Romero’s narrow victory over Burnam signals demographic change

Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent Ramon Romero Jr. describes himself as “that poor boy from Poly,” one of eight children of immigrant parents who grew up in working-class southeast Fort Worth, started his first business when he was 20 and ultimately became an up-by-the-bootstraps success story. Now, at 40, Romero is poised to become the first Latino state representative from Tarrant County after carving out an 111-vote Democratic primary victory over the dean of Tarrant County’s legislative delegation, Rep. Lon Burnam, a 17-year House member who is known as one of the chamber’s liberal firebrands. The victory was widely seen as a triumph for Texas Hispanics, who have propelled much of the state’s population growth over the past 15 years, as well as perhaps an inevitable transition in House District 90, an inner-city Fort Worth district where Latinos constitute nearly 76 percent of the population and almost 72 percent of the registered voters. Burnam took office in 1997, succeeding legendary State Rep. Doyle Willis, who served in both the House and the Senate for a total 42 years to become the second longest serving member in the Legislature. During his time in the House, Burnam developed a reputation for passionately defending the interests of his district but acknowledges that as an Anglo lawmaker, he was becoming increasingly vulnerable to the rapid-fire expansion of the Hispanic electorate. Burnam survived his first serious challenge in 2012 against school board trustee Carlos Vasquez. But he was unable to withstand the assault from Romero, a well-known member of the community who was fresh from a runoff bid for the Fort Worth City Council in 2012 and had the backing of prominent Tarrant County Hispanic leaders, including Councilman Sal Espino and Justice of the Peace Sergio De Leon. Romero’s biggest financial backer was wealthy Dallas lawyer Domingo Garcia, who ran unsuccessfully for the 33rd District congressional seat in 2012 and has been a vocal advocate for expanding Hispanic representation in Congress and the Legislature. He donated a total of $35,000 to Romero. Romero polled 2,594 votes against 2,483 for Burnam, a difference of 51.09 percent to 48.90 percent. Vote counts throughout election night were extremely close, typically varying by only a few points as the returns came in. Results of early voting gave Romero a slender 14-vote lead. Without a Republican in the general election, Romero is effectively the representative-elect in what is possibly the poorest legislative district in Tarrant County. Interviewed after the March 4 primary, Romero said he is eager to get to Austin to begin pushing a program that focuses heavily on job growth and economic development. Romero grew up in the Polytechnic neighborhood, graduating from Polytechnic High School in 1992. He was barely in his 20s when he started a swimming pool construction company and later developed a stone distribution venture. Although he vaulted upward on the economic ladder, Romero says he has never wanted to leave the neighborhood where he grew up and looks forward to serving those he grew up with. “People in District 90 related more to Ramon Romero than they did to Lon Burnam,” he said. He acknowledged that Burnam “worked for the district and definitely fought for the district” but said the lawmaker didn’t face and understand some the same challenges as those “who face them on a daily basis.” Romero said he began eyeing a run for Burnam’s seat “almost immediately” after his unsuccessful council bid against Kelly Allen Gray, who wonthe District 8 council seat. He said he consulted Espino, who helped him analyze his chances of mounting a successful campaign. A major element in his strategy was to develop a tri-ethnic coalition composed of whites, blacks and Hispanics, Romero said, dismissing post-election talk that the campaign was designed solely to propel an Hispanic into office. “I could not have won this by the Hispanic vote alone,” he said. “It’s time we get past that conversation. It’s about the person that related to the community.” Although Garcia’s financial support raised claims of outside influence and prompted talk that the Dallas attorney was trying to build a base for a future congressional run, Romero said Garcia took no role in the campaign other than to offer encouragement and to “support me financially when I needed it.” “Domingo really had no role,” Romero said. “He didn’t come out to campaign. He simply gave me support.” Burnam largely attributed his loss to the “demographic shift” in the district, saying “people mainly tend to vote based on their own personal identity.” He said he recognized the “obvious trend” and was even prepared to ultimately to support an Hispanic “replacement” to take over the seat. “I would have been perfectly happy to stand aside in 2014 had we found what I consider the person who is truly representative of the value system of the district,” he said. “I don’t think Mr. Romero is.” During the campaign, Burnam depicted Romero as a Republican-friendly “fake Democrat.” Romero flatly dismissed the assertion and said he has never voted Republican.” Burnam was one of two senior Tarrant County lawmakers whose legislative careers effectively came to an end Tuesday night. Rep. Diane Patrick, an Arlington Republican, was defeated in the Republican primary by tea party-backed first-time political candidate Tony Tinderholt of Arlington. After the results came in, Romero celebrated by popping open a bottle of champagne at his east Fort Worth home with scores of well-wishers who included Sal Espino, De Leon and former councilman Steve Murrin, instantly recognizable with his trademark handlebar mustache and cowboy hat. Although the storyline for Romero’s victory will likely focus heavily on the power of the Hispanic vote in the urban district, Romero and his supporters downplayed ethnic themes, saying that voters were ready for new leadership. “We didn’t just get Hispanic votes. We got everybody’s vote,” said Romero, crediting his victory to a coalition of like-minded district residents seeking action on issues such as poverty, drug use, transportation and jobs. “There’s not one color. It’s brown, it’s black, it’s white.” “It’s an historic win,” said Espino. “It’s a new generation of leadership. We thank Lon Burnam for his years of service but the District 90 community wanted to go in a different direction.” Burnam watched the returns with supporters at Mama Mia’s on Magnolia Street. “I’ve known all along it would be a close race,” he said. “It’s about identity politics. This district is 70 percent Hispanic and people all over the world tend to vote for people they identify with. That’s not necessarily in their best interest.” Burnam was elected in 1996 and went on to develop a reputation for bucking the leadership and taking on quixotic causes such as abolishing the death penalty and imposing a state income tax on Texans earning more than $100,000 annually. He also was a passionate advocate for social priorities championed by Democrats, including rolling back more than $5 billion in education cuts imposed by the 2011 Legislature. Mindful that he was an Anglo representing a heavily Hispanic district, Burnam said he maintained a constant vigil to watch out for issues affecting his constituents and served as a member of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. He was endorsed by the Mexican-American Democrats, the AFL-CIO and the past four chairs of the Tarrant County Democratic Party. But Romero, in campaign messages on his website, called on District 90 voters to “take control of our district” and put the community’s “priorities at the top of our agenda.” “Representing District 90 is not about simply stirring the pot,” Romero said in an apparent shot at Burnam. “It’s about working across the table to start bringing results that matter back home to the families of Fort Worth.”  

Ramon Romero Jr. Age: 40 D.O.B. Nov. 13, 1973 Occupation: Businessman. Founder of A-Fast-Tile, a swimming pool construction company, and Stone Mason Supply, a stone distribution company. Personal: The sixth of eight children born to immigrant parents. A lifelong resident of the Polytechnic neighborhood. Graduate of Polytechnic High School, 1992 Divorced after a 16-year marriage. Four children. Girl friend: Nancy Galvan, owner of Unica Janitorial Solutions Political Resume: Party: Democrat Previous campaigns: Lost a runoff for the District 8 city council seat in 2012 against Kelly Allen Gray.

For more on District 90:

- FWBP Digital Partners -

To reach Dave Montgomery: