by BECCA AARONSON
As a freshman state senator in the last legislative session, Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, became known for her strong stance against abortion and for her impassioned speeches at committee hearings.
But community leaders in her district have criticized Campbell, a darling of the Tea Party, for the establishment of a new taxing district in Wimberley and an increase in vehicle registration fees to build toll lanes in San Antonio. The criticism has fueled challenges from two fellow Republicans — Elisa Chan, a former San Antonio city councilwoman, and Mike Novak, a former Bexar County commissioner — hoping to unseat Campbell in the March 4 primary.
“There’s not much room to run to the right of me,” said Campbell, touting her conservative credentials and taking aim at her opponents. “If you can’t find a compelling reason for someone to vote for you, then they have no choice than to say negative things about me.”
Campbell, a physician certified in emergency medicine and ophthalmology, was elected in 2012 after ousting a 20-year incumbent, Jeff Wentworth, in a Republican primary runoff in Senate District 25, which stretches from northeast San Antonio to South Austin and includes parts of six counties. She earned a “Courageous Conservative” award in 2013 from the Texas Conservative Coalition, a legislative caucus, and received national attention for calling the point of order that ended state Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster of proposed abortion regulations.
“I think that was very strong for a freshman senator,” Campbell said.
Novak, a businessman from Bexar County with 20 years of experience in the construction industry, served on the Bexar County Commissioners Court from 1995 to 1998. As a representative of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, he has been a chairman of the San Antonio Military Transformation Task Force since 2005, when base realignment brought $3 billion in new military medical facilities to San Antonio.
Novak said dissatisfied community leaders in San Antonio recruited him to run against Campbell.
“You can’t just hang your hat on a Tea Party platform or a moderate platform,” Novak said. “It’s God-given common sense, and I don’t think we have that right now.”
Chan, who has lived in the San Antonio area for about 25 years, is the president of Unintech, an engineering consulting firm that she and her husband founded in 1992.
In 2009, Chan, who was born in Taiwan, became the first woman and first minority elected to represent the affluent, conservative San Antonio City Council District 9. She received national news attention in August when the San Antonio Express-News published an audio clip from a staff meeting, secretly recorded by a former aide, in which Chan called homosexuality “so disgusting.”
Chan said she was running because her experience and qualifications make her well-suited for the position and because she “would like to do something good for the public.”
At a Feb. 5 debate held by the Hays County Republican Party in Wimberley, Novak criticized Campbell for writing legislation to create a municipal utility district alongside the Blanco River on a 4,000-acre property alongside the Blanco River owned by the LaMantia family, well-known supporters of Democrats.
While Novak argued that the senator should have let voters decide whether to allow a new utility district in the area, Campbell has said it was strictly an issue of the landowners’ private property rights.
Campbell told The Texas Tribune that the utility district was created to help the landowners recoup the costs of building housing and commercial developments — “what everybody wants.”
The utility district was also the subject of an April town hall meeting in Wimberley that drew an estimated 200 to 400 residents critical of the district. Campbell sent an aide to represent her at the meeting.
“This area is one of the most sensitive and beautiful pieces of Hays County,” Will Conley, the county commissioner, wrote in an April letter to Campbell explaining residents’ opposition to the utility district. “Why would the government participate in giving this landowner additional powers and rights for development if there is not a community benefit?”
The LaMantia family, which owns L & F Distributors, a South Texas beer distribution company, helped Democratic state senators fly to Albuquerque in 2003 to stall a Republican congressional redistricting bill. Steve LaMantia, an owner of L & F, and Val LaMantia Peisen, the company’s president, each donated $5,000 to Campbell’s campaign in December.
Although Campbell said at the Wimberley debate that the utility district was not a taxing entity, she later clarified that new residents should know before moving to the area that they would be taxed to cover the costs of development.
Meanwhile, Chan said Campbell had abandoned a campaign promise to fight toll roads by carrying legislation that sustained loopholes for converting existing roads into toll roads.
Campbell introduced Senate Bill 1029 to eliminate all exceptions for converting existing roads to toll lanes. But the final version of the bill, which became law, eliminated only two of seven exceptions, including one that allowed voters to decide whether an existing lane should be tolled.
As introduced, the Senate bill would have stopped toll road creation across the state, Campbell said, and the final version still prevents the conversion of free lanes to toll lanes in most cases.
“I prefer pay as you go, but the state does not have the money for that,” she said.
Chan also criticized Campbell for supporting a $10 vehicle registration fee increase in Bexar County, which would be used to collect $70 million for the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority to build toll lanes on U.S. Highway 281 in northeast San Antonio.
“Don’t say one thing and then vote another way,” Chan told Campbell at the Wimberley debate.
“I want to protect our already free roads and not allow them to be tolled, and that’s what I did,” Campbell said.
Although San Antonio residents’ have shown continued opposition to toll roads, the corridor in SD-25 connecting San Antonio to Austin has consistently ranked among the Texas Department of Transportation’s most congested roadways.
John Clamp, chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, said the $10 fee increase would support the transportation system as a whole, because the additional capacity would relieve congestion on the region’s highways. Furthermore, he said San Antonio residents’ opposition to toll roads has waned, because many are tired of the incessant gridlock.
Chan attracted her own group of detractors for her remarks about homosexuality, which she made amid debate over a change to the city of San Antonio’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
The City Council approved the ordinance in September, despite Chan’s opposition. She resigned from the council in October to run for the Senate.
“I certainly believe in this country, each one of us should be entitled to our own opinions,” Chan said in an interview. She emphasized that her comments were made in a “confidential environment.”
While her unfiltered remarks have gotten her in trouble, she said she does not want to be a typical politician.
“Along the way, if I have to get slapped because I’m just being myself,” she added, “I guess I just have to accept myself.”
Of the three candidates, Campbell raised the most money, $289,200, and spent the most money, $364,800, between July 2013 and mid-January, according to campaign finance reports. Chan, who took a $200,000 loan for her campaign, has raised an additional $86,900 and spent $309,000. Meanwhile, Novak has raised and spent $221,000.
BECCA AARONSON reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.
COVER: PHOTO by CALLIE RICHMOND VIA THE TEXAS TRIBUNEEmail | Print