Update, Feb. 5: The story has been revised to include a response from Elianor Vessali's campaign regarding Flores' contribution.
In the race to replace retiring U.S. Congressman Bill Flores, Waco businessman Scott Bland leads the field of candidates in the amount of contributions received, with former U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions trailing slightly behind.
George Hindman, a Republican candidate from Pflugerville, maintains the most cash on hand, $260,990, with two weeks before early voting begins in the March 3 primary election. Hindman is financing his own campaign, like the majority of candidates who filed year-end campaign finance reports that were due Friday. His outside contributions total $6,390.
Only nine of 15 candidates in Texas’ 17th Congressional District have filed their fourth quarter reports, according to the Federal Elections Commission website. Republican candidate Jeffrey Oppenheim, a retired U.S. Army colonel, ended his campaign for the seat last month.
Fundraising in Congressional District 17
|Candidate||Contributions ($)||Expenditures ($)||Cash on hand ($)|
|George Hindman (R)||406,415.41||145,425.53||260,989.88|
|Pete Sessions (R)||102,836.65||259,369.32||220,136.60|
|Renee Swann (R)||180,425.00||22,062.41||158,362.59|
|Elianor Vessali (R)||119,592.61||5,685.10||113,907.51|
|Scott Bland (R)||121,788.12||14,423.15||107,364.97|
|Trent Sutton (R)||82,057.00||8,974.40||73,082.60|
|David Jaramillo (D)||14,280.00||163.39||14,116.61|
|Rick Kennedy (D)||48,623.20||38,593.21||11,457.73|
|Ahmad Adnan (R)||9,994.00||3,125.00||6,869.00|
Flores, who defeated Democratic incumbent Chet Edwards in 2010, donated $2,000 to three candidates: Bland, retired Waco businesswoman Renee Swann and College Station Realtor and commercial broker Elianor Vessali. Flores said he asked for his campaign contribution to Vessali to be refunded because he believed she moved her campaign in the wrong direction. He would not specify further.
In a statement to the Tribune-Herald, a spokesperson for the Vessali campaign said she had returned the money soon after Flores' request on Jan. 14.
“Congressman Flores requested Ms. Vessali return the contribution after learning about her intention to join the House Freedom Caucus," the statement read. "She respects the Congressman’s decision but proudly stands with other Constitutional conservatives who understand that the days of D.C. business as usual must end.”
In December, Flores said he had met with those three candidates because he considered them viable replacements, but he wanted to wait to endorse a candidate until they developed their campaigns more. Flores said Tuesday that if he does endorse a candidate, he will do so on or before the start of early voting on Feb. 18.
Meanwhile, Flores has not been shy about stating his misgivings about Sessions carpetbagging into the district, calling his move “an inappropriate action.” In 2018, Sessions lost his Dallas seat to Democrat Colin Allred, a first-time candidate and former NFL player.
Sessions, who moved back to Waco to run for the District 17 seat, began his campaign with $306,685 on hand from his previous campaigns, according to his finance reports. He received $76,040 in contributions, with most of those funds coming from political action committees. Sessions received about $49,796 from PACs based in other states, except the Dallas Safari Club PAC. He also donated $1,000 to President Donald Trump’s campaign.
Out of all the candidates who filed reports, Sessions, 64, has spent the most so far — $162,589 — leaving him with $220,137 on hand.
Hindman, 52, is not far behind Sessions in spending. He spent $145,426, leaving him with the most cash on hand at the end of the fourth quarter of 2019 — $260,990.
Bland, the 48-year-old owner of Jim Bland Construction Co., received $91,162 in contributions, mostly from Waco-area builders, including Luanne and Woody Butler with Woody Butler Homes, Mike Barnett of Barnett Contracting Inc. and Misty and Tate Christensen with Barsh Construction Co. Alice Starr, wife to Ken Starr and a consultant at Starr Strategies, donated $250 to Bland’s campaign. Ken Starr, a former Baylor University president and U.S. solicitor general, recently made headlines for defending Trump during his impeachment trial.
Additionally, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver and his brother and fellow attorney, John Deaver, both contributed $500 to Bland’s campaign. George’s Restaurant Inc. owner Sammy Citrano III and District 5 Waco City Councilman Jim Holmes both donated $250 to Bland’s campaign.
Like many other candidates, Bland contributed to his own campaign. He contributed $30,625, according to his finance report. He has spent $14,422, leaving him with $107,365 cash on hand.
Swann, a retired medical administrator at her family business, Brazos Eye Surgery of Texas, received $25,425 in contributions, according to her finance report. Many of those contributions came from local physicians, as well as $2,800 from John Sawyer, founder and CEO of Hemisphere Aerospace Investments and owner of the Rare Performance Memorabilia store on Franklin Avenue.
So far, Swann has spent $22,062, but she also contributed $155,000 to her own campaign. That leaves her with $158,363 cash on hand going into the Republican primary.
Vessali, a former College Station City Councilwoman, received $69,593 in contributions, mostly from College Station residents. That number includes Flores’ $2,000 contribution that he said has been refunded. Vessali also received a $1,000 donation from state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who has endorsed Vessali for Congress.
To date, Vessali has spent just $5,685, according to her finance report. She contributed $50,000 to her own campaign, leaving her with $113,908.
Early voting in the March 3 primaries starts Feb. 18.