DAVE MONTGOMERY Austin Correspondent Wendy Davis may no longer be on the ballot for Tarrant County’s District 10 State Senate seat but her name and legacy nevertheless cast an imposing presence in the race to succeed her. With Davis vacating her Senate seat to run for governor, two Democrats and five Republicans are running for their parties’ nomination to compete for the office in the Nov. 4 general election. Early voting in the March 4 primaries has been under way for nearly a week and will end on Feb. 28.
While Democrats Mike Martinez and Libby Willis have embraced Davis’ performance as a Tarrant County senator, the five Republicans promise to abruptly reverse course with a staunchly conservative agenda that runs counter to many of the themes championed by the two-term Democratic incumbent. One of the Republicans, Colleyville real estate executive Mark Skinner, says that Davis’ filibuster against a Republican-backed abortion regulation bill – an action that propelled Davis to national stardom and fueled her gubernatorial candidacy – prompted him to jump into the race. All five Republicans have made opposition to abortion a centerpiece of their candidacy. “That’s probably what drew most of us into the race,” Skinner, a former Colleyville city councilman, said of the filibuster. “That had a dramatic impact and motivated me significantly to get involved.” Conversely, Willis, a long-time Fort Worth civic leader who has worked closely with Davis both during her days on the Fort Worth City Council and in the Senate, displays campaign photographs that show her and Davis standing alongside each other. Willis has vowed to resurrect and pass a fair-pay-for-women measure that Davis championed in the Senate.
“We’re going to be similar on a lot of issues,” said Willis. “I’m really the only one that’s got a close working relationship with her and I believe that will be valuable to the city and the district when I become senator and she becomes governor.” Martinez described Davis as “a very powerful figure in Tarrant County” and said Davis’ fights for early education and women’s health “are very much where I am on those issues.” The dominant question in both primary battles centers on which candidate offers the most potential to win in November. Republicans have fought unsuccessfully to retake the seat since Davis wrested it from a GOP incumbent in 2008. Democrats are equally determined to not let it go. SD10, which covers the lower half of Tarrant County and juts northward into Republican strongholds such as Colleyville and Southlake, is considered a swing district that leans Republican even though Democratic-inclined minorities compose more than half the population. A Republican victory in the Metroplex district would move the party within one vote of a super-majority in the 31-member Senate.
Both primaries offer their own set of plot lines and political dynamics. Willis has been endorsed by five former chairmen of the Tarrant County Democratic party and appears to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, according to analysts and political insiders. But Martinez, a self-made oil and gas entrepreneur, says that his candidacy has the potential to tap the vastly expanding Hispanic vote as well as cross-over support from Republicans and conservative independents in the energy industry.
The 2014 primary constitutes Willis’ first race. Martinez ran for a Tarrant County Commissioner’s seat in 1998 but dropped out after being arrested for driving while intoxicated. Martinez said he has two DWI convictions, the last of which was more than a decade ago. “I grew up,” he said. “I don’t run from my past by any means. I understand I made some mistakes and I paid for those mistakes…But I’m a better man today for everything, good and bad, that occurred in my lifetime.” Martinez describes himself as a pro-business Democrat who supports early childhood education and creating “quality middle class jobs.” He established the first privately funded-endowment at the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, his alma mater. Willis says her goals of improving education, creating jobs and improving in-home care for the elderly resonate with many voters in Fort Worth. But she could also garner added support through her ties to a prominent Fort Worth political family. She is the daughter-in-law of the late Democratic State Sen. Doyle Willis, who was the second longest-serving serving legislator in Texas history after a total of 42 years of service. Her husband, attorney Doyle Willis Jr., is her campaign consultant.
The older Willis, who retired in 1997 and died in 2006, championed issues pushed by a litany of constituencies, including labor, teachers, firefighters, police officers and veterans. “A lot of people remember him,” said his daughter-in-law, recalling how voters often tell her of help they received from the legislative titan. “They remember him fondly.” In the GOP battle, former State Rep. Mark Shelton, who narrowly lost to Davis in an unsuccessful bid to unseat her in 2012, is hoping that his political experience, name identification and wealth of prominent endorsements will help propel him to a second Republican nomination for the Senate seat. His opponents have made Shelton’s 2012 loss an issue in the campaign, saying that it’s time for new blood if Republicans realistically want to take back the Senate seat. But Shelton dismisses the assertions. “We’ve been watching the Olympics and there are a lot of Olympians…who didn’t medal before but are medaling now,” he notes. The five-way Republican battle – which could result in a May 27 run-off – is expected to provide another test of strength for the tea party, whose troops appear to be rallying behind North Texas tea party leader Konni Burton of Colleyville.
While Shelton boasts supporters such as Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and former Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, Burton has countered with her own string of endorsements that include U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, conservative grassroots organizations, and tea party legislators such as State Reps. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake, Jonathan Stickland of Bedford and Matt Krause of Fort Worth. Arlington school trustee Tony Pompa has infused yet another dynamic into the Republican race by spotlighting his past as an 11-year-old boy who was brought into the United States from Mexico before he went on to become a U.S. citizen and successful entrepreneur. That background, he says, gives him a unique perspective to help Republican’s outreach to traditionally Democratic-leaning Hispanics. Chiropractor Jon Schweitzer of Colleyville says his professional health care experience make him the best suited candidate to deal with health care issues such as Medicaid. Skinner is touting his community leadership and three decades of business experience.