On Feb. 20, 2018, the SMU campus welcomed the candidates of the 2018 Texas Democratic Gubernatorial Primary Debate, an event cohosted by SMU College Democrats and the SMU Debate Program.
Associate Professor Ben Voth, Ph.D., director of the SMU Debate Program, moderated the event.
“We at this university really think that what America needs more of every day is debate, and so we are going to give you that tonight,” Voth said.
While the Texas Secretary of State website recognizes nine Democratic candidates (and three Republicans) on the ballot, only four of the Democratic candidates were present at the debate: Adrian Ocegueda, Jeffrey Payne, Cedric Davis, Sr. and Andrew White.
The SMU College Democrats executive board prepared questions for the debate with the SMU Debate Program, influenced by suggestions from the public via a Facebook poll.
The debate started with opening statements, in which the candidates present brought attention to their missing opponents.
“We have nine people running for Governor and I see four on this stage,” Payne said. “You have a voice — that is why we’re here.”
“If we have a crisis in Texas, who are you going to call at 3 A.M. in the morning?” Davis said. “Be honest. Surely not them. Because they’re unreliable.”
Davis brought attention to the $2 billion child sexual trafficking industry. He also said he was the most experienced candidate in the Democratic race.
“Experience counts,” Davis said. “If you think I’m lying, look at what we have in the White House. That is because experience — people took it for granted.”
Ocegueda, a graduate of SMU Cox Business School, spoke directly to the students and millennials in the crowd.
“The future is really yours, for you millennials,” Ocegueda said. “Forty-seven percent of Republicans no longer identify with the Republican party. Fifty percent of Democrats no longer identify with the Democratic party. And, if you look at millennials, somewhere around 60 percent of millennials don’t identify with either party.”
Candidate Andrew White, son of former Republican Texas Governor Mark White, explained his motivation for running. He spoke at his father’s funeral approximately six months ago.
“It hit me — we don’t have leaders like [my father] anymore,” White said.
The disparity between White’s party affiliation and that of his father is a hot topic in this race that was brought up later in the debate by Davis.
“Some people kind of think you’re a Republican,” Davis said.
“I did grow up in the family of my father, and he was governor,” White said. “But I don’t believe in dynasties. I’m not running because my father was governor. And that doesn’t qualify me to be governor at all.”
Voth questioned a $2,500 contribution White made to the Kentucky GOP in 2005 that was recently brought to light by a Texas Tribune article.
“As a business leader, I had an obligation to my employees. I had an obligation to my customers as well to expand our business, and that donation represents a small fraction of what I have donated to Democrats,” White said.
The donation was contested by White’s opponents.
“I just know that personally, whether it be business or not… I couldn’t do it,” Payne said.
“It’s not that a donation was made; it’s that there was an expectation as a return on an investment for that contribution,” Ocegueda said. “That is a problem in campaign finance reform.”
Voth explained that one of Davis’ hallmark policies is to pass term limits in Texas for terms in state offices to be limited to no more than 20 years.
“You need to start the changing of the guards and teaching young generations come up,” Davis said. “Once you’ve been there so long, you forget about the interest of the people and you start becoming self-interested.”
Davis also explained the rationale behind the length of the term limit.
“I used the number 20 because of a full-time job. Normally you only stay 20 years on a job,” Davis said.
The other candidates disagreed.
“Why would you want to limit term limits because there are strings attached to a person that sits there that long?” Ocegueda said.
Payne agreed with Ocegueda but said solving gerrymandering would also solve the term limit issue.
In light of recent events, gun control was one of the topics of the debate — a unique topic, given that Texas is an open-carry and campus-carry state.
Most of the candidates agreed on extending background checks.
“Universal background checks is the first and most simple solution we can do right now, today,” White said.
Payne also cited universal background checks as the first step. Davis called for an expansion.
“We need to expand the time in which they do universal background checks,” Davis said. “As a cop, it took me 520 days to go through a thorough background check. We turn around and let someone hold a gun in 72 hours.”
Ocegueda disagreed on the reasoning and extent of a policy change.
“I actually think our policy needs to be much stronger than simply expanding universal background checks,” Ocegueda said.
The candidates also agreed on registering guns with the state.
“If any type of private sale happens, it must be registered by the state,” Payne said.
The candidates agreed in some ways.
“This fight requires a sober reflection on who we are as a party — the state of our current political climate, and on the systems that we all depend on for our collective survival,” Ocegueda said.
White reassured the unity of the candidates against incumbent Texas governor Greg Abbott.
“No matter who wins this primary, we all will work to beat Greg at it in November,” White said.
The candidates saw eye-to-eye on women’s rights. All candidates agreed that the Texas government needs to refund Planned Parenthood.
White acknowledged the separation between church and state in America.
“We’re seeing that erode more and more from the Republican party,” White said said.
Ocegueda also weighed in on the topic.
“I think we have to acknowledge that in this party, we also have an objective of zero abortions,” Ocegueda said. “We just want to do that with sex education and access to healthcare, as well as some male responsibility.”
White spoke about the problems with Texas education.
“In Texas today, 60 percent of the schools only offer abstinence sex education,” White said.
The need for sex education was also reflected in Payne’s remarks.
“We will unfortunately never get to a zero percent abortion rate… but we need to, and we can decrease the number of abortions by providing sex education, by providing contraceptives, by providing access to the healthcare that women need. And you can’t expect abortion rates to go down and the infant mortality rate to go down if you defund their access. It makes no sense,” Payne said.
But the issue was larger than abortion.
“Texas leads the world — the civilized world — in the death rate of mothers due to pregnancy-related issues,” White said. “This is because we’ve closed women’s clinics.”
Planned Parenthood and its funding are larger issues that would require legislative action to make it a reality in Texas.
Women’s health is only part of the larger issue of healthcare. All the candidates emphasized the need to invest in Medicaid. Payne said because current Texas governor Greg Abbott didn’t take federal Medicaid expansion money that would have covered 100 percent of the costs, it’s now a 90-10 split.
“When someone is giving you nine dollars and all you have to put in is one, you find it. Especially when it provides healthcare to 1.8 million Texans,” Payne said.
“We didn’t expand Medicaid,” White said. “That’s a $6 billion annual check that we don’t get to deposit. But people still get sick and they show up to the hospitals and the county can’t turn them away. So, the county picks up the bill. And that’s why your property taxes keep going up and up.”
“There is a lot of evidence about how healthcare costs are crushing our economies,” Ocegueda said. “Systematically… our job is to fix the finance structure, not just in the short-term, but long-term.”
The candidates also agreed on education.
“Our public Supreme Court of Texas has found that our schools are barely constitutional,” White said. “We’re failing our children right now with their education.”
Ocegueda said part of the solution to the problem is more resources.
“It may actually require more resources to educate folks that are minorities or who are in socio-economic areas that require more support,” Ocegueda said.
More than just hypotheticals, the candidates addressed how they were going to find the funding to fix schools.
Closing a tax loophole that only benefits large, commercial-property owners was cited as one method, as well as closing loopholes on large corporations. Payne said this accounts for $5-6 billion a year that we’re losing.”
“We also need to look at legalizing medical and medicinal marijuana,” Payne said. “And we need to look at our gambling industry because we are losing billions of dollars to Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana.”
Davis said doing so would also lead to other benefits.
“We don’t have to depend on property tax from rich people,” Davis said.
White added to the list of potential benefits. He said it can provide funding without raising taxes.
Ocegueda, however, was more pessimistic and pragmatic on how to close the loophole.
“You’re going to need a constitutional amendment. The timing on that is not going to be immediate,” Ocegueda said.
Ocegueda also disagrees with taxing gambling.
“We’re trying to tax populations that are already socio-economically disadvantaged, so they regress and regress in tax for the lowest people of our society. Major structural tax reform is what’s needed,” Ocegueda said.
Payne wants to reinforce STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness program) testing.
“Any testing we do on our child is a positive reinforcement,” Payne said.
Davis disagreed, saying STAAR tests are often an inaccurate representation of students’ progress because the student only has one chance.
“The STAAR test, that’s what’s making us number 43 on the [national ranking of public education systems] list,” Davis said.
Davis wants to increase programs that allow high school students to finish with a social degree or with a certification and a job that they can start immediately. He said he wanted to them to be workforce-ready through a program called Pathways in Technology, or P-Tech.
The topic of Texas youth also came up as the candidates discussed DACA.
“What’s happening to our Dreamers is inhuman,” White said. “We actually don’t have a sanctuary city problem in Texas. What we have is a governor who is an extremist, and he used that issue to create a political point for the fringe voters in his party. What we ended up with is a discriminatory bill that makes our cities less safe.”
“The people of DACA pay taxes. The people of DACA work and lead in our communities, and they are a part of us,” Davis said. “Some people don’t want to work in construction. Some people don’t want to work in agriculture. Then, look at the burden that’s going to happen in our economy. It’s going to collapse.”
“They add more to our economy that they take,” Payne said. “Nothing makes me more angry than breaking up families. And, yes, that is coming from a kid who grew up in an orphanage, and it pisses me off. That is not Texas.”
“I would make every city a sanctuary city in Texas,” Ocegueda said. “The cost would be incurred by the effect that we would have a productive citizen rate. They would be working and paying taxes and being productive. When you have the failed economic policies the Republican party has, you need a scapegoat.”
But, like other issues brought up at the debate, DACA, Dreamers and border security are a federal issue as much as they are a state issue, White said.
Davis said it’s a federal issue where the burden of paying for those services falls on the local tax dollar. We cannot allow our citizens to be overtaxed when it really isn’t our issue. It’s a federal issue.
“Yes, it’s a federal issue,” Payne said. “But, as governor, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone that actually went to D.C. and knocked on doors of our U.S. senators and other U.S. reps and senators from other states?”
During the debate, a common theme revealed itself; candidates’ projected plans were often overshadowed by where their jurisdiction fell in the balancing act between federal power and state issues. How was a state official going to work on fixing federal issues?
Many of the candidates’ policy stances are available on their website. But the debate, this in-person meeting, revealed more of their personal stories.
“You need a leader who knows how to multitask, and when you own five businesses and three nonprofits, believe me, you know how to multitask. You need someone who has been a mediator, who knows how to negotiate, really negotiate, not like the thing in the White House,” Payne said.
“We can and we will draw attention to decades of failure and leadership,” Ocegueda said. “To my Republican residents, I ask for an open mind. My belief is that you too can read the signs of the times and you know that constructive dialogue and structural change is our best bet towards greatness.”
White had previously explained his inspiration running for governor was his father.
“The second reason is because of Hurricane Harvey.”
White told a story: in his small fishing boat, he helped stranded people who weren’t being helped.
“My life will change after that and will never be the same. And here’s why it matters: because the decisions that could have been made by our leaders ten years and twenty years ago to keep that from happening didn’t get made,” White said.
Davis said he made the conscious decision to become governor at 14 years old.
“I knew I had to build a resume of working for the people… I am the most experienced candidate in this race,” Davis said.
While the candidates of the debate convened on the issues seen repeatedly as cornerstones of the Democratic party, their way of dealing with these issues were unique to Texas, a historically conservative state.
SMU College Democrats and the SMU Debate Team balloted the more than 80 audience members at the end of the debate, asking for their votes on the winner. The results were as follows:
Payne 40.5 %
Davis, Sr. 7.1%
According to their official statement, College Democrats and the Debate team warn that the results are “NOT a scientific poll and SMU Debate recognizes that some candidates were more local to this event and therefore able to bring more supporters.”
Primary elections begin March 6. Election day is Nov. 6, 2018.