Meet the candidates, part 5: Texas State Senate District 19

As the primaries approach, The Big Bend Sentinel is letting candidates introduce themselves. Part five in our series: Texas Senate District 19

TRI-COUNTY — Welcome to part five of our meet-the-candidates series. The deadline to register to vote was this Monday, and primaries are on March 3. Residents can make sure they’re on the voter rolls by contacting the Presidio County tax assessor/collector’s office at 432-729-4081. Early voting has started at the Historic USO Building in Marfa and at the Presidio County annex complex, also known as the old ambulance building, in Presidio. Early voting is Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., all the way through Friday, February 28.

Over the last two weeks, we’ve brought you candidates for Texas’s famously “purple” 23rd Congressional District. This week, we’re bringing another race with national interest: that for the Texas’s State Senate District 19. Democrats held the district for over a century, but after longtime Democratic incumbent Carlos Uresti was sentenced last year to 12 years in prison for his role in a Ponzi scheme, Republicans managed to flip it in 2018 — even as a Democratic “blue wave” swept other state and federal districts across the country.

Since then, the district has been represented by Pete Flores, a retired game warden turned Republican politician. This year, three Democrats are challenging him. That count started off with four Democrats, but one of them — Belinda Shvetz — was booted last month after a Democratic opponent, Xochil Pena Rodriguez, contested her residency. In an interview with The San Antonio Express-News, Shvetz said she had no hard feelings and vowed to “put this behind us and move forward.”

Taken together, these details will make this an interesting race no matter what happens. One candidate — Democratic challenger Freddy Ramirez — did not complete our survey by press time despite multiple attempts to include him. Here are the other candidates, in their own words. We’ve edited these interviews for clarity and brevity.

 

PETE FLORES (THE REPUBLICAN INCUMBENT)

Introduce yourself. Why are you running for office?

I am Senator Pete Flores, a retired colonel game warden. I reside in Pleasanton, Texas. I’m the incumbent.

I am running for reelection to continue to provide effective representation for all the citizens of Senate District 19. The result of my first term was the authoring and sponsoring of over 30 bills which were signed by Governor Greg Abbott. Together, they bring well over $200 million to our district, including the funds to rebuild the San Antonio State Hospital.

I serve as a member of key committees such as the Senate Finance, Natural Resources, criminal Justice, Health and Human Resources and Redistricting committees. I also serve as a commissioner of the Education Commission of the States. All of this provides our district with a place and a voice on major committees.

What are the top two issues for you?

Property tax reform, especially as it pertains to appraisal districts. Also, public infrastructure like roads and bridges.

The border — both in terms of immigration and trade — is a major political issue here. What are you thoughts on the myriad border issues affecting this region, from undocumented migrants to transmigrantes?

Border security is important. I voted for and support the $800 million appropriation to enhance Texas border security with state police resources. I am a strong believer in the rule of law.

Rural healthcare is hard to access in our area and across Texas. What efforts would you make to serve your constituents’ healthcare needs and access to specialty care?

My record will reflect that I am a strong proponent of rural healthcare through initiatives like telemedicine and loan forgiveness up to $185,000 for rural doctors if they practice in rural Texas. I support our rural hospitals and educational opportunities for healthcare professionals at our medical schools.

 

THE DEMOCRATIC CHALLENGERS

XOCHIL PEÑA RODRIGUEZ

Introduce yourself. Why are you running for office?

My name is Xochil Peña Rodriguez. A graduate of Rice University and The University of Texas at Austin School of Law. I am an attorney with over 10 years of experience as an assistant city attorney and the associate counsel for The University of Texas at San Antonio. I have broad transactional practice and in-house legal experience. I have written and negotiated a wide range of contracts and policy, handled disputes and reviewed and analyzed the impact of legislation on the city and university.

I learned from my father, former U.S. Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, that a good public servant knows public service is an honor and that everyone’s voice, no matter how big or small, should be heard and respected by their elected officials. Because of his example, my door will always be open to the constituents I serve.

My mom, Carolina, was a public school teacher and librarian. The first lessons I learned about justice, fairness, culture, heritage and working to make a better world came from her, and I am still learning from her today. Through my husband, a public school teacher, I know about the daily challenges faced by teachers across the state — from limited budgets to endless testing requirements — and I know the legislature can do more to help them and the children they teach. As our state’s economy continues to change rapidly, Texas needs to work harder to provide access to opportunity that is not dependent on what resources you have. All Texans deserve the chance to succeed.

I am running to ensure Texas values are once again reflected in the budget priorities of our state and that our communities are no longer ignored or treated with contempt. It is no secret that Texas has failed to adequately invest in education, expand access to quality healthcare and rebuild our infrastructure. To change the direction of our great state, we need to change the face of power in Austin. As a mom, I am teaching my daughter that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. I know that simply having our voice heard by those who are elected to represent us is critical. I pledge to have an open door to listen to your concerns and work together to build a better Texas.

What are the top two issues for you?

Education and healthcare are my top issues. Like most families, I want my daughter to have good public schools to attend, so that she’s prepared to deal with whatever the future brings. I want public school teachers, like my husband, to have adequate funding and respect from legislators so they are free to teach and don’t have to teach to a test. The fact is, the economy is rapidly changing. The types of jobs that exist now may not in the future, so people need to have access to training and education. I support investing in education from pre-K through college or trade school, including options for adult education and apprenticeship to help people find their second or third career without the crushing debt of student loans. This is America, and the opportunities available to you shouldn’t be determined by the family or neighborhood you are born into. Texas can do better.

Texas has the most uninsured and the most expensive health system. Further, Texas policies have contributed to the number of rural hospitals and clinics that have been closing. We need to look at all potential options to fix this. It would benefit the people of Texas to expand access to Medicaid and leverage the federal money that is currently going to other states instead. Expanding access includes funding community health clinics, including women’s health clinics and residency programs and loan forgiveness for health professionals working in underserved areas. Should the Affordable Care Act be struck down in the courts, Texas needs to protect people with pre-existing conditions. To be healthy, it helps to breath clean air and drink clean water.

The border — both in terms of immigration and trade — is a major political issue here. What are you thoughts on the myriad border issues affecting this region, from undocumented migrants to transmigrantes?

A wall is only as good as how long it takes to get over, under, or through it. A wall on the Texas-Mexico border is further complicated by the fact that we have a river and that much of the property would have to be taken from private landowners, cutting them off from the river and in some cases their own land. Technology can be used much more effectively to secure the border in a much cheaper and less environmentally destructive way. Further, the militarization of our border as a political issue harms our residents and economic ties and promotes negative stereotypes. Securing the border is the federal government’s job. These funds could be better used by helping impacted communities deal with the logistics of handling the influx of people in a humane way. Our current policy is not addressing the needs of these communities. I would advocate for redirecting border security resources to help local communities and give them a voice in how these resources are spent.

Rural healthcare is hard to access in our area and across Texas. What efforts would you make to serve your constituents’ healthcare needs and access to specialty care?

Wider access to health insurance coverage would help. Funding community health clinics, veteran’s clinics, mobile clinics and women’s health clinics, including funding of residency programs and loan forgiveness for health professionals working in rural areas, could increase access. Increasing internet access may also help, so that telemedicine can be an option. Access to healthcare is a life-or-death issue. Out of the 17 counties in SD 19, 10 have no OB-GYN. The fact is, much of the state has no hospital that can help a woman deliver her baby. We need to address the terrible maternal death rate in Texas.

 

ROLAND GUTIERREZ

Introduce yourself. Why are you running for office?

I’m from San Antonio, Texas. I am an immigration lawyer, husband and father of two. I first got into politics by becoming a city councilman. I then moved into the Texas Legislature for the past 12 years, where I represented Texas House District 119. I am running for office because I like to bring positive change for my community and would like to represent more people of Texas with my record of getting big things done.

What are the top two issues for you?

Legalizing medical and adult-use cannabis. Legalizing it and regulating it, so that it can provide funding for the education bill we just passed last session. The other priority is gun safety — namely, having common sense solutions to make everyone more safe.

The border — both in terms of immigration and trade — is a major political issue here. What are you thoughts on the myriad border issues affecting this region, from undocumented migrants to transmigrantes?

Texas needs to be smarter about how we do border security. We spend a lot of money, and I believe we can do a better job.

Rural healthcare is hard to access in our area and across Texas. What efforts would you make to serve your constituents’ healthcare needs and access to specialty care?

As the former chairman of the state legislature’s Defense and Veteran’s Affairs Committee, I traveled across the state and saw firsthand the lack of patient care for veterans in rural areas. I also saw the lack of doctors and healthcare centers. I would propose incentives so that more healthcare options move into more rural communities.


 
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