Republicans Jennifer Fleck and Justin Berry are facing off in a runoff July 14 to compete in the November general election to represent District 47 in the state House of Representatives.
District 47 encompasses parts of Austin and other Travis County cities, including Lakeway, Lago Vista and Jonestown. The district is wealthy and majority-white, with half the households earning more than $100,000 a year.
Fleck has practiced law, most recently for oil and gas companies, for the past 20 years. She said the 2018 election of a Democrat to represent the district was a fluke; in 2011 representatives redrew the district's boundaries, cutting out much of Austin in the hopes that it would be a Republican stronghold.
“We all can admit and confess that 2018 was a bit of an aberration,” Fleck said. Vikki Goodwin beat Republican Rep. Paul Workman that year by nearly 5 percentage points.
She credited Beto O'Rourke, who ran against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, in large part for Democrats' success in 2018. "I still think it's a Republican district and it can be won.”
Fleck garnered the largest share of votes in the primary election in March, but not enough to outright secure the Republican nomination to run against Goodwin. Berry, an officer with the Austin Police Department for more than a decade, won his spot in the runoff with just one vote over former Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman.
In mailings, Berry has accused Fleck of being a one-issue candidate; her biggest legislative priority, she said, is overhauling sex education in the state.
“Parental authority is being subverted by school districts,” Fleck said. “I am not opposed to sex education. What I'm opposed to is comprehensive sex education that preys on the innocence of a child and promotes risky behaviors.”
Fleck, a mother of three, defined these “risky behaviors” as telling students it’s OK to engage in sexual activity up until the point of intercourse.
“I think it's very negligent for adults to tell children that you can touch each other underneath your clothes, that you can perform mutual masturbation on each other and then expect that child to make an adult decision [about whether to have sex] at that point,” she said.
Texas, which sets education standards, requires that abstinence be taught. It’s up to public school districts to set the curriculum, and parents are allowed to opt their children out of a program.
Fleck said the Austin Independent School District is the “worst offender,” citing curriculum the district adopted last year that teaches gender identity and expression in the fifth grade.
“They have now added ‘gender confusion’ for their sexual exploitation, where they're asking fourth-graders to identify as a boy, a girl or neither,” she said.
Research published in a journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that young LGBTQ people feel safer in school when issues affecting them are discussed in the classroom.
When it comes to education, Berry said he wants to see more vocational training available to students.
“You come out at 18 being a truck driver once you're licensed and you start making $50,000 a year,” Berry said. “There are industries out there that can really help set our youth up for success and get them into a pathway into the workforce and provide for themselves without incurring a lot of debt in the process.”
But one of Berry’s biggest priorities, he said, is slowing the rise of property taxes.
“Now, there's a lot of wasteful spending, a lot of things that we spend money on that we don't really need to be spending money on or things that could be better allocated elsewhere," he said.
Fleck said she’s also concerned about rising property taxes and suggested that counties appraise home values every two years instead of annually or that the state allow seniors a larger break on their property taxes.
“We can't lower property taxes until we stop spending,” Fleck said. “So, if we stop spending, then we don't need as much money from the taxpayers.”
Berry is also concerned about how the city has handled the homelessness situation. Last year, the City Council stopped officers from ticketing homeless people for some low-level offenses. These things needed to be solved at the state level, he said.
“It’s going to take some state intervention, unfortunately, to really focus on realistic solutions that focus on each makeup of the homeless community, rather than broad-stroke issues," he said.
Both candidates have started campaigning door-to-door since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“I've knocked over 3,000 doors and without a mask, without gloves and not one single door has complained,” Fleck said. “I knock on the door. I step back 6 to 10 feet. I interact with the voter and I say thank you.”
Fleck said one of the biggest differences between herself and Berry is experience. She points to the difference in age: She is 50, and Berry is 33.
But Berry said he has a lot more "life experience in the real world" as a police officer for 13 years.
"You deal with some of the most horrific things in a person's life,” he said.
Early voting runs through July 10. Election Day is July 14.