By STEFAN MODRICH
While much of the national spotlight was on Texas’ projected status as a swing state by several prognosticators heading into the 2020 election, there are several key Texas House races in Fort Bend County that local experts are focused on that could potentially help Democrats earn the majority in Austin.
Bob Stein, a Rice University professor of political science, said the race for the House District 28 seat between Katy Democrat Eliz Markowitz and Republican incumbent Gary Gates of Richmond is shaping up to be much closer than the special election that took place in January.
“I am very surprised,” Stein said. “She (Markowitz) lost very badly in the special election with a big effort. Turnout was low. I think that’s a race to watch. Fort Bend went Democrat in 2018, it was turning in 2016, so look for a surprise there.”
Stein said Gates had positioned himself as a moderate, unlike Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, who has more closely aligned himself with President Donald Trump in his bid against Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni for the U.S. House of Representatives seat in Texas’ 22nd Congressional District being vacated by the retiring Pete Olson.
“I thought she was a weaker candidate than Gates,” Stein said of Markowitz’s loss in a special election runoff earlier this year. “Gates did not come off like Nehls. He’s not talking about and backing people like Trump.”
Kulkarni appears to have gained more traction than Markowitz in her campaign.
“Sometimes candidates matter,” Stein said. “What’s odd here is Kulkarni is doing well out there against Nehls, and she (Markowitz) seems to not be able to get any base.”
However, Kulkarni and Markowitz and several other Democratic candidates, including U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar have been campaigning together — most recently on Oct. 24 in Stafford at a campaign literature drop for volunteers and block walkers.
Hegar is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and many down-ballot candidates have said they expect to draft off of the momentum of Hegar and the presidential ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Hillary Clinton also carried the county in the 2016 election.
“It’s still a county that went Democrat in 2018,” Stein said. “I expect to see the same this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if (Markowitz) won. Maybe surprised a little bit.”
Texas House District 26:
Republican Jacey Jetton of Richmond is an Army veteran and the former chairman of the Fort Bend County GOP looking to replace the retiring Rick Miller in the Texas House. If elected, he would be the first Korean-American to serve as a representative.
He previously worked for Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar as a legislative director and has a consulting business in Sugar Land. He has picked up endorsements from Hegar, Olson and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
He is the great-grandson of Walter Jetton, who started Jetton’s Barbeque in Fort Worth.
Jetton said he supports reforming police departments to ensure officers look more like the communities they serve. He also wants to provide police officers with de-escalation training and require them to wear body cameras. He is opposed to defunding police.
He plans to fight human trafficking by shutting down illicit massage parlors and enhancing investigative tools used by law enforcement.
Jetton is also in favor of lowering property taxes and increasing funding for schools, including teacher pay increases and merit-based pay raises. Among the school safety-related reforms he plans to enact are suicide prevention measures, increasing the number of security personnel and building renovations to make schools more secure.
In their own words: “As a candidate and as your State Representative, I will cultivate a diverse bench of leaders and future leaders. I will elevate people of every belief and color who are an asset to our community. I will correct people as often as needed, but I will do so humbly, knowing I have been forgiven much by God and by my friends, who also continue to teach me. I believe we are stronger together than apart and I will continue to invite people into these weighty conversations. I hope you will join me in making our community stronger.”
Jetton’s opponent is Democrat Sarah DeMerchant, a former IT executive and New Territory resident. Her husband is Fort Bend County Precinct 4 Commissioner Ken DeMerchant.
She has been endorsed by Fort Bend County Judge KP George, District Attorney Brian Middleton, State Senator Borris Miles and State Rep. Ron Reynolds of House District 27.
Sarah DeMerchant’s platform places an emphasis on fighting for equal pay for women and for improved maternal healthcare, particularly for African-American women, and lowering the state’s maternal mortality rate. She plans to expand the Affordable Care Act.
She also hopes to improve mental health treatment for inmates and to reform overcrowded prisons by reducing the concentration of incarcerated African-Americans and Latinos.
In their own words: “I’m big on equality for women, for anything a woman aspires to do. We’re willing to work for it as hard as anyone else. Nobody wants a handout, just a level playing field.”
Texas House District 27:
Democrat State Rep. Ron Reynolds was first elected in 2010 and is seeking his fifth term. He is the former president of the Missouri City NAACP and a member of the Houston chapter of the National Urban League.
He said he plans to be a strong voice for minority communities. He has sought to bridge the digital divide in remote learning by requesting additional funding from the Texas Education Agency to local public schools in order to provide additional laptops and internet connections for students, also reaching out to the private sector for donations.
He has advocated for increased unemployment benefits for people who are out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic and advocated for additional funding for small businesses under the CARES Act.
He also believes in “common sense” gun reforms and is pro-choice.
In their own words: “I have been very engaged with my constituents even before I was elected to public office 10 years ago. I have been a strong champion of supporting legislation for strong public schools, affordable healthcare, jobs, climate, criminal justice reforms, equal pay for equal work and gun control reforms. I have also sponsored numerous food drives, PPE, job fairs, back to school events with free backpacks/school supplies, COVID-19 testing, helped raise tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships for students going to college and constantly volunteer my time, talent and treasure giving back to our community.”
Republican Tom Virippan, Reynolds’ challenger, is a realtor and a former teacher and school principal.
The Stafford native was previously a Qualified Intelligent Disability professional, working with people with intellectual disabilities at the Richmond State Supported Living Center, then known as Richmond State School, for 10 years.
Vrippan wants to lower property taxes and improve public schools. He also supports programs to assist military veterans and hopes to attract economic development by encouraging small businesses and to create more jobs.
In their own words: “I am proud to be the candidate for State Rep. of House District 27 who stands for being pro-life, protecting your 2nd Amendment rights and supporting legislation which gives families peace of mind by making schools safer and the power you need to make decisions like school choice. As a former teacher and principal I understand those needs wholeheartedly. If elected, I will always keep you first. You deserve a State Representative who actually represents you.”
Texas House District 85:
Republican Phil Stephenson of Richmond is seeking his fifth term as a member of the Texas House. He has been a Certified Public Accountant for more than 40 years;
He also said he has been in negotiations with major telecom companies trying to get better cell signal and wifi connection throughout his district. He advocates for a less “top heavy” education system. He supports pay raises for teachers and opposes standardized testing.
He said he plans to reform the property tax system and lower property taxes to benefit homeowners who have been struggling during the pandemic.
He also intends to open up the economy.
In 2019, Stephenson worked with several Democratic colleagues to pass HB191, which provided a way for farmers to dispose of unused pesticides at no cost to them without spending any tax dollars.
In their own words: “I have lived in House District 85 for 45 years. I am very knowledgeable about the issues facing our community. I also have their best interest in mind, and nothing will sway me from that. I know what needs to be done and I know how to do it.”
Stephenson’s challenger, Democrat Joey Cardenas III, is a native of Louise, a small rural Wharton County town 50 miles southeast of Rosenberg. District 85 also includes parts of Wharton and Jackson Counties.
He is chairman of the State Tejano Democrats and spent 20 years as a Spanish and Social Studies teacher with Louise ISD.
He is also opposed to standardized testing and wants to see schools and municipalities retain more tax revenue.
Cardenas was a longtime community organizer with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and previously served as the organization’s state director.
He wants to eliminate “medical deserts” in rural areas and improve roads and farm-to-market access, as well as increasing access to modern farming techniques such as hydroponics and indoor and vertical farming.
In their own words: “I decided to run for office because of missed opportunities for our communities. I am here for the people, not the PACs. I grew up in a rural area, among hard working families across this district. I will make sure agricultural issues are heard.”
Sugar Land Mayor:
Joe Zimmerman has served as mayor of Sugar Land since 2016 and will run unopposed for his third term.
Zimmerman listed safety, investing in aging infrastructure, and building a strong local economy and a responsible city government among his top priorities. He oversaw the annexation of Greatwood and New Territory in 2018 and will supervise the implementation of a $91 million general obligation bond approved by voters that same year.
The bond will fund drainage projects, public safety and public facility projects, streets projects focusing mobility improvements and reinvestment into the city’s street network and the construction of a new animal shelter.
Zimmerman served on the city council in At-Large Position 2 from 2012-16 and on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission for nine years. He also was a member of the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority and Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce.
Zimmerman is a senior consultant for Halff Associates, Inc., a civil engineering consulting firm.
In their own words: “I am honored that the citizens of Sugar Land have confidence in my leadership abilities to represent all our residents. I look forward to a third term and keeping Sugar Land the best place to live, work, play, shop, and raise a family.”
Sugar Land City Council At-Large 1:
Taylor Landin, a candidate for the council position vacated by the retiring Himesh Ghandi, is the Chief Policy Officer for the Greater Houston Partnership, a nonprofit economic development organization that serves several counties, including Fort Bend.
Landin also serves on the Board of the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation. He was a member of the Land Use Advisory Committee and is a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission.
He is an Elkins High School and University of Texas graduate. Landin has extensive experience in national politics, having served as the media director for Utah U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign as well as on the staff of outgoing U.S. Rep. Pete Olson of District 22 and Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. In addition, he worked in legislative affairs during the final year of former President George W. Bush’s administration and as a strategist with the Republican National Committee.
Landin wants to focus on a smart redevelopment plan for Sugar Land as it approaches a state of full build-out, and strengthen the city’s position as a regional employment center by increasing the number of residents who work within city limits. Only 5,000 of the 57,330 people employed in the city are also Sugar Land residents, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Landin also plans to prioritize public safety and fiscal responsibility. He said it was important that the city continue to allot 50 percent of its budget to public safety.
In their own words: “It’s really important to understand that most Sugar Land residents get up and are employed outside of the city limits. (Nearly) 90 percent of Sugar Land residents were employed and left the city limits for their job. If we can work toward attracting major employers and promoting small businesses that are really the job creators in the city, then more and more Sugar Land residents will be able to live, work and play in Sugar Land, just from a quality of life aspect. It’s something I don’t think most people recognize or understand and I think is very important.”
Running opposite of Landin is William Ferguson, a healthcare entrepreneur who works for Assured Imaging Women’s Wellness in Pasadena, where he is the director of Texas account development. He was previously the lead sales representative for Covia Health in Houston, which sells imaging technology that can perform mammograms for women.
He is running on a platform of small, limited government, and believes a streamlined government is the key to the success of small businesses.
Ferguson has 28 years of law enforcement experience, most recently as a deputy with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department. He is also a former Stafford Police Officer. He has been a resident of Greatwood for 15 years and has lived in Fort Bend County since 1992.
In their own words: “There’s never a better time in our history to put a police officer on city council. I can assure you of this: I believe in law and order. I believe in small, efficient, and fair-for-all police departments and governments. And I can say adamantly, I will never vote to defund the police.”
Sugar Land City Council At-Large 2
Jennifer Lane is running unopposed for the seat she first won over write-in candidate Farha Ahmed in May 2018.
She is a member of the Finance and Audit and Compensation committees, the vice president of the Sugar Land Development Corporation and a member of the Houston-Galveston Area Council general assembly and board of directors.
Lane has deep roots in Fort Bend County. She has lived in the Greatwood neighborhood for more than 16 years and her grandparents were employees of Imperial Sugar Company.
She has been a member and spokesperson of the LCISD Citizen’s Bond Committee, as well as a substitute teacher for the school district. Lane has a B.A. in Business from LeTourneau University in Houston and 10 years of experience as a human resources administrator.
In their own words: “I have a proven record to generate relationships and results through positive, constructive dialogue with public school districts and elected officials. I know my background in the private sector will facilitate as an effective representative for the citizens as well as a positive empowering voice to city employees and public servants.”