When Joe Barton told a constituent to shut up, John Duncan decided to run
DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer
John Duncan was attending a town hall meeting with his congressman, Republican Joe Barton, in Frost, a Navarro County town midway between Corsicana and Hillsboro the night that Barton told a constituent asking whether he would support legislation to combat violence against women to “shut up.”
That’s when Duncan decided he would challenge Barton for Texas’ 6th District congressional seat. “It was horrifying,” Duncan said of Barton’s reaction that night.
Barton, a 32-year veteran of Congress, apparently never expected people to travel from Arlington to Frost, on the far edge of the district, to confront him on issues like healthcare.
“He’s out of touch,” Duncan said of the Republican incumbent. “He doesn’t care about our concerns.”
So Duncan laid out a platform based on what he heard at the town hall meeting emphasizing healthcare, education and immigration, and officially threw his hat in the election ring.
Duncan has a law degree but has never practiced. He said he always had an interest in running for public office, and he was primarily interested in attending law school because he noticed most members of Congress were attorneys.
Instead of practicing law, he has made his career in healthcare. Currently, he’s the compliance officer for Prism Health North Texas, formerly known as AIDS Arms. His job is to make sure the agency adheres to all regulations and that documentation is in place so the agency is in compliance with Ryan White and AIDS Drug Assistance Program grant regulations.
Duncan grew up in East Texas and graduated from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth but moved to Massachusetts for law school. After graduation, he stayed there for awhile. He moved back to North Texas when his husband, Tim Schaefer, was accepted to Brite Divinity School.
Schaefer’s father is the Rev. Frank Schaefer, who was defrocked by the Methodist Church for performing his son’s wedding and refusing to say he wouldn’t perform another wedding. Two of Tim’s three siblings are also gay. Schaefer was reinstated on appeal because his defrocking was based on something he may or may not do in the future.
“Seeing what Frank went through inspired me,” Duncan said. “He was thrown into the spotlight.”
Duncan said he admires how his father-in-law stood up for his family and his beliefs, refusing to allow people to be marginalized.
Duncan declared his candidacy in April, but his husband, who’s also his treasurer, said the campaign is just starting to heat up. Money is beginning to come in and they’ve been scheduling meet-and-greets across the three-county district to gain name recognition.
“I do enjoy political events,” Schaefer said, “but it’s tough being the spouse of someone running for office,” adding that it can be exhausting.
Because Duncan has never run for office before, Schaefer said the campaign is a very grassroots effort. “We’re not interested in PAC money,” he said. “John doesn’t want to be beholden to special interests.”
He said watching Duncan on the campaign trail has been interesting. “He’s always been good one-on-one,” he said. Now, he’s becoming an even better public speaker.
“What people seem to like about him is he has empathy people can sense,” Schaefer continued. “He’s listening and learning from people.”
Schaefer said their being a same-sex couple hasn’t been an issue so far, even at meetings in more conservative areas of the district. And Duncan said he believes people in the district will listen to his message.
“I believe they can see what I’m advocating for and who I’m advocating for,” he said.
Duncan said he would certainly support the LGBT community and make sure LGBT people are protected from discrimination. But that would be only a part of his agenda. He said he would work for everyone in his district, including fighting to preserve healthcare protections for people with pre-existing conditions from discrimination by insurance companies.
Duncan said the Affordable Care Act is far from perfect and explained that when he lived in Massachusetts and Romneycare, the healthcare law on which Obamacare was based, passed, the legislature met each year to improve it.
“Currently nothing’s passing,” he said of the situation in Congress, adding that both sides “need to work together.”
He said he would like to see the ACA eventually become a single-payer system that may include additional private insurance for those who want it. He based that on the model of Medicare.
Education is also a big part of his platform. “We need to make sure we’re investing in our public schools,” he said. “[Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos wants to privatize. Vouchers take funds away from public schools.”
Duncan also supports comprehensive immigration reform. He said the process is complicated and expensive and pointed to the experiences of the Schaefer family, which immigrated from Germany, as an example. In the current environment, people who are not citizens are afraid to contact the police when they’ve witnessed a crime or are victims of crime, Duncan said, stressing that current policy just encourages more crime against immigrants.
In addition to three other candidates running for the Democratic nomination, Duncan faces one additional obstacle — or possible advantage: A redistricting trial is currently underway after three districts in South Texas were declared unconstitutional because district maps as they are drawn dilute minority voting strength. Should those districts be redrawn, the entire state’s congressional map would change.
In several of the new maps submitted to the court, Tarrant County is removed from the 6th District. But in one, Arlington would be added to Rep. Marc Veasey’s district. In that case, Duncan said, he’d drop out of the race because he wouldn’t challenge the fellow Democrat.
In another possible map, the area would be added to Fort Worth Republican Kay Grainger’s district.
“In Fort Worth, there’s a campaign to repeal and replace Kay Grainger,” Duncan said.
In that scenario, he said he’d build on the support he’s gained in his portion of Tarrant County, work with the repeal and replace people and challenge the incumbent.
Despite the possibility of being redistricted, Duncan said, “As a campaign, we’re moving forward.”
At Prism Health, his co-workers are excited about Duncan’s congressional bid. “John is an incredibly wonderful and dedicated individual,” Prism Health CEO John Carlo said.
“He’d be an incredible elected official.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 11, 2017.