If Texas state Representative Ron Reynolds loses his fight against a 2015 conviction for ambulance chasing, the popular Fort Bend County Democrat may go to jail. But the three-term House member is running for reelection anyway — and using the conviction, which he says is racially motivated, as fuel for his campaign.
That’s where Angelique Bartholomew comes in. The mother of five — a mediator for the Houston Police Department who originally hails from Alabama — will face off against Reynolds in the May 24 runoff election. With Reynolds facing potential jail time, Bartholomew said she knew someone had to “step up” to take his place in the Lege if Reynolds ends up behind bars.
“I knew that we needed better representation,” Bartholomew told the Observer at her Missouri City campaign office, part of which doubles as a karate studio. “I said, ‘This is the race I gotta fight for.’”
But Reynolds’ ability to turn his conviction into a sound bite hasn’t made it easy for Bartholomew. Despite a litany of legal troubles, Reynolds still managed to get 48.5 percent of the Democratic primary vote in March, which put him about 250 votes shy of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Bartholomew garnered 24.1 percent, and their two other opponents together got about 27 percent.
Since Reynolds’ conviction, which was handed down by a Montgomery County jury in November, the incumbent has maintained that the sentence is racially motivated, saying that he was “singled out because of [his] status as an African-American elected official.” He has also characterized the conviction as a “modern-day lynching” coming from a predominantly white county.
“Those are strong words,” Reynolds told Houston’s ABC affiliate. “I believe that this was so severe in the way that they went after me, and the way they went out to attack my character. They wanted nothing more than to paint me as a bad, bad black politician.”
Mustafa Tameez, a Houston area communications and public affairs consultant, says the conviction seems to be working in Reynolds’ favor.
“We’re seeing scandals, rather than [negatively] affecting the candidates, are becoming a rallying cry to galvanize the base,” he said. “There is a tactic in American politics now, that if you attack the media and you attack the system … that your primary electoral base is likely to give you a pass.”
It’s a strategy that’s worked well for Republicans in recent months. In his run to secure the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked reporters. Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who has come under fire for spending taxpayer dollars on personal trips, has attributed his troubles to the “liberal left” attacking his Christian beliefs.
And then there’s Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was facing a potential securities fraud indictment during his 2014 runoff against Dan Branch. He still managed to win 66 percent of the vote. In July 2015 — seven months after taking office — he was formally indicted and now faces an additional federal lawsuit.
Like Reynolds, Paxton is vowing to fight the charges to the end. In a video released last week, Paxton said he wanted to address “the people of Texas” directly, “unfiltered by liberal reporters, spin doctors and political opponents.” The charges against him are, he said, “at their roots, politically motivated.”
Bartholomew, who is also African American, and Reynolds are fighting to represent Texas House District 27, one of the fastest growing counties in the country. The predominantly African American and Hispanic district is home to about 170,000 voters and hasn’t seen a Democratic primary since 2010, when Reynolds beat seven-term incumbent Dora Olivo.
Reynolds entered his first primary race with more than just a conviction: Former clients have filed multiple lawsuits alleging legal malpractice, and he’s racking up significant legal expenses. Reynolds also can’t practice law during his appeal, and the Houston Chronicle called for him to drop out of the House race.
Even with Reynolds’ conviction, Bartholomew faces an uphill battle. None of the district’s precinct chairs endorsed her campaign, and Reynolds’ endorsements far exceed Bartholomew’s two backers: Annie’s List, a nonprofit that works to elect women lawmakers, and the Afro-American Police Officers League.
“Just like any candidate running against an incumbent … raising money is harder, building endorsements is even harder, and the power in the incumbency cannot be overstated,” Tameez said.
Reynolds has the support of Houston bigwigs such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and state Representative Senfronia Thompson, and says dropping out would be a “disservice” to his constituents.
“The people here they think I’m doing a great job,” he said. “So why would I appease a small fraction of my constituents that don’t want to see me in office?”
Don Bankston, chairman of the Fort Bend County Democrats, describes HD 27 voters as intensely loyal, and many give Reynolds a pass.
“Most people don’t relate to [ambulance chasing], they don’t see a real issue with it,” Bankston said.
Hazel Lundy, a 65-year-old Fort Bend County precinct judge and Democrat, has supported Reynolds “since day one.” Rather than the legal issues, Lundy judges Reynolds on his legislative record, especially his joint sponsorship of a bill expanding the use of police body cameras. While Lundy hesitates to call the conviction racially motivated, the way officials orchestrated Reynolds’ arrest — complete with a grey and black striped jumpsuit and handcuffs — gave her pause.
“Some of that is a bit disturbing,” she said. “I don’t want to call everything racial … but even a blind eye could see some of that.”
Bartholomew says Reynolds’ “lynching” imagery is inappropriate.
“I’m from Alabama and a lot of people have been truly wronged and lost their lives in situations like that,” she said. “There are young African-American men, young men, that have truly lost their lives in the system because they did not have the proper representation. We know that social injustices exist.”
Aware of the challenge ahead of her, Bartholomew has been block-walking in Missouri City and Fort Bend County almost every afternoon since she kicked off her primary campaign against Reynolds last fall. Even after the district saw record turnout on March 1, driven largely by the presidential primary, Bartholomew still has to remind voters about the May 24 runoff.
Bartholomew also frequently reminds voters of Reynolds’ legal rapsheet, and Reynolds has starting firing back, highlighting Bartholomew’s four bankruptcies, which she largely attributed to the economic downturn.
Reynolds has also targeted Bartholomew’s 2005 involvement with a local Republican organization, which she confirmed, adding that she got involved at a time before she became interested in politics. She told the Observer she’s “definitely” progressive, supporting Medicaid expansion, increases to public education funding, and birth control and abortion access.
“In the process of getting active and volunteering in the community, I worked with Republican women, and I still will work with Republican women,” she said. “I work with women, and I think that women’s issues are unique to any other issue.”
Reynolds’ attacks did nothing to sway 64-year-old Democrat Linda Randall, who phone banks and block walks for Bartholomew. She said she voted for Reynolds in 2010, but hasn’t supported him since.
“I was so glad to see somebody who has some morals to run against him,” Randall said. She called Reynolds a “liar,” and lauded Bartholomew for being forthcoming about her personal financial problems. “She’s not anybody that you’d be ashamed of casting your vote for.”