Six candidates are contending for the office held for the last 13 years by state Sen. Kirk Watson. The longtime senator and former mayor of Austin moved to a position with the University of Houston in April.
For the first time since 2006, there is no incumbent in the Senate District 14 race. Whoever does win the job could be representing Travis and Bastrop counties for a long time, because while the boundaries of the Senate district have changed through the years, one thing has held: Local voters like their incumbents.
Since 1957, only four people have held the position. Before Watson, Gonzalo Barrientos represented Travis County in the Senate for 22 years. Before that, Congressman Lloyd Doggett held the role for a decade. And before him, Charles Herring represented Travis, Hays and Williamson counties for nine legislative sessions. All senators left on their own terms.
This is a special election, not a primary. If any of the six candidates does not receive 50% of the turnout plus one vote, a runoff of the top two candidates will be held as soon as next month.
The special election format has a lower barrier for entry, giving candidates opportunities they would not have in the typical election cycle. One candidate in the race, Don Zimmerman, finished third in the Republican primary for a State House seat just four months ago, but is eligible to run in this election.
Independent candidate Jeff Ridgeway decided to run while talking about current events with his 11-year-old daughter after stay-at-home orders began.
“[We] just started talking about it a lot,” he said. “And then I looked into the race and realized that not only had Kirk Watson stepped down, but that the rules for this were a little bit different. And so, if I wanted to get in as an independent candidate this … was a unique time to be able to do that.”
Ridgeway has lived in Austin for 15 years and is a physician. He owns an OB-GYN practice and specializes in maternal-fetal medicine. The widowed single-father says his experience has him uniquely situated for the current crises facing the state.
Leaning on his experience as a medical provider, he would like to shore up aspects of the state's health care system, such as better funding for indigent care. He also would like to help local businesses.
“One of the things that you need to remember is that a lot of physicians are also small-business operators,” Ridgeway said. “And so, we do understand the issues that small businesses are facing in terms of having to close down.”
Another relative newcomer to politics is Republican candidate Waller Thomas Burns II, but he says politics is in his blood.
"My grandfather, Waller Thomas Burns, was the state senator from Houston in 1897 and 1899," he said.
This Waller Thomas Burns also says the relatively low barrier to enter the special election is an opportunity to do something for his home state.
Burns has had a varied career. He went to law school at UT Austin, worked as a U.S. attorney in Houston, worked in admissions for Rice University and co-owned a tourist spot in Kenya in the 1960s. He says he once held the roll of “El Gallo” early in the record-setting 42-year run of the musical The Fantasticks in New York. He settled down in Austin years ago, thinking it would never be as big as Houston. Then Sen. Watson resigned.
“It would just be very interesting at 81 [years old],” he said. “I decided, ‘Why not?’ I've got a good mind, and there's a lot that can be done in District 14.”
The Republican would like to reduce dependence on property taxes, if elected.
The remaining four candidates hold or have held elected office within Travis County.
Zimmerman lost a Republican primary bid for Texas House District 47 in March. He decided to run for the Senate in May. He was an Austin City Council member for two years before being unseated by current Council Member Jimmy Flannigan. Politically, he was often much further to the right than his fellow council members. That may not be the case in the state Senate with its Republican majority.
“Government is already way too big,” he said. “It's attempting to solve problems that it cannot solve and that includes this latest coronavirus.”
He called the shutting down of businesses to control the pandemic “outrageous.” He says if elected, he’ll be a watchdog for taxpayers.
“Giving the government unlimited power and money is a way to impose some kind of government tyranny,” he said. “And I define that as just arbitrary rule by governments not based in an objective rule of law, but just based in political opinion, or what seems expedient to a particular bureaucrat on a particular day.”
Pat Dixon is a two-term Lago Vista City Council member. He thinks at least one of the 31 state senators should be a Libertarian and hopes voters choose him. His party can see past political differences to fix real problems in the state, he says, like redistricting and gerrymandering.
“The State of Texas already has applications,” he said. “One of them was called Red Apple redistricting application. That simply took census data, drew compact maps, and you could use those maps in a way that wasn't gerrymandered or controlled by the party. So, I would look at a solution like that.”
He says the outcome would be more congregated congressional districts, less like the map that has carved Travis County into multiple districts.
The two Democrats running have a somewhat higher profile in Austin. Both believe they can build coalitions like Watson did in the Capitol that will help Central Texas.
After two terms as a Travis County commissioner and more than five years as the county judge, Sarah Eckhardt is now looking to win over the voters of Bastrop County in Senate District 14. She resigned from her position as county judge to run for the Senate, but is still helping interim Judge Sam Biscoe with the COVID-19 health crisis. She says government could be playing a larger role in stemming the spread of the virus.
“We need federal, state and local partnership rather than cutting people up and dividing them,” Eckhardt said. “I've seen too much of that [divison] as the sort of the favorite whipping county [Travis] and whipping city [Austin] of state government.”
If elected, she would like to see expansion of Medicaid in the state so that the uninsured can be ready for future health crises. She also wants broadband internet with equipment and training for rural and city dwellers, so that educational gaps created by distance learning can begin to get filled.
The Democrat says she’s the candidate who can reach consensus with partisans.
“I've been able to build coalitions with my Republican colleagues that surround Travis County, as well as my Republican colleagues in the Conference of Urban Counties,” she said. “So much so that they elect me to positions of leadership because they know that I fight hard, but I fight fair, and I listen to all sides.”
For 18 years, Democrat Eddie Rodriguez has represented East Austin in the state Legislature. He says he’s the consensus builder, because he’s done it — and with the people he’d be building consensus with.
“I've served with half of the senators in the House,” Rodriguez said. “Half of those members in the Senate were House members with me, so I had that established relationship. Again, it's the quality of the 18 years, it's what I bring into this office when we have big, big issues.”
Despite being in the minority party, Rodriguez has successfully guided legislation into law. Most recently, he helped shepherd the “Beer-To-Go” law last session through the House with Republican Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway in the Senate.
Changes have been made during the pandemic that he’d like to make permanent, like the waiving of copays and an end to income-eligibility checks for the Texas Children’s Health Plan (CHIP). He’d like to make permanent the stop to renewal applications for SNAP benefits, and he’d like to tackle redistricting and better funding for public education if elected.
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