(From left) Steve Huerta, Art Reyna, Coda Rayo-Garza, Ray Lopez.
(From left) House District 125 Democratic candidates Steve Huerta, Art Reyna, Coda Rayo-Garza, and Ray Lopez participate in a public forum. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Five candidates are sprinting through a truncated race to be the next representative for House District 125.

Four Democrats and one Republican are running in a special election to fill a Texas House seat left empty when Justin Rodriguez replaced the late Paul Elizondo on the Bexar County Commissioners Court. The candidate who replaces Rodriguez will serve out the remainder of his term, which runs until January 2021.

Early voting began Monday for the Feb. 12 election, in which Democrats Steve Huerta, Ray Lopez, Coda Rayo-Garza, and Art Reyna, and Republican Fred Rangel are hoping to avoid a runoff in what is likely to be a low-turnout race. District 125, which leans Democratic, stretches across San Antonio’s Northwest Side, from just west of downtown up to Loop 1604.

The four Democratic candidates spoke about their priorities at two public forums, one on Jan. 18 hosted by the Bexar County Tejano Democrats SD 19 and one at Memorial High School on Monday. While they largely agreed on issues such as the use of “cite and release” to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison, immigration reform, and abortion, they sought to distinguish themselves from their opponents by stressing their respective backgrounds, skills, and dedication to serving their community.

Political experience

Reyna has previously served as HD 125 representative; he lost his seat to former State Rep. and current Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) in 2003. The message he drills hardest: He’s done this before, and he can do it again.

“We have in the Legislature a system of seniority,” Reyna said. “Seniority in the lege is empowerment for people who send a state rep to Austin. That seniority is your power. If you want to have the most power you have, I respectfully ask for your vote.”

Reyna, a lawyer who has also served in various nonprofits focused on public education, said his track record as a three-term Texas House representative showed his dedication to issues such as fighting for LGBTQIA equality and fighting against anti-immigrant policies. Like the three other Democratic candidates, he opposes charter schools and said he had helped halt school vouchers while he was in the Legislature.

“When you have people who want more charters so people can make a profit, who pays the price? Our children pay the price,” he said. “The same fight that I fought before is the same fight I will fight again, should you send me back.”

Reyna counts former HD 125 State Rep. Sylvia Romo among his endorsements. Romo served from 1992 to 1996 in the Texas House.

Lopez also has political experience; the former District 6 councilman left his City Council seat in 2017 after serving the maximum four terms. Lopez pointed to his time at City Hall, where he supported the paid sick leave ordinance, non-discrimination policies, and a $15 per hour minimum wage. While all the Democratic candidates are generally on the same side of the issues, he said he believed he is the best person to represent the area.

At the end of the day, one of us is going to get up to Austin and we need all the guidance and advocacy,” he said.

Lopez, who has picked up support from former State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and County Commissioner Chico Rodriguez (Pct. 1), said he’d continue to prioritize mobility and address traffic congestion, which have a wider impact beyond cars and buses, he said.

“It goes beyond having roads being built,” he said. “If you’re going to make an impact on juvenile justice … you have to have parental involvement. If we can cut unnecessary transport, we’ll have more time for family events.”

‘A lived experience’

While Rayo-Garza is seeking political office for the first time, she has scooped up endorsements from prominent political figures such as Wendy Davis and Gina Ortiz Jones and secured endorsements from the San Antonio Express-News editorial board and Texas organization Annie’s List, which is dedicated to putting progressive women into office.

Rayo-Garza, a policy advocate and senior coordinator for the deputy superintendent of schools in the San Antonio Independent District, said she is running on a platform of equity and equality, which starts with funding public education equitably. For example, basing funding on daily attendance harms schools with low-income students, as they often have higher rates of absences, she said.

“We’ve got to focus on funding our neighborhood schools, which are our public schools, and ensure every child has a fair shot at a quality education,” Rayo-Garza said. “We need to change the formula. The formula is broken.”

Like the other three Democratic candidates, she pledged her support to protecting the LGBT community, supporting paid sick leave, fighting anti-immigrant policies, and expanding Medicare and women’s health care services. But as the only woman in the race, Rayo-Garza said she brings a different perspective than her opponents to issues like reproductive health care.

“This is the intersection I live at as a woman,” she said. “And there have been attacks on women’s access to health services, where we removed [Planned Parenthood,] one of the largest providers of women’s services, from eligible Medicaid providers, and that is not OK. I believe that we can take action in this next legislative session.

“This is is a lived experience. This isn’t a theory for me.”

Eligibility in question

Activist and community organizer Steve Huerta said if elected, he would not serve through legislating alone. Huerta was formerly incarcerated on a felony drug possession charge, and he has since helped register other former felons to vote.

Huerta’s eligibility for a state-level office has been questioned; the Texas Secretary of State’s office maintains that his felony would render him ineligible to serve. However, spokesman Sam Taylor said no one has yet provided “conclusive public record indicating he is not eligible to run for office.”

“Since our agency is obligated to accept candidate applications at face value and have received no public record indicating he is ineligible, his name remains and will remain on the ballot,” Taylor said in an email. “If he were to win the election, that would create another vacancy since he is not able to assume office as a finally convicted felon who has not been pardoned.”

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said that the Elections Department canceled Huerta’s voter registration in 2001 because of the felony conviction, but that Huerta had his voting rights restored in 2010. The elections department places names on the ballot after the Secretary of State’s office certifies them, and Huerta was certified as a candidate, Callanen said.

Huerta said if he won the race, he would fight to be allowed to represent the district.

“We would take it to the state courts, federal courts,” he said. “It is a fundamental constitutional right – my right to political inclusion.”

Huerta advocated for a “boots on the ground” and hands-on method in immigration reform, reproductive health care, criminal justice reform, and education.

“We’re gonna build unions, we’re gonna encourage recruitment into organizations like LULAC, get MOVE [Texas] the funding they need to take their services into schools,” he said. “The fight is not three months of legislation. The fight is every day in our streets and communities.”

The lone Republican

The only Republican candidate, Rangel did not appear at Monday’s forum, citing a scheduling conflict. The business owner and design-builder bases his platform on school finance reform, property tax reform, and economic development. His interest in school finance started when he noticed the lack of funding at the schools he and his brother attended in Edgewood Independent School District. And he saw how many people around him – including himself – desired property tax relief.

Fred Rangel.
House District 125 Republican candidate Fred Rangel

“My whole idea is that when you’re done with paying off a house, you [should be finished] paying the taxes,” he said. “I see there is room for property tax relief. There are individuals that have an increase of taxes such as seniors. My mom is 81. I see that her property tax goes up while her income stays fixed.”

Beyond proposing a cap on property taxes after a certain number of years, Rangel said he wants to eliminate the appointment of appraisal district directors. He also wants to emphasize high-school vocational programs to help students learn trades with good pay. He said he would only support a paid sick-leave ordinance if businesses were included in writing the rule.

On the first day of early voting, which runs through Feb. 8, 256 people cast ballots at seven polling sites in House District 125. There are 103,494 registered voters in the district, Callanen said.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.