus over the hometown candidate, McKinney state Rep. Ken Paxton. This year, the entire field is running on the promise of representing “true” conservative values.
The Dallas Morning News endorsed Roger Burns of Plano, citing his practical experience as a chief financial officer and engineer with a firm that employs 450 people. Burns told the Tribune he anticipates a runoff. If elected to represent the district in Austin, he said he would push for “one more austere budget to let the economy catch up, then we need to create reserves to fund our district’s water supply and transportation.”
But Burns is lacking the funds and endorsements to mount the kind of aggressive campaign being waged by two other candidates — both of them under the age of 30.
Attorney Jeff Leach, 29, served as student body president at Baylor University. He supports Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas Budget Compact and has received public endorsements from Conservative Republicans of Texas and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. Leach has traveled the state speaking in support of Texans for Lawsuit Reform’s tort reform efforts. He dismisses any claims he may be too young for the job.
“People care about experience, but they also care about and want someone with vision, with core principles and the courage to go down and fight for our area," Leach said. "I believe that is what separates me from every other candidate in this race."
Leach’s most vocal opponent in the race is 28-year-old Jon Cole, a businessman and lawyer who ran unsuccessfully against Madden in the last primary. The University of Texas at Austin graduate says his credentials include serving as a precinct chairman and helping to combat the drug trade in Texas through his 2005 work as an aide to the Bush Administration’s “drug czar.” Cole also worked as an aide to the lead budget writer in the Texas House, Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts. The Collin County resident said he has received more "grassroots support" than any other candidate in the race.
A fourth candidate, John Pitchford, has staked his campaign on a single issue: what he calls a lack of accountability in Texas politics. The Plano dentist has taken issue with Cole’s record, pointing out in recent weeks that Cole was convicted in 2010 of a criminal offense after driving without proof of insurance and failing to pay a $412 fine.
Cole has dismissed Pitchford’s description of events, calling the incident much ado over a “traffic ticket.” He said he mistakenly paid the fee with a personal check instead of a cashier’s check, and that the issue was resolved.
“I don’t think it’s affected us. I think it’s rather silly,” Cole said.
Pitchford maintains Cole is being disingenuous.
“Yes it’s a minor conviction, but it is what it is. It’s due to his inability to manage his personal affairs,” he said.
The fifth and only publicly elected official in the race is Jeran Akers, who previously served as mayor, mayor pro tem and councilman in Plano. Akers said his three decades of experience in business and government taught him how to ensure that “revenues exceed costs.” But he’s a late entry into the crowded race, having joined in December after he decided he could "do a better job than the candidates I see in the race now.”
“It’s been an interesting race between these youngsters,” Akers said. “It’s almost like what Reagan said a few years back: 'I won’t hold my opponents’ youth and inexperience against them.’”
There is no Democrat running in this district, so the winner of the race is guaranteed a seat in the Legislature.
The seat currently filled by state Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, is in a district that may swing Republican or Democrat.
Some have referred to GOP contender Jason Villalba as the future of the Republican party. A Hispanic attorney and partner at one of the state’s largest law firms, Villalba says he's one of the few conservative candidates this election cycle willing to be pragmatic.
“That doesn’t mean I’m not conservative, but I see the challenges we face as nonpartisan in nature. Public transportation, education, energy and water — those are people issues. Those aren’t partisan issues,” he said. “I’m about finding solutions to the challenges we face rather than focusing on the divisive partisanship that has corrupted the political system.”
He’s being challenged by former state Rep. Bill Keffer, a two-term Republican who lost to Democratic candidates in 2008 and 2010. Keffer said he disagrees with Villalba’s assessment that the district leans moderate.
“The voters aren’t looking for someone who’s looking to take over the steering wheel. They want people who will intentionally try to improve and institutionally reform government,” Keffer said, adding that the word "nuanced" has been used to describe Villalba. “That’s a buzzword that means you can’t count on this guy to be an effective agent for change."
Keffer said he believes he may have an advantage in the newly redrawn district because it includes parts of North Dallas where he grew up, and the Lake Highlands area where he has lived for two decades.
Villalba points to the general election as another reason voters should consider “new blood.”
“While Bill is a good man and while he served in the past, he lost twice to a Democrat… and now he wants to come back in a less conservative district against [Democrat] Carol Kent," he said. "I just don’t think that’s the right approach."
A third candidate may force a runoff in this race. David Boone, a retired businessman, has little to say about his platform other than that he would be “Reagan-esque” in his approach to politics. Asked to explain what that means, Boone said he would be neither a moderate nor a hardline conservative. For him, the question is whether the candidate can “reach the hearts and minds of the people around them and have a real seat at the table.”
The five candidates running for the seat state Rep. Jim Jackson is vacating appear to be concerned about voter fatigue and low turnout in the district. In recent weeks, there have been four municipal elections in an area that includes parts of Dallas, Addison, Irving, Coppell and Farmers Branch. Tuesday’s election comes later than some had anticipated — and right after a holiday.
Observers say the race has become a "dogfight" between three candidates.
Civil engineer and outgoing Coppell school board member Bennett Ratliff has attracted the most endorsements from establishment Republicans and school advocates like the Texas Parent PAC. He is the son of former Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, an association that has made him a target of criticism from some Tea Partiers.
After nine years on the school board, Ratliff said he is ready to fight for education funding in the statehouse. Though he does not advocate raising taxes, he wants to make the state’s business margins tax “more fair,” saying it has consistently failed to generate enough revenue.
“The cuts [last session] were way too extreme, and we’re just now starting to feel the impact of those decisions,” Ratliff said. “There’s a possibility we can restructure our school finance system to free up our local school districts so they have more local control.”
Tea Party sympathizers in the district are backing attorney Matt Rinaldi of Irving, as are pro-life groups and the Young Conservatives of Texas.
“I want to run this time because it’s going to be a tough session with budget matters." Rinaldi said. "We’re starting at $15 billion in the hole. We need strong fiscal conservatives to hold the line, resist the urge to raise taxes and keep the business climate strong.”
Unlike Ratliff, Rinaldi said he believes overall education spending was not cut as drastically as some have described. He advocates pulling more funding from school administration to pay for classroom instruction.
The most well-funded candidate in the race is Irving optometrist Steve Nguyen. Nguyen’s family fled Vietnam on the day Saigon fell to communism in 1975. His success story led to the early endorsement of former Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Pauken. He is the only candidate in the race so far with enough funding to air ads on television.
“We came here as immigrants. We had nothing. Didn’t know the language," he said. "We’ve received quite a bit. I’m at a point now where I can step back from my practice to serve. If you can do something to give back to your community, it’s a worthwhile cause."
Nguyen’s war chest — largely funded by the Texas Optometric Political Action Committee and its individual members — has led his opponents to question whether he will be too beholden to one special interest group. Nguyen says that support is a reflection of the work he has done to help his field, including traveling the state as a Texas Optometric Association board member and volunteer lecturing other doctors on best practices.
“Whether you’re a lawyer or an engineer, if you’re a leader in your industry, [your colleagues] will support you,” Nguyen said. “I certainly don’t see how one person out of 150 would be able to push an issue effectively alone. My No. 1 priority on deciding legislation is, how does it impact the taxpayer in my district?”
Lib Grimmett, an independent marketing contractor from Farmers Branch, has largely ceded the race to her opponents. Though she was an early member of the city’s Tea Party movement, she said she has struggled to find support or money to mount a serious campaign.
“I did my thing. I had my experience,” she said. “You’re not supposed to be down in Austin to get rich. You’re supposed to represent the people, do your job for a few years and get the heck out. But we’ve got lifers in Austin who don’t understand what our founding fathers wanted to happen.”
The fifth candidate in the District 115 primary, Andy Olivo, could not be reached for comment.
The winner of this race will go on to face Democrat Mary Clare Fabishak and Libertarian Preston Poulter in the fall.
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