Familiar Foes Face Off in San Antonio Senate Race

Texas Dems need a feisty ringleader, but San Antonio needs a negotiator. Who will voters choose?

Trey Martinez Fischer and José Menéndez are facing off for a Texas Senate seat for the second time in two years.
Trey Martinez Fischer and José Menéndez are competing for a Texas Senate seat for the second time in two years.

There’s no more interesting race for the Democratic Party in Texas this year than the primary election in San Antonio’s Senate District 26, a contest that pits incumbent state Senator José Menéndez, who just served his first term in the chamber, against state Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, party stalwart.

It’s a great standalone piece of political theater — the two senior San Antonio Dems contested the seat just last year, and this time, whoever loses will be knocked out of the Legislature for at least the next two years. And it’s a fascinating race for Texans outside the Alamo City, because the campaigns are advancing two contrasting theories of how Texas Democrats should operate in their seemingly perpetual minority.

The two men both grew up in San Antonio, were elected to the state House in 2000, and are in their mid-40s. About the only other thing they have in common is that when they appear together, they can’t seem to stand each other, a mutual distaste that’s ripened with time.

Apart from that? They have very different personalities and very different philosophical approaches to governing.

In one corner, the challenger: Martinez Fischer, born Ferdinand Frank Fischer III, is a flashy member of the House who came into the chamber in 2001 wanting to fight. He seemed to enjoy doing it a great deal, even if he was often less than effective. But over time, he’s learned to how to work with leadership under House speaker Joe Straus.

In general, the Democratic caucus in the lower chamber is flabby and poorly run, muddling through session after session. But TMF, as he’s known, learned the House rulebook well. He wields procedural tactics like a scalpel against legislation he opposes, and he relishes being seen doing so. In his time in the House, he’s gone from Texas Monthly’s list of worst legislators to the list of the best. At the Capitol, other Democrats call him “Frank” behind the scenes, particularly when he’s playing an inside game that might seem at odds with his public persona.

He’s an activist, and he’s ambitious. He’s served as the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. At the 2014 Democratic Party State Convention, where he played an unusually prominent role for lowly legislator, he earned some tut-tutting from political observers when he joked during a speech that the GOP were the party of “Gringos y otros pendejos,” also passing out collectible loteria cards that portrayed Greg Abbott as the devil.

In the other corner, there’s reigning champ Menéndez, a centrist lawmaker who’s sensitive to the concerns of business and generally eschews partisanship and grand ideological convictions. He won a committee chairmanship from Straus during his time in the House and generally stayed out of the headlines. Where TMF is flashy, Menéndez is quiet and low-key. Where TMF was one of the most liberal Democrats in the 83rd Legislature, Menéndez was one of the most conservative.

He’s the kind of Democrat who’s broadly acceptable to the center, the business lobby, and non-tea party Republicans. TMF loves to speak; Menéndez talks slowly and carefully in front of crowds, rarely smiling.

When former state Senator Leticia van de Putte resigned for a failed mayoral bid in 2015, Menéndez and Martinez Fischer had been in the House some 14 years. They jumped into the special election and won spots in the runoff. The two candidates raised and spent $2.5 million between them. TMF’s prominence led some people to assume he was the favorite. He was endorsed by San Antonio political figures like the Castro brothers, financed by Houston lawyer Steve Mostyn’s robust donor network, and endorsed by the San Antonio Express-News.

Menéndez beat him by some 18 points.

In the weeks before the runoff, Menéndez had been supported by conservative groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Americans for Prosperity, who urged the district’s Republicans to vote for Menéndez. That made Menéndez a phony Democrat, said TMF’s camp. They hinted at a rerun in this year’s primary, when only Democrats would be voting and the turnout would be higher. Menéndez’s hard-nosed strategist, Colin Strother, said his camp’s data had Menéndez winning even among Democrats, and boasted that they’d beat TMF again.

TMF decided to try it, anyway.

And so here we are. On February 16, the first day of early voting, about two dozen Menéndez supporters gathered to hear from the candidate — and a Mariachi guitarist — at Ma Harper’s Creole Kitchen.

Menéndez’s pitch for re-election is decidedly simple: he’ll go to Austin and bring state money home. He won’t pick too many fights with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who controls the Senate. He’ll use his influence to do good for the city. In the state’s current hyper-partisan climate, it’s an approach to government that seems almost old-fashioned.

City Council member Alan Warrick introduced the senator, and praised him for his patronage. “The Senator has done so much work,” he said, “in bringing monies back to San Antonio from the statehouse.”

Those monies come from the budget the Senate and House hammered out at the end of the 84th Legislature. It included billions of dollars in tax cuts, shortchanged state services, and left billions of dollars of revenue on the table. It’s become a point of contention in the race, and TMF often criticizes Menéndez for voting for it. (Only one of the Senate’s 11 Democrats, Houston’s Sylvia Garcia, voted against it.)

But Menéndez has embraced the budget, which he says included many perks for residents of the Alamo City, at his behest. At Ma Harper’s, the campaign passed around a flier listing the cash injections Menéndez takes credit for, as part of a “Winning Budget for San Antonio Families.” Funding for the University of Texas at San Antonio increased by $2.8 million this biennium. San Antonio Life Science Institute, $8 million. Alamo preservation, $32 million. The list goes on.

Menéndez did talk partisan issues. He said his ability to win Republicans over was key to stopping attempts to repeal the Texas DREAM Act and sanctuary cities legislation. He worked every day, he told me, to lobby Republicans into holding the bill back and“keep the bills bottled up in the Senate.”

“I think that’s easier to do,” he said, “when you haven’t called them ‘Gringos and other pendejos.’”

It’s a interesting description of what happened in the 84th. Patrick didn’t really push the bills, and they died because moderate Republican senators like Kevin Eltife and Kel Seliger said no. It’s doubtful Democratic advocacy had much to do with their decisions, which would put them at significant political risk. Moreover, Eltife is retiring and Seliger’s future looks uncertain. They’ll likely be replaced by significantly more right-wing lawmakers. If that’s Menéndez’s plan to stop bad bills in the future, it’s one that’s likely to have a limited lifespan.

But it’s Menéndez’s contention that TMF can’t stop the Republicans either — and that his flashy, combative style would ensure San Antonio loses out on legislative patronage. I put it to him that Democrats want someone to fight Patrick — to raise hell and argue forcibly for the party’s principles.

“The Senate’s not the House,” he told me. “You know, he may not even be recognized by the President of the Senate. So what good is it going to do? We have history where a Senate Republican was never recognized by Bob Bullock. And she literally never said a word.”

Elsewhere, he’s suggested that Patrick, who has a certain reputation for vindictiveness, would take particular pleasure in messing with TMF, which he would have a lot of power to do.

He may well be right — but if so, is Menéndez open-palm approach to lawmaking all that Democrats can hope for? His legislative tactic may be great for his city, but it leaves Democrats with little to fight for in the broader sense, and little to rally around.

It sucks to be a Democrat in the Texas Senate these days — the party has fewer seats and less influence than ever before. Last year, Patrick blew up the chamber’s longstanding two-thirds rule, which means he can now pass bills with only Republican votes. The two-thirds rule required the Democrats to negotiate as a bloc. Now, they’re splintered. One by one, senior Democrats who knew the ins and outs of the chamber are hitting the eject button or acquiescing to the new regime.

All collaborate to some extent, but some do so more than others. Sylvia Garcia’s solitary “no” vote on Patrick’s budget was a potent symbol of how defeated the chamber’s Democrats are. Last session, some senators tried to play around with the rulebook to kill bills, like TMF did in the house. It didn’t work.

In other words, it’s hard to see TMF’s fighting ethos yielding the results it did in the House. But it’s also the case that the party needs a flag to rally around, in the upper chamber and generally. That’s not Menéndez’s domain.

In the past, TMF has said that he wouldn’t be averse to playing the inside game in the Senate, but that a senator’s role should be about more than dealmaking. (TMF’s campaign declined to make the representative available by the Observer’s deadline.)

“It’s about knowing when to fight and knowing when to make a deal,” he told the San Antonio Express-News editorial board during a meeting earlier this year. “To get to that deal-making point, you’ve got to prove that there’s something to deal over. Right now, there’s no negotiating with us because we don’t have the votes. [Republicans] aren’t going to do it out of benevolence.”

It’ll take someone clever, with a flair for improvisation, to create space for Democrats to do something, he said. Menéndez, sitting next to him for the board interview, objected. If longtime Senate Dems like Rodney Ellis couldn’t do it, why do you think you can? “You’ve had nine months to try it out,” TMF responded, “and I’d like nine months to try it out, and if I’m wrong, I’ll conform to the way you do things.”

He may not get the chance: This year, the newspaper endorsed Menéndez, and comparatively little money and attention has flowed to the race, which is normally a sign that people are betting on the incumbent.

On March 1, we’ll know if TMF’s tenure in the Legislature is over, at least for the time being, or if he’s found a way to pull liberals to the polls and end Menéndez’s year in the Senate. Either outcome will shake up the Lege, and San Antonio. The city needs people like Menéndez in Austin, and the party needs people like TMF.

This year, San Antonio voters can only pick one.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 3:11 pm CST
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