Bryant says Texas House District 114 in Dallas needs proven leadership, while his younger rivals contend they are qualified to meet the challenge.
Former U.S. Rep. John Bryant was content that his days as an elected official were done until last year, when Texas Republicans passed a slew of controversial conservative legislation in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.
It prompted him to get back in the game.
“I just felt like it was time to get off the sidelines and get to a position to be able to fight back against these guys,” Bryant said. “Democrats are losing every single battle…I decided it was time to step up and try to provide some leadership.”
Bryant’s candidacy has seasoned an already intriguing race to replace retiring Democrat John Turner in Dallas’ District 114. Before he filed his candidacy at the deadline, four Democrats – all under the age of 40 – were vying to replace Turner.
At a time when many Democrats are coaxing members of the emerging generation to take leadership roles, Bryant has made the race a choice between a proven veteran from a previous era, or younger, less established Democrats who insist they can get the job done.
The drama is being played out on a diverse canvas. The newly revised District 114 is composed of a majority of minority residents and skews younger in sections. It includes parts of North and East Dallas, including the M Streets, Casa Linda and some neighborhoods around White Rock Lake.
Bryant, who will turn 75 next month, says the stakes are too high to take the chance on an unproven lawmaker.
“This is a time to put our most experienced people to work in any area in which they can make a contribution,” Bryant said. “In my case, it’s legislating.”
Bryant’s opponents say the party needs young leaders, like he was 48 years ago, when he first joined the Legislature.
“It would be a step back for the Democratic Party. It might even be an embarrassment for the Democratic Party and for Dallas,” said Chris Leal, a 32-year-old Dallas public school teacher running to replace Turner. “We’re going to need fresh thinking leadership to tackle the problems of our day.”
Kendall Scudder, 31, and the youngest candidate in the field, also took exception to Bryant’s reasons for his candidacy.
“I said to him, ‘John, I hated to see you in the race, but I’m glad to see you back in the fight,’” Scudder said. “I’m just trying to get an opportunity to serve my community in my 30s, like you.’”.
Other District 114 contenders were less pointed in their reactions to Bryant’s candidacy.
“What I always emphasize is that what we need to do is focus on the community, and then elect leaders that look like the community,” said Dallas lawyer Alexandra Guio, who is 34-years-old.
Dallas lawyer Charlie Gearing, 38, said he respects Bryant, but touted his skills.
“I’ve not only got the skills to get the job done and to work with people in Austin, but I also have a record of getting things done with people that may not agree with me,” Gearing said.
Whatever the choice, party leaders are encouraged by what they described as a qualified crop of candidates.
“It’s a diverse race, just like the Democratic Party. There are folks from different generations. There’s folks from different backgrounds and nationalities and there’s obviously men and a woman in the race,” said Dallas Democratic Party Chairwoman Kristy Noble. “There’s a lot of good experience and a number of great people who would be great representatives, each in their own right.”
Noble conceded that the District 114 contest showcases an age-old dilemma in politics, particularly with Texas Democrats who have been trying to find the right mix of candidates to beat Republicans, who controlled statewide politics.
“Folks who have been around a while say youth is wasted on the young, and young folks say ‘you guys just don’t get it,” Noble said. “We’re trying to put some outreach plans in place that lay on top of all generations, all nationalities, all different people within the Democratic Party.”
Determined to ‘turn the tide’
Bryant says the moment brought him to the fight.
He was a staple in electoral politics until 1996, when he lost the Democratic Party primary for Senate to Crandall school teacher Victor Morales, who drove a white pickup across Texas in route to the upset victory. Morales lost the general election to Republican Phil Gramm.
Bryant had served in Congress for 14 years, representing Dallas and 10 North and Central Texas counties.
Before Congress, Bryant spent nine years in the Texas House, serving on the Committees on Judicial Affairs, Criminal Justice, and Education. He was twice named one of the “Ten Best Legislators” by Texas Monthly Magazine.
Now voters must decided if Bryant is the best choice for the new District 114, or a holdover from a bygone era?
“I’ve already had a career,” Bryant said. “I’ve just got this one thing I want to do, which is turn the tide.”
Bryant said that the threat to reproductive rights and the Republican-driven efforts to influence election laws make the actions of state lawmakers more critical than in the past.
“The nominee should immediately start working to build a Democratic majority in the House by helping in all the marginal districts to try to bring back a Democratic majority,” Bryant said. “We can’t keep being driven backwards year after year after year.”
Candidates tout connections to the district
The departure of Turner, who is leaving the Legislature to focus on his family, has attracted a diverse set of candidates that claim to best fit the makeup of the district.
“Right now we have a really unique opportunity for us to elect a strong Democrat to help push the party forward and end our 30 year drought in Texas,” Leal said. “We actually do, here in Texas, have a surprising, progressive legacy that most people have forgotten about.”
Leal pointed to Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Barbara Jordan as Democrats who pushed progressive policies. In that mode, he said it was possible to get things done in the Texas Legislature that promotes education, access to affordable health care, economic empowerment, voting rights, reproductive rights and other progressive issues.
Economic inequality, Leal said, was hurting the Texas political discourse.
“This trend creates a lot of demand and oxygen to these extremist politics. People are looking for scapegoats. ‘Who do I blame for the pressures in my life?” Leal said. “If we get this economic situation right… it’ll help us finally pull ourselves out of this political mess.”
Guio, a former Dallas County prosecutor, said her background, which includes being an undocumented resident, helps her relate to the needs of the most vulnerable residents in her district.
“I have a lot of memories, feeling very vulnerable,” said Guio, who was born in Colombia. “Whether it was through lack of health care, housing insecurity or food insecurity, when you have that vulnerability, and not feeling like you have a voice, it’s pretty scary.”
Guio said she’s ready to fight for better public education, affordable health care and reproductive rights.
“I have these coalition’s built with so many people in my community,” she said. “I know that there are a lot of people who feel vulnerable like I once did, or feel like they don’t have a voice or feel like they’re too afraid to fight for themselves.”
Though the youngest in the field, Scudder said he’s been in politics for 20 years.
“I have been in this arena for a while duking it out to make sure that Democrats are having an opportunity to actually get some wins in our corner,” Scudder said.
In 2018 Scudder campaigned unsuccessfully for the Texas Senate against Republican Bob Hall.
“When the party had no candidate in the most conservative Senate district in Texas, I stepped up to the plate,” Scudder said. “I went in arguing for women’s reproductive health down the barrels of shotguns in East Texas and I never backed down from our values.”
Scudder said he would work with Republicans to reform the foster care system, fully fund public schools and make permanent cost of living adjustments for retired teachers.
” I represent a new generation of leadership that’s looking forward to having a seat at the table,” he said.
A small business owner, Scudder said he needed political action to survive.
“I got involved in politics because I have lesbian mothers in East Texas and Republicans were trying to rip me out of my home and throw me in foster care,” he said. “My head was in the guillotine. And whenever you’re someone who has to find a calling in politics for their family to survive, that’s someone that you can trust.”
Gearing, a Dallas lawyer who initially was running for Congress against incumbent Republican Lance Gooden until the redistricting process drew him out of that area, says he’s a good fit in the Legislature.
Along with education, health care and other core issues, Gearing is committed to securing reproductive rights for women and civil rights to transgender residents. He and his wife had to make an abortion decision.
“Our child stopped growing at six weeks and then didn’t have a heartbeat. I was sitting in that doctor’s office in the same way that a lot of Texas families are sitting in,” he said.
“It was such a tough decision for me and my wife and our OBGYN, but we had to have an abortion the next day,” Gearing said. “I’m concerned about the abortion restrictions and how dangerous they are for families. I just don’t think the government should be involved in those decisions.”
Gearing said it’s unfair that Republican-driven legislation is negatively impacting transgender residents.
“We have neighbors here in Casa Linda Forest that have an 11-year old transgender daughter and we have had a front row seat to their repeated trauma last summer with 52 bills targeting trans kids and 75 bills targeting the LGBTQ plus community as a whole. I’m intent on stopping that, so I thought the statehouse would be a good place to address both of those issues.”
As the District 114 contest rolls along, Noble, the party leader, says Democrats must use the clout in urban areas to flip the state from red to blue.
“We have the onus on us…to get out and to push as many voters to the polls as we can and to be the force and the tip of the arrow in terms of pushing our values forward,” Noble said.