Democratic candidates in a crowded race for the House District 49 seat attempted to differentiate themselves from each other during a moderated discussion on campus Monday.
Speaking to a predominantly student audience, the candidates emphasized their progressive stances on issues such as tuition, campus carry, affordable housing and abortion in a forum moderated by Daily Texan staffer Forrest Milburn and Jordan Pahl, Student Government state relations director. Lawyer Aspen Dunaway, former legislative staffer Huey Fischer, Austin ISD trustee Gina Hinojosa, former NARAL Pro-Choice Texas staffer Blake Rocap and housing rights advocate Heather Way were present at the debate. Attorney Kenton Johnson and criminal defense attorney Matthew Shrum were not present at the debate.
Fischer and Way, both of whom are UT graduates, and the latter of whom serves on the UT Law School faculty, said they would pay close attention to higher education issues, such as substandard student housing.
“I have a long and deep track record here fighting in Austin for affordable housing,” Way said. “That is a big issue for a lot of students who can’t afford the luxury housing going up around West Campus.”
Candidates also emphasized their anti-establishment credentials. Dunaway said he was the only candidate with a tenant bill of rights to help students work effectively with landlords. Hinojosa said she has fought many political battles with state regulators to preserve public schools. Fischer said he had more than $40,000 in student loan debt and said he would be a “worker’s rights champion.”
“I’m the queer son of a once-undocumented mom from Mexico and a Jewish liberal dad from Brooklyn,” Fischer said. “I’m not the guy Greg Abbott wants to see in that building down the block.”
All the candidates addressed the issue of college affordability and diversity. Dunaway said the legislature needs to regulate and freeze tuition costs, and both Dunaway and Hinojosa said more funding needs to flow into higher education so students have more quality options to attend school than two flagship universities.
“We need to fully fund the Texas Grant program for all qualifying students so they can … not come out of college with this debt that is such a burden,” Hinojosa said. “We need to look in terms of a broader economic justice model.”
Rocap said he would advocate for more services at universities for victims of sexual assault.
“One of the biggest issues I see is that the offices at the universities that are supposed to be in charge of Title IX compliance are more worried about the institutions’ Title IX liability than they are in protecting students,” Rocap said.
Maliha Mazhar, University Democrats communications director, said Fischer, whom University Democrats endorsed, stood apart from other candidates because of his extensive student involvement on campus and leadership on issues such as campus carry.
“He made a really strong case on why he would be the best advocate for students,” Mazhar said. “He really tried to get campus carry to be stopped, and he was a great aid.”
Journalism senior Shadan Larki said she thought the forum was enlightening but would need to do more research to choose a candidate.
“Looking at their proposals and doing more research after tonight, I think doing that is going to help me differentiate [between candidates],” Larki said.