Marianne Arnold

Marianne Arnold: “A lot of people I know are struggling — people you would think would be established in life, but they’re working two or three jobs.”

Marianne Arnold, 68, a retired accountant and plant-tissue researcher at Texas A&M University living in Kurten, is a Democratic candidate for state representative in Texas House District 12. The seat is occupied by Republican Kyle Kacal of College Station. Early voting in the Democratic primary election begins on Feb. 20 with Election Day on March 6.

Q    You’re retired?

A    Twice. The first time I retired, I had worked 20-some-odd years as a bookkeeper/accountant. I worked mostly for non-profit organizations, some entrepreneurs, even a co-op grocery store. Then I went back to college. Got another degree in horticulture.

Q    Why horticulture?

A    I have a passion for plants.

Q    Were you able to make a career of that?

A    What I ended up doing was working 18 years in plant-tissue culture labs. I really loved to be outdoors, but by the time I started my second career I was 46 years old and my back wasn’t all that good. But I did work three weeks on a planting crew. I developed a real admiration for the people who grow our food. When you’re hoeing a 400-foot row, your hands will start to cramp on the hoe. I would stoop until my back couldn’t take any more stooping. Then I’d kneel until I couldn’t kneel anymore. Then I’d crawl. I had very understanding crews with me. They’d help me and catch up the ends of my rows.

Q    Did you help develop something like the maroon carrot down there [at Texas A&M University]?

A    No. The first project I worked on was melon. I was working on a melon that doesn’t ripen quite so rapidly because grocery stores lose an inordinate amount of produce from ripening. Then I worked on a couple of cotton projects. The one I did my Ph.D. on was the development of cotton embryos. Which is pretty obscure. I used to talk to some of the students that were in the tissue-culture classes, and some of them had grown up on cotton farms and had never seen what was inside the seed. I taught a few graduate courses, which I really enjoyed, but I worked mostly in the lab.

Q    So why does a horticulturist and a former accountant want to get into the game of politics?

A    It’s a passion. I’m interested in very many things. I’m very broadly educated. As a volunteer for the Democratic Party, I edited their newsletter every week for about two years. One of the things I was charged with doing was keeping track of what the Legislature was doing while it was in session. Frankly, it horrified me.

Q    What horrified you?

A    There were so many extremist bills being pushed and so little attention paid to the real business of governing the state. To me, the business of government is education, health care and infrastructure. There are other things, but those are the Big Three in my mind. In education, state funding [for public schools] has gone down as a percentage of the total budget and there has been cut after cut. It really hurts rural districts. There are more than 30 [school] districts in House District 12. Some of them — like this year in Bremond, they had to eliminate two positions. And that’s a town so small it doesn’t have a Dairy Queen. Waco has several schools that are facing either closure or serious reorganization by the Texas Education Agency. In Robertson County, Hearne just barely escaped being taken over by the TEA. And Marlin was taken over by the TEA.

Q    You attribute that directly to funding?

A    I attribute a lot of that to funding. There are a lot of reasons districts have problems, but when you have this vast discrepancy between what a wealthy school district like College Station can afford and a poor district like Marlin can afford — for teachers, that’s a big item in the agenda.

Q    Do you talk to a lot of teachers and educators?

A    As many as I can.

Q    I keep hearing about how the state is declining its share of funding for public schools. Why then do teachers keep electing some of these same people to power? Where are the teachers who are outraged over this?

A    A lot of them are in the Democratic Party. Some teachers I know are running for election. A number of friends of mine are running for school boards. But a lot of people aren’t tuned into the political process. You learn this really quickly from knocking on doors.

Q    You’ve been knocking on doors? What are people telling you out there?

A    Depends on where you are. Out in Marlin, they’re talking about the water supply. In Groesbeck, they’re talking about the water supply. In Hearne, they’re talking about needing a place for kids to go to after school because they don’t have enough after-school programs. Almost everywhere I go they talk about the roads, so I started talking to people about roads and how you fix them. The answer: It’s really complicated and that’s one of the reasons that they stay awful. You have some government entities that pay for the roads. The state pays for the farm-to-market roads. Then the counties pay for county roads. The cities are pretty much on their own. Sometimes for larger cities it’s a matter of priorities and getting good people on city council and planning and zoning. For some small towns, it’s really hard to borrow money if you have only a thousand people in your city.

Q    You’re running against a young rival in the Democratic primary. Some might say he’s more vibrant where you’re measured and low key. What do you say to that?

A    I’ve met Chris a few times. I think he’s a nice guy. Frankly, there isn’t a lot of difference in what we stand for. I am out there more because, for one thing, I think the Democratic Party needs to have hard-working candidates. I don’t have to work for a living. I’m poor, but I’m not that poor. I don’t have a mortgage and I don’t have big family responsibilities. I’m not taking care of parents. A lot of my friends have to take care of aging parents. And my health is good, so I can work hard.

Q    We’re seeing more Democratic candidates this election cycle than usual. Would you consider this to be about Donald Trump or state leadership and the extremist bills you were talking about?

A    I think both. I did a lot of volunteering during the 2014 gubernatorial election. We had a candidate with some positives and some negatives. But there weren’t enough local candidates working on local issues to really bring turnout. I felt like, “This is important, this is crucial. I’m going to spend as much time as I possibly can working on this.” Others weren’t similarly motivated. This time around I have people around me breathing fire. There are people so outraged by what the Legislature did. There are two or three times each week when they can be outraged by the president. And they’re willing to take that step from “I ought to do something” to “I’m going to run.”

Q    What kind of things outrage them about the Legislature?

A    The bathroom bill was abhorrent. It was a cynical move on the part of the governor and lieutenant governor. It targeted a vulnerable minority and I have a whole group of friends who think that was terrible. The bill that allowed adoption agencies to discriminate [against LGBT and non-Christian families]. There’s a whole raft of bills affecting a woman’s right to choose and they were introduced and pushed through the Legislature in full knowledge these would spend a lot of time in court and cost the state millions of dollars. And I think the state could have spent that money much better, much more wisely, in dealing with issues like the maternal mortality rate, which is right up there with Mexico.

Q    You mentioned a woman’s right to choose. There’s no other issue like it where you have two lives in one body at a certain point. Is there a reasonable compromise that people need to be working toward?

A    First of all, I think the abortion issue has been used by the Republican Party to distract from other things. I know that I’ve been screamed at by people for which it was the only issue. I personally don’t want to spend a lot of time discussing it, because I think it is a distracting issue. The question is how can a state this rich with this many people let so many people get poor health care? How can a state this rich educate its 5 million school children so poorly?

Q    So are you saying you don’t want to take a position on the abortion question?

A    The courts have decided that abortion is legal. And I think when the state files lawsuit after lawsuit that it knows it’s going to lose, that’s just political grandstanding.

Q    One thing that Texans love is their property rights. Yet we also face transportation challenges in a growing state. What do you think about the bullet train or high-speed rail project that would run through the Bryan-College Station area?

A    I’ve listened to the presentation on the bullet train. I’ve also read some of the ranchers’ concerns. I support the development that brings jobs to the area. I understand the property-rights point of view. I think if a private rail threatens or uses eminent domain, they should have to pay market value, plus an extra 10 percent. I’ve talked with people who have ridden bullet trains and every one of them loves them.

Q    The state is concerned there’s a patchwork of conflicting ordinances in cities across Texas. Is the state right that there should be more uniformity in our local ordinances and that the cities are overreaching? Or are the cities right in accusing the state of trying to micromanage local issues?

A    It’s a tough issue. If the environmental quality oversight in the state was adequate, I would tend to slightly side with the state. But we have really lapsed on environmental oversight. I think the cities are trying to protect their citizens. Some of these state legislators are too busy listening to their big donors.

Interview condensed and edited for space and clarity.