Above: Democratic House candidate Denise Hamilton spoke Monday night during a forum at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, moderated by Dan Panetti, of the Prestonwood Christian Academy, and Texas Values' Jonathan Saenz, at far left.
It’s no secret that Plano’s Prestonwood Baptist Church has long wielded tremendous political influence, often quietly blurring the local lines between church and state. But in the 2016 cycle, with the Republican Party veering further to the right, the 40,000-member evangelical megachurch is taking its electoral involvement more seriously than ever. After hosting six GOP presidential hopefuls in October, Prestonwood’s newly formed “Culture Impact Team” staged a forum Monday for local and state candidates in Collin and Denton counties. “We’re told that if you’re a person of faith, that you cannot get involved in politics, and we totally reject that,” Ron Kelley, director of the Prestonwood Foundation, told a crowd of hundreds who skipped watching the Iowa caucus returns in favor of the church event. Although federal tax regulations bar the church from making endorsements, Kelley added, Prestonwood’s leaders encourage their flock to support candidates who “share our values.” “We don’t apologize for that one bit,” he said. As if to eliminate any possible doubt about the nature of “our values,” Monday’s forum was co-sponsored by Texas Values, a statewide group that specializes in opposing LGBT and reproductive rights. However, the forum also included some unlikely participants — Democrats. For the first time in recent memory, Democrats have filed to run for each of Collin County’s five seats in the Texas House, all of which are currently held by Republicans, including two Prestonwood members. Rick Joosten, a precinct chair who led the Collin County party’s candidate recruitment team in 2015, said he’s seen “an unprecedented emergence of Democratic energy in this exciting presidential year.” Indeed, recent corporate relocations from places like California and an influx of new residents from Dallas have loosened, ever so slightly, the GOP’s hold on Collin County — as evidenced in Plano’s passage of an LGBT-inclusive Equal Rights Ordinance in December 2014, despite vocal opposition from Prestonwood leaders. Still, given that Wendy Davis captured less than 33 percent of the vote in Collin County, Democratic candidates face a steep climb. But that didn’t stop them from braving a tough audience at the Prestonwood forum. The crowd erupted when local Republican candidates were introduced, but Democrats garnered only a smattering of applause from family and friends. Democrat Gnanse (pronounced “Nancy”) Nelson, seeking the House 66 seat held by Representative Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, told the crowd she would represent all constituents, regardless of whether they “look like me or live like me.” “When we can get past the ideology and stereotypes, we find we really do have a lot in common,” said Nelson, a widow and single mother who fled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “And if you vote for me, I will not eat your souls.” Democrat Denise Hamilton, who’s running for the District 89 seat held by Representative Jodie Laubenberg, R-Murphy, said she was mentored by the Rev. Zan Holmes, who became the first black member of the Texas House in 1968. “I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of red,” Hamilton said as she took the stage. “But that’s OK. I can swim.” Candidates from both parties were given three minutes to address as many topics: their “faith journey,” their qualifications and their number one policy issue.With the notable exception of House District 33 candidate Cristin Padgett, a self-avowed atheist, many Democrats offered religious testimonies every bit as compelling as those of their Republican rivals. The main difference: GOP candidates seemed far more likely to cite their religious beliefs as the basis for their legislative agendas. And while Republicans rolled out the usual talking points on faith, family and freedom, Democrats mostly listed education reform as their top priority. “We’re last in education and education expenditures in the nation,” said Padgett, one of two Democrats running for the seat being vacated by Representative Scott Turner, R-Frisco. “That’s going to impact us for the next 50, 60, 70 years — if we do something and if we don’t do something.” Democrat Scott Coleman, running against Representative Jeff Leach, R-Plano, in District 67, criticized his opponent for voting in favor of education cuts. “I don’t feel like he’s listening to the teachers and administrators and students and parents in this district, and I will, because I’m one of them,” said Coleman, who works as a vice principal at a public charter school. Leach, a Prestonwood member who was in Iowa campaigning for Senator Ted Cruz, didn’t attend the forum, but Republicans who did speak focused largely on abortion, same-sex marriage and religious liberty. “I believe that marriage is a union between a natural man and a natural woman,” said Justin Holland, one of three Republicans in the HD 33 race. “We have [the U.S. Supreme Court] overstepping its boundaries, and that needs to be changed.” Shaheen, who serves as a deacon at Prestonwood, said he represents the values of his constituents, adding that he believes the primary objective of government is protecting liberty and life. “That includes our precious unborn babies, 58 million that have perished since Roe v. Wade,” Shaheen said. Laubenberg told the crowd God used her as “a small vessel” to pass House Bill 2, the strict anti-abortion law she authored in 2013. “I don’t separate who I am as a believer and who I am as an elected official,” she said. Laubenberg may be a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, but she would fit right in at Prestonwood. Correction: Gnanse Nelson is running for Matt Shaheen’s seat, not Scott Sanford’s seat. We regret the error.To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.