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Impact of Late Legislators is Felt in HD-144 Race

As the two candidates running for a Texas House seat in suburban Houston try to reach out to voters, the deaths of the district's previous incumbent and an area state senator have cast a shadow on the race.

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The recent deaths of two state lawmakers have cast an odd shadow over a state House race in suburban Houston.

The district’s incumbent, Republican Ken Legler of Pasadena, passed away in June of a heart attack. Legler had already decided not to seek another term. Days earlier, primaries had whittled down the five candidates vying for the seat to Republican David Pineda and Democrat Mary Ann Perez. Libertarian Robb Rourke is also on the ballot.

Legler's wife, Barbara, is serving out the remainder of her husband's term and has endorsed Pineda to take over the seat.

Earlier this month, longtime state Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, died from complications of liver disease but will remain on the November ballot. His Senate district overlaps with House District 144. Gallegos had endorsed Perez, who said Gallegos is the reason she is in politics at all.

“He had been by my side every step of my political career, to mentor me, to yell at me, to tell me I’m behind, to tell me I’m not working hard enough,” Perez said. “No matter what I get myself into, he was always there.”

Perez, 50, owns a Farmers Insurance agency branch and is a member of the Houston Community College Board. Pineda, 28, is a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps and a substitute teacher with the Pasadena Independent School District.

Perez’s work with the HCC board has become a key issue in the race. She has made reversing last year’s state budget cuts to education a centerpiece of her campaign and cites her efforts handling the college’s budget woes as proof that she understands the issue. The college received a $64 million cut in state funding last year.

In August, Perez joined a majority of the college board in approving the addition of a $425 million bond issue to the November ballot aimed at expanding the campus and updating classroom technology. If it passes, the measure will phase in a 2-cent property tax increase for Houston homeowners, which would translate into a property tax increase of about $30.92 a year on a home valued at $150,000, according to the college.

Pineda said Perez’s work with HCC tells voters all they need to know about her.

“I’ve got a business mind-set,” Pineda said. “She comes from the bureaucratic machine. She just wants to raise taxes, raise property taxes, raise tuition. That’s her agenda.”

Perez said she isn’t joining the Legislature to raise taxes.

“I have to pay them, too,” Perez said. “Unless it is 100 percent necessary, I would never raise taxes.”

Perez counters that Pineda lacks the experience the district needs for a state representative, though she said she respects his military service.

“He’s my son’s age. I’ll put it that way,” Perez said. “I think it’s going to be a tough session. I don’t think he has the experience to make the decisions.”

Pineda said what matters is that he is honest and willing to serve.

“I don’t have all the baggage that comes from, say, being involved in the bureaucratic system for so long like she has,” he said. “I don’t come with those bad habits.”

Both campaigns are focusing on the district’s Hispanic population, which grew dramatically after the district’s borders were redrawn during last year’s redistricting process. Under the lines in place for the November election, the district’s voting-age population is 70 percent Hispanic and leans Democratic, though Republican John McCain beat Democrat Barack Obama there 51 percent to 48 percent in 2008. That’s probably a reflection of dissatisfaction with Obama among the area’s Hispanic voters that year rather than with Democrats as a whole, said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“I think down-ballot Democrats that are Hispanic get about 56 percent of the vote in that district,” Murray said. “They do better than Obama.”

Both major-party candidates are holding their own on fundraising, a rarity in state House races in Texas this year.

In a financial report covering July through September, Pineda reported raising $77,358, most of it due to a $50,000 donation from the Associated Republicans of Texas Campaign Fund and $21,887 from Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Perez posted $104,940, including $25,000 from Annie’s List, which supports Democratic female candidates.

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