Democrat Howard falls just 47 votes shy of outright win in district drawn specifically to be Republican; faces Bentzin in runoff
Democrat Donna Howard fell 73 votes short of outright victory in a special election held Tuesday to fill the District 48 seat in the Texas House of Representatives.
Howard, a former school board member in Eanes, won 49.47 percent of the 13,555 votes cast in the election to fill the seat left empty when Representative Todd Baxter, a Republican from Austin, resigned last November.
Ben Bentzin, a Republican and a former executive with Dell Inc., earned a place in the runoff against Howard with 37.8 percent. Kathy Rider, another Democrat who previously served on the Austin school board, came in third with 10.45 percent. Libertarian candidate Ben Easton was a distant fourth with 2.29 percent.
Governor Rick Perry called the special election, saying it was important the seat be filled before the special legislative session on school finance set for this spring.
The candidate who wins the runoff will serve the rest of 2006. But the general election in November will determine who will hold the seat during the 2007 legislative session.
Baxter won his second term in 2004 by less than 150 votes. He said in November that he was resigning to spend more time with his growing family. But critics have suggested that Baxter did not want to go through a tough re-election campaign in which opponents were likely to attack him for campaign donations from the Republican National Committee in 2002 that are now tied to money laundering charges against U.S. Representative Tom DeLay, a Republican from Sugarland.
Baxter’s district, which includes west Austin and part of western Travis County, was one of those redrawn in 2002 as a specifically Republican district. Chuck Smith, deputy director for the gay lobby, Equality Texas, said this week that Howard’s strong showing in the special election is an indication that voters are fed up with the Legislature’s continuing failure to address important issues.
“It was something of a surprise that the two Democrats in this race were able to take 60 percent of the vote in what was meant to be a Republican district,” Smith said. “Much of the attention in the special election has been focused on education, and Kathy Rider and Donna Howard were able to campaign effectively on the basis of their hands-on experience in education.”
The vote shows that “people want to end the gridlock in the Capitol. They are tired of the failed leadership in the Legislature. When you combine that with the idea that people want someone in the Legislature who actually cares about education and who wants to solve the school finance problem, and you have some issues that really resonate with the voters,” Smith said.
Howard’s strong showing is also a good sign for the GLBT community, Smith said. He said the candidate has not yet filled out a written questionnaire on her stance on GLBT issues. She has, however, told Equality Texas representatives that she is against banning gays and lesbians as foster and adoptive parents, and that she would work to strengthen protections for same-sex couples, he said.
“In all our discussions so far, she has indicated that she would be supportive on our issues,” Smith said.
But Smith was hesitant to declare Howard as a sure winner in the runoff.
“The numbers from [Tuesday's election] are encouraging. But the fact that she was only 73 votes short of an outright win doesn’t mean this election is in the bag. A lot of people didn’t vote in this special election, and you can’t predict how many more might vote and how they would vote in the runoff,” Smith said. “District 48 is a tight district. It will come down to who gets their message out there and who gets their voters to the poll in the runoff.”
One definite lesson from the runoff, though, is the importance of each and every vote, Smith said.
“Go back to Proposition 2 in the Legislature last year. It got on the ballot by only a two-vote difference in the Senate, and just one vote in the House. Just a small change in who is in the Legislature would have made all the difference in whether the amendment ever got on the ballot in the first place,” Smith said.
“Every time we see a chance to elect a pro-equality legislator, then we have to get out and work for that person. We have to get our community out to vote,” he added. “If we can erase some of the apathy we see in our community and get people to recognize the real importance of who represents them in Austin, then we will have a much greater chance of seeing some positive change.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of January 20, 2006.