The race for House District 124 has just gotten underway — and it’s already almost over.
On March 4, Gov. Greg Abbott set an emergency special election to determine who would replace José Menéndez now that he’s been elected to represent Senate District 26, the seat vacated by Leticia Van De Putte, who is now running for mayor after losing her November bid to become the state’s lieutenant governor.
Five days of early voting start Monday for HD 124; Election Day is Tuesday, March 31.
The district, a wedge of far Westside Bexar County that runs along Hwy 151, then up Loop 1604 to New Guilbeau Road, then zigzagging back to the intersection of Hwy 90 and General Hudnell Drive, is one of 10 that make up Bexar County’s delegation in the Texas House.
Four candidates filed, all as Democrats: firefighter Nathan Alonzo, who has also served as the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association’s legislative director for the past decade; former District 6 San Antonio City Councilwoman Delicia Herrera; attorney Ina Minjarez; and independent insurance agent David L. Rosa.
They’re seeking to serve out the remainder of the 140-day, biennial regular session, but with the deadline for filing legislation passed, whomever heads to Austin will only be able to vote on others’ bills and offer amendments. It could be a long-term job, however; the seat is safely Democratic, and Menéndez, first elected in 2000, often ran unopposed in both primary and general elections.
While highly charged issues like border security, open carry and additional abortion restrictions will get the most attention, three of the four candidates say they’ll focus on the bread and butter issues facing the district, mainly transportation and education.
The fourth, Rosa, didn’t respond to phone and email requests for an interview. He ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Joaquin Castro in 2012 as a Republican.
I sat down with the other three to learn more about them and find out where they stood on some of the issues.
Herrera, 41, who served on council from 2005-09, said her experience representing the district, which overlaps the House district by 90 percent, clearly makes her the most qualified candidate for the job.
“I know the issues. At the state level, you don’t address the details of particular issues. But being on city council, a lot of the issues you cannot address without partnerships with the State,” Herrera said.
The first in her family to go to college, Herrera’s public school experiences informed her education policy positions. She credits full-day pre-kindergarten with creating the “foundation of a strong educational path for me,” and was in 5th grade in the Edgewood school district when the Supreme Court of Texas decided the landmark Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby, altering the formula used to fund Texas schools, a decision that reverberates in Texas law and politics to this day.
Today, Herrera owns two homes, one in the Edgewood district and one in the Northside district. She noted, and a review of the Bexar County Appraisal District records confirm, that she pays four times more to Northside than to Edgewood, a differential greater than the difference of appraised value of the respective homes. This inequality rankles Herrera.
“Property taxes are how schools are funded. My unique perspective of Edgewood and Northside shows me that Edgewood’s big problem is that we don’t have the property taxes to sustain what we need to do there. We don’t have the business tax base.”
But while education is a priority for the constituents of HD124, she said transportation is the district’s top concern. She expressed frustration with congestion in the district, but said she’s opposed to the diversion of funds from the vehicle sales tax.
Following the passage of last year’s constitutional amendment, which is expected to add $1.74 billion of new transportation spending for fiscal year 2015, multiple bills have been introduced in this session seeking even more funds for transportation. Often these bills earmark funds from certain revenue streams such as the vehicle sales tax. Herrera would prefer to fund transportation out of general revenue.
This is the first run for a legislative office for Minjarez, 39, but in 2006 she narrowly lost a judge’s race in County Court at Law No. 5 and lost in her second attempt for that bench in the Republican wave of 2010. She said her desire to serve remained; she decided to run after exploring the possibility with members of the community.
“I received very positive feedback,” she said.
Born in El Paso, her mother was an elementary school cashier and her father a veteran who started his own concrete business. Their dedication to her education led Minjarez to Notre Dame, and then St. Mary’s University School of Law. A six-year stint in the District Attorney’s office followed. Today she works in private practice.
“As a small business owner, I know the concerns that I’ve had with my small business,” Minjarez said. “I want to be a champion on behalf of small business owners.”
She’s sending out mailers introducing herself to the voters of HD124, and after several days of blockwalking, she too identified transportation as a top voter priority – and it’s no wonder: congestion at the intersections of Highways 90, 151 and 1604 provide constant headaches to residents, two-thirds of whom spend between 15 and 44 minutes getting to work, according to the District Profile Report.
Minjarez said she “liked what she saw” after reviewing two filed bills that earmarked proceeds from the vehicle sales tax to be used for transportation funds, but said she’d have to do more research if elected.
She said was generally in favor of providing prekindergarten statewide, but worried about the greater cost.
For almost all the issues we discussed, Minjarez said she preferred to seek out bill sponsors and their staffs to get more information before committing to specific positions.
Alonzo, while he has no elected experience, has spent the last five legislative sessions in Austin working on behalf of the firefighter’s union, so is very familiar with how things get done in the legislature.
“You’ve got to understand this process,” Alonzo, 53, said. “I’ve seen the process. I’ve been up there. I know what it’s like and that’s why I think I’m better qualified.”
A firefighter like his father, Alonzo spent his first four years in the district, later graduating from Jefferson High School. He took some courses at Alamo College and Tarrant Junior College before joining the San Antonio Fire Department.
Ten years ago, he took on the role of legislative director after stints as district steward, second vice president and serving on the public relations committee for the union. He’s also acted as United Way Coordinator for the City of San Antonio.
He too cited traffic problems as a number one concern from his perspective as a firefighter, Alonzo noted that traffic “impacts ordinary residents, costing productivity, tying up resources of small businesses and limiting the ability of emergency services to reach people in need.”
He expressed support for using roughly $4 billion from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund – better known as the “Rainy Day Fund” – to meet some of the unmet transportation and education needs. The fund is currently projected to reach $11.1 billion by 2017.
After sitting down with the three candidates, I can say that House District 124 is lucky. If any of the three is elected, I feel confident the district will be well represented
Early voting begins Monday. Election Day is March 31 Click here for details.
*Featured/top image: Texas State Capitol building in Austin. Photo by Stuart Seeger.