Texas Politics

Why House Democrats led by Tarrant lawmaker are energized after big election wins

Not sure what Texas’ elected politicians actually do? Here are explanations

Railroad commissioner? County Court-at-Law judge? County tax assessor-collector? When you head to the polls, know what the responsibilities are of the positions on your ballot. Here's a brief explainer on some of the key elected positions in Texas
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Railroad commissioner? County Court-at-Law judge? County tax assessor-collector? When you head to the polls, know what the responsibilities are of the positions on your ballot. Here's a brief explainer on some of the key elected positions in Texas

Bolstered by their biggest election gains in nearly a decade, Texas House Democrats are staking out a larger role in the 86th Legislature under the leadership of a five-term Tarrant County lawmaker known for a steady demeanor and proven strategic skills.

As chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie oversees an eclectic mix of Democrats ranging from Houston’s Senfronia Thompson, who has been in the chamber for more than four decades, to a crop of rookies coming off stunning election upsets over Republican incumbents.

In recent past sessions, Democrats had little to brag about in a chamber that has been under Republican control for 16 years. But the pick up of a dozen former Republican seats in the November elections has infused Turner and his fellow Democrats with a burst of optimism and energy, as well as genuine expectations of influencing the outcome of the session’s biggest priority — a sweeping overhaul of the state’s broken school finance system.

“I’m excited,” said Fort Worth Rep. Nicole Collier, echoing sentiments from other Democrats during the opening days of the session last week. Although Democrats are still in the minority, they are expected to have 67 seats after likely Democratic victories in three upcoming special elections, putting them nine short of a majority in the 150-member House.

In an interview in his office last week, Turner, 46, said he is eager to capitalize on his party’s election victories and ensure that Democrats will be a “cohesive and effective voice” in keeping the House focused on the “real issues that matter,” such as public schools, health care and the economy.

The politically fortified caucus also includes Turner’s two Democratic colleagues from Tarrant County: Collier and Rep. Ramon Romero, both of whom are rising in seniority and could be tapped for advancement under new House Speaker Dennis Bonnen.

The three House members also share a close alliance with an incoming Democratic star on the other side of the Capitol: State Sen. Beverly Powell of Fort Worth, who defeated Republican incumbent Konni Burton of Colleyville in the race for Tarrant County’s Senate District 10.

Turner, who became the Democratic leader in 2017, is expected to be returned to the post when the caucus meets Wednesday to choose officers for the 2019-2020 legislative term. Rep. Celia Israel of Austin announced in September that she also planned to seek the job but she has since withdrawn her candidacy after receiving assurances from Turner that she would play a critical role in the Democratic leadership.

“It wasn’t a negative move against Chairman Turner,” she told the Star-Telegram last week in explaining why she initially waged the leadership challenge. “He appreciates my energy and ideas.”

With no other apparent challengers on the horizon, there is “zero doubt” that Turner will win a second term, said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who chairs the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. Turner said he is not aware of anyone else seeking the post since Israel withdrew.

Democratic priorities

Turner describes 2018 as a “very good Democratic year” that he says was driven by deep disenchantment with President Trump, both in Texas and nationally, as well as growing resentment over divisive social issues such as the 2017 “bathroom bill” that sought to restrict transgender use of public restrooms.

Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke’s surprisingly strong showing in his unsuccessful run against incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz also fueled Democratic candidates down the ballot, including those running for the Legislature. O’Rourke even edged out Cruz in staunchly Republican Tarrant County.

Democrats came close to parity in 2008 when President Obama’s first-term election gave them 74 Texas House seats, just two less than the 76 held by Republicans. But they tanked in the following election when a Republican surge in 2010 dropped their numbers to 49.

The 2018 elections constituted their biggest comeback in eight years, infused with individual success stories in which political newcomers defeated entrenched Republican incumbents.

In Denton County, Michelle Beckley, 49, a bird shop owner with a streak of blue in her brown hair, decided that she wanted to try to make a difference. “I wasn’t happy with politics and decided I could complain or run for office, so I ran for office,’’ she recalled last week as she and an aide stood outside the House chamber.

She took on Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, a three-term Republican House member who authored the bathroom bill in 2007. After defeating Simmons with 51.16 percent of the vote, she became the first Democratic office-holder from Denton County in 34 years and the first ever from her House district.

In Houston, Jon Rosenthal, a 55-year-old mechanical engineer, had never engaged in politics since his election as the high school science club president in 1980. But he grew weary of what he called “the deterioration of civil discourse” and, like Beckley, decided he “wanted to do something rather than talking about it.”

He originally planned to challenge an incumbent in the State Senate, but, on filing day, the local party chairman asked him to run against Republican state Rep. Gary Elkins after another potential Democrat candidate in the House race dropped out. As the Legislature began its 140-day session on Tuesday, Rosenthal was sworn in as the new representative of District 135, replacing a seasoned lawmaker who held the seat for 12 terms. Rosenthal beat Elkins by a margin of 51 percent to 48 percent.

Returning Democrats, including the three from Tarrant County, are hoping for a productive session after Bonnen, who was unanimously elected as the speaker on opening day Tuesday, promised to focus on school finance reform and other issues that have long been Democratic priorities.

Bonnen, in an interview with the Star-Telegram, said Democrats are “going to play a significant role’” in the House and are “going to have a fair representation” of committee leadership positions that will match their expected numbers in the House. Conversely, Turner, Collier and Romero all said they are looking toward a positive relationship with the incoming speaker, who replaced five-term former speaker Joe Straus.

“I think we’ll get along just fine,” Turner said in describing Democrats’ emerging relationship with Bonnen. “We’re not always going to agree on issues … but I think there is a mutual respect and I think we’ll have open lines of communication and be able to work together.”

Turner, Collier and Romero are the only Democrats in an 11-member Tarrant County House delegation that includes eight Republicans, several of whom are part of the Tea Party-aligned Freedom Caucus. But Powell’s election gives Tarrant County Democrats a voice in the Senate and thus bolsters Democratic bargaining power on both sides of the Capitol.

Powell said she “absolutely” expects to work closely with her Democratic allies in the House to help forge bipartisan solutions on both state and local issues. “This will be a collaborative effort,” she said, adding that she and her House colleagues from Tarrant County “will certainly be in conversations all the time.”

Collier, now in her fourth term, and Romero, a third-term member, could also find new opportunities in the Bonnen-led House. Like the rest of the House, they eagerly await the committee assignments that Bonnen is expected to make within the next several weeks.

Collier, 46, the only African-American in the Tarrant County delegation, is starting her second term as first vice-chairwoman of the 18-member Texas Legislative Black Caucus and says she’s eager to pursue a legislative agenda that includes measures to eliminate so-called “zombie debt” that has outlived the statute of limitations, expand environmental protections and ensure clean drinking for public schools.

She declined to speculate on which committees she might be assigned, saying “I’m happy to be where the speaker wants to assign me.”

Romero, 45, became the first Hispanic in the Tarrant County delegation with his election in 2014 and serves as deputy whip for House Democrats. As a business owner for more than a quarter-century, Romero says he hopes to have a greater role in shaping the economy and would like to land a spot on either of the two major committees that deal with taxes and spending — ways and means and appropriations. He’s also expressed interested in becoming chairman of the Business and Industry Committee, on which he has served as a member.

Turner says he’s presumably ineligible for a committee chairmanship because of his partisan role as leader of the House Democrats, a post that potentially puts him in conflict with the Republican leadership.

Leadership style

Since becoming Democratic chairman at the start of the last session in 2017, Turner has worked to strengthen the caucus’ structural organization, serve the needs of its ethnically diverse membership and fight for Democratic victories during the election season. Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston, a former Democratic leader, likens the job to “herding cats.”

As a result of the November elections, the caucus is composed of 34 Latinos, 16 African-Americans, 12 whites and two Asian-Americans. There are 37 men and 27 women.

Turner acknowledged the fact that his status as a white man leading a group dominated by Hispanics and African-Americans has “crossed my mind,” adding: “That’s a question I asked myself when I first considered running for this role more than two years ago.

“But in my conversations with my colleagues, it was made clear to me that that was far less important — in fact, unimportant,” he said. “What was important”, he said, was that he was “willing to put in the time and the work and create the organizational structure to help us be as effective as possible.”

“That’s what their focus is and that’s what I’ve tried to do,” he said.

Turner raised $223,000 to improve caucus operations, including expanding the caucus staff, and donated more than $300,000 from his campaign fund to Democratic candidates and organizations during the 2018 elections. He also consulted “with a lot of candidates” throughout the election season and spoke on behalf of the party and candidates at political events.

Fellow Democrats assess Turner’s leadership style in complimentary terms. “Chris has two very important virtues that you need in a leader,” says Anchia, who sits near Turner on the House floor. “One is that he’s highly organized and two is that he’s very strategic. He sees things far in advance and that has represented an important advantage for us during his tenure.”

Turner entered the House in 2009 after defeating Republican Rep. Bill Zedler of Arlington but he sat out a term after Zedler came back to defeat him in the Republican wave of 2010. He won a three-way Democratic primary for a newly created seat in eastern Tarrant County in 2012 and has consistently won re-election with no Democratic opposition. He’s only had one Republican opponent, in 2016, and won the race with 67 percent of the vote.

The 101st District is centered in the Tarrant County side of Grand Prairie and includes portions of east and southeast Arlington. It’s predominantly middle class and about two-thirds Democratic, mixed almost evenly among Hispanics, African-Americans and Anglos, with a growing Asian-American population.

Professionally, Turner runs a one-man communications and public relations enterprise called Persuasive Deliveries, a venture that sometimes leads to his being misidentified as a political consultant. But Turner has nevertheless been deeply enmeshed in politics much of his life and his wife, Lisa Turner, is a bonafide political pro as state director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic research and political organization.

Turner got his start in campaigns when was a student at the University of Texas and later became executive director of the Tarrant County Democratic Party. He was also campaign manager and district director for then-Congressman Chet Edwards, a Waco Democrat, before leaving to run for the House in 2008.

Turner also served about four months as the manager of former State Sen. Wendy Davis’s campaign in the 2014 governor’s race. Turner was enlisted in an attempt to help stabilize the struggling campaign but Davis ultimately lost to Greg Abbott in a 20-point landslide.

Now, Democrats are looking to Turner to lead the charge in their behalf through the latest legislative session. And, as Turner sees it, a big part of his mission is “to amplify the collective voice of our members and help them in a way that the people of Texas see that we are fighting for them and their families.”