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Tarrant County Race Will Affect Balance Of Power In Texas Senate

Shelley Kofler

Once again, the battle over a state senate seat in Tarrant County is the most closely watched legislative race in Texas.  

Two years ago, it was Wendy Davis fighting for reelection in Senate District 10. Now it’s a neighborhood association leader and a tea party organizer vying to replace Davis.

At a busy, early polling site in Southwest Fort Worth, Republican Konni Burton chats up voters as she tries to make one last connection before they cast their ballots.

The 51-year-old tea party organizer from Colleyville cut her teeth working on Senator Ted Cruz’ 2012 campaign. Burton compares herself to opponent Libby Willis, the Democrat, this way:

“She’s (Willis) a tax-and-spend liberal. I am a limited-government, pro-freedom, pro-liberty conservative,” Burton said.

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
Konni Burton is the Republican candidate in the race for Senate District 10 in Tarrant County.

At her campaign headquarters a few miles north, 55-year-old Willis and her staff are reviewing plans for a town hall teleconference she’ll hold with voters that evening.

The former president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods agrees with Burton on one thing: This is a match between polar opposites.

“She (Burton) is somebody who is an extreme person who wants to go to Austin and pick and fight. I’m a problem solver and I want to go to Austin to find solutions,” Willis said.

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
Libby Willis is the Democrat running in Tarrant County's Senate District 10 race.

Willis’ effort to reach out beyond her party to Republicans and Independents is what Democrat Wendy Davis, now running for governor, did two years ago to win reelection in this district that leans Republican.

The race is considered pivotal. If Burton wins, Republicans in the Texas Senate will be within one vote of using a rule that would allow them to block any measure Democrats want to bring to the floor for consideration.

The candidates on education

Willis believes that’s a crucial point because she and other Democrats want to restore money cut from public education.

“I am one who believes we ought to have that 1:22 teacher-student ratio especially in K (kindergarten) through fourth," Willis said. "That’s very important. We’re not paying our teachers adequately. It always comes back to funding. So I believe it’s our number one duty in state government to fully fund public education."

Willis says all of that can be done without new taxes and fees because state revenues are increasing.

Burton isn’t so sure.

“It’s a very typical 'more money, more spending more taxes' for her in terms of education,” Burton said of Willis. “Me, it’s more about choices, whether it’s transferring within a public school district where parents and kids have more choices in that. Or if it’s charter schools. Those kinds of things.” 

School choice for some Republicans has also meant using tax dollars for vouchers that would pay for public school children to go to private schools. 

Burton says vouchers, introduced many times in the legislature, “is a discussion I think we need to have.”  But she hasn’t signed off on the idea.

“I’m not looking to go down (to the legislature) and say we absolutely need vouchers. I am not,” Burton said.

Willis, who serves on a public school advisory council in Fort Worth, opposes vouchers or shifting money to charter schools.

“When you’re not adequately funding public education you can’t go off and send public school dollars to facilities for charter schools or to voucher schemes,” Willis said.

Willis and Burton disagree on many other issues, too. 

Burton wants to repeal the Dream Act that allows undocumented Texas high school graduates to pay in-state college tuition. Willis says the students need an education and she supports the Dream Act.

The Dream Act, medicaid expansion and abortion

Willis wants state lawmakers to pursue the $100 billion in federal aid available if Texas comes up with an acceptable plan that makes Medicaid available to more citizens. Burton opposes Medicaid expansion.

During a WFAA-TV debate in September, the candidates also tangled over whether abortion should be available for women who are raped or become pregnant through incest. Burton said no.

“We are talking about life. And I will always protect life. Always,” Burton said. 

Willis said abortion should be an option in those cases.

“I believe it should be available. That’s a very private decision that women and their doctors should make and I believe we’ve had government overreach,” Willis said.     

Both candidates clarified their positions on abortion during an interview with KERA. 

Burton, who adamantly opposes abortion, would allow it if the mother’s life were at risk.

Willis, who says women should have a choice in many cases, said she doesn’t support abortion for a healthy mother and fetus beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy.

With such stark differences and the senate’s balance of power at stake, campaign contributions are pouring in. Burton and Willis each collected more than $1.8 million from July through October.

Observers believe this will be the most expensive Texas legislative race this year. The vote tally on Election Night is expected to be close.

Libertarian Gene Lord and Green Party candidate John Tunmire of Fort Worth are also running for the Senate District 10 seat.

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.