The North Texas Republican has made enemies during his time in the Freedom Caucus, including police unions and his GOP predecessor. Democrats look to capitalize in November.
On the final day of last year’s legislative session, hundreds of mostly Hispanic protesters filed into the Capitol gallery overlooking the Texas House floor. Dressed all in red, they draped large banners over the gallery railing and drowned out the legislative proceedings with chants against the recently signed “sanctuary cities” ban. Some Democratic lawmakers applauded the demonstrators; Representative Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, preferred to start some shit.
First, Rinaldi called an ICE hotline to report the protesters, whom he presumed to be undocumented. Then, he walked over to a group of Hispanic lawmakers and bragged about the call. Representative Poncho Nevárez pushed Rinaldi, and Rinaldi threatened to shoot Nevárez — an altercation that made national headlines and capped off a toxic legislative session. Liberals quickly promised that Rinaldi, who won his 2016 election by less than 2 percentage points, had signed his own political death warrant. “Texans will ensure that Republican Matt Rinaldi’s pathetic political career and dangerous agenda comes to an end,” avowed Manny Garcia, deputy director of the Texas Democratic Party.
Executing that warrant now falls to Julie Johnson, 52, a longtime Dallas trial attorney. With a campaign emphasizing public education and health care, Johnson has shown fundraising chops, pulling in more than $450,000 as of July — more than four times Rinaldi’s haul over the same period. In a district that’s only 42 percent Anglo and that Hillary Clinton carried by 8 points, Johnson, whose wife is a physician, has homed in on Rinaldi’s ICE call and record of supporting anti-LGBT legislation. “People in this district don’t appreciate their representative being discriminatory and behaving in a bigoted way as he has,” Johnson told the Observer.
Johnson added that some of her campaign volunteers were among the protesters Rinaldi reported to ICE. For his part, Rinaldi told the Observer that voters in his district view his call to ICE as “reasonable” and said the protesters were “shutting down our legislature by force and resisting police officers.”
The two-term Republican’s Texas House seat is one of about a dozen that Democrats think they have a chance of flipping in November. Democrats, who hold only 55 of 150 House seats, hope to inch closer to the near-parity they enjoyed in 2009, when Republicans had a narrow 76-74 advantage. Among the 12 target seats, Rinaldi’s is “at or very near the top of the list,” said Representative Chris Turner, who hails from neighboring Tarrant County and chairs the House Democratic Caucus.
Rinaldi, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus — a pugilistic gang of small-government crusaders who delight in tanking measures to help feed schoolchildren and passing unconstitutional anti-abortion bills — has made some unusual enemies. Johnson has drawn the endorsement of Bennett Ratliff, the Republican who previously held Rinaldi’s seat, along with the Texas Association of Business, the Dallas Police Association and the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), the state’s largest police union.
Those surprising endorsements reflect a political divide that deepened last session, with large corporations and urban police chiefs at odds with Republicans over the “sanctuary cities” ban and the “bathroom bill,” a measure that would have forced people to use the restroom matching the sex on their birth certificate. But in at least one case, the endorsement decision seems to have been rather personal. “There’s 7 billion people on planet Earth, and any one of them would come ahead of Matt Rinaldi for a CLEAT endorsement,” said Charley Wilkison, CLEAT’s executive director.
Wilkison enumerated Rinaldi’s offenses as trying to create a new legal defense to the charge of resisting arrest, opposing a bill to exempt cops from jury duty and allegedly yelling at one of CLEAT’s lobbyists. “He’s an angry, disgruntled human being who hates the police,” Wilkison said.
Rinaldi told the Observer he’s a “strong supporter” of law enforcement, claiming he drew the ire of CLEAT for supporting criminal justice reform. “My positions on issues reflect the views of my constituents and are not always in line with the lobby groups in Austin,” he said, adding that he’s at odds with the Texas Association of Business over “taxpayer-funded handouts to large corporations.”
Rinaldi said he’s campaigning on his record of providing education funding, cutting taxes and “ending taxpayer-funding for abortion.” He also attacked Johnson for her “extremist economic and social agenda” and pointed out that her two sons attend a private school outside the district.
For Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, Rinaldi’s record of calling ICE and losing endorsements may help with Johnson’s fundraising, but it won’t reach most voters who simply don’t research down-ballot races. “It’s tough for that to percolate down to a state House race,” Jones said. “With Rinaldi, it’s going to have to do more with whether the blue wave sweeps him out.”
Just last week, Democrats cast doubt on the impending wave by bungling what should have been a freebie special state Senate election in San Antonio. And Rinaldi’s fundraising disadvantage could vanish in the weeks leading up to the November 6 elections: The far-right Empower Texans PAC has pumped at least $100,000 into Rinaldi’s coffers in the last two months, state filings show.
Meanwhile, the Dallas County GOP is pulling a page from Ted Cruz’s playbook, trying to fire up the base by tarring Johnson — a moderate candidate backed by business and cops — as a wild-eyed Marxist. “At the end of the day, voters in Dallas County are going to decide between socialism and proven policies that deliver jobs, while adhering to our values,” said Missy Shorey, chair of the Dallas County Republicans.
Johnson remains one of the Democrats best-positioned to prevail in November, and she’s part of a historic wave of female and LGBT candidates running in Texas. But even Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, emphasized that nothing is certain in the Lone Star State.
“I tell Democrats all the time, you can’t assume anything just because it looks like a good year across the country,” he said. “Republicans are taking all of this very seriously, so we’ve got to work until 7 o’clock on November 6.”