With just days left to campaign for Tuesday's U.S. Senate Democratic primary runoff, State Sen. Royce West said Friday during a Texas Tribune event that he is confident that he will win and become a unifying force during such a divisive time in the state and the country.
West, of Dallas, who became Texas’ first Black chief felony prosecutor when he worked at the Dallas County District Attorney’s office, is competing against MJ Hegar, a retired Air Force pilot.
Although Hegar's campaign has greatly outpaced West’s in terms of spending, West says he's leaning on other tools, like social media, and is getting support from Democratic elected officials in Texas. He has represented Senate District 23 since 1993. In the 2019 legislative session, he served as vice chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee and sat on the Education, Finance and Transportation committees. He announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in July 2019.
The two are vying to take on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a three-term Republican, in November.
In March, West narrowly grabbed the second-highest vote total in the 12-way primary election, sending him to a runoff election against Hegar. She has the backing of national Democrats, while West has been endorsed by the majority of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature.
Patrick Svitek, the Tribune’s senior political reporter, sat down Friday for a virtual conversation with West on his campaign, the way it has been affected by current national events, and how he plans to secure Republican voters.
Svitek: How have big national issues like the death of George Floyd and the coronavirus pandemic affected your campaign?
At the beginning of the runoff election, West said he had to change his focus from the campaign to focus on his work as a state senator. He added that he had to make sure his constituents who were being laid off were able to contact the Texas Workforce Commission, a state agency that provides unemployment benefits and services.
“I had to stop my campaign as a U.S. senator, not knowing exactly how it was going to roll out,” West said. “It wasn't until about mid April before I could even focus with any certainty on exactly what we're going to be doing and then we recognized that it would have to be a virtual campaign.”
However, the unexpected virtual campaign had its benefits, he said, as it allowed him to talk with people from Texas’ 254 counties.
Regardless of political gridlock in Congress, what's one policy you'd like to see come out of George Floyd’s death?
West said policies on the use of deadly force should be consistent across the country. The United States should not have “50 states with 50 different laws” regarding when police are allowed to use deadly force, he said.
“I have been the victim of what I perceived as wrongful stops and searches by police officers,” West said. “The problem is this, we have a few of these offices that misuse the power that has been entrusted to them by state law.”
Acknowledging that it would be an uphill battle, West said he is already used to fighting tough battles to pass legislation, citing his bill passed in 2015 that increased the use of cameras worn by police officers in Texas.
What is your take on the way Cornyn responded to the pandemic and what would you have done differently?
“I would not be following Donald Trump over a cliff like Cornyn has been doing,” West said.
West said that Cornyn has been slow to say “we need to have widespread testing and more persons being tested,” adding that he has not noticed Cornyn comment on the COVID-19 hot spots in the state, specifically those in minority communities.
Pointing at the way face masks have been politicized, West said the state needs someone who can “pull people together, as opposed to continuing to divide us,” not only on the pandemic, but also on other issues.
A reader asked what you plan to do to deal with the systemic racism in Texas healthcare against Black and Latino people that has become glaringly obvious with the pandemic?
Medicaid needs to be expanded in Texas and state leadership needs to deal with healthcare deserts, he said, adding that if the state government is not willing to address the issue, it will not become a priority.
“I will work with whomever — Democrats, Republicans, independents — to make sure we put people in office who recognize the need to expand health services in the state, and make it a priority,” West said.
How would you pitch yourself to Republicans and Republican-leaning voters?
“I have been in a Republican-dominated Legislature most of my public service career, but I've been able to get things done,” West said. “Another way you can get things done is to work across the aisle and make sure you develop coalitions based on interest.”
Because West has been able to work alongside Republicans, he believes he understands how to do it better that Hegar does.
“If they want a Texan that is able to understand that we've got to continue to make sure our economy is one of the top economies in the world, but also deal with the fractious issues that we have, and also the healthcare issue, the coronavirus issue, then Royce West is the person," he said.
What is some of the legislation you have successfully worked on in the Texas Senate?
West said he is proud of the education legislation he has worked on throughout his career. He pointed at how he was able to win funding for the University of North Texas campus in South Dallas, the first public university in the area, and reduce the cost of higher education in Texas.
What he is most proud of, however, is the Permanency Care Assistance program that was created through legislation he authored in 2009. The program provides financial assistance to a foster child’s relatives who become their foster parents and then adopt them.
“You've got to look at what a person's done in the past, and see exactly what they're going to do in the future,” West said.
The conversation series is presented by AT&T and Walmart and supported by TEXAS 2036 and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. Media support is provided by KXAN.
Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.
Disclosure: The University of North Texas 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.