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Texas Elections 2018

In San Antonio race, a Texas House firebrand guns for his old seat

A veteran Democratic lawmaker known as a brash tactician, Trey Martinez Fischer is mounting a primary challenge against incumbent Diana Arevalo for the House District 116 seat he used to hold.

Trey Martinez Fischer and state Rep. Diana Arévalo, D-San Antonio. 

Texas Elections 2018

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Former Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer was known as a pugilist in office, and as he seeks to rejoin the Texas Legislature he has found his next fight.  

Martinez Fischer, 47, is running again for the northwest San Antonio seat he occupied for 16 years — a seat he left to run, unsuccessfully, for the state senate in 2016. But to win a spot back in the Legislature, he’ll have to unseat the woman who replaced him, Diana Arévalo, a Democrat who has proven willing to land a few jabs of her own.

“I’m not going to be bullied out of this seat,” Arévalo said in a recent interview. “He chose to leave.”

The House District 116 primary race has become one of the most unusual in the state. While it has featured typical disagreements over legislative strategies and how best to serve constituents, it’s also put some Democrats in the unorthodox position of supporting a former colleague over a current one. And it has caused the incumbent to raise questions of gender dynamics in the race and in the region she represents.

“My predecessor lost his bid for the Senate – twice – and now he wants ‘his’ House seat back,” Arévalo said at a recent event for Annie’s List, a group that works to elect Democratic women in Texas. “I guess he believes there are too many women holding public office — or maybe it’s because some men feel entitled.”

Later at the event, she cited her efforts to “persist against a misogynistic political machine in San Antonio politics."

Martinez Fischer, meanwhile, has argued that his experience and his skills as a legislator make him the most qualified to represent the district in the House. While in office, he became known for his fighter’s temperament, and for being particularly effective at parrying Republicans’ bills.

Voters “know best what they’re looking for in a potential state rep,” Martinez Fischer said. And they’re familiar with his record after his 16-year tenure in the Legislature’s lower chamber.

“I’ve never had a problem working every election to earn [constituents’] support,” he said, in response to Arévalo’s comments at the Annie’s List event. “My opponent seems to be attacking me because she is upset she has to run for reelection.”

He "never did local things"

During his time in the House, Martinez Fischer gained a reputation as being a brash tactician – combative, effective and so well-versed in legislative procedures that he earned the moniker ‘Prince of POO,’ a reference to his use of parliamentary ‘points of order’ to point out violations of House rules and cause strategic delays.

In the Republican-dominated House, Martinez Fischer’s skillful deployment of POOs sometimes allowed his outnumbered party to eke out a rare win. A ban on sanctuary cities stalled out with Martinez Fischer's help in 2011. A bill to allow the open carry of handguns was temporarily derailed by his procedural maneuvers in 2015, though it later passed.

“I’ve developed a unique expertise on rules and procedures,” Martinez Fischer said, that “can bring the Capitol to a grinding halt, sometimes for hours.”

That history was among the reasons 17 current members of the House took the rare step of endorsing Martinez Fischer over the incumbent in the race. 

State Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, said he’s “a proven fighter with a track record of stopping bad bills from becoming law.” He’s a person, she said in a statement, with the skills and professional relationships to “lead within our own party to get the job done.”

When Martinez Fischer left the House in 2016, it was to make an unsuccessful bid for the Senate seat held by José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. A former lawmaker in the House, Menéndez had already bested Martinez Fischer for that seat once before, in a special election in 2015.

Like Menéndez, Arevalo, 36, seems to align ideologically with Martinez Fischer — they have expressed few, if any, disagreements on the issues. But she has a different style and focus, said Leticia Van de Putte, Menéndez’s predecessor in the Senate.

Martinez Fischer served as the chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and came to be thought of as a party leader, Van de Putte said. She said he could eventually be a strong candidate for statewide office. But he “never did local things; never sponsored local bills,” she said.

When Arévalo took over the seat, “I can’t tell you how many people got so excited because they got a newsletter [from their representative’s office],” Van de Putte said. “They hadn’t received a newsletter in years.”

Martinez Fischer disputed this through a spokesperson, saying his office sent out regular electronic newsletters and that he'd passed San Antonio-specific bills.

But Arévalo agrees that her emphasis on serving her constituents differentiates her from Martinez Fischer.

“We’ve done so much when it comes to constituent services; it’s like night and day from how it was before,” she said.

Being a state representative, is “not just about being there during campaign season; it’s not just about going to neighborhood associations when it’s campaign time,” Arévalo said. “It's consistently being present and consistently having community events. It's consistently making sure that they can come to this office at any time for any issue and we're going to guide them in the right direction.”

Van de Putte has known Arévalo – and Martinez Fischer – for years. When Arévalo applied to be a White House intern, Van de Putte wrote a letter of recommendation on her behalf, saying she’d been impressed by the younger woman’s maturity and tirelessness in community organizing work. Arévalo later held a number of positions in local and national politics, and now runs an affordable after-school music program.

“Had Diana embarrassed us, had Diana not done the work, had Diana not been gracious to her constituents,” Van de Putte said. “I love Trey … I think he really wants to be back in the legislative arena. But you have to have a more compelling argument than, 'I want back in.' ”

"We really wish you were back"

In a speech announcing his campaign in December, Martinez Fischer said President Donald Trump’s election and Republican House Speaker Joe Straus’ planned departure motivated his run. And he told the Tribune last month that he’d had a series of conversations with people in and around the Capitol that convinced him he was needed.

“You have to understand, I served for 16 years. I have many deep and long-lasting friendships with members of the Texas House,” he said in a brief recent interview. “There’s always this sort of subtle recruitment that, ‘We really wish you were back; we could use you on rules; we could use you on debating strategy.’”

To make his case, he cited the 2017 legislative session that he spent on the sideline. Lawmakers passed a bill that banned municipalities from enacting “sanctuary city” policies, along with several other laws that Democrats argued wrestled “local control” from city governments.

“That’s just in one session,” Martinez Fischer said, “and it’s been pointed out to me over and over again these were things that I managed to block with rules and procedures over the course of my career.”

But to some lawmakers, that track record isn't enough. Menéndez, his 2016 senate primary opponent, says he endorsed every Democratic House member up for re-election – and that he would have done the same for Martinez Fischer, had he been in office.

“It just sends the wrong message when we say we don’t value the sacrifices that you’ve made and that we’re just going to replace you,” Menéndez said. 

“It is a shame that we have two talented public servants with good hearts,” he added. “I wish we could have had them both serve the community so that we wouldn’t lose one or the other.”

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Politics 2018 elections Diana Arévalo Ina Minjarez José Menéndez Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Trey Martinez Fischer