A former Democratic state representative who was swept out of office in the Republican wave of 2010 is again vying for a House seat in a redrawn Dallas-area district. Carol Kent, a Democrat with a 20-year career in higher education, is facing off against Republican Jason Villalba, a Hispanic lawyer and first-time political candidate who is being touted statewide by members of his party.
In House District 114, which includes North Dallas, Preston Hollow and Lake Highlands, the candidates say constituents are predominantly concerned with the $5.4 billion cut from public education during the last session, as well as the lackluster economy.
The incumbent Republican, Rep. Will Hartnett, is not running for re-election, which opened the door for Villalba. It's also a new district for Kent, who lost her HD-102 seat to Rep. Stefani Carter in 2010 before Republican-led redistricting.
Although Villalba identifies as a conservative — he opposes abortion and favors small government — he believes his Republican counterparts cut too deep from public education.
“I’m for restoring some of the funds that were cut in the last session,” he said, “so long as any additional restoration is coupled with true education reform that includes accountability.”
In contrast, Kent said she’s in favor of restoring all funds cut from public education, and that her views on returning financing to women’s health programs, which were also cut last session, are more in line with the views of voters in the district.
“Mr. Villalba is going to follow Rick Perry’s agenda, and that is not what we’re hearing from our constituents that this district wants,” Kent said. She emphasized her experience balancing budgets during the five years she spent on the Richardson ISD school board. “We’ve got to make sure every child receives the education they need in order to enter the workforce,” she said.
Although Kent received an endorsement from The Dallas Morning News in her race against Carter in 2010, the paper has endorsed Villalba this year. Kent has received endorsements from Annie’s List, the Texas State Teachers Association, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, the Texas AFL-CIO and the Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas, among others.
Villalba has received endorsements from presidential candidate Mitt Romney, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas Association of Realtors, the Texas Hospital Association and the Hispanic Republicans of Texas.
“Jason is going to win, and he’s going to be a Hispanic Republican winning in a predominantly Anglo district,” said Trey Newton, executive director of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas. “That’s important and telling about the Republican Party … [which] first and foremost wants the best and most conservative qualifying candidate."
Both parties agreed Villalba’s ethnicity will have little to do with his success or failure in this campaign, but Democrats argued he shouldn’t be considered an emblem for Latino voters statewide.
“I understand that he’s one of the poster [children] for the party to make people think they care about Hispanic issues when they don’t,” said Darlene Ewing, chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party. She said that the Republican Party platform supports a “discriminatory” voter ID law and other immigration policies that hurt Latinos.
Villalba said his political run is "not driven by race or ethnicity,” and added that in his primary campaign against Tea Party conservative Bill Keffer, he stayed focused on the issues. “That’s why I won, and that’s why I’ll beat Carol Kent,” he said.
In campaign finance reports filed 30 days before the election, Villalba's campaign reported having raised $172,855, compared with Kent's $121,236.
Ultimately, Democrats see an opportunity to turn HD-114 blue this year.
“The Republicans drew [the district] to try to elect Republicans, but because Dallas has such a large Democratic base within it, they had to draw some marginal districts,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic political consultant and director of the Lone Star Project.
But Republicans say that the Democratic candidates don’t offer what the electorate values.
“The voters have moved on past Carol Kent,” said Wade Emmert, chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party. “They want conservative leadership.”