State Rep. José Menéndez (Dist. 26) and wife Cehlia Newman-Menéndez issue a victory speech to supporters Tuesday night. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
State Rep. José Menéndez (Dist. 26) and wife Cehlia Newman-Menéndez issue a victory speech to supporters Tuesday night. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

In a dramatic turn of the political tables in the state Senate District 26 race, voters delivered a stunning 59-41% victory for José Menéndez over first round frontrunner Trey Martinez Fischer, with all precincts reporting. It was a resounding finish to a bitterly waged contest between the two state House members and onetime friends for the seat being vacated by state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who is stepping down to run for mayor.

Both officeholders first arrived in the Texas House in 2001 and have served alongside each other for 14 years.

With 100% of the votes counted shortly after 9 p.m., Fischer Martinez had failed to close the gap by even a single percentage point from the early vote results reported when polls closed at 7 p.m.

“We would get this done only because of you,” Menendez told the crowd that packed Cha-Cha’s restaurant in Leon Valley. “I am humbled to have the support of so many people.”

State Rep. José Menéndez greets supporters at a runoff election watch party Tuesday night at Cha-Cha's restaurant. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
State Rep. José Menéndez greets supporters at a runoff election watch party Tuesday night at Cha-Cha’s restaurant. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Menendez said the public work he has performed so far is meant to be in the best interest of all San Antonio and Bexar County residents.

“It is very special to have the confidence and trust of so many people. This is a team effort,” he added, saying he would continue to advocate for improved infrastructure, better veterans’ care, and enhancing the climate for small businesses.  “I will work hard to represent everyone in the district, no matter if they voted for me or not. This is about representing people.”

Martinez Fischer finished well ahead of Menéndez in the first round on Jan. 6, 43-25% in a crowded field of five candidates. Last week’s early vote turnout, however was unusually brisk, with 13,536 votes cast over four days compared to 8,215 early votes in the first round, a 40% increase. Some of that increase can be attributed to a first round campaign staged during the holiday season, but the major difference almost certainly will prove to be suburban white Republican voters crossing party lines to keep Martinez Fisher out of the Senate. In the end, 24,961 voted in the runoff election compared to 19,158 in the first round, a 25% increase in turnout, although that still means only 6% of registered voters participated.

Menendez’s wife, Celia Newman-Menendez, said she placed her faith in God when it came time to count the final votes.

“Every morning on Election Day, I say a prayer to God. I say, ‘We can’t do it all, we leave it in your hands’,” Newman-Menendez said. “The positive outcome for the (Senate) district is whatever God has happen,” she said. “We’ve had fantastic supporters, a super army of volunteers from the phone bank to block walkers.”

Martinez Fischer was gracious in defeat.

“We want to extend our well wishes to the Menendez family. He has a job to do,” Martinez Fischer said. “Tonight was his night. Now guess who’s running for 2016?”

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Martinez Fischer will return to his District 116 House seat.

“What we started tonight will not end tonight. It is only the beginning,” Martinez Fischer said. “I will take my seat on the House floor…I will continue to lead in the House. I will continue to lead the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. We have some big jobs to do, we have some big fights. Make no mistake. I will be representing Democratic values just like I did from day one of this campaign. This is who I am. This is who I want to be, and this is who I want to serve and that is you.

“We started strong, we finish strong, and tomorrow we finish strong again.”

Unofficial results from the Feb. 17 runoff election.
Unofficial results from the Feb. 17 runoff election.

Martinez Fisher outspent Menéndez by more than 2-1 in the campaign, but the increased turnout appears to have been driven by Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR), an ultra-conservative lobby that spent at least $550,000 on broadcast ads and direct mail pieces attacking Martinez Fischer and supporting Menéndez. That spending appeared to galvanize more conservative voters.

Martinez Fischer is an outspoken plaintiff’s lawyer and would have been a thorn in the side of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), who presides over the Texas Senate. Menéndez, a title company executive, is softer spoken and said during the campaign that he will work with all members of the Senate.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform, founded in 1994, has come to stand for more than its name implies. The group was founded to tackle Texas’ well-deserved reputation as the “capital of frivolous lawsuits,” as one Wall Street Journal story put it. Plaintiffs lawyers filed lawsuits in the state whenever possible, and the venues of choice were San Antonio and south to the border, especially state district courts in the Rio Grande Valley, where working class Mexican-American jurors were famous for returning monumental damage awards against corporations.

In 1987, CBS’ “60 Minutes” broadcast a Mike Wallace piece on venue-shopping titled “Justice for Sale,” which cast Texas as an anti-business state where wealthy plaintiffs lawyers bankrolled judicial candidates in return for favorable treatment in trial courts. TLR’s founders had little difficulty galvanizing broad support for their reform efforts.

Given that South Texas was considered happy hunting grounds for big jury awards, it’s no surprise that the rapid growth and political influence of Texans for Lawsuit Reform is deeply rooted in San Antonio. That’s evident with a visit to the TLR website, which features a home page video tribute to Red McCombs, arguably San Antonio’s most famous and colorful billionaire and the first business owner to hold a fundraiser for TLR in its early days.

That tribute video, which was made for a 2014 TLR gala in Austin honoring McCombs, includes such San Antonio luminaries as Bartell Zachry, chairman of Zachry Interests; Lowry Mays, co-founder with McCombs of Clear Channel Communications; Charles Martin “Marty” Wender, one of the city’s most successful real estate developers, and U.S. Senator John Cornyn.

“TLR always does what’s good for Texas, just like Red,” Dick Weekley, co-founder and CEO of TLR, remarks in the video.

As Republicans gained power in the state, a wave of tort reform bills were passed by the Texas Legislature , first in the 1995 legislative session, and additional legislation in ensuing sessions.

When “60 Minutes” returned to Texas in 1998 to ask if justice was still for sale in Texas, “it got the same answer it got when it asked in 1987. Yes it is, only the players have changed,” wrote one Austin-American Statesman editorial writer. What the program found is that Texas now had a state judiciary, including the Texas Supreme Court, firmly in the hands of Republicans. Where plaintiff’s lawyers once spent huge sums to keep favored judges and justices on the bench, today it’s businesses, corporations  and insurance companies spending big money to keep like-minded judges in office.

The deeply funded TLR proved its reach in the Senate runoff between Fischer Martinez and Menéndez, helping the latter effect a major reversal from the fist round to the runoff.

Gov. Greg Abbott will now call a special election for Menéndez’s soon-to-be vacant House District 124, probably for sometime in March. Menéndez will be sworn in and Van de Putte will formally resign as soon as Tuesday’s vote if officially canvassed.

Note: Rivard Report writers Edmond Ortiz and Amanda Lozano gathered quotes and notes from watch parties and contributed to this report.

 *Featured/top image: State Rep. José Menéndez (Dist. 26) and wife Cehlia Newman-Menéndez issue a victory speech to supporters Tuesday night. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.