News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Obama Administration Alumni Spar For Chance To Take On Dallas Congressman Pete Sessions

Christopher Connelly
Colin Allred and Lillian Salerno at a debate organized by the nonpartisan Dallas Democratic Forum at Northaven United Methodist Church.

The 32nd Congressional District in Texas is on the radar for national Democrats. They think they can win the seat and give Republican Congressman Pete Sessions the boot after more than 20 years in office. But they still don’t have a candidate yet for this district that covers a chunk of North Dallas and suburbs like Garland and Richardson. Now, the two Democratic hopefuls are competing in the May 22 runoff.

Of the seven Democrats who ran during the primary, Colin Allred won the most votes with 39 percent, followed by Lillian Salerno who received 18 percent. Both worked for the Obama administration.

Allred is a civil rights lawyer who worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development under then-Secretary Julián Castro. Before that, Allred was a hometown football star who went on to play in the NFL.

Lillian Salerno spent five years working on rural business issues in the Department of Agriculture. She’s also a lawyer and business owner. She’s 57 — Allred’s 35 — and she posits herself as the more experienced candidate.

They both touch on their life stories: Salerno’s a single mom and granddaughter of Italian immigrants. Allred, who is African-American, is the son of a single mom who was a public school teacher.

On the issues

Both are running on pretty standard middle class concerns – like health care and education. On other issues, they both stake out similarly progressive positions: Both say abortion rights are under assault and need to be defended. They both want strong environmental protections and support renewable energy.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Lillian Salerno

At a packed debate in a North Dallas church put on by the nonpartisan Dallas Democratic Forum, both candidates railed against President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown, and called for immigration reforms.

“I grew up here and went to school with a lot of kids who were undocumented or whose parents were undocumented,” Allred said. “We must have comprehensive immigration reform. These folks are working in our businesses, they are part of our economy, they are paying taxes in some ways. We need to bring them out of the shadows and give them a way to be part of our country.”

Both candidates said they’re frustrated that Congress has failed to pass protections protections for so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as kids and grew up here.

“I’m a mother of two Mexican, adopted kids,” Salerno said. “I will protect the immigrants as if they are my own children. They better not get between me and my own children, and they better not get between me and this DREAM Act. We’ve got to pass it now.”

Challenging Pete Sessions

The two did spar over which of them are the best candidate to beat Pete Sessions this fall. Sessions is a longtime incumbent and a strong campaigner. He’s well-connected and well-financed and has a powerful leadership post in the House.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Colin Allred

Salerno says the key to flipping the district is Republican crossover voters. She thinks she’ll appeal to Republican women, especially and says her business background will help as well.

“I’ve had a lifetime of working, I’ve had a lifetime of making payroll,” Salerno said. “I’ve had a lifetime of being a mother, being a daughter, and knowing what people in this district face. And I believe Republicans and independents are going to come to me because they’re in my campaign today. And we have to get so many of them out to win this district.”

Allred also says he’s appealing to Republicans, as well. Still, he pointed to another strategy to beat Sessions: boosting Democratic turnout. The number of Democratic voters tends to drop significantly in midterm election years like this one. And, in Texas, a lot of people who can vote, don’t.

“We have to grow the pie and get more people involved,” Allred said. “And that does mean having a candidate and a campaign that people can see something of themselves in that candidate, and get them to come out and vote. And that’s me.”

National attention

This race has garnered national attention as a potential swing district for Democrats because it’s one of three Texas congressional districts represented by a Republican that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.

Most of the backing of national Democrats now seems to be going to Allred, who has far outraised Salerno and garnered twice as many votes as she did in the March primary. After the primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included him in their "Red to Blue" program, which helps candidates with fundraising and organizational support.

However, Salerno has an endorsement from EMILY’s List, which backs progressive women running for office.

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.