In the battle for control of the Texas legislature, most strategists are focusing on swing suburban districts across the state, but there are several Republicans seeking to make inroads into heavily blue urban areas.
In one such district on Houston’s north side, 39-year-old candidate Luis LaRotta is working to educate voters about Republican policy solutions for poverty in a community that consistently chooses Democratic candidates by significant margins.
“While healthcare and education stand out very clearly, the real issue here is poverty, and the only thing that solves poverty are reforms that bring jobs,” LaRotta told The Texan.
While Texas House District 148 is heavily blue, LaRotta’s efforts come as Democrats have nominated Penny Morales-Shaw, a far left-leaning candidate with ties to the local communist party.
Since 2012, the 64 percent Hispanic district had been represented in the Texas House by Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston), but Farrar unexpectedly resigned last year, and a special election to temporarily replace her drew a crowded field of 15 candidates.
LaRotta earned enough votes to garner a slot in a runoff election with Democrat and former Houston ISD Trustee Anna Eastman. Morales-Shaw also ran, but was only the sixth place contender.
Eastman defeated LaRotta in the runoff election with 65 percent of the vote, but before having a chance to serve during a legislative session, she had to run again in a five-way 2020 Democrat primary last March.
Despite touting powerhouse endorsements from a lengthy list of prominent Democrats such as Houston-area state Senators Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) and John Whitmire (D-Houston), Eastman narrowly lost to Morales-Shaw by a mere 200 votes in a July runoff election.
Houston native Morales-Shaw is not new to electoral politics. In addition to running for HD 148 in the 2019 special election, the former NAACP lawyer also ran as the Democrat nominee for Harris County Commissioner of Precinct 4 in 2018.
It was during that campaign that voters became aware of Morales-Shaw’s communist party affiliations.
During a July 2018 presentation, “The Art and Science of Building the Communist Party,” Chairman of the Houston chapter of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) Bernard Sampson boasted that his club had placed four communist party members on the Texas ballot, including Morales-Shaw who he specifically identified as a member of his group.
The Houston CPUSA Facebook page also touted Morales-Shaw’s candidacy and shared photos of her addressing the group’s meeting in July 2018. While the organization does not publish a directory, Sampson claimed to have more than 200 members who would be assisting with the campaign.
Although unsuccessful in her quest to unseat Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle, Morales-Shaw managed to capture 45 percent of the vote that year.
Following her loss, Morales-Shaw was hired by Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Precinct 2) to serve as a “division director” with a salary of $77.51 per hour according to information obtained by The Texan. She served in that role for 14 months.
In her 2020 campaign for HD 148, Morales-Shaw had support from Farrar, Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) and state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), but Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s name was notably absent from her endorsement list.
Morales-Shaw did not return a request for comment on her communist party ties and how those may shape her policy views. Her website lists eleven issues that she prioritizes in her campaign, including healthcare and education.
Citing the statistic that Texas has the highest number of uninsured in the nation, Morales-Shaw says, “this election is about electing those who will exercise the political will needed to achieve fair and affordable healthcare in Texas.” She says that the state has underinvested in education, and that she will fight to save “community public schools.”
Regarding jobs and the economy, Morales-Shaw says she wants to craft solutions to renew social and economic stability, and to make “sure that people have the resources that they need to safely and fully overcome the effects of this pandemic.”
Her candidacy is frequently touted in People’s World, a communist international publication founded in 1924, and her endorsements include the Texas arm of Our Revolution, a Bernie Sanders affiliated Political Action Committee that advocates for Medicare for All and Green New Deal policies at the state level.
LaRotta however, says that the Hispanic community does not necessarily want free health care.
“They want cheaper, but better-quality health care, and they want the freedom to choose their providers.”
The son of immigrant parents from Columbia and Honduras, LaRotta says he also knows firsthand the importance of providing better K-12 education in the district, which is primarily served by the ailing Houston Independent School District. He and his family initially lived in Houston’s Irvington Village public housing area, but after a family friend was slain in a gang dispute, they moved just a few miles away to the Klein area where he graduated from high school.
A Navy veteran who earned a degree in Nuclear Engineering Technology, LaRotta says he would like to see more high-tech job training available to students in his district. He also advocates for decentralizing public education in a way that frees up local schools to innovate in the way that public charter schools can.
LaRotta, who works in the energy industry, is especially passionate when talking about how to create jobs and advocates for either drastically reducing or eliminating the state’s franchise tax. He realized in his outreach to district business owners and entrepreneurs that few even knew who represented them in Austin.
“That’s very telling. These are key stakeholders in the community, who are lifting people out of poverty and creating jobs and opportunities. I want to bring them in, and that’s important.”
He also reminds voters that many of them fled their countries of origin due to the kinds of failed policies Democrats are advocating.
“Our opponent now is one who is advocating far-left policies like those of Venezuela,” said LaRotta. “But we have a message that offers solutions and opportunities for the residents of the district.”
LaRotta has been endorsed by Governor Greg Abbott and Congressman Dan Crenshaw, as well as former Congressman Ron Paul and the Texas Latino GOP PAC.
In 2018, self-proclaimed members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) DaSean Jones and Franklin Bynum won judicial races in Harris County for the 180th District Criminal Court and Criminal Court No. 8 respectively. A third DSA member, Audia Jones, ran for district attorney in the 2020 Democrat primary, but lost to incumbent Kim Ogg.
Although a 1993 addition to Texas law specifically prohibits communists from running for office in the state, if the voters of HD 148 hold to historic precedent in voting for the Democrat Party nominee, Morales-Shaw could become the first known communist party member sent to the Texas Legislature since the prohibition was added.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.