In the 2018 general election Democrats in the greater Houston area won several races in historically right-leaning districts, including Texas House District 135 which had been held by Republicans for decades.
Now two candidates are vying for a chance to return the north-west Harris County district to GOP control: Mark McCaig, an attorney and Republican precinct chair, and Justin Ray, a business development manager and former Mayor of Jersey Village.
The winner of the 2018 contest, Representative Jon Rosenthal, ran as the “Progressive candidate,” for HD 135.
With the backing of the AFL-CIO, the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers Union, and the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, Rosenthal edged out incumbent Gary Elkins with 50.8 percent to 47.6 percent. Libertarian Paul Bilyeu took 1.5 percent.
According to the biennial legislative analysis provided by Mark P. Jones at Rice University, at the end of the 2019 Legislative Session Representative Rosenthal ranked as the fifth most liberal member of the Texas House, and the most liberal member from Harris County.
GOP candidate Mark McCaig says that Rosenthal’s victory was a “Beto anomaly” and that Rosenthal’s politics do not represent voters of the district.
McCaig adds, “I do have to respect his honesty. He [Rosenthal] is not pretending to be someone he’s not.”
Prior to the 2018 elections, HD 135, which straddles State Highway 290 in a rapid-growth area of northwest Harris County, had been held by Republican Gary Elkins for 24 years. Elkins first won the seat in 1994 and repeatedly easily won re-election with as much as 65 percent of the vote at times, but his take had fallen to 54.85 percent in 2016.
The district also overlaps with Congressional District 7, in which Democrat Lizzie Fletcher defeated 9-term GOP Congressman John Culberson by 5 points.
Democrat Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke carried HD 135 with 52.9 percent, but Governor Greg Abbott also won in HD 135 with 51.2 percent of the vote.
McCaig said the voters of HD 135 “deserve a principled conservative voice again.”
Republican candidate Justin Ray, was elected to the Jersey Village City Council in 2012, and in 2015 was elected as the youngest Mayor in city history. A life-long resident of Jersey Village, the only city in the district, Ray says he’s watched the area evolve from “suburban to urban-suburban.”
When asked by The Texan what he thought was needed for the GOP to reclaim HD 135, Ray emphasized appropriate messaging and hard work.
“We must articulate a Republican message that resonates with our 2020 voters, including younger voters and suburban moms.” Ray added that a priority issue for his campaign would be support for public education, which he says is the number one issue for families in his district. “I am uniquely situated to understand what voters and families in the area want.”
In the 2018 campaign, Rosenthal had emphasized his support for public education, and was a visible presence at all board meetings for Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the only public school district in HD 135.
Ray has been cultivating support from other elected officials in the area, and the host committee for a recent Justin Ray fundraiser included trustees from both Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and the Harris County Board of Education, as well as Jersey Village city council members and the city’s current mayor.
Ray cautioned that Republicans cannot take any historically right-leaning districts for granted, and that he would be working to personally interact with voters. “There’s no more straight-ticket voting; you’ve got to motivate voters to vote for you individually. It’s going to take getting in front of voters and lots of shoe leather.”
McCaig also noted the importance of being highly visible in the district and crafting a strong message. “We’ve got to talk to people about how conservative government affects them in their day-to-day lives. People are prosperous when government stays out of their way.”
According to the most recently available American Community Survey estimates, nearly 75 percent of the district consists of family households, and more than half of those have children under 18. ACS also reports that most district households have an income of between $50,000 and $200,000, and about 10 percent live in poverty.
Rosenthal raised $114,007 for his 2018 campaign, and according to January 2019 campaign finance reports, still had $45,344.15 cash on hand.
Many new Texas House members receive a “Freshman of the Year” award from some group or another, and Rosenthal received his from the Legislative Study Group, a left-leaning caucus led by Representative Garnet Coleman (D-Houston).
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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.