House of Representatives

Another election season is upon us. On Nov. 4, Americans will go to the polls to cast ballots for U.S. senators and representatives. Early voting in the Lone Star State begins Oct. 20, and Texans will also elect a new governor, lieutenant governor and host of other state officials. What can we expect in these upcoming elections? Looking back at similar elections in the past can provide us with clues as to what the country and state might decide on Election Day.

First, let us examine the national political scene. These contests are called “midterm” or “off-year” elections because they are taking place during the middle of a presidential term. This year is the sixth year of President Barack Obama’s administration. Historically, the party that controls the White House usually suffers losses in midterm elections. Voters often like to have a check on the party in power and can also use midterm elections to voice displeasure with the president’s policies. This happened most recently in 2010, when Republicans captured a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and won a multitude of contests down the ballot as voters expressed concern with President Obama’s handling of the economy and signing of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

Recent elections in the sixth year of a presidency typically benefit the party out of power. In 1986, Democrats won control of the Senate and retained a strong majority in the House during the second term of Republican President Ronald Reagan. In 2006, Democrats secured both houses of Congress for the first time in more than a decade as voters expressed displeasure with President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War and response to Hurricane Katrina. The 1998 midterms proved an exception, however, as Democrats actually gained seats in the House of Representatives, largely because of voter opposition to Republicans’ impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

This year looks more likely to be a repeat of 1986 and 2006, rather than 1998. President Obama holds an approval rating percentage in the low forties, which poses difficulties for Democratic candidates this year. Americans are concerned about the administration’s handling of a plethora of issues. A slow economic recovery and the inability to pass immigration reform pose problems on the domestic front, while abroad the crisis in Iraq with ISIS threatens another war for the U.S. in the Middle East. One positive for Democrats is that the Republican Party possesses even lower approval numbers than the president. While both parties hold blame for the political gridlock traumatizing Washington, Republicans in the House of Representatives have been especially intransigent, from sparking a government shutdown last fall to refusing to pass any type of immigration reform proposal. What the Republican Party has in its favor this year, though, is voter turnout and political maps. Historically, fewer people vote in midterm than presidential elections, and these voters tend to be older and more conservative. The Republican Party benefits from gerrymandered districts drawn after its impressive victories in 2010 that make it virtually impossible for Democrats to take the House of Representatives until the next census. The real political battle will be for control of the U.S. Senate, currently held by Democrats with a 55 to 45 majority. Democrats this year have the disadvantage of defending seats held by their members in so-called “red” or more Republican-leaning states, such as Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana, because these seats last came up for election in 2008, a heavily Democratic election year. Most pundits predict that the odds are in favor of the GOP gaining at least six seats, and thereby the Senate majority.

On the Texas political scene, Republicans remain favored to retain control of state government, although Democrats have launched their strongest ticket in recent years. In the governor’s race, Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee, polls ahead of Democrat Wendy Davis. In the campaign for lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick similarly is favored against Leticia Van de Putte. The nominations of Abbott and Patrick represent one of the most conservative tickets in recent Texas political history, which may cause some more moderate voters to look toward Davis and Van de Putte. However, most Texas voters are conservative and President Obama holds high disapproval ratings in the Lone Star State. The combination of statewide Republican strength and it being the sixth year in office for an unpopular president make Democratic prospects for victory in Texas very challenging in 2014.

Indeed, if historic trends continue, Nov. 4 will be a Republican election night, in both Texas and the United States. However, surprises and political upsets do occur each cycle. This is one of the many things that make politics so fascinating. On a final note, regardless of political persuasion, I urge all Longhorns to exercise their right to vote in 2014.

Briscoe is a history graduate student from Carrizo Springs.

Concealed handgun license holders could carry on university campuses if the Texas Legislature approves a bill going before the House of Representatives on Saturday.

The bill, authored by State Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, would authorize university administrators to establish rules prohibiting concealed handguns in buildings located on campus only after consulting faculty, staff and students.

Fletcher said the bill would “decriminalize” possessing concealed handguns on campus. He said license holders would have to meet the age requirement — 21 and over — and will have completed background checks and training.

“It won’t be a bunch of 19-year-old freshmen running around at frat parties with guns,” Fletcher said. “They will be over 21.”

Similar legislation has stalled in the Senate. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, has said he would not bring the Senate companion to the bill up for a hearing in the committee.

Whitmire said Thursday if the House passes Fletcher’s bill, it could come to his committee for an “unnecessary” hearing or be referred to another committee.

“Whichever committee gets it and looks at it, it’s going to be dead because there are not 21 votes [for the bill] on the Senate floor,” Whitmire said.

A bill that passed out of the Senate Tuesday would allow license holders to keep concealed handguns in their vehicles while on campus. Whitmire voted for the bill and said it was a reasonable compromise. 

The bill’s author, state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said he does not see his bill as a substitute to campus carry because the two proposals address two separate ways to carry firearms.

He said instances such as the Jan. 22 shooting at Lone Star College-North Harris do not reflect the behavior of law-abiding concealed handgun license holders. In that instance, the gunman injured three people, including himself, after arguing with a student.

“A piece of paper that has a law on it that’s trying to prevent law-abiding citizens from having their firearm in their car doesn’t stop that deranged individual,” Hegar said. “So we have to separate criminals, people that have intent to do harm and law-abiding citizens.”

State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, voted against Hegar’s proposal and said he would vote against similar legislation if it came from the House.

“All it does is promote proliferation of guns on public spaces, and I don’t think they have any business in learning institutions, whether it’s in elementary schools, high schools or universities,” Rodriguez said.

UT and UT System officials have repeatedly stated their opposition to legislation allowing handguns on campuses.

UT President William Powers Jr. has signaled his opposition to the legislation throughout this session. UT spokesman Gary Susswein said Thursday that Powers’ stance has not changed.

“President Powers’ position on this issue has been clear,” Susswein said. “He does not believe guns on campus are a good idea.”

In a March 12 letter, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told Gov. Rick Perry he does not believe the presence of concealed handguns on campus would create a safer environment.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, authored the Senate version of campus carry rejected by Whitmire. Birdwell said the presence of handguns does not mean an increase in crime or violent incidences.

“If that were the case, then we would have the shootings at the grocery stores, the Starbucks, all the places where you can lawfully carry your CHL,” Birdwell said. “To make that assumption is ludicrous.”

The 83rd Texas Legislature convened at noon last Tuesday under a cold, rainy sky. A delegation of secessionists gathered near the entrance to the North Lobby to protest for Texas’ independence, while lobbyists balanced umbrellas and cell phones as they rushed to make the rounds of congressional offices. Harried caterers and interns struggled with bags and boxed lunches, occasionally slipping on the slick granite of the Capitol Complex.

Inside the big pink dome, the scene was all pomp, circumstance and pantsuits as legislators took the oath of office in the Texas Senate and House of Representatives. Visitors were received in congressional offices with proper decorum throughout the afternoon.

To outsiders, the disconnect between the Capitol’s interior and exterior resembles the public’s relationship to Texas lawmakers. While well-dressed politicians endlessly debate issues and bills in their warm, dry offices, the rest of us remain out in the elements, trying to lead our everyday lives under the rules and regulations set down by the law-making aristocracy. 

I’ve only worked as a staffer in the House for a few weeks, but I can attest that the public’s feeling of alienation, though understandable, is misguided. When they’re not in session, state legislators live and work in the communities they represent, buying groceries and dropping their kids off at school alongside the constituents on whom they count for reelection. These lawmakers are infinitely more accessible and receptive than their counterparts in Washington. And that’s a very good thing, because the bills they pass have a direct impact on the lives of everyday Texans, including UT students. Here are just five of the many reasons why college students, a notoriously apathetic and disengaged demographic, should pay attention to the Texas Legislature and stay apprised of the issues it considers.

You vote. Say what you will about the impotency of the individual in national elections — when you cast a ballot for state representative or senator, your vote counts. An impassioned voter with Internet access can significantly affect the outcome of a race by starting a chain email or tweeting something clever. But with power comes responsibility. Before you vote, develop informed stances on key issues and familiarize yourself with the candidates’ records. And once your ballot is cast, take advantage of your state legislators’ accessibility by calling or writing with your concerns. You won’t be ignored.

You have relationships. Well, maybe you’re going through a dry spell, but let’s assume it won’t last forever. Whether you like it or not, the state has a high degree of discretion in regulating your private life. From abortion to marriage equality to contraceptive coverage in insurance plans, battles over social issues are sure to reappear this session. The status quo is unlikely to change with a large Republican majority in both houses, but when lawmakers are fighting over issues as personal as whom you can marry and why, it’s worth paying attention to.

You attend a public university. Over the past few decades, state funding for UT and other public universities has decreased dramatically, shifting the financial burden onto students and their families. Last session saw dramatic cuts in education funding, and, even with an unexpected budget surplus, state leaders haven’t committed to re-funding public schools and universities. You can take action not only at the polls but also by joining UT’s student lobbying group, Invest In Texas, or other advocacy organizations that work to make students’ voices heard. Of additional interest to UT this session is the Supreme Court’s decision in the affirmative action case Fisher v. UT, expected to come down this spring. If the Court rules unfavorably for UT, the Legislature will be responsible for formulating a race-neutral admissions system that could dramatically alter the way the University admits prospective students.

You won’t attend a public university forever. After graduation, you’ll likely start your career in the Lone Star State. With its low cost of living and business-friendly tax environment, Texas is a great place for young professionals to get their careers off the ground, but regulations considered in the Legislature can have a serious effect on our economic future. Your personal political philosophy may determine what side you’re on in taxation and spending debates, but once you graduate you won’t be able to afford to ignore them.

You enjoy free entertainment. The Texas Legislature — especially the House of Representatives — has a well-earned reputation for being colorful and quirky. Keep up with the news coverage and you won’t be disappointed. On the opening day of session, for example, I learned from The Dallas Morning News that Gov. Perry’s son presented his father’s former presidential rival Rick Santorum (whose sudden appearance at the Capitol remains unexplained) with an A&M sweater vest. This only a year after the young Griffin Perry mocked Santorum’s ubiquitous sweater vests on Twitter. Whether his peace offering is an omen for a greater sense of reconciliation and goodwill in the 83rd Legislature remains to be seen.   

Oliver is press secretary for Rep. Richard Raymond (D-Laredo) and an English and sociology sophomore from New Braunfels.

Former Mayor Bill White shakes hands with Rep. Mark Strama after a rally for his gubernatorial candidacy at Sholtz Garten in December.

Photo Credit: Caleb Bryant Miller | Daily Texan Staff

As the gubernatorial primaries draw near, Democratic candidates Bill White and Farouk Shami are gearing up for their first debate Monday.

The debate, hosted by public broadcasting station KERA, will begin at 7 p.m. and will be held at a CBS studio in Fort Worth in front of an audience. White, a former mayor of Houston, and Shami, a self-made businessman, will take questions from viewers through social-networking Web sites, reporters and live audience members.

Sherri Greenberg, economics lecturer and former member of the House of Representatives, said education, jobs and environmental issues will dominate Monday’s debate. Greenberg said the idea of fresh leadership will underscore both Shami’s and White’s answers.

“Both [candidates] are positioning themselves as agents of change,” Greenberg said. “Shami will say that he’s an outsider, and White will say that we need new blood in the governor’s office.”

Ally Smith, spokeswoman for White, said the candidates will probably focus more on debating the issues, not each others’ reputations, which happened during the Republican primary debate on Jan. 29 between Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina.

Viewers should also expect to hear candidates addressing a more student-friendly topic, Smith said.

“You didn’t hear anything about education in Friday’s debate, yet it’s the most important role of state government,” she said.

She said the long-term economic growth of Texas is dependent on having an educated workforce, which can be done by increasing high school graduation rates and reducing financial obstacles to higher education.

“We need to bring down the skyrocketing tuition increases,” White said in an interview with The Daily Texan. “We need to make sure young people are not prevented from going to college for financial reasons.”

Greenberg said Shami is not favored to win the Democratic nomination, but that hasn’t kept the underdog candidate from campaigning.

“I feel confident that after this debate, the Democratic primary will receive significantly more attention as people in Texas realize I am the only candidate who is not a career politician and who has real-life experience solving significant problems on a large scale,” Shami said in a prepared statement.