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The Advocate, “Why This Gay Candidate's Texas Race Is of National Importance”

7 min read

The Advocate has a great piece out about Dr. Eliz Markowitz’s (D. TX-HD28) special election tomorrow to flip the Texas State House blue:

Democrats are nine seats away from flipping the Texas House in November. They are unlikely to gain control of the state Senate, which currently has 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats — but if they control at least one chamber, they can force compromises when it comes time to draw the districts. If Republicans control both chambers, the state’s congressional map will be “the most gerrymandered in the union,” O’Rourke warned while campaigning for Markowitz this month.

No matter what the outcome is of the special election Tuesday, however, Markowitz and Gates will soon be out campaigning again, as the seat will be on the ballot in the regular 2020 election. The party primaries will be March 3 and the general election November 3. Markowitz is unopposed in the Democratic primary, while Gates has one opponent, businesswoman Schell Hammel, in the Republican race.

And whoever wins the special election won’t be casting any votes in the legislature, as it isn’t in session this year. But Markowitz is going for the win nonetheless. “It’s important to build momentum,” she says.

Whenever she can cast votes and propose legislation, Markowitz promises to push a progressive agenda. Education is one of her key issues. She wants Texas to end its reliance on standardized tests to determine how students and teachers are performing — and how much state funding each school will get. Instead of “teaching to the test,” she says, schools should teach students how to develop critical thinking skills. She also wants the state to support vocational training, as college isn’t for everyone.

Her emphasis on education isn’t surprising — she is an educator, teacher trainer, and textbook author with the Princeton Review, a test preparation company. She works with both students and teachers, helping them wade through the thicket of standardized tests. She has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University of Houston.

She also seeks to expand Texans’ access to health care, reduce gun violence, reform immigration policy in a humane fashion, promote the use of clean energy, and more; see her full platform here. And she promises to work for LGBTQ equality in Texas. “I don’t care who you are — all individuals should have the freedom to express themselves and be productive members of society,” she says.

Texas does not have an LGBTQ-inclusive statewide antidiscrimination law, but last year it passed what was dubbed the “Save Chick-fil-A bill” — designed to prevent the state and its municipalities from “punishing” companies for their membership in or donations to religious organizations, even if those organizations discriminate. “That’s not the Texas I want to be a part of,” Markowitz says.

She has deeply personal experience with anti-LGBTQ sentiments, as she shared with The Advocate last year for National Coming Out Day. When she came out to her parents in her teens, her father was quickly accepting, telling her he was relieved she wasn’t pregnant. Her mother, who had suffered from alcoholism and depression, had a different reaction, saying, “Love has limits.” Markowitz’s mother eventually became more tolerant, but their relationship was never fully repaired; her mother is now deceased.

Now Markowitz hopes her venture into politics will help create an environment where love doesn’t have limits. Her first run for office was in 2018, for the Texas State Board of Education, and she didn’t win but got 41 percent of the vote, up from 33 percent for the previous Democratic candidate.

This race has attracted a lot of attention:

Markowitz and Gates are vying to finish the term of former Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who won reelection in 2018 by 8 percentage points while O'Rourke lost the suburban Houston district by 3. Those numbers do indeed put HD-28 far down the list of 22 seats that Democrats have designated as pickup opportunities in November — 16th, to be exact.

But there is no denying that the deluge of high-profile Democratic attention has laid the foundation for a highly anticipated result Tuesday, complicating efforts to keep the race in perspective. Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman said Friday that Democrats “have already won by the fact Republicans have had to invest as much as they have in this district.”

“I'm hard-pressed to see how we lose on Tuesday regardless of the outcome,” Markowitz said in an interview Sunday evening. “Whether or not we walk away having won [the runoff] … we will have walked away establishing a movement for change and that movement will continue across the state of Texas through November.”

Republicans are scoffing.

“Democrats are clearly managing expectations after spending the last three weeks talking a big game in the district,” said Aaron De Leon, political director for the pro-Gates Associated Republicans of Texas. “Now as early vote tallies roll in, they are trying to save face at the last minute as Fort Bend voters are clearly rejecting their radical progressive agenda.”

The four-day early voting period ended Friday, and turnout was 16,332, which blew past that of the November special election, which drew 14,270 voters. That is especially notable because there were 12 days of early voting for the November election, and many more polling places were open. Also, Gates was vying against five other Republicans, while Markowitz was the sole Democratic candidate.

But who that increased turnout benefits is a separate question. In the Gates campaign analysis, the early vote was 53% Republican, 30% Democratic and 17% independent — auguring a massive disadvantage for Markowitz heading into Election Day. Democrats have not offered similarly detailed numbers, but Markowitz said their “analysis is showing that we're at a dead heat and it's really going to come down to Election Day turnout.”

Up through the final days, the race is attracting a remarkable amount of money for a state House contest, starting with Gates himself, who has loaned his campaign over $1.5 million and been able to easily outspend Markowitz. To be sure, though, the Democratic effort has been well-funded, with Markowitz raising over $800,000 since July 1 and benefitting from six figures of outside spending.

A majority of Markowitz's money has come from state and national groups with an interest in flipping the Texas House. Her biggest donors have been the House Democratic Campaign Committee and its national counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which have each given her well over $100,000. The DLCC's investment is nearing $200,000 after it infused $125,000 into her campaign last week to help pay for a last-minute ad buy on broadcast TV.

Markowitz has also been massively boosted by Forward Majority, a national Democratic super PAC focused on flipping state legislatures. The group has been easily the biggest known outside spender in the race, unloading over $400,000 on TV and digital ads, mailing and polling. Most notably, one of the group's TV ads introduced a sensitive subject into the runoff: a 2000 child-abuse case that has followed Gates through his several runs for office.

As the final day of early voting began Friday morning, Forward Majority issued a lengthy memo downplaying the notion that HD-28 is a “bellwether” district for whether the House will flip but defending its heavy involvement in the contest. The memo called HD-28 “exactly the type of district where Democrats need to compete to win majorities.”

And this race could foreshadow some big things for Texas:

At stake is a national effort to flip the Republican-led Texas House to Democratic control, shifting key political power ahead of the 2021 legislative session when lawmakers will redraw congressional and state legislative districts that could reshape politics for the state and nation for the next decade.

If Democrats pull off a victory, it would signal to donors across the country that they could win the nine seats needed to take control of the Texas House, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. That could open the spigot of political donations in dozens of targeted races, including 11 in the Houston area and others in north and central Texas.

“They really have set it up as a test case of, ‘Do Democrats have a chance of flipping the Texas House in 2020?’” Jones said.

Voter registration is up across Texas, especially in Fort Bend County where 452,000 people are registered to vote, a 30 percent increase since 2014. That is faster than the population growth, which ballooned by 24 percent during the same time period.

Texas is politically in play in a way it has not been in years. Although Republicans control all statewide elected positions and both seats in the U.S. Senate, voter support for the GOP slipped in 2018. Democrats flipped a dozen Republican state House districts that year, and Democrat Beto O’Rourke won over a slew of counties that long favored Republicans in his failed bid for U.S. Senate.

Republicans have won House District 28 handily in past elections, including 2018 when former Richmond Rep. John Zerwas defeated Democrat Meghan Scoggins by about 8 percentage points. He retired last fall, leaving the seat vacant.

Despite Zerwas’ final electoral win, Democrats suggest Republicans are losing their grip in the district. O’Rourke lost by 3 percentage points there to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, closing a 10 percentage-point gap from the 2016 election when then-candidate Donald Trump carried the district over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Democrat Markowitz earned her seat in the runoff with 39 percent of the vote, followed by Gates at 28 percent, prompting a runoff. Collectively, the six Republican candidates made up 61 percent of the vote.

Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election, the seat is up for election again in November.

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