Fresh off her announcement that she’s challenging U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis said Friday health care will be one of her top priorities as she seeks to flip a seat that has been in Republican hands since the 1970s.

Davis, who previously represented Fort Worth in the Texas Senate and ran for governor against Greg Abbott in 2014, declared her candidacy in House District 21 earlier this week.

On a visit to San Antonio on Friday, she met with a small group of constituents at a coffee shop where she discussed health care and educational issues.

Health care is one of the most pressing issues today, Davis said. She advocated for expanding Medicaid in Texas, which had the highest number of uninsured individuals in the country in 2015 and the highest number of uninsured children in 2017

“When we’re talking about health care, we’re talking about life and death,” she said. “So it deserves and demands our full effort and work to try and do something about it.”

Chip Roy
U.S. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Austin)

Davis faces an uphill battle as she enters the race in a historically Republican district. Though Roy won his seat last November by three percentage points, his predecessor, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, was re-elected by a 21-point margin in 2016. Roy is a protégé of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, having served as Cruz’s first chief of staff. A recent Texas Tribune profile of the freshman Congressman describes him as a “dyed-in-the-wool conservative” who has drawn criticism even from fellow Republicans as he delayed a Hurricane Harvey relief bill in May and more recently employed stalling tactics on legislation for border spending.

The 21st Congressional District covers a northern section of Bexar County and San Antonio, stretches over a portion of Austin and Travis County, and includes Bandera, Blanco, Comal, Hays, Gillespie, Kendall, Kerr, and Real counties. Davis now resides in Austin after moving to the state capital several years ago.

Davis branded herself as an advocate of universal health care Friday, and said that “we have to fight” to make sure all people are covered. She proposed giving people who are unable to afford health insurance with the coverage they need the opportunity to be in the Medicare system.

“Having that happen will force a competitive driver into the insurance marketplace as well,” she said.

She also championed paid sick leave, which has received pushback from business owners in Texas cities. San Antonio’s ordinance mandating paid sick leave was set to be enforced starting Aug. 1, but a lawsuit filed by business groups has delayed its implementation until December. Davis said she is researching potential federal solutions to ensure paid sick leave is provided to all workers.

“We are the only industrialized country in the world who does not recognize the importance of providing family leave, paid sick leave, maternity leave, and affordable, quality child care options for the people, the hardworking men and women in this country,” Davis said. “And as a consequence of us doing that, it’s the old Ben Franklin [saying]: ‘Penny wise, pound foolish,’ right? By not provided those kinds of support, we are assuring people cannot become and stay a vibrant part of helping our economic bottom line.”

Trish Florence, a mom of two and member of the advocacy group SATX Indivisible, shared her experience of raising two boys, one of whom has special needs, in the public school system.

“We are fortunate to be in a well-funded public school system,” Florence said. “Not every kid is. But even with that, I have to fight. For everything they have.”

Davis said she supports having health care plans cover treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which is an expensive endeavor for parents to undertake. But without the proper health care, kids can’t succeed in school, Davis said.

“What you said is the crux of the issue: this is both an educational and a health care issue,” Davis said. 

Katherine Schmidt, who has one daughter and is pregnant with her second, told Davis about her struggle to afford child care. Schmidt chose to give up her beloved teaching job of 12 years and stay with her children until they are old enough to go to school.

“If we were in a worse financial situation, in four to six weeks I’d have to go straight back to work,” Schmidt said. “It helped me to see so many people out there have it so much worse, and what kind of choice is that?”

Wendy Davis talks with local residents during a visit to San Antonio on Friday.

The current model of family leave is unsustainable, as well as the lack of affordable childcare, Davis said. When Davis had her first child, she had a full-time and part-time job just to cover the costs of child care, she said. And if women can’t pay someone to watch their children, they can’t afford to work.

“We have the luxury of talking about the glass ceiling for women, but for so many, it’s a concrete ceiling,” Davis said.

Davis promised to take what she has heard from District 21 residents to form her policy priorities should she be elected to Congress.

“It’s important to me to build around real people and real experiences,” she said to the people seated around her. “You’re probably feeling the same way I’m feeling: that our voices aren’t being heard right now.”

At least two other candidates – Llano County Democratic Chair Jennie Lou Leeder and University of Texas instructor Bruce Boville – have filed to enter the Democratic primary in the 21st Congressional District, but Davis’ name recognition gives her a considerable advantage.

Davis started her “listening tour” on Thursday in Austin. She will continue on to the Hill Country for her next stop.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.