After Trey Martinez Fischer gave up his seat in the Texas House for an unsuccessful Senate run, Diana Arévalo beat two primary challengers to win the right to represent San Antonio's District 116. Named “Freshman of the Year” by the liberal Legislative Study Group Caucus after her first legislative session, she seemed well on her way to a solid political career.
Then Martinez Fischer decided he wanted back in the legislative game, registering to run for his old seat against Arévalo. Now local Democratic lawmakers and donors are having to choose sides.
“I think Trey and Diana have a different style and a different level of commitment," said former State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who has endorsed Arévalo but considers herself a friend to both candidates.
"Trey’s style was battling Republicans everywhere, and he did a great job with that. Diana’s focus is to deliver for the constituents of District 116.”
With early voting beginning next week for the March 6 primary, Arévalo may be at a disadvantage in the male-dominated state political arena, where she is one of just 29 women lawmakers in the 150-member Texas House. Martinez Fischer has more campaign funds at his disposal and a list of endorsements from more than a dozen current and former state lawmakers.
Van de Putte said she's aware of the perception that gender politics are at play, with an experienced male former legislator who wants his old job back from a younger female.
“It’s different when you have a woman at the table,” Van de Putte said. “Diana has a lot going for her. She’s the incumbent and she’s younger, but she doesn’t have all the legislative experience. Not yet. You have to grow into it.”
Arévalo said she does not want the race to be simplified as a male versus female political fight. But she said she's proud of being the first woman elected to represent District 116, which stretches northwest from San Antonio's near Westside to Loop 1604.
"My mother never wanted me to run for public office," Arévalo said. "She knew this would be an uphill battle. She knew this was a male-dominated field."
Arévalo said some people understand her frustration with some critics considering her predecessor the stronger candidate only because he has years of experience and skills under his belt. She said this "diminishes" the years she has spent in community service.
“My predecessor lost his bid for the Senate – twice – and now he wants ‘his’ House seat back,” Arévalo was quoted in the Texas Tribune at a recent event for Annie’s List, an organization that seeks to get Democratic women elected to state public offices. “I guess he believes there are too many women holding public office – or maybe it’s because some men feel entitled.”
The same story stated that Arévalo later said her legislative work was part of a larger attempt to “persist against a misogynistic political machine in San Antonio politics."
For his part, Martinez Fischer said he does not feel gender politics are at play, saying his decision to try to regain his former seat is nothing personal.
Annie's List has endorsed Arévalo. So have State Sen. José Menéndez, State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, and former Mayor Ed Garza.
Van de Putte said District 116 is better off with Arévalo concentrating more on serving her local constituents than on taking part in the larger ideological battles her predecessor relished.
“I think [Arévalo] did a good job in her first session," Van de Putte said. "She passed a bill that helps public school facilities, and she treats her constituents like royalty.”
District 119 Rep. Roland Gutierrez is one of 17 current Democratic state lawmakers to endorse Martinez Fischer. That list includes three other San Antonio-area state representatives: Ina Minjarez, Philip Cortez, and Justin Rodriguez.
Martinez Fischer said his level of support reflects his legislative experience and skills: "Their endorsement is about my abilities.”
Gutierrez dismissed talk of gender politics as “a disservice to residents of District 116.” He described Martinez Fischer as a proven fighter and the more qualified candidate who can better help fellow Democrats in procedural battles.
“You want to put your best foot forward in Austin,” Gutierrez said. “You want your best fighter, your best bill-killer that we needed last [legislative] session, this next session, and beyond.”
Perhaps because he gained that reputation during his 16 years in the Legislature, Martinez Fischer has amassed a sizable campaign war chest. His campaign had $70,386 cash on hand, according to a campaign finance report filed on Feb. 5 with the Texas Ethics Commission for the period covering Jan. 1-25. For that same period, Arévalo's campaign reported $13,293 in available cash.
Martinez Fischer, who has his own law firm, mounted an unsuccessful bid against Menéndez in State Senate District 26 in 2016. If elected to his former seat, Martinez Fischer said he hopes to renew working relationships he cultivated with other Democrats in the House and use his experience as a procedural tactician to help halt certain Republican proposals.
“Consensus is that things have gotten awful in Austin. Partisan rhetoric is at an all-time high,” he said. “San Antonio did not fare well in the last legislative session. I’d argue San Antonio had a target on its back.”
He singled out Senate Bill 4, the so-called "sanctuary cities" law that permits local law enforcement officers to ask detainees and arrestees about their immigration status, and other bills proposed in the last session that many Texas Democrats contend erode local control, such as annexation reform and a rollback on tree preservation rules.
“These are the kinds of bills that got blocked and died when I was there,” said Martinez Fischer, who in his first legislative stint had earned a nickname from colleagues — “the prince of POO [point of order],” a reference to parliamentary debate procedures.
“I know all the tricks. I know all their excuses,” he said. “When you negotiate from a position of strength, when you’re known as a principled fighter, you can be effective.”
Martinez Fischer’s knowledge of procedural rules helped Democrats halt progress on a Republican-backed sanctuary cities bill in 2011. Four years later, he helped slow progress on the open handgun carry bill that the Legislature eventually passed.
Arévalo, meanwhile, can point to her own list of accomplishments during her freshman term in office. She authored House Bill 1081, which became law in 2017 and expands funding for new school facilities. She co-authored bills aimed at prohibiting certain sex offenders from living on a college campus, enhancing mental health screenings, and setting up a grant program for rape kit evidence tests.
"I'm knocking on doors, telling people about our achievements in the first session, and what our plans are for the next session," Arévalo said.
Executive director of the nonprofit Network for Young Artists, Arévalo said while her first term afforded her a learning curve, it provided a chance to quickly develop working relationships with other lawmakers and constituent groups.
She said she's eager to address health care in the 2019 session, especially for senior citizens in assisted living facilities and those receiving home health care. She has conducted a listening tour in District 116, meeting with a variety of health care providers.
Arévalo said she and her staff have worked hard to enhance communications with constituents via emails, phone calls, and newsletters. Her office hosted a veterans' resource fair and took part in larger community events, such as a senior-citizens health fair, to reach out to constituents who may not regularly communicate with the district office. She also welcomed district constituents to her legislative office on days when they went to Austin to testify on an issue.
"To me, this is more about public service than about politics," Arévalo said. "I'm not a career politician. The citizens of District 116 elected me, and it's a huge honor."