The runoff election for the District 28 seat in the Texas House of Representatives has commanded national attention, with two presidential candidates and a former one offering public support for the Democrat in the Houston-area race. The goal of Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg and Beto O’Rourke, who have backed Eliz Markowitz in her runoff against Republican Gary Gates, is to flip what has historically been a Republican stronghold and strengthen the blue wave that’s rippling across the state.
The other statehouse special election in the Houston area, which also is in the midst of a runoff, has been surrounded by far less hoopla. Both remaining candidates in District 148 said many of their prospective constituents don’t even realize a race is being run, and the district is considered to be solidly Democratic.
But that isn’t stopping Lui La Rotta, a Republican and first-time political candidate, from trying to start a red wave in Northwest Houston. He is competing against Heights Democrat Anna Eastman, a former Houston ISD trustee who was the leading vote-getter among 15 candidates on Nov. 5.
“I think Republicans have been on the defensive ever since the last election cycle (in 2018), when we lost so many seats and lost all our judges,” La Rotta said. “I think there’s been a lot of Republicans sitting back waiting to take the blow of another Democratic strike. But I think this is a weak spot, a definite weak spot in this district, because a 25-year history of no improvements, people notice that. I’ve noticed it. … I think this is the perfect opportunity to flip that seat.
“If they want to sleep on it, that’s fine,” he added. “But they’re going to be surprised.”
La Rotta was referring to the 25-year tenure of Jessica Farrar, a Democrat who was never significantly challenged while winning 13 general elections. Farrar was unopposed in seven of those races and never received less than 58 percent of the vote, garnering more than 60 percent all but once.
Farrar retired at the end of September, prompting the special election for her seat and a slew of candidates vying to replace her. Eastman was among 12 Democrats in the field and led all candidates by receiving 20.3 percent of the vote, while La Rotta was second with 15.6 percent.
Despite that result in early November, and even though District 148 is historically Democratic and Eastman has name recognition because of her stint on the HISD board, she has not rested on the campaign trail. The runoff is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 28, with early voting set for Jan. 21-24.
“I have to earn the respect of the voters enough to make sure they get out and vote for me,” she said. “We’re working as if this is any competitive race. We’re not taking anything for granted.”
Eastman and La Rotta, although they are members of opposing political parties, see eye to eye on some of the issues facing District 148. They both oppose the expansion of I-45 and want to combat human trafficking, and they both support flood mitigation, infrastructure improvements and the decriminalization of marijuana. They also both said they value the role immigrants have played in the district, which is more than 66 percent Hispanic.
While both candidates want District 148 residents to have access to better public education and healthcare, they differ on the desired means to reach that end. Eastman said she wants to make permanent the school-funding increases provided by House Bill 3 in the last state legislative session, and she wants to make sure women and children have access to affordable healthcare.
La Rotta said he wants to allow the free market to improve education and healthcare, so he wants to scale back Medicaid. He also opposes red-flag gun laws that prohibit weapon possession among people who are considered to pose a threat, whereas Eastman said she supports “sensible gun legislation” and wants to close the background-check loophole at gun shows.
Eastman said she also wants to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community.
“I think there’s a pretty clear distinction between me and the only other person in the race,” she said.
Eastman and La Rotta know they’ll have the support of their respective party bases. Both said the key to winning the runoff is promoting voter turnout, after 25.21 percent of registered voters cast ballots on Nov. 5, and swaying independent voters to their side.
La Rotta, who is Hispanic and calls himself a “Liberty Republican,” said his target demographic is conservative Hispanics who feel like they’ve been disenfranchised and inadequately represented by Farrar.
“I think people are ready for a change,” he said.
No matter who wins the runoff, the campaigning is far from over for both candidates. The District 148 seat is up for election again in November, and Eastman already is gearing up for a March 3 primary against fellow Democrats Adrian Garcia, Penny Morales Shaw, Cynthia Reyes-Revilla and Emily Wolf.
La Rotta, who is unopposed in the Republican primary, hopes to flip the seat in November if not later this month.
“We are not letting up on this, no matter what happens,” he said. “If we win, that’s great. But we never intended to win. We intended to deliver a punch.”