Texas Elections 2018

Identity politics, changing demographics take center stage in Sheryl Cole and Chito Vela's race in Austin

The Democratic runoff to replace outgoing state Rep. Dawnna Dukes is a battle over an East Austin district that's been held by an African-American for 43 years but is now largely Hispanic.

Sheryl Cole and Chito Vela at a candidate forum hosted by The Texas Tribune in East Austin on May 7, 2018.

Texas Elections 2018

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke in the race for U.S. Senate. View full 2018 Texas election results or subscribe to The Brief for the latest election news.

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If Sheryl Cole wins Tuesday’s Democratic primary runoff for House District 46, she’d be favored to continue the Austin area’s 43-year legacy of having one legislative seat held by an African-American.

If Chito Vela wins, the Democratic-leaning district would be likely to see its first Hispanic representative since Hispanics became the district’s largest demographic group nearly two decades ago.

In a race between two candidates with few major ideological differences, the question of racial representation has dominated the debate in the campaign’s final days.

Both candidates think the state should expand Medicaid coverage to provide health insurance to all Texans living in poverty. Both support legalizing and taxing marijuana to bolster the state budget. At a recent debate, the only economic issue that separated the two candidates, according to the Austin American-Statesman, was whether to use public funds to pay businesses to relocate to Texas. Vela was opposed; Cole was open to the idea. 

Instead, the candidates have zeroed in on differences in their backgrounds, both professional and personal, and in their campaign donors.

Cole, who has the backing of several prominent black community and religious leaders, has stressed the need to maintain at least one black member in Travis County’s nine-member delegation in the Texas House. Vela, meanwhile, has argued he has every right to represent a heavily Hispanic district and says he would tackle issues important to all constituents of color, including African-Americans.

The clash was apparent earlier this month at a candidate forum hosted by local public radio station KUT.

“If we call ourselves good Democrats, we cannot put people in office that have no record of having dealt with a community as diverse as this … that has no experience with reproductive rights, has no experience — or I’ve heard of none — dealing or being a part of the African-American community,” Cole said.

“I disagree with Mr. Vela on the idea that we do not need an African-American in the Travis County delegation,” she added.

Vela fired back. 

“I reject the idea that somehow because I’m Mexican-American I’m not supposed to run for this seat, that somehow I do not have a right to run for this seat.” He went on, “The future of the Texas Democratic Party is a coalition of black, brown and white. There is no other way forward for the Texas Democratic Party.”

The two candidates are vying to replace outgoing state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, an African-American who took over the seat from Wilhelmina Delco, who in 1975 became the first black state lawmaker from Travis County.

When Dukes was first elected to the Texas Legislature in 1994, the district she represented was 32 percent black and 22 percent Hispanic. Twenty-four years later, Hispanics make up 47 percent of the district’s residents following a redrawing of the district’s lines after the 2010 census, while whites make up 27 percent of the district’s population and blacks account for 22 percent, according to the Texas Legislative Council.

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In the March primary, Vela squeaked to a first-place finish among six candidates, just 209 votes ahead of Cole. That was despite Cole’s big advantage in fundraising — in total, she’s brought in about $382,000 to Vela’s $128,000, according to campaign filings — and in collecting high-profile endorsements from elected officials including state Sen. Kirk Watson, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and County Judge Sarah Eckhardt.

Cole has said she was harmed in the March primary by the district’s black community being split between several candidates, including the incumbent Dukes. The question now is who will show up to vote in Tuesday’s primary runoff, since runoffs historically have dismal turnout in Texas and the district’s demographics do not favor high voter participation: 26 percent live in poverty, according to the Texas Legislative Council, and 44 percent speak a language other than English at home.

Vela said in an interview that voters appeared much less interested in the color of his skin than what political insiders might suggest.

“That seems to be the frame that all of the political class looks at the race in, but I don’t hear that on the ground, really,” he said. “That’s not the issue, even for many African-American voters that I talk to. Their concerns are education, health care, housing, transportation.”

Vela referred back to a line from his first speech announcing his candidacy last year: “I’m a very proud Chicano, but I’m not the Mexican-American candidate, I’m not the Latino candidate. I am the progressive Democrat in this race.”

Vela is attempting to run to the left of Cole, painting her as the candidate favored by insiders and big-money interest groups. He pointed to a series of mailers recently sent by the political arm of the Texas Association of Realtors encouraging people to vote for Cole.

Cole has pushed back on that front, noting that her largest contribution in the runoff came from Annie’s List, a progressive group that aims to elect women to public office. “There’s a time for politics, and then there’s a time for governing, and I think the money that I’m raising is a reflection that I’ve actually governed,” she said.

What do black Austinites think about the possibility of losing the only local seat held by a black state lawmaker? Cole put it this way: “They are very concerned … the churches are absolutely on fire. It would be no different than if Austin passed an ordinance and said, ‘You have to sit at the back of the bus.’”

Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP, said losing House District 46 would be dangerous given ongoing racial strife in the era of President Donald Trump, the recent serial bombings that left two black men dead in East Austin and the continual displacement of low-income people of color as housing prices soar in the district.

“Certainly it’s important to have a black person in that district based on the culture, the legacy and the issues that need to be addressed based on our concerns,” he said. “We think diversity is good for this city and this country.”

Linder, who lives in the district, said he’s supporting Cole because he believes she’s the most qualified candidate. He pointed to her work on the Austin City Council championing an affordable housing bond and her willingness to take on issues such as police misconduct.

At a candidate forum hosted by the Tribune this month, Cole clarified earlier comments and said Vela’s ethnicity did not disqualify him for the job. But his lack of experience doing outreach to diverse groups was a red flag, she said.

“We do not understand, given our position for so many progressive causes, why anyone would contemplate us not having a seat at the table,” Cole said of the African-American community.

Vela’s supporters take issue with Cole’s comments about his lack of experience or outreach. Vela’s experience working at the Capitol for former state Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr., in addition to his support for causes like campaign finance and criminal justice reforms, won him support from many progressives, said Mike Lewis, a member of the Central Texas regional board of the Bernie Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution.

Lewis, who does not live in the district but has done campaign work there, said he disagreed with the premise that a legislative seat should be reserved for someone of a particular demographic group.

“It’s a very diverse district,” he said. “I think that both of them are, in terms of their cultural background and their roots in the district, they’re both qualified.”

David Chincanchan, president of Austin Tejano Democrats, said a majority of his club members voted to endorse Vela because he has been outspoken on issues important to the Latino community, particularly on providing more funding for health care and education, and in his private work as an immigration attorney. 

But regardless of who wins the runoff, Chincanchan said that candidate would have his group’s support.

“Everyone agrees that the lack of black and Latino representation is definitely a problem,” he said. “I think we can accomplish more through coalition-building and solidarity and figuring out where we have those common challenges and where we can work together.”

The winner will face Republican Gabriel Nila in the November general election.

Disclosure: Annie's List has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here. 

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