Five Democrats, ranging from political newcomers to a Central Health board member, are running to unseat U.S. Rep. Roger Williams in the staunchly Republican 25th Congressional District.
Austin defense attorney Chris Perri leads the pack of Democrats in money raised — $102,668, which includes $16,890 he made in personal loans to his campaign as of Dec. 31. Following closely behind is former mutual fund manager Chetan Panda, who has hauled in $99,336.
Others running for the Democratic nomination are West Hansen, who works for his family’s health care business; controller and attorney Julie Oliver, who currently serves on the board of Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district; and Kathi Thomas, a small business owner who has run previously against Williams.
Williams is running unopposed in the March 6 Republican primary. Early voting begins Tuesday.
Redrawn into a Republican district in 2011, District 25 stretches from Wimberley to near Fort Worth, a large swath of which is rural.
Perri, who has won the endorsement of several liberal organizations including Texas AFL-CIO, said he plans to win over the rural vote by working on issues specific to those communities. Some examples, he said, are pushing for the removal of a rock crusher that is placed too close to a rural hospital in Burnet and bringing more high-speed internet options to Lampasas.
“It restores faith in government if you will care about an issue that is not technically federal and … make something happen,” he said.
If elected, Perri said he wants to break up corporate monopolies by strengthening antitrust laws. He wants to make it easier for regular citizens to run for office by capping donations from large corporations, creating a donation matching program and ending partisan gerrymandering.
Perri points to Williams’ recent ethics investigation as an example of why ethics laws that regulate lawmakers need to be strengthened.
Williams, who owns a Weatherford car dealership, in 2015 inserted into a $300 billion transportation funding bill a provision that exempted some car dealerships from a proposal to prevent vehicles subject to safety recalls from being rented to consumers by rental car companies. An independent congressional ethics panel investigated Williams for having a possible conflict of interest, and he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
“We have toothless ethics laws,” Perri said. “That’s something that (with) my experience in criminal defense, I am more qualified than any candidate in this race to reform the law to take away these loopholes.”
Williams did not respond to a request for comment.
Panda said he wants to protect the Affordable Care Act and work toward making health insurance universal. He supports extending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to all Americans regardless of gender or sexual orientation; creating wind and solar energy jobs in rural areas and expanding access to clean energy with tax incentives and grants to study it at the University of Texas and Texas State University.
“The unfortunate reality is that Democrats have lost in districts like this, but they’ve never run a candidate like me before,” Panda said. “I have new ideas. I have fresh perspectives.”
Panda, whose loyalty to the Democratic Party has been called into question, said he voted in the Republican primary in 2016 to vote against then-candidate Donald Trump. He pledges to fight against Trump’s “discriminatory” policies if elected.
“As a person of color who had experienced discrimination, I didn’t want that near the general election,” he said.
Hansen wants to expand Medicare by lowering the age requirement, which is currently 65. He also wants to preserve the Clean Water Act and repeal the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of public money to fund elective abortions.
Oliver said she is committed to holding “no-holds-barred” town hall meetings monthly. She said she wants to end family immigration detention and to close immigration detention centers. She said she will fight to repeal the Dickey Amendment, which prevents the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding research into firearm injuries and deaths.
Among Thomas’ priorities are expanding Medicare by allowing people to opt in starting at age 55, allowing migrant farm workers to come and go with more ease and expanding access to broadband in rural areas.
About the candidates
• West Hansen, 55, is a licensed social worker whose company contracts with home health agencies to provide social work and advocacy when dealing with insurance companies. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State).
Civic participation: Hansen has previously served as volunteer at the Hays County Women’s Center, chair of Texas Canoe Racing Association, a National Geographic Explorer and is the head of nonprofit Worldwide Waterways Inc., which promotes clean water initiatives in developing countries.
• Julie Oliver, 45, is an attorney and controller for St. David’s HealthCare. She has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Texas at Arlington and a law degree from UT.
Civic Participation: Oliver is a Central Health board member and has volunteered for 15 years to deliver meals with Meals on Wheels.
• Chetan Panda, 27, previously managed retirement funds for a mutual fund company. He left his job in July to run for Congress. He has a bachelor’s degree in international economics from Georgetown University.
Civic Participation: Panda has mentored and tutored children in multiple organizations, including Breakthrough Austin, and has been a basketball coach for low-income children.
• Chris Perri, 36, is a defense attorney. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Southwestern University, a law degree from UT and a master’s degree in economics from the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Civic Participation: Perri is a founder of Texas Law Expunction Project, a free law clinic for low-income Central Texans. He is on the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association Board of Directors and previously was a member of Leadership Austin.
• Kathi Thomas, 65, is the owner of a floral business, Kathi Thomas Design, and former educator. She has a bachelor’s degree in music from UT.
Civic Participation: Thomas has served in Dripping Springs school organizations, Thankful Hubbard Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, organizing the Memorial Day Service at Texas State Cemetery, Pan American Round Table, Dripping Springs Women’s Club, Longhorn Alumni Band, Dripping Springs Democratic Action and Circle C Democrats.
• Rep. Roger Williams, 68, is serving his third term in the U.S. House. He previously served as Texas secretary of state under Gov. Rick Perry and owns a car dealership in Weatherford.
Voting record: He has supported a ban on citizens from Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. He opposes elective abortions. He supports penalizing so-called sanctuary cities and states. He voted in favor of a $8 billion Hurricane Harvey relief package in September.