In that runoff, former Galveston County assistant prosecutor Patrick Gurski faces former State Board of Education member Terri Leo-Wilson. Gurski was a staffer for former Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), and Leo-Wilson served a stint on the Texas GOP’s State Republican Executive Committee.
The pair finished first and second, respectively, in the March 1 primary. Only 546 votes separated them.
HD 23, rated an R-61% district by The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index which rates legislative seats’ partisan leanings, encompasses all of Chambers County and the Eastern half of Galveston County. Middleton has represented the district since 2018. During his time in the House, Middleton was rated in the top 10 most conservative legislators for both the 2019 and 2021 sessions.
Both candidates have accentuated the word “conservative” on their websites early and often — indicating the kind of legislator the district’s voters likely prefer to succeed Middleton.
Neither candidate has raised an outrageous sum of money, but per the latest filings, Gurski has spent $58,000 while Leo-Wilson has spent $23,000.
The candidates have each received big endorsements in the race — Gurski was one of eight runoff endorsements given by Governor Greg Abbott, while Leo-Wilson received Middleton’s support this week.
“Terri is a conservative retired public school teacher who is fighting for Texas values in our schools, fighting to end taxpayer funded lobbying, and will work tirelessly to secure our border,” Middleton said in his announcement.
Leo-Wilson has also been endorsed by three of Middleton’s Texas Freedom Caucus colleagues — Reps. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), and Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) — along with a number of grassroots conservative organizations such as Texas Right to Life, Grassroots America We the People, and the Texas Homeschool Coalition.
Meanwhile, Abbott’s note of support for Gurski read, “[Gurski] has a long record of public service which includes distinguished service in Afghanistan and as the head of the Galveston County District Attorney’s human trafficking division.”
“Mr. Gurski will be a strong advocate for Texas families, and one of my closest allies as we seek to secure our border.”
Other endorsements for Gurski include a medley of law enforcement organizations headlined by the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas PAC, along with two Galveston County commissioners and constables.
An obscure issue for most of the state is of great importance for the coastal district — the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA).
TWIA is a state-created insurance company intended to provide windstorm insurance to an area that lacks private options. Many regular insurance companies have avoided offering service to the area so frequently plagued by hurricanes and tropical storms because the odds of a payout are not a matter of if, but of when and how much.
But TWIA has long been criticized for raising rates exponentially and for its lack of responsiveness to policyholders. The legislature has pushed hard to reform the entity, with Middleton among those leading the charge, and passed House Bill (HB) 769 last year that restricts when the association can raise coverage rates. TWIA has about 188,000 policies that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in premiums each year.
TWIA has also been criticized by Middleton and others for lobbying against HB 769, something Attorney General Ken Paxton opined is permissible but which the lawmakers say is a conflict of interest.
Both Gurski and Leo-Wilson stated their intention to seek further TWIA reform.
Leo-Wilson said she wants to create more strict transparency requirements and establish a supermajority vote requirement to raise rates. “Capping the rate increases didn’t work,” she told The Texan in an interview.
TWIA doesn’t have a hard cap, but after legislation passed last session any rate increase triggers an automatic review by the Texas Department of Insurance commissioner who may reject the proposal. This occurred in 2021 when TWIA’s proposed 5 percent increase was vetoed.
Gurski said he wants to see hard caps put in place and establish a three-fourths supermajority requirement to raise rates. He also sees an opportunity to adopt the Florida windstorm insurance model, which requires that insurance companies in the state provide windstorm service and moves the state entity to a reinsurance role. This, Gurski said, would force TWIA to operate as it was intended, as the insurer-of-last-resort.
The top two issues for both candidates are border security and property taxes.
“The entire state suffers from not having control of our southern border,” Gurski said in an interview with The Texan. Operation Lone Star — the state’s ongoing operation deploying national guard troops to stem the flow of illegal immigrants across the southern border — is stretching into its second year and has faced many hiccups along the way.
“Operation Lone Star is a necessary big investment from the state as the feds have abdicated their border security responsibility,” Gurski said. He further added that “sending 10,000 troops was a strong message … but the operation may have to be right-sized at some point.”
Leo-Wilson pointed to the need to “eliminate the magnets that have caused our border crisis” in addition to closing the border.
On property taxes, Leo-Wilson supports the plan put forward by the Texas Public Policy Foundation that would eliminate school district Maintenance & Operations (M&O) property tax rates by 2040, using surplus state dollars to buy down those rates until they disappear. The Texas Senate is evaluating that objective as part of its interim charges.
Gurski, meanwhile, focuses more on the appraisal side, pointing to reducing the current 10 percent homestead appraisal cap down, possibly all the way to 3 percent. He did not jump at M&O elimination, and said further, “I think the more money that gets doled out through Austin, the worse it is for taxpayers.”
This appraisal cap reduction, Gurski said, would be optional for local officials. He hopes that would place more onus on local officials, who often point the finger of blame at appraisal districts for property valuations rising despite their control over the final tax rate.
Appraisal reform and continued school district M&O rate compression are on the legislature and governor’s stated priority lists for the next session.
Gurski also highlighted bail reform as an important issue, citing the need to “close the cash bond loophole which came from closing the personal recognizance (PR) bond loophole.” Rather than issue PR bonds for violent offenders, after the legislature restricted their issuance some last year, judges have turned to granting low cash bonds that allow the defendants to bail out of jail easily.
On criminal justice reform more broadly, something that is on Speaker Dade Phelan’s (R-Beaumont) agenda for next year, Gurski said, “There are two types of defendants, those we’re mad at and those we’re afraid of, and we need to do a better job of differentiating between the two.”
One of Middleton’s key issues is banning taxpayer-funded lobbying, the practice wherein localities pay for lobbying services using taxpayer dollars. Leo-Wilson said she aims to work closely with Middleton on passing that legislation next session which has perished in the House each of the last two regular sessions.
“While we have work to do,” Leo-Wilson said, “last session conservatives won a lot, and we need to build on it.”
Another big issue that may make headway in 2023 is on school choice, or a vouchers system that allows parents to take their tax dollars paid to the local school district if they choose to move their child to another school.
Both candidates said they’d support a voucher system in some fashion, and both pointed to issues in the public school system that the pandemic accentuated.
In parting shots, Gurski criticized Leo-Wilson for being newer to the district than he is — “She doesn’t have the same roots I do.”
Leo-Wilson added that “I am the candidate that’s proven and has a voting record that’s a sea of red. I’m not just getting involved now.”
Early voting for the May 24 runoff begins on May 16, and the winner likely has a smooth path to victory in the November general.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.