The candidates running for the Democratic nomination for Texas House District 46 debated tonight in a forum moderated by KUT.
Sheryl Cole and Jose "Chito" Vela each captured 39 percent of the votes in the March primary, edging out embattled state Rep. Dawnna Dukes and forcing a runoff.
House District 46 includes parts of East Austin, Manor and Pflugerville.
Cole's campaign has touted her previous experience as an Austin City Council member in the run-up to the runoff. Vela, an immigration attorney, says his experience as a former assistant attorney general, his community-organizing work and his time on Austin's Planning Commission give him enough experience to represent District 46.
Jonathan Carter wore a Sheryl Cole sticker to the debate Wednesday at Wesley United Methodist Church in East Austin. But he told KUT's Audrey McGlinchy that didn’t mean his mind was made up.
“I’m really interested in hearing the differences between the two candidates. I think they’re both great candidates," the 27-year-old UT student said.
“I know a lot of folks are wondering about the representation of the African-American community on the East Side," he said, "but are also enamored with Chito’s experience working for working-class people and stuff like that.”
That question of representation came up quickly in the debate.
“I disagree with Mr. Vela on the idea that we do not need an African-American in the Travis County delegation,” Cole said.
The seat has been held by an African-American woman since the mid-1970s.
Vela shot back: “I reject the idea that somehow because I’m Mexican-American I’m not supposed to run for this seat, that somehow I do not have a right to run for this seat."
According to census numbers, nearly half of House District 46 residents are Latino; roughly a quarter are African-American.
Other than who should represent the district, the candidates' platforms are decidedly similar. They both want to repeal Senate Bill 4, the law that penalizes officials who don’t honor all requests from federal authorities to detain suspected undocumented immigrants booked into jails.
They also agree gentrification is a major problem in the district – but differed on solutions.
Cole suggested tweaking how the state funds public schools – where property-rich districts, like Austin, distribute tax money to schools throughout the state.
“That is making the property taxes go up and making the cost of the homes go up and the state has a direct role in that," she said.
Vela had a different idea: "Build housing for state employees and state retirees.”
If elected, Vela said his first piece of legislation would seek to expand Medicaid in the state. Cole said she'd write a bill to increase funding for reproductive health services.
The candidates will face-off for real at the polls on May 22. Early voting starts May 14. The winner of the runoff will face Gabriel Nila, who ran unopposed for the Republican nomination, in November.