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Republicans Konni Burton And Mark Shelton Battle For Pivotal Senate Seat In Tarrant County

Mark Graham
Texas Tribune
Konni Burton and Mark Shelton are battling for the GOP nomination in State Senate District 10.

The entire state will be watching Tuesday night as Republicans in Tarrant County decide which runoff candidate will continue and compete in the fall for Wendy Davis’ state senate seat.

The Senate District 10 runoff pits tea party candidate Konni Burton against former state representative Mark Shelton.

They’re both conservatives who want to stop illegal immigration, restrain state spending and limit the implementation of Obamacare in Texas. 

But they philosophically disagree on some other big issues and on who will best support the conservative agenda in Austin.

At a recent Republican forum in Arlington, 57-year-old Mark Shelton, a Fort Worth pediatrician, touted his experience in 2009 to 2012 in the Texas House of Representatives, where he served on the powerful appropriations and public education committees. 

Legislative experience vs. grassroots credentials 

“I’ve actually been in the legislature. And I’ve actually been involved in my community. And I’ve actually been in business. She doesn’t have any of these experiences,” Shelton said. “This is just not a starter job.”

Burton, 51, is a Colleyville tea party organizer who worked on Ted Cruz’s campaign and now has his endorsement. She faults Shelton for voting in favor of the state budget passed in the midst of the 2011 funding crisis. It was balanced by delaying billions in state payments.

“He was one of the legislators who passed a budget who said it was balanced when it was not.  There were $7 billion of bills they pushed off to the next session,” Burton said.

“He did not do enough for conservatives,” she said.

Burton told Arlington Republicans she wants more transparency in state spending.  She also supports a school choice program known as the “Taxpayer Savings Grant,” which critics call a voucher program. It would allow a public school student to transfer to a private school. Up to 60 percent of the per-pupil spending allotted for that student would also be transferred to the private school.

The candidates on school vouchers

“It helps the money follow the child with some of the money still staying in the public schools,” Burton said of the measure which did not pass the legislature. 

“It was a great step in the right direction for Texas. I think that’s something we need to look at,” she said.

Shelton says he’d oppose that program and any other that uses public dollars for private schools.

“I’m a strong supporter of public schools. I think all our tax dollars should go to public schools. I would not vote to give it to private schools,” Shelton said. 

A difference on how to fund water projects

Shelton and Burton also disagree on how to pay for big infrastructure needs. 

Shelton supported taking $2 billion from the state’s rainy day savings account to set up a fund that will finance about $30 billion in water projects. He says drought and Texas’ growing population made that the most important measure passed during the last legislative session.

“It is a long-term plan,” Shelton said. “It is a 50-year plan. It will increase the storage capacity for water in the state of Texas.”

Burton wants to reexamine the water fund. She says it was a priority it should have been paid for through general tax dollars and not through a savings fund. She believes lawmakers have just created more bureaucracy and haven’t clearly explained how the money will be spent.

“Who’s going to get it first? How much is the funding going to go? What is it going to go to? I mean, are we going to be repainting water towers?” she asked. “This is unfortunately a lot of the way governments work.  The money goes to things that are not a priority.”

Arlington Republicans listening to the candidates were split in their support.

Dave McElwee is backing Shelton because of he’s worked in the community for years.

“She has not been active in local community affairs, whereas Dr. Shelton has a long history in this county.  He’s been very active in politics especially when it comes to children," McElwee said.

Craig Ownby supported Shelton’s senate race two years ago when he lost to Wendy Davis. But not this time.

“Mark has barely campaigned," Ownby said. "Konni’s been out doing the grassroots work. She’s talking to the voters.  She’s talking to the constituents. Frankly, I’m not sure Mark can win the district."

Winning Senate District 10 was paramount for all the Republican at the forum. If their nominee retakes the seat, Republicans will have a large enough majority in the state senate to block most Democratic bills.  

The winner faces Democrat Libby Willis in November.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.