Eighteen months before the mid-term elections in November of next year, four local Democrats have already declared they will run against U.S. District 26 Rep. Michael Burgess (R, Pilot Point).
Ira Bershad, Linsey Fagan, Michael Callaway and Will Fisher have all thrown their hats into the ring to represent District 26, which covers most of Denton County and extends south into Roanoke and Keller. Additionally, local businesswoman Veronica Birkenstock announced earlier this week that she will run against Burgess in the Republican primary. Denton County’s Democratic Party chair Phyllis Wolper and Republican Party chair Lisa Hendrickson both said they expect even more candidates soon.
“I’m delighted. I’ve got an embarrassment of riches here,” Wolper said.
The candidates’ eagerness to run for office is part of a wave of increased political activity in response to president Donald Trump’s election last November. Texas is also home to Beto O’Rourke, who has been making national headlines in his just-as-early bid to oust Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
Wolper said that momentum has been building with the local Democratic Party since this time last year, and accelerated after the election. She said the party has doubled the number of precinct chairs since the election and almost every city in the county has formed its own Democratic club.
“More and more people are so disappointed in leadership,” she said. “They really have determined for themselves that they can do a lot better, and it’s going to take all of us or each of them to step forward, and that’s what’s happening.”
Hendrickson said county Republicans are not immune to the “Trump effect,” and that his candidacy encouraged many citizens who hadn’t voted in years to get to the polls.
“I think that has stirred the pot, so to speak,” she said. “There are a lot of people who would have probably never considered running before, or had given up for either side, that are now being compelled to get back in.”
The Democratic candidates range from Callaway, who was a Republican before last year’s election and still considers himself a conservative, to a self-described progressive Democrat in Fisher. However all four of them said they were appalled by Burgess’ support of H.R. 1628, commonly known as the American Health Care Act, which is projected to leave more than 20 million Americans without healthcare should it pass. All four said this is counter to the Hippocratic Oath as a doctor to do no harm. Burgess worked as a gynecologist before being elected to Congress in 2002.
“I’ve talked with a lot of moms with sick kids — I’ve cried with a lot of moms with sick kids — in this process, and the fact that somebody can betray those people, it makes me more than enraged,” Fagan said. “The more people I meet, the more angry I get at Burgess.”
According to Project FiveThirtyEight’s vote tracking, Burgess has supported Trump policies in 100 percent of votes this session. Since coming into office in 2002, Burgess has been re-elected every two years, never getting less than 60 percent of the vote and getting as much as 82 percent in 2014 when the Democratic party did not field a candidate. Last November, he received 66.4 percent of the vote, and Democratic candidate Eric Mauck received 29.6.
Fisher said he thought the campaign strategy should focus on getting more liberals out to vote and less on changing the minds of local conservatives. He said that the groundswell of Democratic support he sees this early in the election cycle is encouraging.
“If this is happening everywhere across the country, 2018 is going to come really fast,” he said.
Ira Bershad said he was with his wife driving back from Austin when they got a phone call from a Democratic precinct chair, asking if he’d be interested in doing anything for the party. He said that after a lifetime of leadership positions, that call gave him an epiphany.
“I looked at my wife, and I kind of pointed at our phone, and I said, ‘I’ve been waiting for that call for 30 years,'” he said.
Bershad said he’s spent his whole life in informal leadership positions, getting elected as president of his senior class in high school and several clubs at the University of Georgia at Athens, as well as serving as team captain for several softball and soccer teams and eventually getting into coaching as his daughters grew up.
He said he attended two of Burgess’ recent town halls. He said he was bothered by many of Burgess’ positions, but decided to run against him when Burgess said he represented the 211,000 people that voted for him. There are more than 818,000 people living in the 26th district. Bershad said he wants to make more of an effort to compromise and represent all of them.
Linsey Fagan said that she’s running because she can’t explain to her 11–year–old daughter, Vinny, what this country is doing.
She said she remembers explaining how to survive a school shooting to her daughter after the Townville Elementary School shooting, in which 14-year–old Jesse Osborne shot a teacher and three students, killing one, last September. She said that after her daughter left the car, she broke down crying.
“It made me so sad to have to explain, ‘This is what to do if a grown man comes to school to kill children,'” she said. “Over my dead body will my daughter have to explain that to her kids.”
Fagan said said she eventually decided that because of the way money controls politics, if she wanted her daughter to inherit a better world, she would have to make it so herself.
In addition to senseless acts of violence, Fagan wants to bring better policy to Congress on climate change, health care and the Syrian refugee crisis, something she also ties back to her daughter.
“She watches this and she says, ‘Why is no one saving those children?’ and I don’t have an answer,” Fagan said.
Michael Callaway said he was a lifelong Republican who decided over the course of the 2016 election cycle that he could not support Trump. He eventually contributed money and time to the Hillary Clinton campaign after his wife sold him on her as a candidate.
“Every person who’s ever run for president, Mondale, Clinton, Dole, whether you agreed with them or not, they were at least someone that you could find something to respect,” he said. “It was such a shock that maybe the worst person who could have ever run is someone that my people put out there.”
Callaway said his first election was 1992, and he was such a passionate Bush supporter that cried when it was called for Bill Clinton. He said waking up the morning after Trump’s election was worse.
In addition to disagreeing with Burgess’ support of the AHCA, Callaway said he was upset by Burgess’ reaction to recordings last October where Trump bragged of grabbing women.
“When I saw them defend Trump even after Access Hollywood, that’s when I thought, ‘I cannot be a part of this,'” he said.
Will Fisher said he woke up Nov. 9 and decided that he had to do something more. He became involved with the Flower Mound Democrats, which was itself becoming more active. Fisher said he participated in park cleanups and helped grow the group, which he said quickly expanded from almost 80 Facebook members to more than 500.
“There are Democrats here,” he said. “Perhaps a bit isolated and feeling isolated because of the overall political culture, but that they’re there and we need to start pulling them out and giving them reasons to come out together.”
Fisher said that the leaders of the national Democratic Party aren’t young anymore, and that the party is, in his words, missing a bench. He realized that his age, 36, his means and his background as a lawyer meant he was ideally placed to run for office.
“When you have been given a lot, there’s a lot expected of you,” he said. “If we all just sit and rub our hands and say ‘Well, we sure wish Michael Burgess was gone,’ that doesn’t happen.”