Meet the Candidates for Texas Legislature’s House District 49
By Estefania Espinosa
Seven candidates are vying for one of the safest Democratic seats in the Texas Legislature – representative for House District 49. The seat opened in December, when Elliott Naishtat decided not to run for re-election. He has held the seat for 25 years.
No Republican is running for the seat, so the winner of the March 1 Democratic Party primary will succeed Naishtat for the 85th Legislature, which is set to convene on Jan. 10.
The primary candidates are:
- Aspen Dunaway, 40, a personal injury lawyer.
- Huey Fischer, 23, a former legislative aide.
- Gina Hinojosa, 42, a lawyer and Austin school district member.
- Kenton Johnson, a lawyer and municipal judge.
- Blake Rocap, 38, a lawyer, former Texas House committee clerk and former NARAL Pro-Choice Texas legislative counsel.
- Matt Shrum, 38, a criminal defense lawyer and former legislative aide.
- Heather Way, 46, a UT-Austin law professor.
District 49 includes the University of Texas-Austin campus and the West Campus neighborhood. Candidates have made student voters a focus of their campaigns. Early voting began Feb. 16 and will end Feb. 26.
Reporting Texas asked the seven candidates to respond to four questions of interest to students and the UT community. Here are their emailed responses. Some have been edited for length and clarity. Johnson was unable to respond due to a scheduling conflict.
What are your thoughts on the legalization of marijuana?
Dunaway: I am in full support of legalizing marijuana for multiple reasons. It wouldn’t just save the state money and time, it could potentially be an entire new revenue source. However, I think Texas will need another [legislative] session or two before that happens.
Fischer: Marijuana should be legalized or, at the very least, decriminalized. If legalized, it should be regulated and taxed by the state. Too many lives are ruined by the criminalization of minor marijuana offenses.
Hinojosa: I support decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana [because] too many youth end up with a conviction on their record that can impact their educational and employment opportunities for life. I support a phased-in, incremental approach to legalization as other states have done so that Texas has time to learn from the experience of other states, can create a framework for regulation and fix parts of the law before broader legislation is enacted, and ensure that public safety issues are adequately addressed.
Rocap: I support legalization of marijuana. Too many federal and state resources are being wasted destroying lives by enforcing laws in an often racist manner. Regulating the sale of marijuana would also bring in much needed revenue to fund education and healthcare.
Shrum: Texas is moving in the right direction, and I would support further decriminalization (with limitations such as prohibition of possession on school campuses) and legalization in the mold of what Colorado has done.
Way: Literally thousands of people have had their lives ruined by incarceration for possession of marijuana. We need to reform state law to put an end to this by legalizing marijuana. If a teenager is caught smoking a joint on the street, he can go to prison. But a corporate executive can sell unsafe cars or dump poisonous pollutants into the environment—and suffer no consequences! That’s wrong, and it’s got to stop.
UT regents are discussing tuition increases for UT-Austin and other campuses. If elected, what plan would you pursue to fund higher education?
Dunaway: I have proposed a tuition freeze on all state universities for a couple of years. The deregulation of tuition in 2003 has shifted the burden of higher ed funding onto students. Students should not be carrying more of the burden then the state.
Fischer: We need to prioritize more dollars from the state’s general revenue for our public colleges and universities rather than waste them on harmful political ploys like the $800 million border surge. I will also be a firm voice to ensure that UT-Austin’s share of the Permanent University Fund isn’t slashed.
Hinojosa: I will support increased funding for the [need-based] Texas Grants [for college students] to increase college access for eligible students. I will oppose efforts to deny Dreamers [who are immigrants brought to the United States while children] in-state tuition and a shot at their future. I will support increased state share of costs for higher education to drive down tuition and ease student debt. I will support efforts to increase affordable student housing at UT.
Rocap: The current system does not have the incentives aligned for the UT System to maximize the revenue mineral leases provide to the Permanent University Fund. In addition to optimizing revenue from state lands, the Legislature should fund state universities at a level to stabilize tuition rather than continuing to underfund them and forcing the regents to raise tuition.
Shrum: I would do everything that I can to work with the [House] speaker’s office to advocate for UT-Austin. Simply put, my experience within the Legislature is working with the budget, and I would put that experience to use.
Way: I will be a strong champion to restore and increase the state’s investments in higher education and roll back the enormous levels of college debt that are crippling students and their families. I will advocate for fully funding the Texas Grant program. This program provides need-based funding for college students but has always been woefully unfunded by the Legislature.
If elected, what strategy would you adopt to work effectively in a Republican-dominated Legislature?
Dunaway: You have to reach across the aisle and work together. Getting a couple of Republicans to sign on as coauthors or sponsors of legislation can help [garner] support. I would also work to show that yes, although Austin is the blueberry in the tomato soup, as [former Gov. Rick] Perry so eloquently put it, a lot of our issues are statewide. Public education, transportation, the health-care coverage gap, etc. These are Texas issues, not just Austin or Democrat issues.
Fischer: One thing to note about the House is that it is not simply composed of a “Republican vs. Democratic agenda.” There are 150 voices that have unique priorities for their districts. I know how to reach across the aisle to help other members champion their hometowns and use those relationships to leverage good public policies important to Austin.
Hinojosa: I will not only vote in favor of progressive issues, I will also call out the myths and misinformation that are often used to justify bad legislation as well as the conflicts of interest that jeopardize the public interest, speak out publicly and ask hard questions to bring public attention to legislative attempts to roll back the clock on key issues, file bills that will advance progressive issues, looking at both big picture bills as well as winnable issues that may have bipartisan support, [and] reach across the aisle on issues of common concern.
Rocap: I’ve worked in the Legislature for nearly a decade, and I know the rules of the House inside and out and am a subject matter [expert] on reproductive health, family planning, abortion rights, health insurance and the state’s pension plans. I’ll also serve as a watchdog for bad legislation and help progressive organizations defeat those bills. I know that working hard on the legislation referred to the committees I sit on and staying engaged on the issues I’m an expert on will give me a voice and a seat at the table in crafting those bills.
Shrum: Being effective as a minority party means working with the leadership. No member, especially a freshman, gets anything done by positioning themselves too close to the fringe. Accordingly, I would be as pragmatic as possible while holding fast to core Democratic [Party] ideals.
Way: I know from direct experience what it takes to get legislation passed in the current political climate at the Capitol: working strategically, intelligently, and collaboratively; working closely with grassroots coalitions (and helping form new coalitions where needed); and being willing to go on the offensive to fight boldly and relentlessly on important issues. As a legislator, I will continue to work as an effective policy reformer, working to increase funding for education, getting guns off our campus, addressing our economic divides, protecting our environment, and restoring women’s reproductive rights.
What is the most interesting thing about you?
Dunaway: I’m a true-blue Austinite, born and raised, which is getting to be rare these days. I also play the saxophone.
Fischer: I am the queer, 23-year old Latino running against six affluent attorneys for the Texas House. As a bike-riding, Selena-listening, vegetarian Austinite, I am not the kind of guy Greg Abbott wants to see in the halls of the Capitol.
Hinojosa: I wanted to be a veterinarian, so at age 8, I smuggled a baby squirrel across the Mexico border to raise at my home. At age 10, I graduated to raising a Mexican spider monkey named Chiquita Chiflada Hinojosa.
Rocap: I lived in Rome, Italy, as a child before my father retired from the Air Force in San Angelo, where I grew up.
Shrum: I own a cattle business, I was president of the UT Law School Democrats, and I am a single parent to an 8 and 4 year old.
Way: I love to karaoke. But for purposes of this race for the Texas House of Representatives, I believe the most interesting thing about me is my long track record as a progressive and creative policy reformer.