There’s a lot riding on out candidate Eliz Markowitz’s race for the Texas House of Representatives in a special election Tuesday.
A win by Markowitz will flip the District 28 seat, in suburban Houston’s Fort Bend County, from Republican to Democratic — and set the stage for possibly flipping the whole Texas House and give Democrats more power when it’s time to draw up the state’s congressional district map in 2021, after the 2020 Census. Texas will likely gain seats in the U.S. House because of population growth.
But turning Texas blue, or at least purple, isn’t the only reason Markowitz is running. “The people of Fort Bend County need someone to represent all the diverse voices in House District 28,” she tells The Advocate.
Markowitz, a Fort Bend County native who identifies as gay, aims to be that someone. She’s running against Gary Gates, a business owner and ultraconservative Republican, to replace John Zerwas, a more moderate Republican who resigned to take a position with the University of Texas system.
It’s largely because of the upcoming redistricting, however, that Markowitz’s race has drawn national attention. Democratic presidential hopefuls past and present, including Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Julián Castro, and Beto O’Rourke are backing her. She has the endorsement of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, gun reform group Moms Demand Action, EMILY’s List, the Sierra Club, several labor unions, and LGBTQ groups Victory Fund and LPAC, among many others.
“The reality is Texas is the crown jewel of redistricting,” Vicky Hausman, cofounder of Forward Majority, a Democratic political action committee that’s also supporting Markowitz and other Texas Dems, recently told the Associated Press. The state has 36 U.S. House seats and could gain three more after the Census.
Democrats are nine seats away from flipping the Texas House in November. They are unlikely to gain control of the state Senate, which currently has 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats — but if they control at least one chamber, they can force compromises when it comes time to draw the districts. If Republicans control both chambers, the state’s congressional map will be “the most gerrymandered in the union,” O’Rourke warned while campaigning for Markowitz this month.
No matter what the outcome is of the special election Tuesday, however, Markowitz and Gates will soon be out campaigning again, as the seat will be on the ballot in the regular 2020 election. The party primaries will be March 3 and the general election November 3. Markowitz is unopposed in the Democratic primary, while Gates has one opponent, businesswoman Schell Hammel, in the Republican race.
And whoever wins the special election won’t be casting any votes in the legislature, as it isn’t in session this year. But Markowitz is going for the win nonetheless. “It’s important to build momentum,” she says.
Whenever she can cast votes and propose legislation, Markowitz promises to push a progressive agenda. Education is one of her key issues. She wants Texas to end its reliance on standardized tests to determine how students and teachers are performing — and how much state funding each school will get. Instead of “teaching to the test,” she says, schools should teach students how to develop critical thinking skills. She also wants the state to support vocational training, as college isn’t for everyone.
Her emphasis on education isn’t surprising — she is an educator, teacher trainer, and textbook author with the Princeton Review, a test preparation company. She works with both students and teachers, helping them wade through the thicket of standardized tests. She has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University of Houston.
She also seeks to expand Texans’ access to health care, reduce gun violence, reform immigration policy in a humane fashion, promote the use of clean energy, and more; see her full platform here. And she promises to work for LGBTQ equality in Texas. “I don’t care who you are — all individuals should have the freedom to express themselves and be productive members of society,” she says.
Texas does not have an LGBTQ-inclusive statewide antidiscrimination law, but last year it passed what was dubbed the “Save Chick-fil-A bill” — designed to prevent the state and its municipalities from “punishing” companies for their membership in or donations to religious organizations, even if those organizations discriminate. “That’s not the Texas I want to be a part of,” Markowitz says.
She has deeply personal experience with anti-LGBTQ sentiments, as she shared with The Advocate last year for National Coming Out Day. When she came out to her parents in her teens, her father was quickly accepting, telling her he was relieved she wasn’t pregnant. Her mother, who had suffered from alcoholism and depression, had a different reaction, saying, “Love has limits.” Markowitz’s mother eventually became more tolerant, but their relationship was never fully repaired; her mother is now deceased.
Now Markowitz hopes her venture into politics will help create an environment where love doesn’t have limits. Her first run for office was in 2018, for the Texas State Board of Education, and she didn’t win but got 41 percent of the vote, up from 33 percent for the previous Democratic candidate.
She expresses optimism about Tuesday. A poll taken at the beginning of the race showed her tied with Gates, at 42 percent support each; a more recent one shows her leading him 47 percent to 38 percent.
“I think our message of honesty and integrity, diversity and inclusion has really resonated,” Markowitz notes. And perhaps all that national Democratic support will help. “Who would have thought that a tiny House race in Texas would receive such national attention?” she says.