Helen Madla, District 19 Texas State Senate Democratic candidate, is pushing for veterans, children’s health care, women’s health care, education. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batsotne
Helen Madla, District 19 Texas State Senate Democratic candidate, is pushing for veterans, children’s health care, women’s health care, education. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batsotne

A decade can be a long time in politics, but Helen Madla’s Democratic primary challenge of incumbent state Sen. Carlos Uresti suggests memories are long on San Antonio’s Southside where the two politically entrenched families enjoy an uneasy coexistence.

When then-state Rep. Uresti challenged Sen. Frank Madla in the 2006 Democratic primary, it was the first time in memory anyone had mounted a credible campaign against the longtime incumbent, and the two families became bitter political rivals.

Madla had held the District 19 seat for 13 years without opposition. Prior to his election to the higher chamber of the Texas Legislature, he had served for 20 years as a state representative. His record ran three decades deep with voters.

Madla was a popular figure on the Southside. He helped bring the Toyota Tundra manufacturing plant to the Southside in 2003, and he led efforts to win a San Antonio branch campus of Texas A&M University, also on the Southside.

Uresti, however, proved Madla was vulnerable. He attacked the senator for voting with the Senate’s Republican leadership. Madla’s  2003 vote with the Republican majority that removed 180,000 children and teenagers from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) gave Uresti an issue that resonated with voters. Madla dismissed the vote as a “procedural matter” but that’s not how voters saw it.

“That vote made me incredibly angry,” Uresti said in a recent interview. He went on to comfortably beat Madla, winning 56% of the district vote. Uresti has since made his name as one of the Legislature’s strongest advocates for abused and neglected children. No challenger has come close to threatening his hold on the seat.

Senator Carlos Uresti speaks before the Democratic Presidential Debate. Photo by Scott Ball.
State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) speaks before a recent Democratic presidential debate. Photo by Scott Ball.

Madla and Mary Cruz, his 81-year-old mother-in-law and Aleena, his five-year-old granddaughter, died in a tragic house fire one day after Thanksgiving Day the same year he lost his Senate seat. Burglar bars on the home’s windows prevented Madla from escaping. His wife Helen was hospitalized but recovered.

Many longtime Southside political watchers view Helen’s run against Uresti as an unlikely and unexpected return to a ticket where the two families will see their names on the same ballot again. Politically active Southsiders tend to guard their public pronouncements to avoid angering either side, but no one outside her circle of supporters expects her to succeed.

Helen Madla is a trustee on the South San Antonio Independent School District Board, considered one of the most dysfunctional, politically-divisive school boards in South Texas. There are only about 10,000 students in the district, which has the unfortunate legacy of being best known for its dispiriting trustee feuds.

Helen Madla will face Carlos Uresti in the Democratic Texas State Senate primary. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Helen Madla will face state Sen. Carlos Uresti in the Democratic Texas Senate primary for  the District 19 seat. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Uresti and Madla both play down the Southside family rivalry and speculation that Madla is in the race to avenge her husband’s loss in 2006, but there are undeniable signs in Madla’s challenge that the past is still in play.

The two-term school board trustee has said friends, neighbors and other Southside residents had been urging her seek higher public office.

“Timing is everything,” she said.

Madla has worked as a real estate agent for 30 years, and more recently has managed a home healthcare company that serves adults with disabilities. Even with all of these responsibilities, she has remained politically active in the sprawling legislative district that reaches down from San Antonio to the Texas-Mexico border.

Texas Senate District 19 is one of the nation’s biggest geographic legislative districts. It covers 35,000 square miles and all or parts of 17 counties. It includes 400 miles of the border, including the cities of Del Rio and Eagle Pass and it reaches all the way to the Big Bend area.

Madla said she understands the challenges of serving such a large district. She recently finished a three-day tour of the far western part of the district.

Texas Senate District 19
Texas Senate District 19

“(Uresti) hasn’t been visible throughout District 19. Many people just want more visibility,” Madla said. “They say they never hear from the senator other than letters in the mail. If you’re not going to represent your whole district, then don’t run.”

Uresti acknowledged he could do more to engage his most distant constituents, but he said his office has organized school supply drives and holiday toy collections for children in need in the outlying areas.

“I’m also sure most of my constituents would want me in Austin, fighting for them,” Uresti said. “I’m doing my best to strike a balance between my family and making a living here and being in Austin.”

Madla spoke with pride of her husband’s senatorial tenure, but she is focusing on current issues: health care, infrastructure, veteran affairs, senior services, and public education.

She faults the state’s Republican leadership for not addressing public school financing even as legislators have added to the administrative workload in school districts.

“We’re giving teachers and staffers more of the burden,” Madla said. “Teachers are teaching taking tests instead of just teaching.”

Madla said it required diplomacy to engage legislators across the aisle on issues such as public school finance. Her husband, she said, understood that when he held the Senate seat, especially as Republicans consolidated power at every level of state government during the time he held office.

She remembers Uresti’s campaign criticisms of her husband for working too closely with Republicans, even becoming good friends with Gov. Rick Perry, who Madla first met when both served in the House. Perry ordered the flag flown at half mast when Madla died, and issued a statement lamenting his loss and praising his leadership.

“I never understood why he accused my husband of that when he has done the same thing,” Madla said of Uresti. “Frank got money for the A&M campus and Toyota. What has Carlos Uresti done?”

Uresti isn’t being drawn into a fight over political events of a decade ago.

“In 2006, I had a lot of respect for Frank Madla, but when I challenged him it was just business,” Uresti said. “I hope my (current) opponent has the same approach to this campaign, which should be about the constituents. These are two completely different races.”

Uresti invites any doubters to review his record, which is notable not only for his child advocacy legislation, but also for efforts to win funding for counties in the Eagle Ford Shale Play and to help win the $2 billion Rainy day Fund allocation for the Texas Water Board.  His seats on the Senate’s finance and health and human services committees and the political clout that go with them would be lost if Madla were elected, he said.

Uresti is credited for supporting fundamental reform of Child Protective Services, the full authorization and funding for the local A&M campus, and the creation of a Transportation Infrastructure Fund, which allows counties to seek general state revenue for repairing county roads.

“Wherever you can have a seat at the table, you can be effective,” he said. “I have to earn the respect of my constituents, and the right to get re-elected.”

At times, political animus seems to trump public policy issues in the primary fight.

Madla recalled a 2006 primary campaign mailer that accused her husband of spending $1.6 million of his campaign funds in years when he was unopposed, including more than $20,000 at a liquor store and $7,200 on bottled water.

The Uresti campaign said it did not produce the mailer. The mailer stoked the fires between the two families back then. Uresti himself has been on the receiving end of charges of abusing campaign funds.

One year ago, the website Hardhatters published a list of state legislators it said were playing “fast and loose” with contributions. Uresti, it noted, had paid eight different family members several thousand dollars for “contract labor” over a period of years.

“If I were a contributor to his campaign, I’d be upset to think that some money is going to his family,” Madla said.

Uresti said the modest payments were justified reimbursements for family members who took time from their own work to work on his campaign.

“I have been paying my brothers, for example,” Uresti said. “We’re proud of that support. We are a big family. People contribute because they want you to run an effective campaign. I don’t hide from that.”

Uresti downplays endorsements he has received from political heavyweights, including U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. He prefers to keep the focus on his record.

“I’m not going to make everyone happy, but I try to satisfy constituents and their needs,” he said.

Other Southside political leaders such as City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and former County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson say they see little similarity between the 2006 primary and the current match.

“It’s a battle that has lain dormant since its closure, and life has moved on for a lot of people,” said Adkisson, a long-time supporter of Frank Madla.

Adkisson said Uresti defeated Madla because he ran an active campaign that put Madla on the defensive.

“Carlos smacked Frank Madla right out of the box,” Adkisson said. Helen Madla, he said, would have to mount an equally strong campaign to unseat Uresti.

“It’s like being a fighter pilot taking off – in a few seconds, you’re either in the air or not,” Adkisson said. “The odds of beating an incumbent usually start at 10%. You have to make your case, raise those odds to 30% or 40% early on. I haven’t seen that yet.”

Saldaña said his only interest is seeing the best candidate represent the Southside in the Senate.

“Who can help address how much taxpayer money is spent on education or on highways and roads? Who is going to be the best at getting things done?” Saldana asked. “The Southside is at a critical juncture with things like education and infrastructure. There is an understanding that Sen. Uresti has to work within the framework that exists.”

Madla’s campaign website quotes her saying she wants “to bring real representation and integrity back to the Senate seat once held by her late husband.”

With little money, a network of family and friends and volunteers, and a lack of endorsements, her campaign is an uphill one.

“I’m saving money. I don’t have a separate headquarters. It’s in my backroom and all volunteer,” Madla said. “They have the passion I have, and you can’t put a value on that. The (Express-News) labeled me an underdog, but you know what they say about underdogs: They have their day in the sun.”

Early voting will be held Feb. 16-26. The winner of the March 1 primary will face Republican Peter Flores in the November General Election. A Pleasanton resident, Flores comes from an Air Force family and spent 27 years as a peace officer. He is a consultant and executive coach with the National Association of Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs Leadership Academy.

Like Madla, he is already regarded as an underdog challenging a strong incumbent.

*Top image: Helen Madla meets with campaign supporters. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batsotne.

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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.