Texas’ 31st Congressional District, which encompasses most of Williamson and Bell counties, hasn’t been friendly territory for Democrats since it was created after the 2000 census.
U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, was first elected in 2002 and has won re-election seven times by at least 19 percentage points. President Donald Trump won the district by 13 points, more than the statewide margin.
Yet, buoyed by Democratic fervor over Trump’s presidency and shifting politics in Austin’s north suburbs, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has moved the district into its “battlefield” category, putting it on a list of more than 100 Republican-held districts nationwide that party leaders believe they can flip. Democrats need to gain 24 seats to take control of the House.
Four Democrats are running for the party nomination. Carter, 76, is running for re-election and faces lightly funded primary opponent Mike Sweeney. Early voting started Tuesday and continues through March 2. Election day is March 6.
The Democrats in the race cover the gamut: Kent Lester, a West Point graduate, veteran and former educator; Mary “M.J.” Hegar, a former Air Force helicopter pilot and an author and speaker; Christine Mann, a physician and community activist; and Mike Clark, a database expert who formerly worked for the Legislature and lost badly to Carter in 2016.
They all say Carter’s politics no longer represent the district, from foreign policy to climate change to immigration. And they criticize him for not holding a single town hall meeting since Trump was elected.
But there are fissures between Lester and Hegar, who each raised more than $100,000 in the last quarter of 2017. Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 14, Hegar raised an additional $63,000 and Lester raised slightly more than $2,000.
Hegar, 41, of Round Rock, who sustained injuries and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor and a Purple Heart for her bravery in Afghanistan, wrote a book, “Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front,” which is being made into a movie starring Angelina Jolie. She also was a leader in a successful effort to allow women to serve in combat.
But Lester, 60, isn’t being deferential.
“I don’t think she has an advantage,” he told the American-Statesman.
Lester, who lives in Cedar Park, served in the Army for 20 years before retiring and then taught high school in Belton. “The Army and Air Force are different. In the Army you lead units; in her case, she’s never been in charge. She wasn’t even in charge of the helicopter when it went down — she was the co-pilot.”
Hegar responded hotly when asked about Lester’s comments. “I am the only combat veteran,” she said. “That’s important. I sustained wounds as a medevac pilot. I have a unique perspective on the cost of war. My experience as a combat veteran is one more thing that qualifies me in this district that is so veteran-based.”
The district includes parts of Fort Hood and nearby Killeen.
Hegar is aiming to win the primary on March 6; Lester is hoping to force a runoff.
Meanwhile, the other two Democrats in the race are low-key.
Mann, a family practice physician in Cedar Park, said: “I have been politically engaged and active for the last 10 years. After the 2016 election, I was seeing things that bothered me, on women, immigration, minorities.”
At 52, Mann decided to give politics a try and considers her own campaign to be “historic,” as one of eight Democratic female physicians vying for Congress this cycle. “My priorities are health care, women’s rights and voting rights,” she said.
Clark, also 52, of Georgetown, is campaigning to bring attention to post-traumatic stress disorder in the district with so many active-duty soldiers and veterans. “I aim to bring that to the forefront,” he said.
In addition, he said, “climate change is an issue for our community,” and he credits all Democratic candidates for speaking out about it.
ABOUT THE DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES
• Mike Clark, 52, of Georgetown, taught science and math for several years at Stephen F. Austin State University and works in Austin in the tech sector. He was a specialist in redistricting for the Legislature for 11 years. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology with a background in computer science and geospatial technology.
• Civic participation: An active Democrat with the party in Williamson County, Clark was the Democratic candidate for the district in 2016.
• Mary “M.J.” Hegar, 41, of Round Rock, is an author and public speaker. She was an Air Force pilot in Afghanistan, where she was injured in an ambush and awarded a Purple Heart. She successfully sued the Defense Department over its policy banning women from combat roles. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and world religions and an MBA from the University of Texas.
Civic participation: Hegar co-founded the Combat Integration Initiative, which monitors the inclusion of women in combat roles in the military, and is on the board of directors at Texas Advocacy Project, which provides legal services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
• Kent Lester, 60, of Belton, is retired. He taught for nine years at Belton High School and previously served in the Army for 20 years. He graduated from West Point.
Civic participation: Lester started an Advancement Via Individual Determination program at Belton High School that helps prepare students for college and gives a scholarship annually in his name. He is on the board of SafePlace, which supports victims of abuse.
• Christine Mann, 52, of Cedar Park, is a family practice physician. Mann graduated from the University of North Texas and Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Worth.
Civic participation: Mann co-chaired a group that successfully pushed to ban indoor smoking in Round Rock. She also served on the Williamson County American Heart Association board of directors, working to place defibrillators in schools and workplaces.
ABOUT THE JOB
Members of the U.S. House are able to serve on committees and propose bills, resolutions and amendments. The representative of Texas’ 31st Congressional District serves an area that includes most of Williamson and Bell counties. Each House member is elected to a two-year term and earns $174,000 per year.