Outgoing state Rep. Helen Giddings reflects on legacy ahead of primary race for her seat

Four candidates — Carl Sherman, a two-term former mayor of DeSoto; Deshaundra Lockhart Jones, a sitting DeSoto City Council member; Victoria Walton, a small business owner and Christopher Graham — are vying for Giddings’ open seat in the March 6 primary race. 

State Rep. Helen Giddings, D-De Soto, speaks during a press conference regarding the "lunch shaming" bill on May 23, 2017. Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Right after the 2015 Texas legislative session, state Rep. Helen Giddings started looking around.

The DeSoto representative saw fellow Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner leaving the House after more than 25 years to run for mayor of Houston. Longtime Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, was leaving after a years-long battle with cancer. Another long-serving representative, Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, was sidelined throughout the 2015 session by ailments following a 2013 car accident. 

A black institutional brain drain was happening in the Texas House. While Giddings wanted to start thinking about leaving her spot as District 109 representative, she realized she couldn’t leave just yet. 

“I felt compelled to stay,” Giddings said. “I also knew that I could be very effective because I was certainly in no ways tired and I’m in no way tired right now. I’m working harder now than when I decided to leave.”

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After serving more than 25 years in the House, Giddings, 72, announced her retirement in November, citing a desire to pursue new things. Now, four candidates — Carl Sherman, a two-term former mayor of DeSoto; Deshaundra Lockhart Jones, a sitting DeSoto City Council member; Victoria Walton, a small-business owner; and Christopher Graham — are vying for Giddings’ open seat in the March 6 primary race. With no Republican candidates for the seat, whoever wins the Democratic primary — or the runoff, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday — will take over for Giddings in January.

Sherman has Giddings’ endorsement, plus endorsements from the majority of the current DeSoto City Council, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas and The Dallas Morning News.

Giddings said Sherman's experience as a mayor and city manager plus years of working with him helped make her decision.

“I am not someone who endorses in races and might not have endorsed in this one,” Giddings said. “My constituents quite frankly said to me, ‘We expect you go to give some indication of the direction this district ought to go in and who ought to be leading the charge.’”  

During a reception for Sherman at the Austin Club on Tuesday, Giddings said he would “do a fabulous job” and that “this district is going to do very well with him at the helm.”

Sherman returned the praise, saying, “Most Democrats can’t get anything done, and [Giddings] has been able to in the interest of her constituents.”

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Though her ability to impact legislation has been limited for years in the Republican-dominated chamber, Giddings was widely viewed as an effective advocate for her district. At the time she announced her retirement, Giddings served as vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on education; vice chairwoman of the House State Affairs Committee; chairwoman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus; and as a member of two powerful House committees: Appropriations and Calendars.

"There's going to be a gap between the seniority that I had and a freshman whether I left now or 10 years from now," Giddings said. "My successor is not going to be appointed to the same committees that I'm on, or have the same big office that I have. Austin is a seniority kind of town, and the catch-up time is going to be there, but I think that Carl is going to be highly effective almost from day one."

When asked about her legislative legacy, Giddings points to her work on education issues. That includes helping create alcohol-free zones around schools; helping historically black colleges and universities like Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern University receive more funding; repealing the “B-On-Time” college loan program; and helping create the University of North Texas at Dallas and its law school.

"When people like her are leaving the ranks, it's disheartening," said Holly Eaton, director of professional development and advocacy for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

Eaton said she remembered how persistent Giddings was when going up against "all of these big guys in suits" from the liquor lobby when fighting for alcohol-free zones around schools. Throughout the years, Eaton said Giddings has been a "champion for kids" with the legislation she has pursued, including all day pre-K, limiting class sizes and making sure kids are being taught by certified teachers.

"Those are some big shoes to fill, and it sounds cliché, but it's truly the case here," Eaton said.

Giddings' one regret is that she didn’t do more work to ensure state contracts are awarded to a diverse group of people. She said she’s “made some progress but not so much progress that I can say that I’m proud.”

During her final legislative session, Giddings went up against the Freedom Caucus, a group of far-right representatives, over a bill that would have ended “lunch shaming” when students who run out of money in their school lunch accounts and are not allowed to eat. The Freedom Caucus argued it was an expensive mandate and would have micromanaged schools. Giddings called out members of the caucus for blocking her bill in an impassioned speech on the floor where she called what happened “unconscionable.”

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The measure ended up passing as an amendment to another measure, but Giddings said she’s still in disbelief over what happened.

“Who would be so heartless as to be OK with kids’ lunches being taken from them and thrown in the trash and the kid can see in most cases that it’s being thrown in the trash?” Giddings said. “Sometimes they’re given a peanut butter or cheese sandwich, but in most cases they didn’t get anything. I was absolutely shocked anybody could be against this.”

She also worked with Feeding Texas, a statewide association of food banks, to raise thousands of dollars to support schools that offer meals to students who run out of lunch money.

“There is a certain segment of state representatives who are overly concerned about primaries and not so much about doing the right thing,” Giddings said. “If you become that concerned about your primary opponent, in my opinion you’re less effective." 

Giddings said she's focusing on continuing her work in public service, including women in leadership and empowerment.

“If I have to say just generally what I think I did well in the Legislature, I was always willing to listen to both sides of every story,” Giddings said. “I was willing to work with everyone as it relates to good policy ... I wasn’t willing to play with anybody who was willing to deal in petty politics.”

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