An otherwise sleepy race in Central Texas sprang to life Tuesday as an allegation of sexual misconduct surfaced against state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown — one Schwertner has vehemently denied, and his challengers believe could give their bids momentum.
The Austin American-Statesman reported Tuesday that the University of Texas at Austin was looking into an accusation that Schwertner sent sexually explicit material to a graduate student. A spokesperson for Schwertner first said the lawmaker "categorically denies knowledge of" the allegation. In an updated statement to the Statesman on Wednesday, a spokesperson said "Schwertner did not send any inappropriate texts as alleged. Period."
Schwertner, who has represented the district since 2013 and is the chairman of the powerful Health and Human Services Committee, is facing two female challengers in the upcoming midterm elections: Democrat Meg Walsh and Libertarian Amy Lyons.
“If these allegations are true, Sen. Schwertner is unfit to serve in office,” Walsh said in a statement released Wednesday. “These serious allegations deserve a full and thorough investigation.”
Walsh also noted in the statement that she has dealt with workplace harassment before and will “never stop fighting so that women and every single person is treated with the respect they deserve.”
In an interview with The Texas Tribune Wednesday afternoon, Walsh reiterated her assertion that Schwertner is unfit to serve and said that if the allegation is true, it is a "serious abuse of power."
The Texas Democratic Party also called Schwertner "unfit" to serve in a statement Wednesday from Delma Limones, the party's press secretary.
"His previous behavior and voting record already show us exactly who he is and how he feels about women," Limones said.
Like most of the 31 state senate districts in Texas, Schwertner's District 5 has reliably favored Republicans. In 2016, Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton there by 20 percentage points, according to data from the Texas Legislative Council. Two years earlier, the same data show Republican Greg Abbott beat Democrat Wendy Davis there in their gubernatorial race by more than 30 points.
Sue DeVillez, president of the Georgetown Area Republican Women, told The Texas Tribune she’s known Schwertner since he first ran for office and that she does not believe the accusations against him are true.
“I can’t imagine him putting his career on the line for something like this,” DeVillez said. “He’s always been a gentleman.”
DeVillez emphasized the senator’s popularity in the district and said she does not believe the senator is in danger of losing his seat in November.
Lyons, the Libertarian candidate running against Schwertner, said she believes Schwertner deserves due process and should cooperate with the ongoing investigation.
“A lot of conservative people are going to be kind of shocked about this allegation since it goes against a lot of the values that usually go along with being in that category,” Lyons said. “I’m hoping fiscal conservatives will instead follow me.”
Along with the district's conservative voting history, Schwertner's campaign has significantly more financial resources compared to his competitors. As of June 30, his campaign had nearly $1.7 million on hand, compared to Walsh's $34,672 and Lyon's $123, according to records filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.
While Schwertner is unlikely to lose his seat in November, a soft showing for his re-election could potentially endanger other Republicans on the ballot whose districts overlap with Schwertner's.
Bill Fairbrother, chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party, said state Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, is in a “purplish and competitive district” that overlaps with Schwertner's. Clinton defeated Trump in that district by less than 3 percentage points in 2016, according to data from the Texas Legislative Council.
In a statement Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Texas Senate, said he was "deeply concerned about the serious allegations" and "had no advance knowledge of the inquiry until I read about it in the news report."
“I was also concerned yesterday to see that numerous University of Texas officials spoke to the media, potentially jeopardizing the integrity of a serious investigation. I am calling on the university to complete their inquiry in a professional manner, protecting the privacy rights of both parties," Patrick said. “The Texas Senate is awaiting the conclusion of the investigation and expects a full report on this matter.”
Steps from Schwertner's district office in Georgetown on Wednesday afternoon, news of the sexual misconduct allegation seemed to have spread slowly. Of the voters who were familiar with Schwertner and had read about the allegation against him, several said they couldn't make a judgment until they learned more details.
"I'm just not sure," said Carol Neill, a 61-year-old Republican who lives in Georgetown.
Neill said she wouldn't be surprised if the allegation was politically motivated, saying "a lot of people are coming out of the woodwork trying to bring up dirt." At the same time, she said that doesn't mean she disbelieves the woman accusing Schwertner.
Patricia Taylor, a 65-year-old Democrat who has lived in Georgetown for three years, said she is not surprised by the allegation but believes Schwertner should "remain in office until he is proved guilty."
"What's extremely critical is how a candidate responds to an allegation," Taylor said. "Do they offer facts, or do they just simply deny?"
The Texas Tribune only talked to one person, 24-year-old Sarah Berry, who thought Schwertner should be removed from office. Berry, who identifies as a Republican, said Schwertner is a family friend and that she was "surprised" to hear about the allegation.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin 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.