In 2010, when a GOP supermajority was swept into the Texas House, Republican John V. Garza of Helotes defeated David Leibowitz, the incumbent Democrat, in House District 117, a fast-growing section of western Bexar County that had historically leaned left.
Now, Garza’s seat is at the top of Democrats’ list of those they want to take back. Former San Antonio City Councilman Philip Cortez is taking on the Republican in the Nov. 6 general election.
“We don’t really underestimate the support that my opponent could get — we’re extremely aware of that,” Garza said. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve worked hard to identify myself as one who has represented my district on the issues. Our first loyalty is to our constituents.”
Cortez is working to counter that notion — and he has much, but not all, of San Antonio’s Democratic establishment backing him in what is projected to be a close fight.
“When you have some of the poorest school districts in HD-117 and you vote to cut $5.4 billion from education, you’re not representing that district at all,” said Cortez, who believes the two candidates' views on education funding could play a key role in the race's outcome. “You’re more toeing a party line or some special-interest-group line."
Garza said it’s a matter of perspective. “I can say we raised funding over the prior budget session,” he said.
The amount budgeted for education in the current biennium, as approved by Garza and the majority of the Legislature, is slightly more than the total budgeted in the previous biennium, but enrollment in Texas schools has increased dramatically.
The multibillion-dollar cuts Cortez describes largely refer to current funding levels compared with where they would have been if kept at a consistent per-student rate.
“Folks are telling us they want to see public education and the school districts be more transparent, more responsible, more accountable in effectiveness of how our dollars are being spent,” Garza said. “We don’t necessarily need to automatically fund these increases in population growth.”
Garza said his priorities are benefiting the economy and creating jobs. He said he is working on freeing up more money for job training and classroom instruction in schools, in part by reducing the amount of bureaucratic paperwork.
He also noted that every school district that he represents currently has a bond issue, which he said he supports because it puts decisions on education funding into local hands.
Cortez is not convinced by this approach and said he would have voted differently on the state's budget. “Anytime you’re not doing your job to strengthen those schools, you are hurting the overall community,” he said. “I stand for education and would never vote against the children of Texas.”
In their campaigns, both candidates highlight their deep ties to the district, though Cortez points out that his previous activities have garnered him high visibility, which he says contrasts with Garza. The incumbent shrugs off that line of attack. “The fact that he doesn’t go to the same places at the same I do doesn’t mean I’m not out there,” Garza said.
“I’m not really willing to attack him,” Garza said of his challenger. “We just need to defend that we’ve done a great job and we deserve to be there another two years.” To back that claim, he cited a bill he passed in an effort to make homeowners associations more transparent.
Garza was unchallenged in the primary, but Cortez had to fight his way to the general election.
Cortez, who had reached his term limit on San Antonio’s City Council, has had an eye on HD-117 for a while. In 2010, he considered a primary bid against Leibowitz, stirring up some bad blood — which for Cortez is nothing new.
Despite not being in the 2012 primary himself, Leibowitz formed a political action committee and spent money attacking Cortez, who fought a tough race against fellow Democrats Tina Torres and Ken Mireles.
Cortez’s runoff with Torres also got heated after Cortez hired a private eye to look into whether she lived in the district, prompting public protests from her supporters. Cortez told The Texas Tribune that he was gathering important information for voters, and that he does not begrudge the money that his opponents spent conducting opposition research into him. “That’s just part of politics,” he said.
He acknowledges that his political career has included some “missteps.” He claimed to have a master’s degree before he completed his graduate program in public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In 2010, he was embroiled in a local scandal after claiming that the U.S. Air Force was calling him to active duty, causing him to vacate his council seat for a short period of time, when he had in fact initiated his activation.
He said voters would judge him by the new senior center and increased parks and library funding his district secured when he was on the council, not by the more controversial incidents. “They judge me on my public service,” he said. “I did have some missteps initially but haven’t made any mistakes since.”
Garza has the support of some heavy hitters as well, including Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Neither candidate is letting up as Election Day approaches. As Cortez said, “It’s going to come down to who has a better ground game.”