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Matt Rinaldi’s Reelection Battle Could Signal How Democrats Will Fare

There's a different anger in the suburbs. The HD 115 race between incumbent State Rep. Rinaldi and Democrat Julie Johnson will show if it has political consequences.
Robert Neubecker
Something’s off. It’s the morning of Saturday, September 8, just six weeks to the start of early voting, and state Rep. Matt Rinaldi is holding a grand opening for his new campaign headquarters in a secluded office park in Farmers Branch. The campaign was supposed to walk blocks this morning, but it’s pouring rain, so a handful of people stand around the conference room chatting. The Huffii are here—state Sen. Don Huffines and his brother Phillip Huffines. The Emotions’ soul anthem “Best of My Love” plays from a very quiet speaker in the corner. There are a few doughnuts.

Rinaldi’s appeal, to his most passionate fans, is that he’s got fire in his belly. He beat a moderate incumbent in the Republican primary in 2014 and was ranked the most conservative member of the Texas House the year after. By last session, he had gained a reputation as a relatively talented legislative arsonist, the rising star of the far-right faction of the Republican Party in the House, with a penchant for self-immolation.

On the last day of the session, he won national infamy by telling his Hispanic colleagues he had called ICE on immigration protesters in the House gallery, precipitating a scuffle that ended with Rinaldi threatening to put “a bullet in the brain” of a Democratic colleague. (If needed in self-defense, he says.) It was a shocking moment for the Legislature, in the way that a lot of things were shocking in 2017: it seemed to be evidence of a collective new low, before disappearing quicker from the headlines than might be expected amid an avalanche of fresher horrors.

That fire is Rinaldi’s brand, even if he takes it too far sometimes. But it’s not particularly visible here. The mood is muted. Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” comes on that speaker. The campaign messaging on Rinaldi’s new lit feels like it could belong to any legislative candidate in Texas—anybody except, maybe, Matt Rinaldi. His tag line for this race: “Lower Property Taxes. Stronger Schools.” That’s in line with his first TV ad, a real oddity. It opens on Rinaldi, smiling as widely as possible.

“Every child deserves the opportunity to reach their dreams,” he says enthusiastically, like a college counselor. The ad cuts to Rinaldi speaking to a classroom of kids. On the dry-erase board behind him is written “Dream,” and floating above the children’s desks are words like “Grow,” “Discover,” “Learn.” He continues, “In the Texas House, I made education a top priority.” Again, a few seconds later, if you didn’t get the message: “I’m Matt Rinaldi, and excellent schools will always be my top priority.”

When I talk to him at the HQ, he adopts the same tone. When he talks to voters, he says, “What I tout is, first of all, education. I’ve added $4 billion to education funding during my two terms. We’ve also worked to lower property taxes.” Then there’s the state’s business climate. Unemployment’s pretty good. “You know what,” he says. “Texas is doing pretty well. We’re doing better than any area of the country right now, and we’re doing that because of our leadership.”

In the last few years, Rinaldi became an avatar of the right faction of the Texas GOP that emerged fully formed during the Obama administration.

To put it gently, Rinaldi is not known for his great love of public education. He had nothing to do with the money he’s bragging about allocating, and he’s most known to teachers in his district as a supporter of vouchers. His relationships with the schools in his district are so bad he blocked the school board president of Coppell ISD, House District 115’s second-largest district, on Twitter, and then tried and failed to unseat her by supporting a right-wing candidate in her next election. (She won handily.) The disconnect between his record and the oppressive blandness of his current campaign is as wide as could be, and that poses some interesting questions about the political moment we find ourselves in.

In the last few years, Rinaldi became an avatar of the right faction of the Texas Republican Party that emerged fully formed during the Obama administration, when Democratic turnout was depressed and anger at Washington, D.C., kept the party’s voting base cogent. That faction emerged largely from Tea Party groups in Texas suburbs, like the ones in Rinaldi’s district, HD 115, which contains parts of Coppell, Carrollton, Farmers Branch, and Irving. This area is not as far-right as Rinaldi is—he was able to win and retain it in a specific set of political circumstances, and now, just maybe, those circumstances are changing.

There is a new kind of anger in the suburbs. In 2016, in a surprising result, Rinaldi won reelection by less than two points against an under-resourced campaign run by local lawyer Dorotha Ocker, and there’s some reason to think that he’s more vulnerable this year. Meanwhile the groups that back Rinaldi—most notably Empower Texans, the ur-PAC of the right faction—performed poorly in this year’s Republican primary and are mostly playing defense this November.

So what is Matt Rinaldi’s role in the new order? (If there is one.) And, more important, what is the role of Matt Rinaldi’s Texas in the new order? It is entirely possible that both will continue on as before. The largest reason to suspect they might is the age-old and omnipresent dysfunction of the Texas Democratic Party, whose members continually set low expectations for themselves and lawn-dart under them. But there is a possibility, too, that something else—something modest—can start, now, to grow in its place. And House District 115 is a pretty good place to test it.

Julie Johnson, the plain-spoken lawyer who is up against Rinaldi, is frank about the fact that she stepped up to the plate in large part because she was needed. “I was asked. That’s the power of the ask, sometimes,” she says in a back room of her campaign headquarters in a storefront just down the street from Rinaldi’s. Ocker, the 2016 candidate, had expressed her intention to run again. But she dropped out six weeks before the filing deadline to run for a Dallas County judicial seat she then lost.

Johnson had raised money for the party before and had been active with the Human Rights Campaign, the D.C.-based LGBTQ advocacy group. Apart from that, she says, she “screamed at the TV a lot,” particularly after the 2016 election. One of the hardest things about running for office, she says, was “the amount of study that it takes to really understand the problems that you’re trying to fix,” while working a job and raising kids. She has canceled plans to block-walk this evening for that reason.

“I’m going to my son’s football game,” Johnson says. Over the course of the campaign, she says, it has been “hard to keep the plates in the air and balance it all, and I have a 15-year-old son who still needs his mama to cheer him on at a football game from time to time. I missed the last one, so by God I’m going tonight.”

Johnson’s work with HRC makes her a political animal, but she also fits the energy we’ve seen on the Democratic side this cycle in a few significant ways. A woman in the economically secure suburbs who hadn’t really planned on running, but feels her hand is forced by political circumstances and the awareness that if she doesn’t step up, no one might. Not a perfect candidate, perhaps, by a consultant’s calculus, but a real one, and in tune with who she hopes her voters will be.

If victory is possible, it’s a victory built most of all on turnout from college-educated women who might consider themselves soft Republicans or independents but feel angry and disgusted this year. That’s been a plan on paper for the Democratic Party as a whole for a long time—it was the core tenet of the Wendy Davis gubernatorial campaign. It might be more viable this year, but it’s by no means assured. It has been historically very difficult to get center-right voters to cross over, and Democrats have never played this game particularly well.

In 2014, there was a push by groups like Battleground Texas to harness resources and organize on behalf of candidates in specific state house races. That effort was shaky and ran into a lot of problems, and notched very few wins in a bad political environment, but it was there. This year, the effort to back the party’s Lege candidates is scattershot and under-resourced, which threatens to limit the party’s gains in what should have been a good year. Some Democratic House candidates in hypothetically competitive districts still have virtually no money and virtually no organization to speak of.

The focus is instead on races at the top of the ballot—both Beto O’Rourke’s race against Ted Cruz, and the handful of competitive congressional races around the state. That’s where the money and the energy are going, with the hope that the momentum in those races trickles down to help candidates like Johnson. While O’Rourke’s bid has succeeded at driving enthusiasm in precisely this kind of suburban area—one rally he held in Farmers Branch in July brought out more than 1,000 people, forcing the fire marshal to turn away several hundred more—the congressional races won’t be of much help to Johnson. The premier race in the Dallas area, in Republican Pete Sessions’ district, doesn’t overlap with HD 115.

The hope here is that Rinaldi himself is an asset—that the bad behavior he exhibited last session pushes a meaningful number of Republicans to vote for Johnson. It’s helpful, in the act of encouraging people to switch tickets, to have prominent figures who think like them give them permission to do so. Which is why it’s notable that former state Rep. Bennett Ratliff, the Republican Rinaldi beat in the primary to win his seat, has endorsed Johnson. A sore loser, some say.

Not so, says Ratliff. “He’s been in two prior elections where I could have endorsed his opponent and I didn’t do so,” he says. He’s making the jump now because he believes Johnson wants to support public schools, Ratliff’s No. 1 issue, and because Rinaldi’s record last session was a tipping point. “It’s been embarrassing,” he says. “I’m speaking for our community. People are embarrassed by someone who threatens to shoot people on the House floor. And he can’t even get a bill through committee.”

In Ratliff’s view, the state’s approach to public education is a ticking time bomb that threatens to blow up under the Republicans. In short: the state offers tax breaks and makes up for them in part by reducing the share of funding it offers public schools in Texas, knowing that rising property taxes and valuations will cover it on the local side, squeezing education in the middle. It’s an iron triangle of bad policy, increasing the power of the tax voters hate most, while hurting the institution voters most value.

It’s worked, so far, because the policy mechanisms that make it function are very complicated and difficult for average people to make sense of. It allows people to get cute. Rinaldi opposed House leadership’s attempt to reform the school finance system last session, but nonetheless is running on the theme of “Lower Property Taxes. Stronger Schools.” Ratliff thinks that people are figuring it out, partly due to increased media attention: “You don’t have to explain funding formulas for people to realize something is not working here.” When the realization hits that the state has been gorging itself by forcing local taxes up, he says, it’ll be like a loan coming due, rewriting the political balance in places like HD 115, suburban areas with strong school districts.

This, too, has been predicted before and might best be described as an aspirational theory. At a town hall held by state Sen. Huffines in Coppell, on the western end of District 115, only one woman in almost an hour of questioning asks about school finance. She gets the details a little wrong—very easy to do—which allows Huffines to dissemble. At the end, though, he admits he’d rather not be talking about this. “How do you clear a room full of politicians in Texas?” he jokes. “Ask them about school finance.”

in 2006, the city of Farmers Branch passed a series of ordinances related to illegal immigration, designed to kick undocumented residents outside city limits. They were encouraged to stand by the ordinances by nativist Kansas politician Kris Kobach, who recently ran President Trump’s voter fraud initiative. Though the ordinances never went into effect, it set off an ugly, decade-long legal fight that cost the city some $7 million, much of which went to Kobach himself, before admitting defeat. The Farmers Branch City Council had acted out of anger, just like Rinaldi had on the House floor, and it ended up costing quite a bit.

For years, a good way to figure out what was going on in Texas politics was to drive to a suburb in one of the large metropolitan areas, go to a Tea Party meeting, and ask attendees what they were angry about. The political movement those people built took a few cycles to really kick in, but it eventually took over the state. It became more important that lawmakers say things than do things, and particularly that they voice the anger of their constituents.

But Farmers Branch changed, and so have many of the areas where Tea Party anger was strongest. Today the city has a millennial mayor, Robert Clair Dye, and it’s clear that most people would rather forget what happened last decade. House District 115 ranks among the most diverse districts in the state. The Houston-area suburban county of Fort Bend went blue in the 2016 presidential election, a stunning development, and Democrats are gaining ground in other suburban areas, like Williamson County to Austin’s north.

Ratliff and Johnson are betting that in this context and with a more energized electorate, people will care more about the pragmatic aspects of their lawmakers’ records. Rinaldi’s strange ad might just be a partial concession that they’re right. If it’s true, Rinaldi has little to say. His campaign has seemed strangely lackluster—few scheduled events, paint-by-number messaging, and trouble raising money, apart from a large donation by Empower Texans.

In fact, there’s been persistent chatter at the Capitol that Rinaldi is already making plans for after the election. In June, shortly after his run-in on the floor, he parted ways with the law firm he had worked at for four years, Dykema Cox Smith. (Though the firm has a lot of immigration-related business and was subject to protests over Rinaldi’s behavior, he insists the separation was his own idea.) One account has it that Rinaldi pitched prospective GOP donors and lobby people at a dove hunt in September on his plans for a new political action committee in Empower’s orbit—with the obvious implication that he was going to lose. (Rinaldi: “First I’ve heard of it. What have you heard?”)

The Tea Party will be with us for a long time. But in the suburban districts around the state where that movement first took hold, Democrats have a chance this cycle to prove they’re viable. They probably won’t win many of them, but a proof of concept will ensure the party and its donors take more of an interest next cycle. If Rinaldi loses, the coalition that made it happen would be evidence, even if minor, that the state’s worst inclinations—anger, fear, resentment—don’t have to shape its future.