By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
“State Rep. John Lujan hopes to beat Frank Ramirez and finally represent Bexar County in a legislative session” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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VON ORMY — State Rep. John Lujan is trying to pull off a long-elusive feat: serving in a Texas legislative session.
The San Antonio Republican has come up short before, unsuccessfully seeking full terms in House District 118 in 2016 and 2018. And in 2016, he was in the same position he is now: capturing the seat in a special election upset but having to defend it in the general election months later.
“It’s been a big journey,” Lujan acknowledged Thursday after holding a rally with Gov. Greg Abbott here on the outskirts of San Antonio.
This time, he is up against youthful Democratic Frank Ramirez, a former San Antonio City Council staffer, in one of the few truly competitive state House races left after redistricting. And the race is an unmistakable echo of statewide campaigns, with Lujan championing issues like border security and Ramirez tapping into anger over the Uvalde school shooting and overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“We cannot allow our kids to go to school and not come home anymore,” Ramirez said in an interview Thursday at a coffee shop in the district. “We cannot allow for women in this state to be attacked and to walk back their rights by 50 years.”
While Lujan has been the underdog in his previous campaigns for HD 118, Republicans redrew the district this time to put him in his strongest position yet. President Joe Biden would have carried the new district by just 3 percentage points.
Unlike in 2016 and 2018, Lujan is also benefiting from a national environment that decisively favors Republicans, plus the GOP’s new prioritization of South Texas down the ballot.
“As long as Lujan stays the course, doesn’t have any big hiccups in the last few remaining days of the election, he should do well,” said Sharon Navarro, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Republican leadership has gone all in on Lujan, helping him outraise Ramirez nearly 5 to 1 on the latest campaign finance reports. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-San Antonio, came to the district to campaign with Lujan on Wednesday, and Abbott visited Thursday for the rally, which was held at Lujan’s brother’s feed store.
On Saturday, Ramirez will join other San Antonio candidates for a block walk headlined by gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke.
Lujan has split with his party on some issues — voicing support for Medicaid expansion, for example. But Ramirez argues Lujan will ultimately be beholden to his high-powered backers.
“He’s taken positions that have gotten him closer to the middle, but we know at the end of the day that he’s a handpicked radical by Gov. Abbott and Dade Phelan,” Ramirez said, “and for the most part, he’s just business as usual.”
Ramirez’s advertising has targeted Lujan over his support for the state’s near-total abortion ban, which does not include any exceptions for rape victims, as well as his lack of advocacy for any gun-control measures after the Uvalde school shooting in May. During a radio forum last month with Ramirez, Lujan did not back away from those positions but signaled openness to a rape exception to abortion restrictions and said he would have been OK with a special legislative session in the wake of the Uvalde massacre, which many Democrats demanded at the time.
Lujan said it is not easy representing such a competitive district, noting he has become well-accustomed to fellow Republicans calling him a phony and Democrats attacking him as an extremist.
“This is a tough district for a Republican to hold and to have, but I don’t want to get caught up in that,” Lujan said. “I want people to see what I’m doing for the community. … I think that resonates bigger than anything.”
Still, Lujan has not been entirely above the fray. He has been airing a TV ad that contrasts himself with Ramirez in personal terms, saying ”28-year-old Frank Ramirez is unemployed and lives with his parents.”
Ramirez said the attack is not resonating with community members who can relate to his story.
“If he wants to attack me for leaving my job a month and a half ago to do this full time, that’s fine,” Ramirez said. “If he wants to attack me for doing what every single person on the South Side of San Antonio and every single Hispanic community does, which is live with their parents until they’re comfortable or they’re able to move on to greener pastures — let him.”
Lujan also has faced scrutiny over a potential conflict of interest in the Legislature. After winning the seat in a special election last year, he inherited his predecessor’s membership on a House committee that oversees the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which has a seven-figure contract with Lujan’s software company. In a San Antonio Express-News story published last month, Lujan acknowledged it was a possible conflict but said he had not yet taken any action as a committee member related to the TABC. He left the room when the head of the TABC testified at his first meeting of the committee as a member.
During the radio forum, Lujan said he has “done everything the right way,” consulting attorneys in the House “immediately” upon his election last year. He promised to give up all his shares in the company if reelected.
Ramirez has said there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the situation.
“He says he didn’t do anything wrong, then why did he hide it this whole time?” Ramirez said in the interview. “I feel like that would’ve been a substantial piece of information for somebody to have prior to [Lujan] running or them voting.”
Lujan sees border security as the No. 1 issue in the election. At the rally, a local family whose child died from fentanyl poisoning spoke before Abbott. And Lujan told the crowd that Abbott’s border efforts have been “phenomenal, and we just need to continue and build upon that.”
Abbott has dispatched thousands of National Guard troops to the border, initiated construction of the state’s own border wall and bused migrants to Democratic-run cities throughout the country.
Ramirez said he favors a more “compassionate” approach centered on reforming federal immigration laws and overhauling the court system. He said the federal government needs to be doing more but that Abbott’s program is not the solution, saying it is “failing miserably” by draining state funds from essential services.
Disclosure: University of Texas at San Antonio has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/04/texas-house-district-118-2022-election/.
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