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Contrasting Personalities A Key Issue In The Senate District 26 Race

Shelley Kofler
TPR News
Senate District 26 candidates Trey Martinez Fischer and Jose Menendez on TPR's "The Source."

The candidates’ personalities have become a key issue in tomorrow’s Senate District 26 election.

Five names are on the ballot to replace Leticia Van de Putte who is leaving the legislature to run for San Antonio Mayor. State representatives Jose Menendez and Trey Martinez Fischer, who are both San Antonio Democrats, have emerged as front-runners.

On the city’s northwest side candidate Martinez Fischer huddles with campaign workers as he checks a list of likely voters he wants to get to the polls.

It’s 40 degrees and raining as he knocks on Velma Ortega’s door.

“How are you?” she asks, as he steps inside with his campaign literature.

Several miles away Jose Menendez and volunteers work the phones, calling their supporters.

“We’re just sending you guys a friendly reminder not to forget to go out and vote,” says one volunteer with a list of polling places.

Menendez and Martinez Fisher actually have a lot in common.

They’re Democrats in their mid-forties who grew up in San Antonio. Menendez, a title company executive who served on the San Antonio City Council, and Martinez Fisher, an attorney, were both elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 2001 and have been there ever since. Their voting records are similar and they say their families are friends.

“But, you know, this isn’t really about friendship,” says Martinez Fischer.  The feisty lawyer who’s known for openly confronting opponents says his race against Menendez is about style.

“Jose is somebody who likes to be involved but not to the extent of sticking out your neck and standing up for people,” he says. 

“Being the nice guy on the sidelines is not going to get the respect when it comes to the likes of Dan Patrick.  I’ve always been raised that you don’t give into bullies by giving them your lunch money,” says Martinez Fischer.

Dan Patrick is the newly elected Republican lieutenant governor who will preside over the Senate where both candidates want to serve.

“I have no problem in standing up to him and doing what we have to get done,” Menendez counters, adding his opponent’s public attacks on Patrick would make him ineffective in the Senate where the lieutenant governor will be in charge.

“I’m going to be fighting, but I’m not going to go there with a chip on my shoulder,” says Menendez.

“I think if you have bully versus bully then nothing gets done.  Trey is really good at getting media, press releases. We don’t do a lot of flash.  We don’t do a lot of press conferences.  (We) just put our noses to the grindstone and work,” he says.

Menendez points to the 55 bills he’s authored and passed since 2001 as evidence he is effective.  He says Martinez Fischer by comparison has been the primary author on 18.

Menendez says he’s most proud of legislation he passed in 2013 that provided $3 million for veterans’ mental health care.

Martinez Fischer cites his participation on a bipartisan committee two years ago that restored $4 billion to schools as a major legislative accomplishment.  He says his negotiating skills made a difference.

“The Speaker (House Speaker Joe Straus) tapped me to sit on a conference committee to negotiate education cuts because I believe he respected my view.  My opponents will say, ‘Trey is too combative to be part of the solution.’ Well, frankly, it’s the combat that puts you in the room to negotiate.”

In the final days of this short campaign the candidates have clashed over a nasty TV ad that attacks Martinez Fischer as a liberal trial lawyer.

The ad shows an image of the candidate on a billboard that says, “Having a bad day? Call me to sue somebody.”  A voice claims: “Fisher uses his office to benefit himself and other personal injury trial lawyers who sue businesses and cost jobs.”

Martinez Fisher came out swinging when the ad hit the airwaves.  He claims Menendez is cozy with the Republican-leaning group that paid for the ad, Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC. Menendez says he didn’t ask for the group’s help.

In her living room Velma Ortega tells Martinez Fischer she wants a little of what both front-runners say they offer.

“I think we need a strong voice,” she says, as Martinez Fischer tells her he’ll speak out on important issues.   She adds, “I think you have to kind of work with both parties to get things done,” which is something Menendez says on the campaign trail.

Ortega tells Martinez Fisher she knows and likes both him and Menendez but is still deciding how she’ll vote.

Converse Mayor Al Suarez, a Democrat; and Republicans Alma Perez Jackson and Joan Pedrotti are also running for the Senate District 26 seat.

Shelley Kofler is Texas Public Radio’s news director. She joined the San Antonio station in December 2014 and leads a growing staff that produces two weekly programs; a daily talk show, news features, reports and online content. Prior to TPR, Shelley served as the managing editor and news director at KERA in Dallas-Fort Worth, and the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.