The safe betting is on Republican Congressman Bill Flores winning re-election in the conservative 17th Congressional District, notwithstanding analysts’ predictions that Democrats have a decent shot of retaking the House of Representatives after more than a year of Donald Trump as president and a fair number of Republican lawmakers retiring from competitive seats. The two Democrats now vying for the chance to take on Flores come fall are aided by campaign themes that suggest the Democratic Party might be more than the party of LGBT rights, pro-choice and Dreamers.
Dale Mantey, 28, a doctoral student in epidemiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health, is running as an authentic representation of Middle America and small-town Texas. His campaign narrative focuses on his hometown of Rockdale, population 5,600, devastated by closure of the Alcoa smeltering plant in 2008, resulting in hundreds of layoffs, and recent closures of Sandow Power Plant just outside town and the coal mine in nearby Elgin that supplied fuel for Sandow. He stresses not bringing back coal but embracing high-tech industry such as renewable energy, including production of wind turbines and solar panels.
In Austin is Rick Kennedy, a 55-year-old software engineer whose message is one of shared frustration by constituents with a dysfunctional legislative branch so obsessed with scoring political points that it has thrown aside ideas of consensus and building national unity. He says his theme resonates across political lines, even among dismayed Republicans. The failure to reach a compromise on health care and the current warring over immigration while some Republicans attack the FBI and the president plans a military parade in Washington, D.C., would seem to bolster Kennedy’s argument.
“It’s easy to get out there and say, ‘I’m going to make America great again,’ ” Mantey told me last week. “It’s easy to sell that slogan. But it’s not easy to get out there and say, ‘Well, actually, all this involves complex tax policies and very, very, very intricate trade policies.’ That’s actually where the issues are. You can’t do a stump speech that is very passionate about tax policy. And that’s part of this uphill battle when we take on these very, very true and factual things that are complex and at times very boring.”
And, he says, there’s a difference between a man of privilege with a talent for bluster claiming to know the heartbreak of Middle America and one who has actually lived it.
“The reason Alcoa is such a big part of my story is that, yeah, I’m an educated young man, but that wasn’t my plan,” Mantey said. “I was going to be the next in line at Alcoa. My grandfather put in over 35 years there, my father was closing in on 20 years there and then both my uncles. When you add up their years, it’s over 100 years at Alcoa and I was ready to be there and add it up to 140 years. I was ready to live that life. And then it became very clear about 2006 that this wasn’t an option anymore. My father was telling me that back in 2005. He said, ‘This thing isn’t going to last much longer. This is on its way out.’ ”
Both candidates say Flores has become part of the problem, looking after interests of the oil and gas lobby rather than local issues. Flores, who spent his career in the oil and gas industry, denies neglecting local priorities or local political sentiments.
“I’d say Congressman Flores got swept up and votes party line now,” Kennedy told me. “My motivation is really about the future of this country and my kids’ future as well as subsequent generations to come. I believe where we are right now is an existential threat to our way of life. It’s important. We’ve been here before in different times. Our system has always found a way to self-adjust. That doesn’t happen automatically. People have to step up and cause that correction to happen.”
The two Democrats do contend with some unique challenges. Mantey acknowledges some people are surprised at his tender age as a congressional candidate, “but then you have a conversation with me and, all of a sudden, that goes out the window. You stop thinking, ‘He’s 28,’ when we start talking about health care, when we start talking about economics.”
Kennedy is regularly asked if he’s kin to the famous Kennedys, especially given Rick Kennedy hails from Massachusetts: “My standard response is I am a Kennedy from Massachusetts but I’m not one of those Kennedys from Massachusetts.”
The candidates’ themes are razor-sharp, rational, relevant. But can they trump the talk-radio ideology and political tribalism of our times? Let the vetting and betting begin.