Democrats are targeting ten Texas House districts in North Texas in 2020 that are held by Republicans, and perhaps no race is more hotly contested as the one in House District 92.
The district centers on northeast Tarrant County’s H-E-B suburbs – that’s Hurst Euliss and Bedford, not the grocery chain.
Republican Rep. Jonathan Stickland announced his retirement from the district, setting off contested primary elections on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle. Whoever wins their party’s nomination will face off in a battle to replace Stickland, who is consistently ranked as one of the most conservative lawmakers in the state.
Stickland was elected to the district in 2012 with the backing of Tea Party groups and other party activists who wanted to push the state GOP leaders further to the right. He delivered, earning a reputation as a partisan bomb-thrower and the ire of both Republicans and Democrats alike as he spent three terms focused on killing or derailing legislation.
Stickland helped found the Texas Freedom Caucus, but later quit the group over political differences. He passed the first bill of his career in 2019, a ban on red light cameras.
Stickland announced his retirement in 2019, saying he never planned to stay long in the office. He narrowly won reelection the previous year. Democrat Steve Riddell came within 2.4 points of winning the district – about 1,500 votes – a major shift from previous elections that saw Stickland win by comfortable margins. It’s that movement that has made this suburban district one of five in Tarrant County that Democrats have set their sights on winning.
Now, Riddell is hoping to reprise his role as the Democratic nominee, but first he’ll have to prevail against a better-funded opponent, lawyer Jeff Whitfield.
Outside the Bedford Public Library, as Riddell greets early voters, he said there are a lot of practical, independent thinkers in the district, and he’s one of them. He said he’s mostly a moderate, though he doesn’t think labels like moderate and progressive are useful. And he thinks his success in 2018 was due to his effort to talk to Republicans and Democrats alike, and focusing in on the issues that they cared about.
“What are you doing for our public schools?” Riddell recalls people asking. “'What are you doing to attract more people to this community so we can be a thriving economic powerhouse in this district? What are you doing to increase our access to the things that make life worthwhile?’ Being able to answer those questions is really important to people here.”
Riddell works for a tech company, where he focuses on reducing fraud. If elected, Riddell said he’d work to close property tax loopholes for businesses and increase early childhood education funding. He wants to follow the lead of other states that have expanded Medicaid and find creative ways to reduce healthcare costs. Riddell said he’s interested in working with whomever will help find creative solutions to this booming district’s needs.
“For the last decade our representation in the state of Texas’ house of representatives has been basically ‘do as little as possible’ for ideological reasons,” Riddell said.
At a Whataburger in Bedford where his supporters are gathering to knock doors for him, Jeff Whitfield said his pitch to voters is experience: He’s an Air Force veteran and a lawyer at white-shoe Fort Worth law firm Kelly Hart and Hallman, and he worked as a senate aide in Austin during law school for Houston Sen. John Whitmire.
“I have drafted legislation, I have shepherded legislation through on behalf as a senator, I have gone to court and argued over legislation, I have written opinions for federal judges about the constitutionality of legislation. I am ready on day one to do important work for our district,” Whitfield said.
Like Riddell, Whitfield also wants Texas to expand Medicaid. He said he’d work on overhauling the state’s beleaguered foster care system as well.
“I would say I will be a champion for the vulnerable, and wherever that puts me on the political spectrum I will proudly sit,” he said. “Or stand,” he said, chuckling.
Whitfield has led Riddell in fundraising, bringing in almost $129,000 in campaign donations since July 2019. Riddell, who began raising funds earlier, raised about $62,000 since January 2019 ($42,000 in that time).
For Ann Teeter, a retired programmer from Hurst, flipping this district – and the Texas House – is priority number 1. The Democrat supported Riddell in 2018, though she’s knocking doors for Whitfield now. Either way, she’ll happily vote for whoever wins the primary, and she’s been making donations to both of their campaigns. She’s a moderate, and said Republicans have been left unchecked in Austin for too long.
“It’s ripe. I’m just going door to door. I’m talking to old people, I’m talking to young people. People are just hungry for change,” she said. “It’s time.”
Two of the three Republicans running said the district is indeed ready for a change – but not a partisan one. They promise a shift in style and approach and more focus on constituents, if substantive policy differences are less readily apparent.
“I’m all about building relationships and working with people, and trying to make sure that I’m addressing the needs that are represented here in this district,” said former Bedford mayor Jim Griffin.
“You have to work with your colleagues [in the legislature]. It doesn’t mean you’re less conservative, it actually means you’re trying to get a more conservative legislature by being part of the process rather than an on-stage commentator.” said Taylor Gillig, a business owner and Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan.
The third Republican in the race, former Bedford city councilmember Jeff Cason, is drawing support from the organizations and funders who heavily supported Stickland. Cason, who declined an interview request from KERA, has been endorsed by Stickland’s staunchest backers, including the True Tarrant Project (formerly the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party) and Empower Texans and its affiliate organizations.
Griffin resigned as mayor of Bedford to run for the open seat, after seven years in the role. He was a city councilmember before that. He said he has a proven track record of working with an array of agencies and leaders to deliver policies to meet the region’s growing needs.
From his perch in local government, he said he’s seen the needs that his suburb is facing. Education, he said, is a top priority – his wife is a school principal and his daughter teaches in Birdville ISD – and he said he’ll push for ways to improve public school funding without further stressing local property taxpayers.
Like many local elected officials, he’s wary of a growing tendency for state lawmakers in Austin to insert themselves into local issues, and said he’d fight for local control.
“Local governments, school boards, those organizations that are elected by the local people, they should have the ability to make decisions that impact them locally,” Griffin said. “Austin doesn’t like Washington dictating to them, and I don’t think we should do the same things to the cities and the school boards.”
Griffin served on local boards involved in transportation planning, and said adding more miles of highway lanes won’t cut it when it comes to meeting the fast-growing region’s transportation needs, and Texas should be exploring all options including hyperloop, high speed rail, trains and even busses instead of focusing solely on building increasingly expensive highways. He is passionate about improving mental health services, he said, and cites his time working on the Tarrant County Mental Health Initiative.
Gillig served as a Marine in Afghanistan, worked in the Texas Senate in Austin under West Texas Sen. Charles Perry, and owns a Dallas and Fort Worth locations of the restaurant The Cookery with his wife.
Gillig said he wants to offer more property tax relief for Texas homeowners, but stops short of the calls for abolishing property taxes all together, which is popular among some Republicans – “that’s good if you’re waving a magic wand,” he said – but wants to redirect state surpluses to help fund local public schools that rely on property taxes.
Human trafficking at the border is also a top concern that Gillig listed, saying he wants Texas to do more to help out federal authorities along the border (Texas budgeted nearly $1 billion in 2019 to send state troopers and the national guard to patrol the border). Gillig supports maximum restrictions on abortions and amending Texas law to allow concealed handguns to be carried without a permit.
Gillig said he’s also the right candidate to broaden the GOP’s appeal in the district’s increasingly diverse suburbs.
“I’m the only veteran, the only business owner, and the only non-politician running, and the only millennial.”
Cason led the money race at the beginning of the week, with about $34,000 left in his campaign coffers as of the latest campaign finance reports. He’s received substantial financial assistance from two West Texas billionaires. Tim Dunn, a Midland oilman who founded the far-right group Empower Texans, donated $75,000 to support Cason. Farris Wilks, who made his fortune in “fracking” and gives substantial support to far-right candidates, also donated $75,000 to Cason.
Griffin listed about $31,000 cash on hand, and he’s received more than $51,000 in funding for political ads and mailers by the Associated Republicans of Texas and nearly $13,000 from the Texas Alliance for Life.
Gillig trails with $9,000 in cash as of Monday.