Democratic primary candidates running for the District 46 seat in the Texas House faced off Sunday morning in the KXAN studio, outlining how they plan to tackle issues in district 46 including education funding, affordability, and who would be a better fighter for the district.
Sheryl Cole and Jose “Chito” Vela ran neck and neck in Tuesday’s primary. Vela led the six candidate field with 39.6 percent of the vote. Cole finished 209 votes behind.
Now facing a runoff election in May, the candidates described how they would differ from incumbent Dawnna Dukes. Rep. Dukes finished third in the primary, meaning she will lose her seat after serving 11 terms in the House.
“ I’ve always had a broad coalition of people that I have worked with and led on issues such as reproductive rights, marriage equality, worker’s safety, comprehensive planning, affordability and education,” said Cole, who formerly served as Austin’s Mayor Pro Tem.
She calls herself a champion for civil rights and greater economic opportunity.
Vela comes from a law background of law and works as an attorney in criminal offense and immigration.
“Really radical Republicans are controlling the agenda at this point,” said Vela. “What I want to make sure is that the Representative from House District 46 goes in there and is really ready to fight and to push back and aggressively push the Democratic agenda.”
But with a Republican Governor, and Republicans in control of the House and Senate, any progress on that agenda will probably require working with the other party.
Vela said one thing that both parties can agree on is Medicaid.
“You’re seeing rural hospitals close, you’re seeing people in rural counties unable to access health care, you’re seeing women having to drive three hours to go to a hospital to give birth,” he explained. “Rural Republicans need the Medicaid expansion, just like urban Democrats do.”
Another area he thinks Republicans and Democrats can come together on is boosting funding for education.
“You’re seeing rural school districts drop things like band and theater and are really having to tighten their belts,” he said.
Cole made similar points to Vela, arguing both parties could work on in bolstering education funding, plus she says property tax increases are an equal concern as well.
When it comes to affordability, Cole said this is something that she will have to fight Republicans on.
“I think that in many of the districts that may actually have a Republican representative, that we can fight them on this issue because they are suffering from affordability, just like District 46,” she said.
She cited her experience on Austin’s City Council when she led the effort to pass the affordable housing bonds after they failed, and said it was successful because she assembled a broad coalition to get it through.
The key to affordability and gentrification in district 46, she said, is understanding environmental policies.
“The whole premise that is creating a reason that we have an affordability problem is the exodus from the city to further and further out,” she said. “Agencies have been just lax, despicable, in terms of enforcement of environmental policies.”
Vela said he would handle affordability by pumping money into the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which has traditionally been responsible for providing housing assistance.
“We need to get the state more involved with providing affordable housing, because our cities just do not have the resources they need,” he said, adding that it’s not an issue exclusive to Austin, but one that the state faces as a whole. “Particularly for your very low income people, your people disabled, on fixed income, Social Security, those are the folks that are suffering more than anyone else in this rising housing price environment.”
The idea of being a “fighter” dominated the conversation as well, and each candidate defended their fitness for their sought after position.
“We need to have a champion, a fighter,” Vela said. “There’s just not a lot of room to compromise at this point and there’s not a lot of Republicans willing to sit down at the table and compromise with us.”
In a heated response, Cole said her actions have proven her to be a fighter as well.
“I haven’t just fought in connection with one issue that expresses Democratic values, I have fought in connection with a broad range of issues, including immigration rights, including equality,” she said. “I often resent the idea that I haven’t fought and I don’t know if that’s because I’m female or not, because I have.”
Each candidate also defined what differentiated themselves from each other the most.
“I have actually cast a vote about the Democratic values, and he has not,” Cole said. “I have a record of broad coalitions with all types of people, demographic groups, income levels, and especially the low income.”
Vela pointed to his experience and knowledge of state government since he has worked as an assistant in the Texas Attorney General’s office in the open records division, and also in the Texas House for four years.
“I know the games,” he said. “I know how they’re played.”
Whoever wins the runoff in May will face Republican candidate Gabriel Nila in the general election on Nov. 6.