Mark Strama often tells the tale of his first election. In the story, he calls Ann Richards and receives some simple advice: the only reason to run is because you know you can win.
Political hopefuls today obviously realize that to win, they need to start early. So, they're already running or thinking about it, otherwise they wouldn't have Governor Richards' one reason to run in the first place.
Mark Strama's blog post announcing that he would not be seeking relection had barely been posted by the time the first official candidate announced her intentions to run for House District 50. Another candidate announced just days later. The primaries are still about a full year away with the general election even further. Yet, there are now three announced candidates -- with campaign treasurers already filed at the Texas Ethics Commission -- and at least three more rumored ones. They all come from different backgrounds offering very different perspectives for voters to consider. And they're all Democrats.
Certainly, a Republican will eventually jump into the race, relishing the opportunity to take back a district held by Republicans not too long ago. It's a question of some debate among strategists how hard Democrats will need to fight to keep it. Some call it a swing district, implying that Democrats will have to run a near-perfect general election candidate and campaign to win. Others are on the opposite end of the spectrum, claiming that it's safely in the hands for Democrats. In truth, it's neither. The seat is somewhere in between. It was an actual swing district (without Mark Strama's powerful campaign advantages) before redistricting. Republicans' gerrymandering happened to make this particular seat a little more blue, though. While Barbara Ann Radnofsky lost the district in 2010 by about four and a half points, Bill White won the district by more than three times that, and Obama won the district in 2012 by about 19 percentage points.
House District 50 leans Democratic. Democrats won't be able to waltz into victory without worry, and a perfect Republican candidate and campaign can certainly win the seat if Democrats screw up. But a strong, capable Democratic candidate will still be a heavy favorite going into November. Thankfully, primary voters already have such candidates to choose from.
Read more about the potential candidates below the jump.
Jade Chang Sheppard announced her candidacy on the same day Mark Strama announced the news of his future. Her name first surfaced almost six years ago as a possible challenger to Dawnna Dukes. Since then, she has moved to the Duval/Amherst neighborhood, and the successful businesswoman, whose parents moved from Taiwan, is looking to represent her neighborhood in the legislature because, as she puts it, "I know I can do more to ensure the next generation of Texans are able to achieve the American Dream just like I did." She now boasts that her company, Gideon Contracting, is a "multimillion dollar company" and says that the hard work she put in to get there would be an asset in the legislature.
Chang Sheppard quickly realized that in politics, like in business, you need a strong team to succeed. And she has already assembled one for her electoral campaign. She retained Cadre Media, run by Anthony Gutierrez, who successfully managed Congressman Pete Gallego's general election campaign and served as Marc Veasey's communications director during the successful primary bid in Dallas. She also will use The Pivot Group and AMM Political for specific services, two other groups that had multiple successes in Texas in 2012. Her campaign treasurer is prolific Texas Democratic donor Aimee Boone.
And she's going to need her high-powered team to protect her, too, because some Democratic activists in Austin are already whispering complaints about her. She serves on the Planned Parenthood Austin Community Board, but some activists appear taken aback that she's not truly one of them, almost as if her profile as "a mother with school aged children, a bootstrapped entrepreneur, and a daughter taking care of aging parents" leaves them wanting more. Specifically, some think that she's not dedicated enough to the Democratic cause, and multiple people have pointed out to me that she has given donations to multiple Republicans in the past. When I asked her about her donations to the other said of the aisle, she noted that she simply has donated to friends for different reasons, but that any Republican donations she's made "are a very small drop in the bucket" compared to "over $150,000 to groups like Planned Parenthood, Annie's List, Austin Childrens Shelter, Democratic congressional candidates and other local charitable organizations."
Win or lose, Jade Chang Sheppard will no doubt learn what fellow candidate Celia Israel learned in 2004: that being a candidate can be exhausting. Israel announced her candidacy only days after Chang Sheppard, and she already knows a thing or two about her name being on the ballot. Israel challenged County Commissioner Ron Davis in 2004 but came in a distant second place in a four-way primary. She says that she learned from her mistakes of 2004, specifically noting, "Don't try to be the campaign manager and pace yourself."
Israel, like Chang Sheppard, also has a business record to be proud of -- she was once named "Small Businesswoman of the Year" by the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. But she instead emphasizes her wide roots in the community as a volunteer and political activist. She proudly lists past involvement in the LGBT community and the Latino community as well as her participation on a number of local advisory boards.
Israel already sports a large supporter list, too, including elected officials Eddie Rodriguez, Greg Hamilton, and Mike Martinez.
Rounding out the field of officially declared candidates is another Democratic activist, Ramey Ko, a lawyer who sits as an Associate Judge at the Austin Municipal Court. Like Israel, Ko proudly lists his membership on multiple advisory commissions, including the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Ko only just filed his papers with the Texas Ethics Commission last week, having just moved residences into the district last week. Ko, whose law office is in the district, doesn't think voters will mind him having just moved, telling me that Mark Strama had to move into the district when he first ran, too.
Ko insists that he'll be effective as a state representative from day one, noting that he has "already worked successfully on bills at the state legislature on voting rights, juvenile justice, family violence, and traffic safety." Ko tells me Texas "will need both experience and new energy to take our state in a new direction" once Democrats retake the legislature. He believes, as someone who has spent his entire life in public service, that he fits that mold and is well suited to "to help build the next generation of leadership for Texas."
Still Assessing the Field
If the only candidates were Jade Chang Sheppard, Celia Israel, and Ramey Ko, voters would already have very different, yet successful individuals to choose from as they choose their representative. But in all likelihood, more will join the fray. Several others are openly considering a bid but haven't yet made up their minds.
One such hopeful is Rico Reyes, an attorney. Already attending many Democratic club meetings and speaking often about a potential candidacy, Reyes already looks like a real candidate. He tells me that a final decision has not yet been made, though, but that one will be announced in the coming weeks.
Also considering their options are Marco Mancillas, a public relations consultant, and Ross Peavey, who works in the Texas Legislature already and plans to make a decision after the session ends.
And there are undoubtedly others whose names have not yet reached the rumor mill, too.
Because you can win
With already three candidates already on a ballot that's a year away, the win-calculus of any other potential candidates will rest largely on one question: "Can I make a runoff?" It seems unlikely that one candidate will win a majority in the first round with only three candidates -- a fourth or a fifth only muddies the field further, increasing the chances of a two-person contest just to decide the Democratic nominee. Once in a runoff, the dynamics will change completely.
Governor Richards' rationale for any candidate running, therefore, "because you know you can win," isn't clear here. The best strategies for victory won't be apparent until the field is set (or closer to it), so candidates are relying what they know: that they can still work hard and get ahead now. Chang Sheppard, Israel, and Ko will all have a head start on organization and fundraising. That head start will be crucial no matter how many opponents they need to beat.
While HD50 is a district wholly in Travis County, where Democratic Primaries are often decided with a liberal group-think led by Democratic clubs and The Austin Chronicle, this district is somewhat different. First, HD50 isn't Austin proper - at all. Pflugerville Democrats aren't the same as Austin Democrats. Second, HD50 has the lowest raw Democratic primary turnout of all six Travis County house districts with less than 5,000 primary voters in each of the last two cycles. Fewer voters will rely on heuristics for their voting decisions and more will directly meet a candidate or interact with a campaign.
The Democratic nominee for HD50 -- most likely the next state representative -- will have to win over voters as directly as possible.