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Water, Local Control Issues Fuel HD-53 Race

After re-electing Harvey Hilderbran every two years since 1992, the voters in House District 53 are vetting a group of fresh faces and hosting a slew of candidate forums to hear where the GOP primary candidates stand on issue No. 1 — water.

Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, a candidate for state comptroller.

HORSESHOE BAY — The race to replace longtime state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, could come down to first impressions. And the people in House District 53 might all get a face-to-face opportunity with the aspirants: Communities across the 12-county area are organizing nearly a dozen candidate forums between now and the March 4 primary.

Three of the five Republicans running are actively campaigning, crisscrossing the district and answering questions directly from constituents. Llano County residents filled the common area inside the Quail Point Community Center in Horseshoe Bay on Tuesday to chat with Karen Harris, Rob Henneke and Andy Murr over light snacks. The Texas Tribune was unable to reach Tink Nathan and Wayne Ramsay, neither of whom appeared at the Republican forum.

“I think the turnout shows that they’re engaged,” Henneke said of HD-53 residents. “But we have to have this many candidate forums just to reach the different communities that are out there.”

Henneke is a Kerrville native and the current Kerr County attorney who formerly worked as an assistant attorney general under Greg Abbott. Harris lives in Bandera County, where she is a radiologic technologist, small-business owner and has served on the state Health and Human Services Commission Council. Murr grew up on a ranch in Kimble County. After practicing law in Dallas, he returned home to win election, first as Kimble County attorney, and most recently as county judge, a job he resigned in September.

On matters of religion, taxes, water rights and education, little separates the trio. Each told the Horseshoe Bay audience that if elected, he or she would call for full repeal of the state's business margins and estate taxes, and promised to oppose new taxes. Citing Texas’ flourishing economy, the candidates argued the state could get by without new tax revenue if the state ceded more control to local governments.

Murr said he’s familiar with the education system because his wife is an elementary school teacher. He said he would push for legislation to keep the federal government out of local school decisions, and advocate for increased vocational education courses. “It’s not just cows, sows and plows anymore — we have moved on,” he said. Harris and Henneke echoed the importance of increased training for skilled labor.

But in this Hill Country district that lies to the west of San Antonio, fighting the persistent drought is issue No. 1.

The three candidates vow to take active roles in ensuring a fair process implementing the constitutional amendment that voters overwhelmingly approved in November to divert some money from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for the state water plan.

Henneke said he would push the Texas Water Development Board to define "rural" and "conservation" when it comes to how the state prioritizes water projects. “You should know that I would want to work with [the Lower Colorado River Authority] to make sure they're educated about upper basin's needs,” Murr said. Harris, too, vowed to be a “watchdog,” ensuring the money is spent as intended.

“I think I would be proud to have anyone of them serve as my representative,” said Liz Ellis, a member of the Llano County Tea Party who attended Tuesday’s forum. “I think that they are somewhat more conservative than our previous representative. I think they’ll be more like-minded with the rest of us here."

Henneke said that from “the broad-brush answers, you know we’re all running as Republicans in this race. Listening to all of the discussions today, I was the only candidate that had a firm line against expansion of government. I think that’s where the differences came out after today.”

“I’m much prettier than they are,” Harris joked of her male opponents. She said she’s not seeking a lifelong career in politics. “I am looking to do this because it is something that I feel that I must do and am compelled to do. I think that, in and of itself, sets me apart and gives me a unique perspective on things.”

Murr acknowledged the diversity of the region: “Different growing regions, different sources of income and use of the land, but overall the perspective, the composition, the people remain the same. They’re conservative and independent-minded.”

The winner of the Republican primary will face one of two Libertarian candidates in November. There are no Democratic candidates in the race.

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Politics State government 2014 elections Texas Legislature