The issue that led to a competitive Democratic primary for a Texas House seat

HOUSTON (KXAN) — A trend is emerging of Republican lawmakers in the Texas House of Representatives facing challengers aiming to push out either those who supported Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment or stood in the way of Gov. Greg Abbott’s repeated efforts to pass an education savings account program. However, the intraparty fighting also extends to the other side of the aisle.

In one Houston-area district, a Democratic incumbent known for supporting progressive causes now faces two primary challengers after a controversial vote she took earlier this year.

Democratic incumbent: Rep. Shawn Thierry

Texas Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, said she’s seeking re-election for a fifth term to represent House District 146 in south Houston. However, she’ll have to fend off the most challengers she’s ever faced to win her party’s nomination for this reliably blue seat. In her own campaign announcement, Thierry listed her policy successes that included addressing maternal mortality, enhancing school safety, combating human trafficking and working on tax relief efforts. She also said she would keep working across party lines if voters send her back to the Capitol.

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Rep. Shawn Thierry said she’s running for fifth serving Texas House District 146 in Houston.

“What sets me apart is my ability to work across the aisles, even during politically charged times,” Thierry wrote on her campaign’s Facebook page. “I’m proud to be credited as a consensus builder, bridging divides and bringing people together to pass meaningful legislation that positively impacts the lives of all Texans.”

According to the two Democratic challengers who entered the race so far, though, they argue what makes Thierry vulnerable is voting at times with Republican lawmakers on certain issues. They contend she’s out of touch with the values of their district, setting up an intraparty fight for voters to resolve in the March 5, 2024 primary.

“What we’re seeing is a very, very liberal representative being challenged from further left because of some votes on very controversial issues that are important to Democratic constituents,” Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin, said. “For Thierry, I think one of her advantages is the name recognition and her history of being a really very progressive candidate — with the exception of a handful of votes.”

Democratic challenger: Lauren Ashley Simmons

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Lauren Ashley Simmons announced she’s running in the Democratic primary for Texas House District 146. (Photo Courtesy: Lauren Ashley Simmons)

The latest candidate to jump in the race against Thierry is Lauren Ashley Simmons, a union organizer and mother of two who experienced a viral moment this summer. Video of her remarks at a community meeting about the state takeover of the Houston Independent School District exploded online — with one clip garnering more than 8 million views on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. Cameras captured her criticizing Mike Miles, the man appointed by the state to serve as the district’s superintendent, and accusing him of possibly being “Greg Abbott’s pawn sent down here to destroy the largest district in this city.”

Simmons said she intends to make supporting public education as one of her main focuses during the primary campaign. She also called expanding access to health care as another priority, which is part of the reason why she decided to challenge Thierry.

“I want to be a representative for my district because I love where I live,” she said. “I love my neighbors, and it’s a great place to be. But it could be so much better.”

During the regular legislative session earlier this year, Thierry joined three other Democrats and all the House Republicans in supporting Senate Bill 14. That’s the legislation banning transgender minors from receiving puberty blockers, hormone therapies or surgeries to assist in their transition. She was also the only member of her party who rose on the floor to speak in favor of the bill. That public stance led to a Democratic club in her district voting to censure her in May, accusing her of not being an ally to the state’s LGBTQ+ community. Her first primary challenger, activist Ashton Woods, also decided to enter the race at that time.

Thierry’s office declined a request to do an interview about her re-election campaign, but she previously told KXAN that she stood by her vote despite all the pushback.

“I represent House District 146, and I did this based on the will of my constituents,” Thierry said in May. “I believe that the majority of people that live, work and play in my district agree with me, and I heard from them.”

Simmons noted her daughter has sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder, which requires her family to live within close proximity to a hospital and potentially consider experimental treatments to provide relief. These experiences made her worry about the Texas families with transgender children who can no longer access certain gender-affirming care because of SB 14 becoming state law.

She also detailed a number of other issues she finds with Thierry’s recent record. Simmons said she questioned why Thierry voted for House Bill 900, which aimed to keep “sexually explicit” books out of school libraries. However, critics claimed it could amount to a “book ban” bill and limit availability of LGBTQ+ content.

“Those are some, I feel like, the very low bars to clear when you say that you’re a Democrat,” she said. “It shouldn’t have been a huge hurdle, get over those bars, because that’s what the people are asking for. That’s what the district demands, and it just felt like in those moments, our voices didn’t matter.”

Democratic challenger: Ashton Woods

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Ashton Woods said he’s running in the Democratic primary for Texas House District 146 in Houston. (Photo Courtesy: Ashton Woods)

Ashton Woods, who founded the Houston chapter of Black Lives Matter, previously challenged Thierry in the 2020 Democratic primary but lost that race by nearly 35 percentage points. He announced his intent to face her again the day after Thierry voted in favor of SB 14. That led to a a bump in early campaign donations, Woods said.

“It definitely needs to change,” he said about the district’s leadership. “I think the status quo is no longer acceptable, especially when we elect people to represent all of us in the district, regardless of our gender identity or sexual orientation or race.”

Rather than discuss which issues will serve as the focus of his primary campaign, Woods said the first thing he’d like to do is “build space” for his community.

“I believe in creating spaces for the marginalized and for people to be a voice for themselves,” he explained. “I don’t want to be a voice for the voiceless. I want to be a space builder, where people can come in and actually be heard, not anecdotally, but taken seriously about the needs and also educating people about who to be mad at.”

Woods said that would more specifically mean creating a better constituent services operation for the office. He explained how that could build partnerships and help people, for instance, find resources more easily, like how to report a lack of fire hydrants in their neighborhood or locate affordable fresh food close to them.

“These are things that we have to look at to make sure that actual access exists,” he said, “and not from the perch of one looking down but being at eye level with people and making sure that we are hearing them, actively listening and actually acting on those things.”

He said he also spoke to Simmons already and commended her advocacy work in the community. He said they both have the same goal.

“The thing is, is that we will run our campaigns with integrity and make sure that regardless of who wins this nomination, it won’t be Shawn Thierry,” Woods said during a recent interview with KXAN.

Smith said regardless of who wins the primary, that person is almost assured to win the general election in November next year.

“When we think about this district, we’re talking about a very safe Democratic seat, so, in essence, the primary is the general election. You don’t need any crossover votes from Republicans. You don’t have to worry about the moderate independent vote,” Smith said.

“[Thierry] has had primary challengers before, but in the general election not really anybody of note,” he added, “so if she can survive the primaries, she’ll get reelected easily.”

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