By STEFAN MODRICH
Just 260 days separate Oct. 13, the first day of early voting, from the Jan. 28 runoff election that saw Republican Gary Gates win decisively over Democratic nominee Eliz Markowitz for the Texas House of Representatives seat in District 28.
They are competing again for the right to represent part of Fort Bend County in Austin, with Election Day scheduled for Nov. 3.
Gates is the Richmond-based owner of Gatesco Inc., which employs about 500 people across the 8,500 apartments he owns throughout the Greater Houston area. He is a member of the Appropriations Committee and Pensions Committee.
As a business owner, Gates said he emphasizes the importance of vocational training as one of the key components of his platform.
“Throughout the state and really throughout this country, we have the mindset that every kid is going to go to college,” Gates said. “And the reality is that’s not the situation. And we’re neglecting the vast majority, 70 percent or so who never go to college. And they’re coming out of high school and they have no skills for today’s job market.”
Markowitz said making vocational training more widely available is also part of her platform. The former content developer for The Princeton Review holds a doctoral degree in Curriculum & Instruction — Learning, Design and Technology from the University of Houston and said the first piece of legislation she would pass would be to eliminate the STAAR test.
“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on the development, administration, scoring, and lost learning time using the STAAR test,” Markowitz said. “It has been voided for two of the past three years, so it’s simply just throwing money away.”
In its place, she recommends Texas adopt an exam similar to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which is only administered once a year for students from third through eighth grade.
Gates supports merit pay for teachers and said it would be “irresponsible” to not have a way to evaluate schools on quality and performance.
“Maybe there are some things that can be done to tweak it and not make things so focused on STAAR testing,” Gates said. “But you can’t just eliminate it. You have to have some kind of mechanism to see how they’re doing.”
Markowitz, a Katy native, has picked up endorsements from former Vice President Joe Biden and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
“It’s a wonderful thing to see that our hard work has paid off and that we’ve been recognized at the statewide and national level,” Markowitz said. “To have leaders of the Democratic Party tell you that you’re doing something right is a rare occurrence and one that I would say is quite beneficial. It also makes you think you’re doing something on the right track.”
O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman, is working to try to turn Texas blue and sees HD-28 as an opportunity for Democrats to put the state in play in this year’s presidential election thanks to the active participation of people in Fort Bend County.
During a Zoom call hosted by County Judge KP George on Sunday, O’Rourke said the down-ballot momentum will help the Democrats to capture the statehouse and give Biden the chance to become the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
“If it’s going to happen — look, I love Joe Biden, I love Kamala Harris, I love all the national Democrats who are working on that campaign,” O’Rourke said. “But if they win Texas, it’s not going to be because of them, if we’re honest with each other. It’s going to be because of KP George, (Fort Bend County Democratic Party Chair) Cynthia Ginyard, all of these amazing down-ballot candidates who are expanding the electorate.”
Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro block-walked for Markowitz leading up to the runoff in January, when she and Gates were vying to replace Republican John Zerwas in a special election. So HD-28 is no stranger to the national spotlight.
Gates has seen the county’s shifting demographics and said he’s appreciated the opportunity to hone his messaging to target a broader swath of people beyond traditionally Republican voters.
He said he knocked on more than 17,000 doors prior to the runoff election.
“The Democrats have really brought in millions of dollars from out of state,” Gates said. “They’re focused on that race and trying to flip the seat. One of the messages I’ve been sending is, ‘Hey, we have to change our message to be much more inclusive,’ and get away from this rhetoric that is a lot of times directed at a small segment of the population. Because if you don’t, Republicans will continue losing seats.”
Markowitz hopes to capitalize on some of the public’s dissatisfaction with the handling of the coronavirus by top GOP leaders, including President Donald Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
“Word on the ground and word from all the voters that I’ve been speaking to is they’re quite frustrated with the current state of affairs,” Markowitz said. “They’re frustrated with the lack of proactive planning. They’re frustrated that when we shut down in March that it appeared the administrations on the statewide and the federal level did absolutely nothing to ensure a safe reopening to the public.”
Gates said the biggest mistake officials in Texas made concerning the coronavirus was not thoroughly analyzing the testing and infection rate data.
“We should have put a lot more education and resources into protecting the most vulnerable,” Gates said. “That’s usually the older people and those with pre-existing conditions. Ninety percent plus of all the trouble has been in those areas. And because we didn’t focus on that, I think we really hurt ourselves financially by damaging a lot of businesses.”