Composite / Rivard Report file photos / Courtesy photo from Wilson Campaign
With just one week remaining before the start of early runoff voting, the two Republicans and two Democrats vying to succeed longtime U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio) pressed the flesh at a candidate forum Monday in San Marcos.
More than 50 people attended the "meet and greet" event organized by the League of Women Voters of Hays County at the San Marcos Activity Center, taking the opportunity to hear from the congressional candidates in advance of the May 22 runoff. Each candidate had five minutes to give an introductory speech to the audience and provide his or her qualifications for public office.
The GOP ballot has Boerne business owner Matt McCall squaring off with Chip Roy, a former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who lives in Dripping Springs. The Democratic runoff is a contest between two Austinites – businessman and U.S. Army veteran Joseph Kopser and Mary Street Wilson, an educator-turned-minister.
The runoff winners will meet in the November general election to determine who follows in the footsteps of Smith, San Antonio's longest-serving Congressman who is retiring after 31 years in office.
Voters in the 21st Congressional District, which stretches from San Antonio's Northeast Side, west of Interstate 35 and across the Hill Country, typically lean Republican.
Roy and McCall emerged from an 18-candidate primary field in March, together accounting for 44 percent of the votes cast.
McCall and Roy have cast themselves as conservative Republicans who advocate limited government, a free market economy, a strong military, better border security, and a pro-life approach to reproductive rights.
In his remarks to the audience, Roy made an appeal to Democratic, GOP, and independent voters in the crowd.
"Fundamentally, I believe we have an opportunity right now to reunite this country around our shared values," said Roy, who also has worked for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and former Gov. Rick Perry. "I think we've got an opportunity to get back to the things we all care about on a non-partisan basis."
Roy said that all people should care about the ever-growing national debt, rising health insurance premiums, a flawed immigration system, and ill-equipped military personnel.
"We have disagreements on how we get to the solutions, and that's fine," he said.
Roy, who most recently worked for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank, said he agrees with the federal government handling fewer national issues, and letting states address most other issues, such as health care.
"Let California be California and let Texas be Texas," he said. "Let us be able to figure out these things at the local and state level."
McCall mounted challenges to Smith in the 2014 and 2016 GOP primaries. Lamenting the prevalence of career politicians in Washington, D.C., McCall said he was befuddled by Smith's endorsement of Roy, and by a super political action committee spending more than $500,000 on Roy's campaign.
"I don't understand that," McCall said. "I'm a constitutional conservative. I support the President's policies."
In addition to equipping the military, McCall said he supports a more judicious use of the armed forces.
"I want to make sure we don't send our soldiers into war without declaring war," McCall said. "Our soldiers deserve better – better than a 17-year old war in Afghanistan."
McCall also said requiring undocumented immigrants to take the path toward legal citizenship is more about nationhood.
"I, as a Republican, am tired of being called a racist, a bigot, a homophobe, or whatever just because I think nationhood and citizenship should mean something," he said.
McCall also needled Roy, whose home is in the 25th Congressional District, for not living in the district in which he's running. Roy did not get a chance to address the residency question at the forum.
But in previous reports about the contest, Roy has said the last round of redistricting resulted in his home being left outside District 21, adding that he works in the district and that his children attend school and extracurricular activities in the district.
As for the Democrats, Wilson placed first in the March primary with 30 percent of the vote, closely followed by Kopser's 29 percent. Wilson has received more support from grassroots progressives compared with her better-funded opponent.
Wilson said what's missing in the country is a genuine sense of unity at the local level, where people help each other, especially in tough situations. She also stressed the critical role that education plays in keeping communities strong.
"The bedrock of everything I believe in, as a candidate, comes from the power of education," said Wilson, who spent 20 years as a teacher in the Austin area.
"It is from education that people are able to move out of systemic poverty. It is from education that we're able to break that pipeline into our prisons. It's from education that people fulfill their hopes and dreams for the future."
Leading a small church congregation the last 16 years has allowed Wilson to talk with more vulnerable segments of the population. Wilson said that she knows too many people who are jobless, without health insurance, and on the brink of homelessness.
"That is wrong, that shouldn't happen in our country – a wealthy country that claims to be the most compassionate country," she said.
Wilson called for a more accessible, affordable health care system, as well as an expansion of Medicare.
"Medicare for all will work for all," she said.
Kopser said the sense of brotherhood and "leave no one behind" mentality he learned in the Army drives his campaign, work, and world view.
"With two trips to Iraq, I learned the organization that sticks together, is together and we can all get there together," he said. "The greatest nation in the world should be doing more for the least among us."
Kopser recalled how he and fellow soldiers in Iraq fought Army red tape to secure hazard pay for combat engineers.
"Through memos and faxes, not only did those soldiers finally get their hazardous duty pay, they got all their back pay as well," he said. "That is what I will do representing you."
Kopser said he believes in protecting education from political attacks and spending cuts, making health care more affordable, and passing common-sense gun control measures.
"I'm not here to take guns away from responsible gun owners," he said. "But I am going to work towards common-sense gun safety reform, and that is something the majority of even [National Rifle Association] members agree on."