Texas Senate District 19 candidates (from left) Freddy Ramirez, State Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio), and Xochil Peña Rodriguez answer questions at the "For the Future Candidates" forum held at Texas A&M-San Antonio on Jan. 30. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

Last November, when State Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) announced he would again seek the Senate District 19 seat, it was a matter of unfinished business.

Despite losing a 2018 special election for the Senate seat, Gutierrez, an immigration attorney who has represented House District 119 since 2008, said he still has plenty of public service left in him. 

“I’ve managed to accomplish a lot for the people on the South Side, but I still have work to do,” he told the Rivard Report.

Gutierrez and two other San Antonio Democrats, Xochil Peña Rodriguez and Freddy Ramirez, are running in the March 3 primary. The victor faces Republican State Sen. Pete Flores in the Nov. 3 general election. Facing his first reelection bid, Flores is unopposed in the GOP primary.

State Sen. Pete Flores (R-San Antonio) Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Flores, then a political newcomer from Pleasanton, stunned observers in 2018 when he upset former Democratic U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego in a special election runoff to replace longtime State Sen. Carlos Uresti, who resigned after being convicted on federal fraud and bribery charges, in a traditionally Democratic district.

Twelve years in the Texas House and his past experience as a San Antonio City Council member have provided Gutierrez with instant name recognition and a solid legislative track record that he is touting on the primary campaign trail.

Gutierrez worked in the Texas House of Representatives to establish buffers around military facilities in response to GOP legislators’ push for annexation reform. “I traveled to five cities and worked long and hard to make sure there was protection in place for military bases,” he said.

He also spearheaded legislation to accommodate redevelopment of Hemisfair. Education is another priority for Gutierrez, who if elected pledges to introduce legislation in 2021 toward legalizing cannabis.

Taxing legal use of cannabis for adults, Gutierrez said, could generate more than $3 billion in tax revenue that would help finance public education statewide.

“When we fully legalize cannabis, we’ll be able to regulate it effectively through our state agencies, reduce teenage use and opioid use,” he said.

Gutierrez also calls for increasing access to quality, affordable preventive health care.

A Political Pedigree

Rodriguez is seen as Gutierrez’s most formidable challenger in the primary. The daughter of former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, she has worked as an associate counsel for the University of Texas at San Antonio and as an assistant city attorney. 

Adequately funding public schools and bolstering higher educational opportunities, especially in rural areas, is a top issue for Rodriguez. 

“We can expand resources for trade schools and vocational schools,” she said.

Rodriguez opposes the current standardized testing system, saying it does not significantly help students or teachers: “It limits curriculum and it impedes learning.”

She also advocates wider access to affordable health care in a district that stretches from San Antonio west, encompassing all or part of 17 counties.

“In some places, there’s no immediate access to general practitioners or [obstetrics/gynecologists],” she said.

Rodriguez said she’s inspired by what her father, now a Bexar County justice of the peace, accomplished in Congress and, previously, in the state legislature. However, news reports have cited instances of Ciro Rodriguez campaigning for his daughter. State law forbids sitting judges from campaigning for another person.

Ciro Rodriguez initially denied wrongdoing, as did his daughter’s campaign, which released a statement claiming the allegations were made by political opponents. Ciro Rodriguez later apologized, but a later report by KSAT-TV indicated he appeared to be continuing to involve himself in her campaign. The candidate did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.

Ramirez is a Bexar County prosecutor who is running for public office for the first time. His campaign focuses on issues he says affects families the most: education, health care, and social justice.

Ramirez said schools should have more counselors who are better prepared to help students tackle complex mental and emotional health care issues.

“You’ve got to help kids get to a level playing field mentally and psychologically before they can excel academically,” he said.

Ramirez is pushing for statewide paid parental and sick leave and legalization of marijuana. However, he sees marijuana decriminalization as a social issue that helps all people, not just as a potential money-maker. 

A Republican flipping a traditionally Democratic state senate seat surprised many people, but the Democrats pursuing the District 19 post said the GOP did better at mobilizing voters in an off-year special election.

“The beauty of Senate District 19 is its diversity in geography and demographics,” he said. “People tell me that, in the end, if they have an issue or a problem, they just want someone they can call who will listen and will help them.”

Gutierrez is confident that Democratic voters in District 19 will return to the fold in November. But, he added, he’s not taking anything for granted.

“I tell people I will put in the work, to keep fighting for working class families,” he said.

Rodriguez said she has listened to voters’ criticism of Uresti’s past performance as a state senator. She promised that, if elected, complacency will have no place in her administration. 

“We’ve been going to every county in the district,” she added. “They want a new voice, not a career politician.”

Gutierrez and Rodriguez are roughly even in fundraising. Candidates filed campaign finance reports by a Feb. 3 deadline for a fundraising period of Jan. 1-23.

Gutierrez raised $22,920 over that period. He has $70,128 cash on hand. Rodriguez raised $12,625 over the same period, and has $80,020 in cash. Ramirez raised $400 over the same timeframe, and has $1,965 cash available.

A fourth San Antonio Democrat, Belinda Shvetz, filed for the Senate District 19 primary. But after Rodriguez questioned her residency, Shvetz was declared ineligible.

Familiar Faces Eye Open House Seat

Meanwhile, the open seat in House District 119 has drawn three Democrats – two of whom are well-known Southsiders – who hope to succeed Gutierrez. 

He has endorsed Jennifer Ramos, who was once a member of his City Council staff and went on to represent District 3 before resigning from City Council to mount an unsuccessful 2012 campaign for county commissioner.

Jennifer Ramos. Credit: Courtesy / Facebook

Education, with reforming public school spending and school property taxes, is a top priority in Ramos’ campaign. 

“It’s about making sure there’s a quality education for all students and there’s resources for all teachers and school districts,” she said.

Having served as an Alamo Colleges District trustee, Ramos said she gained valuable education policy experience, and her Council stint gave her insight into municipal policy and working with City government staff.

“It all helped me understand the reality of what’s happening, what resources and money are out there to address issues, and communicating that to the citizens,” she said.

Ramos also is pushing for expanding Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Additionally, she said she wants to help lessen the burden on taxpayers, particularly senior citizens and working families.

Ramos also points to being a longtime business owner. Her family’s restaurant, El Torero, is a Southside staple. The restaurant has hosted political campaign rallies and community association meetings.

“We’ve always been in the public arena,” said Ramos.

Ramos said she appreciates Gutierrez’s backing, but she is not being complacent.

“Even now I’m running like I’m 20 points behind,” said Ramos, who also has endorsements from such public figures as Alamo Colleges Trustee Jose Macias (D2) and former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson. 

“I want to make sure I’m prepared. We’re making voter contacts over the phone and through community service and block-walking,” she added.

Elizabeth “Liz” Campos, a small business owner and Uresti’s former Senate chief of staff, ran unsuccessfully against City Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) in 2019.

(From left) D3 candidates for city council Elizabeth Campos and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3).
Elizabeth “Liz” Campos. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In her statehouse campaign, Campos is highlighting educational and property tax reform, transportation, and homelessness, among other issues.

“There’s not enough being done with our streets, sidewalks, and drainage,” Campos said about infrastructure funding.

Rising property tax bills is a hot topic with many district residents, Campos said.

“I want to get involved with the [Bexar] Appraisal District and see how they determine appraisals,” she said. “Because taxes and values are going up, investors are coming and buying up properties to develop, but we don’t have the infrastructure where we need it to be to support that.” 

Campos is counting on the history of her community service and her 2019 Council campaign to help distinguish her from her competitors.

“I thought [the Council candidacy] was strong even as I ran against a three-time incumbent,” Campos said. 

“This campaign is a grassroots campaign It’s about going directly to the people,” she added. “I’ve been in the trenches with them.” 

Sean Villasana. Credit: Courtesy / Facebook

Sean Villasana, a Live Oak resident and DNA analyst, is running his first campaign for public office. 

A St. Mary’s University graduate, Villasana is doing his best to stand out by sharing his credentials and progressive viewpoints. Working in the scientific field, Villasana said his skills as an objective, critical thinker can appeal to many voters.

“People will want someone who can think logically,” he said. “I could take complicated legislation and make it more understandable for people.”

Education reform is a top issue for Villasana. He opposes standardized tests, and is promoting ways to use public education to empower particularly socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

Villasana also cited a so-called “a school-to-prison pipeline,” a term describing how many minors and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to become incarcerated.

“We need more life skills courses in school so students can focus on making better decisions and empowerment,” he added.

Campos raised $3,330 in campaign contributions in the last reporting period and has $2,196 cash on hand. Ramos raised $7,390 and has $633 cash on hand. Villasana raised $1,000 in the recent timeframe and has $147. 

The winner of the March 3 Democratic primary will take on Republican George Garza in the Nov. 3 election. Listing “intern” as his occupation on his candidate application, Garza is unchallenged in the GOP primary.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.