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Republican Runoff For Joe Barton's Open Seat Pits A Navy Pilot Against A Tax Man

Christopher Connelly
Jake Ellzey (left) and Ron Wright (right) are facing off in the May 22 runoff for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Congressman Joe Barton.

When longtime Congressman Joe Barton announced his retirement in the middle of a sexual scandal, 11 Republicans campaigned to replace him. 

Now, the race is down to two: Ron Wright, who's served as Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector, earned 45 percent of the primary vote. Jake Ellzey, a pilot, got 22 percent.

In their runoff, one thing that’s up for debate? The value of political experience.

Veteran pilot, political rookie

In an Arlington sports bar, a few dozen Republicans recently showed up to meet the candidates for the 6th Congressional District seat. Ron Wright gives his speech first. The Tarrant County tax man opens with a joke. He’s the only candidate who’s held elected office, and he says there’s value in experience. After all, he wants a doctor with gray hairs, an accountant with lines in his face.

“And when I get on a plane, I want the pilot to have the experience of Jake Ellzey, not a newbie. I want an experienced pilot,” he said. “And in fact, Jake is such a good pilot I want him to keep flying for years to come.”

Taking the stage a few minutes later, Ellzey ribs him back.

“I want you to know one thing: I will not make the youth and the gray hair of my opponent an issue in this campaign.”

Ellzey says he’s fine with being the candidate without elected experience because he’s served his country differently — as a Navy pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We may have different opinions about how to get this country in the direction that we want it to go, but I will work with people."

“I know who the enemies are. Americans are not my enemies,” he said. “We may have different opinions about how to get this country in the direction that we want it to go, but I will work with people.”

Still, on the issues, Ellzey stakes out staunchly conservative positions. On immigration, Ellzey says he’s unwilling to consider helping so-called “Dreamers,” who came to the country illegally as children, until Congress boosts border security.

“Job No. 1 of the federal government is to protect United States citizens,” he said. “Everything else comes after.”

Ellzey says the federal government needs to be reined in. Spending, he says, is out of control. And he thinks federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency that are not laid out explicitly in the constitution should be trimmed or shuttered.

“Let’s start carving into those agencies — either reabsorbing them or doing what we do here in Texas, and you evaluate every federal agency: Is it duplicated at the state level? Yes, they are.”

Elected official with endorsements

Like Ellzey, Wright promises to take a hard line on the federal budget, including cutting social security benefits for younger workers. He applauds the tax cuts passed by congressional Republicans last year. But he says that’s still not enough.

“The other half of the equation is addressing spending,” he said. “Because if you don’t address the spending side, it doesn’t matter what you do on the tax side — the country’s still going to go further into debt.”

On immigration, Wright thinks Congress should take up comprehensive immigration reforms. But not until the border is fortified.

"The learning curve of a freshman member of Congress is significant. My learning curve is going to be much shorter, because I know what it's like up there."

“This is one of the greatest failures of the federal government in my lifetime,” he said. “Absolutely one of the greatest failures.”

Wright has drawn endorsements from a wide range of Republican groups and elected officials. He says it’s because of his conservative record as an Arlington City Council member and Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector. In both roles, he has lobbied for lower taxes. He also spent 11 years working for Joe Barton, who’s held this seat since the ‘80s.

“The learning curve of a freshman member of Congress is significant,” he said. “My learning curve is going to be much shorter, because I know what it’s like up there.”

One thing the two candidates have in common: They say they won’t be like the almost 34-year Republican incumbent they’re seeking to replace. Both Wright and Ellzey have pledged to limit themselves to a few terms in office, and then step down.

More: There is also a runoff for the Democratic nomination in the 6th Congressional District. Meet candidates Jana Lynne Sanchez and Ruby Faye Woolridge in our story from Wednesday.