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Challenger hoping to win Coastal Bend district as "conservative Democrat"

In this Texas House race, the Democratic challenger calls herself "conservative" and the Republican incumbent was a Democrat until four years ago.

State Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville and his Democratic challenger, Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley.

ALICE, Texas – In between ordering pumpkin pancakes and coffee at an IHOP in this Coastal Bend town, Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley outlined what makes her somewhat of an anomaly as far as Texas politicians go.

“I love guns. I go to Robstown all the time there is a gun show,” she said.

A minute later, she added: “But there needs to be background checks, and they need to be registered. We’re almost opening that door [to more violence] by allowing all these rifles and guns and open carry.”

Garcia-Utley, a Democrat running for House District 43 in the Coastal Bend region, has a similar stance on abortion rights — the government shouldn’t intrude on a woman’s decision, but waiting up to 20 weeks to terminate a pregnancy is too long. She also said she’s for fracking and the economic boon it can bring to the district. But she favors more government regulation on the practice.

“I am a conservative Democrat. When I say that I mean that I have Christian principles and values,” she said. “Everything has to have a middle ground, it just comes down to more regulations or more legislation passed to keep things balanced.”

In other districts, her candor might mean Garcia-Utley was constructing her own hurdles in a competitive House race. But in this four-county district, it could bode well for her bid to unseat incumbent Rep. Jose Manuel “J.M.” Lozano, who has held the seat since 2010. The district includes parts of Jim Wells, Bee, San Patricio and Kleberg counties. 

Lozano originally won the seat as a Democrat, ousting the incumbent by 13 percentage points in that year’s Democratic primary. His last serious challenge came in 2012, after he switched to the Republican Party and found himself in a three-way GOP primary. Lozano ultimately survived a primary runoff and won in the general election against former lawmaker Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles, a Democrat, by about 3 percentage points.

Garcia-Utley admits she’s outgunned in the money race: Lozano took in more than 10 times as much as she did from between July and September 29: $150,000 to $13,000.

She doesn’t seem fazed and is trying to cast Lozano as an entrenched lawmaker who isn’t paying attention to local issues anymore but instead only goes to town halls and tells people what’s going on in Austin.

“He has been completely gone. Every county will tell you the same thing — they don’t see J.M., and they don’t know where he is,” she said.

Lozano didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Beyond questioning the incumbents' focus on the district, Garcia-Utley is also counting on name ID: Her father was a Jim Wells County Commissioner and she’s engaged to the current Jim Wells County Judge, Pedro Treviño.

But Lozano is touting his seniority and his potential to be assigned to key committees to keep his district moving forward. According to the Kingsville Record and Bishop News, he will be 55th in seniority out of 150 House members if elected.

“I’ve never let up, and I continue to work hard,” he told the publication. “My goal has always been to let the voters know that, to me, it’s not about a position or title.”

He’s also been endorsed by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, which said the Texas House could use more outsiders like Lozano.

“This tea party extremist-influenced Legislature also could use a few more moderate Republicans, and Hispanics, like District 43 incumbent J.M. Lozano of Kingsville,” the editorial board declared. But it did note that Garcia-Utley would still be better than 100 current House members.

But Garcia-Utley, like others in November, might have a wildcard working in her favor in the controversial GOP Presidential nominee. She said Donald Trump’s comments over the past year about Mexicans and women could shift voters away from the party.

“I am an advocate for women. Do I care about the men in my district? Of course I do. But there are no women in the House right now that represent any of this area,” she said. “[Trump’s comments] are going to get the women out to vote. We were very insulted.”

But Garcia-Utley is battling a mistake she said she made nearly 20 years ago that’s become a campaign issue. In 1997 she was arrested for making a false claim of sexual assault to police. And it came while she was working as an exotic dancer in Corpus Christi.

She said she was at a party and “things got out of hand.” But after realizing going through with the charge would take down many more people, including some she would only say were “big names” — she decided to let it go.

She said her decision to work as a dancer was one she made in order to make ends meet.

“I helped take care of the household, I was a single mom and I helped put my ex-husband through college,” she said. “My life has been so different since then. I’ve done so much for this community in coming back. It was almost 20 years ago. I was a kid.”

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