HOUSTON – “Where are we, in the mean streets of Bellaire today?” state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, blurts out as she charges into a circle of volunteers gathered at her campaign headquarters before a sunny Saturday morning block walk in the Houston suburbs.
Davis, a rare pro-abortion rights Republican who has been comfortably re-elected in Texas' House District 134 three times, bites into a Krispy Kreme donut and revs up her crowd of volunteers while lobbing attacks against her challenger, Democrat Allison Lami Sawyer, the 33-year-old founder of an oil and gas safety company who moved into the district to run against Davis.
“We don’t see any evidence of an actual, serious campaign that was required in a competitive district like this,” Davis, 42, told The Texas Tribune after the volunteers left. But she said that she “can’t take anything for granted.”
That’s because her district — one of the wealthiest, most-educated and politically active in Texas — could see a blue wave wash over it in November. The district, which includes West University Place, Bellaire, Rice University and the Texas Medical Center, handed Hillary Clinton a 15 percentage point win over Donald Trump in 2016 and brims with yard signs for Democrats like Beto O’Rourke, the congressman running for U.S. Senate, and Lizzie Fletcher, who is challenging U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston. But Davis is well known in the district and has far out-raised her opponent this year, securing almost $900,000 in contributions, compared to Sawyer’s almost $50,000, according to campaign finance records.
Davis, the self-described “rowdy moderate” who weathered a contentious primary in which Gov. Greg Abbott financially backed her opponent, remains locked in battle with Sawyer, who told the Tribune that, given her background in nanoscale physics, she's more of a “dorky” moderate. Both will try to win over Democrats and independents in a district where voters tend to vote more for individual candidates than for political parties.
The “dorky” moderate
Sawyer, the co-founder of Rebellion Photonics, a company that develops cameras that detect gas leaks before they explode on rigs, refineries and pipelines, said she never particularly wanted to enter politics. She said in a bustling, cement-walled Houston coffee shop recently that fundraising for her campaign has been “miserable.” But she made the decision to run against Davis in November 2017 because she felt she “had to.”
“My main problem — the reason I'm running — is I feel like the state is holding us back,” Sawyer said. “And I just don't think our representative, Sarah Davis, has any vision for Houston.”
If elected, she said she would secure more state funding to build up Houston’s flood infrastructure and rework the school financing equation so it is “more in Houston’s favor.” She also said she would build up the city's tech scene, which she said starts with teaching students how to code in elementary school math classes.
“I want to be 80, and I want Houston to be a world-class city,” Sawyer said. “We have all the building blocks, but we just need a little help from the state.”
The Democratic candidate has perhaps spoken most passionately about increasing state funding for Child Protective Services.
“It’s hell on earth for these kids [in foster care],” Sawyer said. “And it’s gotten worse every year.”
Last year, lawmakers — including Davis, who serves as chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services — increased funding for Child Protective Services by $500 million. The money was set aside for hiring 500 new CPS caseworkers, providing raises to current caseworkers and increasing payments to foster care families and other providers.
But Sawyer, a mentor to children and teens in foster care, said the state does not spend enough on its foster kids.
Clashes over immigration, Hurricane Harvey claims and Sawyer's home address
That’s not the only issue Sawyer and Davis have clashed about in recent weeks.
Sawyer has called Davis a “racist” because Davis co-sponsored the controversial Senate Bill 4, which allows police to inquire about the immigration status of people they lawfully detain.
“She represents one of America’s most diverse cities, and she sponsors that SB 4 Show Me Your Papers bill,” Sawyer said. “That’s not Houston.”
But Davis said that 95 percent of law enforcement already check with Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they arrest someone. The controversial part of the debate came later, she said, in an amendment to the bill, which said that police can ask for proof of citizenship even if a person is not in custody. She said she was not on the House floor during the vote for that amendment and that she would have voted against it if she had been there, though she did vote in favor of the final bill, which included the amendment and passed last year.
The two have also sparred over House Bill 1774, the bill signed into law last year that discourages property owners from suing insurers over weather-related claims. Sawyer said Davis’ support of that bill makes it harder for people to recoup insurance claims after storms like Hurricane Harvey. But Davis said that bill resulted from “a lot of bogus litigation for hail storm claims” and added that Sawyer’s claims are “extremely misleading” because the bill does not apply to Harvey flood or wind claims.
“If you have a residential flood insurance policy that’s underwritten by the National Flood Insurance Program, that’s all governed by federal law,” Davis said. “And federal law always preempts state law.”
Then there is the issue of where Sawyer lives. Davis recently told the Tribune she does not think voters in the district would feel properly represented by Sawyer because Sawyer moved into the district specifically to run against her.
Sawyer fired back, telling the Tribune she has lived in various places around Houston for the past decade and moved less than a mile to run against Davis.
“This town knows me,” Sawyer said. “One Google, and you will see I have been fighting and representing Houston since I got here.”
The “rowdy” moderate
Davis has long criticized Sawyer for basing too much of her campaign on criticizing her instead of coming up with new ideas.
“But it would be hard to come up with ideas to improve an area that you know nothing about,” Davis said. “So I guess we can’t blame her too much for that.”
Davis said her constituents care most about how their elected officials will help them recover from Hurricane Harvey. She said that securing state funding for flood infrastructure will be an important priority if she is re-elected. She also said she will prioritize investments in medical research and innovation since she represents the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world.
Davis, who serves as chair of the General Investigating and Ethics Committee, is known for battling with Abbott over reforming the state's ethics laws. During last year's special legislative session, she proposed a bill that would have barred state lawmakers from accepting campaign contributions during special sessions. She also joined Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, in backing legislation that would have limited the amount of money the governor could accept from people he appoints to state boards and commissions. Though the proposed legislation did not go anywhere, the governor, in an unusual move, fired back heavily against Davis and Larson by backing their opponents in their primaries.
The incumbent also turned Republican heads in 2013 when she was the only Republican to vote against House Bill 2, which placed stringent restrictions on abortion in Texas. The restrictions were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. She has also at several points during her legislative tenure diverged from her party in arguing against cutting funding for women's health and family planning programs.
“I don’t like to make trouble, but you know if trouble wants to find me — I mean if the Legislature wants to attack constitutional rights or discriminate — then I wasn’t elected just to sit there,” Davis said.
Yard signs in the district shed little light on who will win the election in November, but they do paint a picture of voters who are not afraid to support candidates of opposing political parties.
Kay Mansfield, a retired nurse living in Bellaire, is one of those voters. On the Saturday morning block walk, Davis campaign volunteers convinced Mansfield to plant a Davis sign in her front yard. It sits next to her sign for Democrat Beto O’Rourke.
Mansfield said she has no problem putting up yard signs that support candidates of opposing parties and said she worries that straight-ticket voting makes it too easy for voters to make decisions based on party affiliations rather than on the merits of the candidate. While Mansfield was quick to put up a yard sign for Davis, she said she will take the time to thoroughly vet her.
“If I don’t like what I see, you can bet [the yard sign] will be in my garage, and I’ll say, ‘you come pick it up,’” Mansfield said.
Sawyer said she appreciates that voters take the time to consider the merits of candidates but said she still worries that voters do not know who she is. At an intimate meet and greet for the candidate near Rice University, some voters said they are unclear where Sawyer stands on certain issues.
Mary Beth Gilbert, a lawyer who attended the meet and greet, said she's not sure who she'll support in November. While she said that she has volunteered for Davis' campaign and that she does not want to lose a pro-abortion rights Republican, she said she is willing to listen to Sawyer's ideas. But she said she needs more specific information about how Sawyer plans to carry out her ideas.
“Yes, we need to fix school funding,” Gilbert said. “But how do we do that?”
Both candidates will be working to win over undecided voters like Gilbert during early voting — which continues through Nov. 2 — and on Election Day, Nov. 6.
Disclosure: Rice University 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.