Donna Howard Interview

April 20th, 2006

Everyone expected a run-off in the District 48 race to replace retreating (errr, retiring) Austin republican, Todd Baxter. It’s a moderately conservative area in the hills west and northwest of the city, with above average income, education and voter turnout. Perry took it with 60 percent in 2002. Cornyn got 54 against Kirk. And, perhaps tellingly, Sharp beat Dewhurst 54 to 46 in that race.

This time around, a briefly-popular incumbent had decided he needed to “spend more time with his family” after two terms in the House. Baxter had some pretty ugly hickeys – like being one of the key recipients of the TRMPAC money that sent Tom Delay home … or to Virgina… or wherever. But the real albatross for Baxter – the one he couldn’t shake – was his voting record.

Baxter fell lockstep in line under the Craddick regime, and that didn’t fly with the folks he was supposed to represent. Voters in District 48 are conservative, but not knee-jerk. They keep tabs on what’s happening down the road at the Capitol. And they don’t much care for it when you vote to gut public schools, kick poor kids off health insurance, mess around with people’s personal lives and generally manage to not get anything important done. It was an easy bet that come November, it would be Adios MoFo (to quote our Governor) for Todd.

So, Baxter was asked to step aside (or who knows, maybe it really was his idea – he is making a stink-pot of money as a lobbyist now) so the Governor could call a special election, giving a sole, wealthy republican candidate the edge against a field of democrats.

The Republican Party probably thought it had a lock on District 48 with Ben Bentzin. He’s young-ish, personable enough and he has somewhere around a gazillion dollars from his days at Dell. He also had name I.D. from an earlier run against Austin State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos. What he lacked, though, was even a whiff of offering something different than what District 48 got from Craddick-Baxter.

In contrast, it seems Donna Howard was made for this run. The key issue was public education. She had served on Eanes ISD school board. She co-founded Advocates for Eanes Schools, a parent organization. And she helped start the Texas Education Crisis Coalition, a grassroots advocacy group.

Health care was the runner-up issue. Donna’s professional background is in critical care nursing. She taught Health Education at the University of Texas. She helped get the Seaton Good Health School going. And she served as the District 5 president of the Texas Nurses’ Association.

Plus, she didn’t so much try to talk across the aisle as ignore it all together. At a Democratic Party fundraiser in the spring, Donna got up to address the party faithful and opened by thanking all the republicans and independents who were supporting her campaign. One party insider quipped, “Damn. Talking about staying on message.”

So the oddsmakers had Donna trailing, but making it into a runoff with Bentzin. After that all bets were off. But no one predicted what would actually happen the night of the election. When the results rolled in, Donna was about one good block-party shy of taking the seat outright. Interview by the local news that night, she was sharp. She was on message. She thanked the republicans and independents who supported her campaign.

Over the next 30 days, Donna’s campaign kept its heading and picked up speed. Bentzin’s team switched gears from an advertising theme emphasizing that, gosh, he’s really tall – and instead decided to hurl some last-minute mud. But Donna had taken all the wind. Bentzin’s sails went flat. And Donna took the runoff with 58 percent.

We sat down with Donna recently in her new office in the Captiol extension. There isn’t a stitch of art on the walls yet. Just one laminated poster-calendar with appointments scrawled across it. Apparently she was attending hearings on school finance before she was even sworn in. Her first order of business is the special session called for April 17th on school funding (or property tax relief, depending on how you look at the issue), and she clearly has a lasar-beam focus on that issue. Eventually we got around to chatting about environmental issues. Even there, though, Donna had a way of tying things back to education.

She sees the education of young people as one of the keys to creating a sustainable future and talked about the challenges of testifying before the State Board of Education. “I’m on the board of the Texas Freedom Network, which has been instrumental in lobbying the SBOE in regard to their textbook selection process and their misguided attempts to try to impose their own narrow views into textbooks instead of trying to look at true scientific curricula,” she said.

She also assisted a group of professional geologists in higher education lobby the SBOE to have environmental sciences as part of the required high school coursework. “So many of the key decisions we have to make involve the land and water and other resources, and we have to have a solid basis of understanding as part of the electorate,” she said. Pointing out that any efforts to teach important subjects beyond the basics of the TAKS test will be lost if schools don’t see an infusion of funding, Donna said she had recently been studying the idea of “green taxes.”

The idea behind green taxes is to put a surcharge on units of pollution, helping internalize some of the true costs of our industrial habits, and using that funding stream for critical state needs. The idea was brought before John Sharp’s tax commission but wasn’t included in the proposal he recently released. Still, Donna thinks it’s an idea that has merit and should be looked at again. “As far as I know, the only thing that’s been taken off the table is an income tax,” she said. “So, as far as I’m concerned, a pollution tax is still on the table and definitely worth considering.”

A subset of green taxes – the motor fuels tax – has been the source of varying levels of heartburn over the last couple of legislative sessions, with even some conservative republicans kicking their feet in the dirt and admitting that, yeah well, maybe we ought raise it a hair (since we haven’t touched it in 15 years) or go ahead and index it to inflation.

A quarter of the 20-cent/gallon gas tax goes to education; so letting it float with inflation could provide a reasonable source of school money. “Ultimately, though, we hope that would end up being a declining source of revenue for schools as cars become more fuel efficient and we use less gas per person,” Donna said. “But at least it has that behavior modification benefit. It’s another way we can start to get a handle on our air quality problems.”

Austin doesn’t have a lot of heavy industry, she said, so vehicle emissions are where we have to focus our clean-up efforts. She also points out that more than a million Texans now have asthma, with rates among school-age children rocketing. She hopes her background in health care will give her an extra boost of credibility when those issues some up next session – as they surely will.

We told Donna that Todd Baxter had scored a dismal 31% and 21% on the TLCV Legislative Scorecard during his two regular sessions in the House and asked whether she thinks a freshman representative from a conservative-leaning district can really get out front on environmental issues. She seemed a little surprised at the question. “One of the things that is unique about my district,” she said, “is the huge swath of people in the middle that can’t be labeled or pigeon-holed.

We might be conservative on some issues – like taxes. But on others we