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An Outsider Takes On House Veteran Charlie Geren In Tarrant County Primary Race

Christopher Connelly/KERA
Charlie Geren

State Rep. Charlie Geren is in the middle one of the toughest primary fights in Texas. Entrepreneur Bo French is challenging the 15-year House veteran in a district that stretches from Fort Worth to the northwest corner of Tarrant County. It’s a battle over the future direction of the statehouse that offers voters in House District 99 the choice between experienced deal maker, or replace him with a fresh face promising a more conservative agenda.

French is a political newcomer. He’s well financed and he’s been aggressively campaigning. An investor and a former business partner of the slain American sniper Chris Kyle, French hopes to ride the anti-establishment mood sweeping the country into office.

“On all fronts, people are frustrated with government, and frustrated with people who just seemingly do the same thing over and over,” French says.

French wants to see more focus on conservative issues in Austin, from reducing the size and scope of government to rooting out illegal immigration.  

“Everything we care about as conservatives is under assault,” French says. “From our religious values and family values, the intrusiveness of government in our daily lives, and people see that and people feel that.”

Charlie Geren says in Washington, things are all wrong. But Austin, he says, is working. At Railhead Smokehouse – the barbecue joint he’s run for 30 years -- Geren says people angry at the direction of the Texas state house should just listen to Gov. Greg Abbott, who called the last legislative session the most conservative ever.

Credit Christopher Connelly/KERA
Bo French

“We’re getting things done,” Geren says. “Texas is the best economy of any state in the country: We’re the 13th largest economy in the world, we’re the largest exporter in the United States. Business is good here. I’m proud of bringing business to Texas and Fort Worth.”

One business he’s proud of bringing: Facebook. He authored a bill that gives incentives for companies to build big data farms. That deal faced criticism from those who oppose using tax breaks to lure companies. But Geren says it’s good for Fort Worth.

“Somebody who works for Facebook’s liable to come to my restaurant and buy a sandwich. They’re going to buy furniture from somebody, they’re going to buy a house from somebody,” he says. “That’s conservative and good business practices. Would I like for people not to get any tax breaks? Sure. But that’s not the way the world is today. If we don’t do it, if we don’t match or beat then they’re going to be in Oklahoma or in Louisiana or Tennessee.”

TCU political scientist Jim Riddlesperger says it’s precisely this pragmatism that’s put a target on Geren’s back.  

“In fact, his record is conservative, overall. It’s his frame of reference that is different than the other conservatives,” Riddlesperger says. “Charlie Geren says look, if we are going to govern a state, we have to govern by bringing people together.”

As the Republicans have consolidated control of state government, Riddlesperger says they have felt pressure from Tea Party activists. He explains those activists want to take out Geren as one of the architects of the coalition of House Democrats and Republicans that put Speaker Joe Straus in power.

“They say what has happened is that kind of moderate leadership has led to Republicans not getting the primary policy accomplishments they want done,” Riddlesperger says.

The race has drawn big money from across the state. Geren expects to spend more than a million dollars fighting off the challenge.

French has criticized Geren for taking money from Austin lobbyists and business interests. Geren says French is a pawn in West Texas billionaire activist Tim Dunn’s mission to control the House. Both say they're proud that most of their donors are regular people who live in the district.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.