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In a Field of Progressives, Candidates Tout Legislative Savvy in District 49 Race

Ashley Lopez for KUT
Seven Democrats are running to replace retiring state Rep. Elliott Naishtat in District 49.

In about a month, the race to replace retiring Democratic state Rep. Elliott Naishtat begins on Election Day and, because there are seven candidates in the field, it will most likely end in a run-off election later this year.

There are no Republicans running in the Democrat-dominated district, which covers most of Central Austin, and before then, voters will have to choose between candidates who mostly agree on everything.

At the Google Fiber offices downtown, candidates debated at a town hall forum hosted this week by the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

For the most part, they agreed across the board.

“I think, like with many issues, most of us on this stage agree,” said attorney Matt Shrum.

“I think we all agree that, ‘No, Austin is not getting its fair share,’” said UT School of Law Professor Heather Way.

“It sounds like we all share the same belief that Austin is not getting enough money for transportation,” said former Austin ISD School Board President Gina Hinojosa, who’s also an attorney – along with candidates Aspen Dunaway, Blake Rocap and Kenton Johnson. The only candidate without a legal background is 23-year-old Huey Ray Fischer.

As one can imagine, it’s been hard for these individual candidates to stand out in this crowded primary. Also complicating things is the fact that the campaign leading up to the election is pretty short. Elliott Naishtat announced just days shy of the December filing deadline that he was retiring.

“So, it’s a struggle I think for all of the candidates to get their message out about who they are,” said Rocap, a former advocate for the group NARAL, an abortion rights organization. He said he’s the only candidate who can hit the ground running, because he has the most experience in the legislature as both an advocate and as a staff member for a committee.

But that’s also not exactly unique. Twenty-three-year-old Fischer said he worked as an aide at the Capitol while he was in college.

“I’ve always worked for progressive Democrats at the Capitol. I have the most legislative experience in the race,” he asserted.

Way pointed out she’s been an advocate at the legislature for a quite a while, too.

“I come into this race with the deepest, longest track record of being an advocate and a policy reformer,” she said.

These are the sort of things the candidates are not on the same page about.

Other than that, they agree on many of the issues: They agree the state’s school finance system is unfair to Austin; they all support reproductive rights; and they all say the state should be spending more on health care, transportation and education.

Most of the candidates also agree there should be a strong progressive Democrat in the seat. Hinojosa argues that, if Austin can’t elect a progressive Democrat in Texas, who will?

“It is probably the most progressive district in the whole state, so I believe there is a special responsibility to lead on progressive issues,” she said.

Dunaway joined the other candidates in pointing out the political reality the winner will face in the legislature — most agree this will not be an easy job for anyone. Democrats have been in the minority in the legislature for decades. Dunaway said leading on issues there is going to be an uphill battle.

“It will be a challenge for anyone, obviously,” Dunaway said. “The truth is to get a bill passed – even if you got all the Democrats – you will need 25 to 30 Republicans."

The first battle, though, will be winning the primary on March 1.

Candidate Johnson said he thinks in the end this race will probably come down to personality.

“I think the key for whoever is going into the voting booth is really to try to pick one of the candidates that they feel a connection to,” he said.

Early voting starts February 16.

Ashley Lopez covers politics and health care. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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