Democratic voters in state Senate District 19 may experience some déjà vu in the voting booth come March.
State Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio faces a primary challenge from Helen Madla, widow of the former senator Uresti defeated in a 2006 primary. The face-off has already been deemed Uresti-Madla II, with Helen Madla on the March 1 ballot instead of Frank Madla. But the election has flipped the script on a storied battle between two prominent San Antonio families.
Long gone are the days of Uresti’s surprise insurgency against a Democratic rival he accused of being too cozy with Republicans. Uresti is now the longtime incumbent with solid ties to Senate Republican leadership in a chamber where relationships are key. And this time, the Madla on the ballot is a political novice, her experience limited to five years on the embattled South San Antonio Independent School District board.
It’s Uresti’s reliance on the comforts of incumbency and those Republican connections that Madla is targeting this time around. District voters, Madla says, are ready for a change, even if it comes with a familiar name.
“This last session should’ve been a windfall” for the district, Madla said in a recent interview, but Uresti voted for a GOP-crafted state budget that underfunded public education and slashed funding for health care.
Uresti was unable to be interviewed, but his camp isn’t sweating the attacks. Christian Archer, Uresti's political strategist, pointed to the senator’s record on child abuse issues, veterans’ affairs and getting Texas A&M to San Antonio.
“I don’t think [Helen Madla has] really distinguished herself; she’s running just on the Madla name,” Archer said. “Carlos has been a senator for a decade. It’s not like there’s residual name ID. Everything’s changed.”
The Uresti-Madla tension dates back to 2006 when Uresti, then a member of the Texas House, challenged Frank Madla in a Democratic primary for the seat Madla had held for 13 years.
Less than a year after the bitter primary election, Frank Madla died in a fire that ravaged the family’s South Side home, also killing the couple's granddaughter and Helen Madla’s mother.
Helen Madla, who pushes back on the notion that she’s out for revenge, insists she’s running on her own merits, but she recognizes the significance a win could carry.
Madla is running her campaign out of the house she rebuilt on the foundation of the home that burned down. Her husband’s old desk, one of the few pieces of furniture that survived the fire, and his Senate chair — a gift from his former colleagues — are both in the room the campaign calls headquarters.
“He’s in there with us,” Madla said. “He’s running the campaign.”
She's tapping old family connections outside Bexar County, where she says voters want a change in representation. She claims Uresti has neglected voters outside of San Antonio in a district that spans hundreds of miles from the Alamo City out to Fort Stockton in West Texas. The district has more than 800,500 residents; more than half live in Bexar County.
Uresti’s team contends that the senator has delivered for the entire district, pointing to support from other leaders in the area.
Uresti has “a lot of friends” outside of San Antonio, said Democratic state Rep. Alfonso "Poncho" Nevárez, whose West Texas district overlaps with Uresti’s turf. Voters outside of Bexar County realize the benefits that come from Uresti's seniority and his seat on powerful panels like the Senate Finance Committee and the Legislative Budget Board, he said.
But those appointments have done little to appease at least some rural voters within the district who say they’ve had little contact with Uresti. “We haven’t seen a whole lot of benefits from his seat at the table because we haven’t seen him,” said Sandy Young, chair of the Medina County Democratic Party.
Whether Madla’s arguments will resonate with enough voters remains unclear. Significantly underfunded in the race, she faces an uphill battle getting the word out.
Madla had raised only $10,765 for her campaign and had $1,440 in campaign cash in the most recent campaign finance reports. Uresti had $66,507 in the bank, even after spending $32,298 on his campaign in January alone.
Madla cut into the little cash she has to run a short ad against Uresti using video shot last year by the American Phoenix Foundation, an activist group that secretly filmed state lawmakers during the 2015 session. The ad uses snippets of American Phoenix footage to suggest that Uresti is disrespectful of women as a narrator says: “It’s time for a senator that stands up for women, instead of one looking for the next good time.”
Madla’s campaign stands by the ad. Archer said the video was “highly edited” and described the move as “lowball politics.”
“She failed to put together a good tenure on the school board; she’s failed to put together a good campaign,” Archer said. “This is really all she has left.”
Despite the startling ad and familiar names on the ballot, the election's outcome will most likely be more about money than a non-existent “vendetta,” said Manuel Medina, chairman of the Bexar County Democratic Party. It’s going to come down to which candidate gets their message out across the massive district, giving Uresti an advantage because of his financial strength, he added.
“The Madla family is one of our most respected families in the South Side, so whether they run, today or 10 years from now or a 100 years from now, the name carries a lot of political weight,” Medina said. “Having said that, at the end of the day this is an election between the incumbent and a [challenger]. It’s not the same as 10 years ago.”
Early voting begins Feb. 16.