4 Democrats vie for Congress in Williamson, Bell counties


U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, was first elected in 2002 and has won re-election seven times.

Democratic leaders think the district is ripe for an upset.

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They all say Carter’s politics no longer represent the district, from foreign policy to climate change to immigration.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.

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