What's in a name?

Rose Spector

Familiarity could trump issues in District 121 race

While many are still recovering from last year's election binge that culminated in a slew of local, state, and federal elections on November 2, residents of House District 121 will go to the polls again this Friday to select a replacement for the representative they elected a mere three months ago.

When Governor Rick Perry announced the appointment of Republican Elizabeth Ames Jones to the Texas Railroad Commission in January, she decided to opt out of her third term as Representative for District 121, which covers northeastern Bexar County and includes Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, and Terrell Hills. With the 79th Legislature underway, the race to fill Jones' vacated seat will be nothing like the long, drawn-out elections of 2004.

The four candidates vying for the seat won't have time to plan their campaign strategies with the forethought of a chess match. This race will more likely resemble a video arcade game: You frantically try to rack up as many points as possible before your time runs out.

Early voting began seven days after the filing deadline, and the February 5 election date allows just 18 days for the candidates to reach potential voters with their campaign messages. Yet, with such a short campaign period, name recognition and party affiliation may prove more important than a candidate's stance on the major issues.

Currently winning the name-game is Republican candidate Joe Straus III, who has been endorsed by U.S. Representative Lamar Smith, for whom Straus worked as campaign manager in 1986, as well as the San Antonio Express-News editorial board. Straus, the son of well-heeled Joci and Joe Straus Jr., has never sought elected office, although he has political connections: He worked in the Treasury Department during President Reagan's first term and in the Commerce Department under former President Bush.

"In a low voter turnout election, such as a special election, you've got to have the party faithful, the regular Republican voters, you can count on to turn out," Straus says of his strategy for winning the election. "I'm hoping that throughout the years of involvement in business and community activities I've made other friends and colleagues who will come to the polls and show support."

The other Republican in the race, Glen Starnes, also lacks political experience, his only brush with public office coming in the form of an internship as a congressional aide to U.S. Representative Jack Fields. While Starnes has conservative stances on issues ranging from education reform to abortion, he recognizes the similarities between him and Straus, and hopes Republicans can hold on to one of only three Republican-controlled House districts in Bexar County. "He and I are as similar as two Republicans can be in a race," Starnes says about the Straus campaign, although he claims to be more conservative on social issues. "I think educating the voters, and the Republican Party doing their part to educate voters, is critical, or we may run the risk of losing the seat. And that's my biggest fear."

While Starnes plays the role of the political outsider who hasn't been corrupted by the system and can remain true to his constituents' interests, Independent Paul Silber seeks to portray himself as the seasoned veteran who can work within the system and remain true to his constituents' interests. Silber is the only candidate who has served in the Texas House of Representatives. Silber says his previous experience gives him an advantage over the other candidates, considering whoever wins will be sworn in after 35 days of the 140-day session have already passed. Silber is right if serving as a state representative is like riding a bike; the octogenarian last served more than 30 years ago in the 62nd session of the Legislature, when he was chairman of the House Interim Committee on Financing Public Education during his only term in office.

"With school finance being the most critical issue before the legislature in this session, District 121 needs a representative who is experienced in school finance, knows legislative procedures, and will be immediately effective when sworn in," Silber says.

Although he served as a Democrat in the 1970s, Silber is running as an independent, claiming it will help him work as a consensus builder between the two parties. That leaves Rose Spector, the candidate with the most recent and extensive political experience, as the lone Democrat in a district that has recently leaned heavily Republican. Spector was the first woman elected to the Texas State Supreme Court and held that seat from 1993 through 1998. "I've run in this district many, many times," Spector says of running as the only Democrat in a Republican district. "One thing I've learned is people like to pick and choose. Just because it's labeled as a Democrat or Republican district doesn't necessarily make a difference."

Compared to the November ballot that listed Elizabeth Ames Jones running unopposed, this race features a full field and could be determined by voter turnout. And since the winner won't have to run for re-election until 2006, he or she will serve almost an entire term while having avoided the drudgery and expense of a full campaign for the 2004 election. Maybe in this case late is not only better than never; it's also better than being on time.

By Elyas Bakhtiari

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