Split Decision
Mon August 21, 2006 2:57 am

When Corpus Christi state representative Vilma Luna decided to give up her legislative seat in July to take a lobbying job in Austin with Hillco Partners, the Democratic party had every reason to believe that the seat would remain in the party's column. The Republicans had not fielded a candidate against her in the general election, nor did they challenge her in 2004. Luna's last contested race had come in 2002, when she defeated Republican Lauro Cuellar with 66 percent of the vote. But Luna chose to resign her seat rather than to say that she was moving out of the district, and that decision could have far-reaching implications. Had she given as her reason for leaving that she was moving to Austin and would no longer be eligible to serve, the Democratic precinct chairs in the district could have chosen a replacement for her. But the Republicans, having fielded no candidate for the seat in the primary, would have been barred from naming a candidate. Luna's resignation allowed the Republicans to get back in the game and name a challenger.

Normally, this would not have mattered; the Democratic nominee would have been a heavy favorite. But the process of choosing between controversial candidates from two politically active families split the party. The winner, selected on August 13, was Solomon Ortiz Jr., 29, whose resume consists mainly of being the son of congressman Solomon Ortiz and a stormy term as Nueces County Democratic chairman. Ortiz defeated Danny Noyola, a longtime educator and Democratic activist who had lost previous races for mayor and city council and had recently lost his position as principal of Miller High School through reassignment.

Meanwhile, the Republican chairs nominated a quality candidate in Joe McComb, the owner of a local moving company, who served for eight years on the city council and another eight years as county commissioner, sandwiched around a losing a race for county judge (a race in which some supporters criticized him for not running an aggressive campaign). He has one of those resumes that goes on forever, including a public policy experience in water and workforce issues, as well as appointments to the State of Texas Community Development Program (by Bush) and the Comptroller's Committee to Oversee Funds of the Texas Tobacco Settlement Permanent Trust Account (by Strayhorn).

This race is reminiscent of a 2002 battle in Waco in which the Republicans held a sizeable partisan advantage but lost the election due to a nasty GOP primary that allowed a Democratic trial lawyer named John Mabry to defeat Republican nominee Holt Getterman. McComb's chance to do the same depends upon whether young Ortiz can make peace with and win the support of the bitterly disappointed Noyola forces. Right now it doesn't look good for Ortiz. An article on the KRIS-TV Web site quoted Noyola as saying in the immediate aftermath of his defeat, "It's disappointing because there was so much hate coming from the Ortiz camp. It influenced some of our precinct chairs, some of them believed some of that hate. Quite honestly they're the scum of the earth, when they just maliciously, fictitiously, when they just come up with things like that I'm beating up on someone, it's so sad that those people revert to hate, and they're all friends of the Solomon camp."

Suddenly this has become one of the most important races in the state. At stake is not just the Republican-Democrat balance in the House (currently 86R, 64D) but also the level of support for Speaker Tom Craddick. Luna was an avid Craddick supporter. The coalition of most House Democrats and a handful of Republicans, all of whom dream of unseating him, were counting on Luna's replacement to join the Anybody but Craddick ranks. Now that outcome is by no means certain.

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