The race is typically run in even-numbered years, which makes this one odd.
There have been many other quirks for the 15 candidates vying for the District 148 seat in the Texas House of Representatives, including the fact there are so many of them at a late stage in the election cycle. The field has historically been whittled down to two several months before ballots are cast, and November has always come with a sense of finality.
But this year’s crop of candidates has been scrambling to gain notoriety and support from potential constituents, many of whom don’t even realize the race is being run. And it’s a near certainty that there will be a runoff, meaning a winner likely will not be declared until December.
“It’s weird in a lot of ways,” candidate Anna Eastman said.
The unusual circumstances surrounding the battle to represent Northwest Houston in Austin are the product of an unexpected decision by Jessica Farrar, who announced in mid-August that she would retire Sept. 30 after 25 years in the District 148 seat. Per Farrar’s request, Gov. Greg Abbott then called a special election for Nov. 5 to coincide with Houston’s municipal election and thereby ensure substantial voter turnout. Early voting begins Oct. 21.
But because of the atypical arrangement and abbreviated campaign period – primary races are usually held in the spring before a November election – multiple candidates said many of the voters they’ve encountered did not know Farrar had retired and left her seat up for grabs. So the candidates have worked especially hard to connect with community members, make themselves known and build bases of support.
And, regardless of the outcome later this year, they all realize that campaigning will continue before one of them reports to Austin for Texas’ next legislative session in 2021. There will be Democratic and Republican primaries for the District 148 seat in the spring of 2020, followed by a general election next November.
“I’ve likened this to we’re running a 5K right now as hard as we possibly can,” candidate Chris Watt said. “Then we’re going to turn around and run a marathon.”
So who is winning the shortened race? It’s difficult to tell, although it’s likely that Farrar will be succeeded by another Democrat.
Twelve of the 15 candidates are Democrats and, according to the latest campaign finance reports filed with the state, the top nine fundraisers are all Democrats. Garden Oaks resident Michele Leal, the daughter of former Harris County Judge Al Leal, had a remaining fund balance of more than $61,000 as of Sept. 26, which was more than twice as much as any other candidate.
Michele Leal, a former staffer of Farrar’s and former co-chair of the Latino Texas Political Action Committee, has a mix of legislative and community advocacy experience as well as some prominent backing. Among her campaign donors is State Rep. Christina Morales, who serves Southeast Houston, and Leal has an endorsement from Houston City Council member and Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen.
“I don’t think money is the only determiner of viability,” Leal said. “When I look at my candidacy, I’m equally proud of the money I’ve been able to raise and the really strong network of volunteers I’ve built. We’ve had over 100 volunteers come out for weekends on this campaign. They’ve knocked on thousands of doors.”
Eastman, a former Houston ISD trustee and longtime Heights resident, ranked second among District 148 candidates with a fund balance of more than $28,000 as of Sept. 26. She is the only candidate to have won a previous election – Eastman won two – and she has name recognition because the geographic area she represented in HISD has significant overlap with District 148.
Watt, who also lives in the Heights and practices commercial litigation, had a remaining fund balance of nearly $28,000 as of the last filing date. He said his experience as a lawyer has prepared him to navigate the Texas Legislature in terms of both passing laws and blocking those that would be unfavorable to District 148 constituents, and he also has nonprofit experience as a former board member for Children At Risk.
Right behind Watt in fundraising is Rob Block, a Near Northside resident and Houston firefighter with significant financial backing from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. Block was a legislative intern for Farrar in 2015 and has worked with civic groups as well as affordable housing nonprofit Avenue CDC.
The other Democrats in the race are Carol Denson, Adrian Garcia, Terah Isaacson, Mia Mundy, Anna Nunez, Penny Shaw, Alva Trevino and Kendra Yarbrough Camarena.
“This is an incredibly crowded field,” Leal said. “There are a number of strong candidates.”
The two republicans in the race are Lui La Rotta and Ryan McConnico, the latter of whom lost to Farrar in 2018. Chris Carmona, who lost to Farrar as a Republican in 2014, is running this year as an independent.
From a fundraising standpoint, La Rotta leads the non-Democrat group with a campaign balance of more than $3,000 as of Sept. 26. La Rotta, who served in the Navy and works in the energy sector, said District 148 voters are ripe for a change in political philosophy after Farrar’s lengthy tenure.
But La Rotta isn’t spending his time and campaign money on challenging the Democrats, at least not yet. He said his initial goal is to qualify for a runoff, which would mean he is one of the top two vote-getters in a race in which none of the candidates garners more than 50 percent of the vote.
“We are targeting our Republican voters and ones that traditionally vote with Republicans,” La Rotta said. “I don’t think we’re competing for the same space yet with the Democratic voters. That’s our strategy right now is making the runoff, and then we have to address the independents.”
Many of the Democrats share similar stances on key issues in District 148 and the state as a whole, such as advocating for public education, wanting to combat gun violence and striving to make health care and housing more accessible and affordable.
To win and keep the seat colored blue, one of those candidates must find a way to stand out from the rest of the pack.
“I feel like anybody that’s making a strong prediction right now will probably look sort of silly on Nov. 5 or 6,” Block said.
Based on campaign finance reports filed with the state of Texas, candidates for Texas House District 148 had the following contribution balances as of Sept. 26:
Michele Leal: $61,526.89
Anna Eastman: $28,494.05
Chris Watt: $27,845.82
Rob Block: $27,787.52
Penny Shaw: $14,787.39
Kendra Yarbrough Camarena: $9,260.54
Carol Denson: $4,527.82
Adrian Garcia: $4,525.00
Alva Trevino: $5,226.00
Lui La Rotta: $3,219.70
Mia Mundy: $1,148.31
Terah Isaacson: $1,327.42
Chris Carmona: $830.00
Ryan McConnico: $0.00
Anna Nunez: No report filed