If John Courage, the underdog Democratic candidate for Senate District 25, has one message for voters, he said it is this: "Pay attention to people who are part of your community. Hear what they have to say, and understand what they want to do for you before you start talking with strangers."
That's a dig on his opponent, Republican Donna Campbell, an emergency room physician who surprised political observers by winning a three-way primary race that included 20-year incumbent Sen. Jeff Wentworth and former Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones.
It has been roughly one year since Campbell started renting a house located in the district she wants to represent. But as Wentworth was fond of pointing out, her house is not located — as the bulk of the district's voters are — in Bexar County. Campbell recently told The Texas Tribune the key issues were the same throughout the district, so where she lived wasn't important.
Though the district leans conservative, Courage disagrees with politicos who call Campbell's victory a sure thing. He said his campaign has identified 191,000 swing voters who can help him win the election.
"She thought she won the Republican primary, so she thought she won the election," Courage said in an interview Tuesday. "But there are 500,000 voters in this district who've never heard Donna Campbell talk to them."
The following is an edited video and transcript of the Tribune's conversation with Courage about why he thinks he can win and what he hopes to accomplish if he's successful.
TT: You got into this race late. Why?
Courage: Now, I didn't join this race last November, as a lot of other candidates did, because at the time, I thought that this race was something that would just continue to see the incumbent re-elected. But I became more and more concerned about this campaign as the Legislature met and they started making more deeper cuts in public education.
I'm a teacher, and I've been a teacher for 21 years. I also served on the board of the Alamo District Community College at one time, so I understand the importance of education, both public education and higher education. And after the cuts that were made in 2011, I became very, very concerned about what was going on in the state Legislature. The cuts were made, I should say, in 2012.
With the encouragement of some other people, I decided I should get into this campaign, if for no other reason to ensure that there are voices speaking out for public education, not making any more cuts, in fact restoring the cuts that were made.
TT: It's a conservative district. Do you have a shot?
Courage: Well, you know the voting history of the district has been 60 percent Republican, 40 percent Democrat, give or take a percent or two every election, for the last 20 years, but that's predominantly because you've had incumbent Republicans who have held those offices for so long.
For example, you've had Lamar Smith, who's been in Congress for over 20 years in the 21st Congressional District, which overlays about 80 percent of the 25th Senatorial District. And then you've had Jeff Wentworth in there as the senator for 20 years in that district. And you've had other state representatives who have been in the district for many years, and they haven't had a lot of strong Democratic challengers.
So I guess the best way to look at it is: What choices have independents or Democrats really had except to keep re-electing the incumbents in those races? Particularly in the 25th Senatorial District now there is no incumbent, and I believe that makes it an entirely different race than what we've seen for 20 years for our Senate district.
And that I think that is a key ingredient in this race, besides the fact that the person who won the Republican primary hasn't really lived in the district a year. So the likelihood of the people in Senate District 25 knowing her, about her, what she stands for, what she wants to do, is pretty slim. I, on the other hand, have lived in this district for 25 years.
I've lived in Bexar County for 40 years. I've raised a family in the district. I've worked in the district, I've played in the district, I've prayed in the district. I've buried friends and family members in this district over the last 25 years. I think I have a much better understanding of what the people in Senate District 25 would expect from a representative.
TT: What issues are you focused on besides education?
Courage: Well, I think health care is an important issue in this state. Texas ranks at the very bottom of providing health care for children, for senior citizens, for the disabled. I've been a special needs teacher for the last five years. I've worked with disabled children, and I don't think the state of Texas has stepped up to the plate to ensure their health, and they're among the most needy citizens we have.
I believe the responsibility of any government is to provide for the safety and the well-being of its citizens, and that means having police, fire, EMS services. That means providing education. That means providing health care for those who can't afford it or don't have it available to them. Those are some basic services that government should supply, and I think that's one of the things the Texas Legislature has not done properly for the people in Texas. So health care is a big concern of mine as well.
I think beyond that, there are other issues that are important in our district, the 25th Senatorial District. Water is an important issue. I know all of us in Texas face a crisis on water.
The state developed a water plan in the mid-1990s that at the time they developed it included building dams, setting up regional water districts to manage water, conservation programs, all of those things. And the estimated cost at that time was less than $5 billion to implement that plan. Since that was proposed, every five years they upgrade the plan, but they don't fund it. Right now, the estimated cost for the same water plan, upgraded to meet the growing needs, is $53 billion.
If the state doesn't step up and take financial responsibility for ensuring that water plan is fully funded and developed, what's it going to cost in another 15 years? A hundred billion dollars? I think that's part of the problem with the Legislature. They're not dealing with the significant issues that affect our daily lives.
Transportation is a big concern for people in my district. I don't support putting toll roads over existing roads, but I do recognize we need to meet our transportation needs. Part of the problem is we don't have money for our transportation needs because we've been diverting money from our gasoline tax for years. Instead of taking the money that was pledged to transportation and using it for those purposes, it gets diverted to other purposes.
Sometimes it just sits in funds to add to a balanced budget, which is an imaginary figure. We really know we're not balancing the budget when we're withholding putting money into roads. We withhold putting money into hospitals that should be using that money, and we keep it in a little fund that we say, "Well, this helps us balance our budget."
It's smoke and mirrors a lot of times, what's being done in Austin. I think we need common sense solutions to some of these problems. That's what I want to do when I go to Austin.