By Enrique Rangel | AUSTIN BUREAU
AUSTIN - The hard-fought House District 83 Republican race is near the finish line.
As early voting begins Monday, district voters must now decide between longtime state Rep. Delwin Jones, who has been a state legislator for nearly 30 years, and Lubbock accountant Charles Perry, a political newcomer whose entry in the race was triggered by his involvement in the conservative tea party movement.
The heated race is one of the most closely watched in the state because Jones chairs the House Redistricting Committee, the panel that will recommend to the Legislature how to redraw the state's congressional and legislative districts when the lawmakers are back in session next year.
In addition, Jones is a close ally of House Speaker Joe Straus and, if re-elected, is expected to be a key player in next year's session. Besides redistricting, the Legislature will tackle other contentious issues, like a projected shortfall of as much as $15 billion.
As for Perry, if he wins the runoff he would do what conservative Republican operatives and hundreds of thousands of dollars couldn't do in previous primaries - unseat Jones. The most conservative wing of the Republican Party has long targeted Jones and a small group of House Republicans for defeat because they are not considered conservative or conservative enough.
Earlier this week, Perry issued a press release which accused Jones of voting for a bill he claims gives "in-state tuition scholarships for illegal immigrants."
Perry, who is facing the Lubbock lawmaker in the April 13 Republican primary runoff, said if elected to represent Texas House District 83, "the first bill I will file in Austin is to repeal this boondoggle, so we can stop giving illegal immigrants more reasons to come here illegally.
"So far this has cost taxpayers $33.6 million, and the amount will continue to grow until we repeal it," his statement said.
House Bill 1403 was approved by the Legislature in the 2001 session. Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock - someone not normally considered a sympathizer of illegal immigrants - was one of 19 co-authors of the legislation. After the measure was passed overwhelmingly in both houses, Gov. Rick Perry (no relation to Charles Perry) signed the bill into law.
Isett, who is a friend of Charles Perry, didn't return phone calls, but the governor has defended the bill in the past, most recently in the Jan. 29 Republican gubernatorial debate with U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and conservative activist Debra Medina.
The measure - which gives lower, in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants who have lived in Texas at least three years, have graduated from a Texas high school and intend to become U.S. citizens, - should not be repealed, Gov. Perry has argued for years.
"I am for leaving the law like it is because I think it serves a good purpose," the governor said emphatically before the start of the 2007 session.
Before last month's primary, Austin-watchers believed if anyone could finally send Jones into retirement it would be Lubbock attorney Zach Brady, a former aide to state Sen. Robert Duncan. Brady raised more than a quarter million dollars and received major endorsements but finished last in the three-candidate race.
Brady's exit from the race hasn't necessarily been helpful to Perry. He's getting unwelcome attention, mainly from Brady and other critics.
Brady is making Ben Campbell an issue because he claims the former Dallas-area lawmaker, who was convicted of bank fraud in 1994 and served time in prison, is the de facto Perry campaign manager.
Perry vehemently denies the allegation, saying his campaign manager is East Texan Jordan Berry.
"I know Ben Campbell, but he is not running my campaign," Perry said. "He was the one referred to me before I announced my campaign, but he's the one who referred me to Jordan Berry, and that's the extent of our relationship. Zach Brady is just making a baseless allegation."
In addition, Lubbock attorney Chris Ritter filed four complaints against Perry with the Texas Ethics Commission, including one of accepting a corporate donation and failing to report it. Perry said this was because of an error that was immediately corrected. Moreover, Perry charged, Brady is behind Ritter's complaints to the Ethics Commission.
Nonetheless, the various thorny issues Perry is dealing with have already gotten the attention of Austin-watchers and of Lubbock Republicans as well.
"I don't know if he did his research or someone else did it for him, but the press release about the scholarships for illegal aliens hurts his credibility and his campaign," said Chris Winn, chairman of the Lubbock County Republican Party.
Perry said he is not surprised his campaign is under fire.
"This is obviously politically motivated, and I trust the voters to see through the political games," he said.
As for Jones, who has been endorsed by Brady and Duncan, he said he just wants to run on his record and tout his seniority and experience.
"We are going to deal with some tough issues like redistricting and a budget shortfall, and I am proposing solutions for those problems," he said. "If Charles Perry wants to attack me saying I voted to give scholarships to illegal aliens, he is attacking all other Republicans, including Carl Isett and Bob Duncan. They also voted for that bill."
What's more, "the official bill analysis specifically excludes illegal aliens and this is the kind of stuff that makes you wonder whether he's got what it takes to be a state legislator," Jones added. "Being a legislator requires you do a lot of homework and obviously he didn't do his."
The winner of the Jones-Perry contest is expected to represent District 83 in the next two-year legislative cycle because there is no Democrat or Libertarian running for the seat. The district includes part of Lubbock County and all of Cochran, Gaines, Hockley and Yoakum counties.
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