While local politicians in the state of Texas are making their best efforts trying to figure out how to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, there’s still the business of an impending state election to manage.
State senator Royce West is campaigning to unseat U.S. Senator John Cornyn in the upcoming November election, removing the Republican who has been in the seat since 2002. While West has already won out against a large group of other contenders in the Democratic primary race, he must still go up against former Air Force officer MJ Hegar, who has never held political office, in a runoff election.
But the 67-year old, Dallas lawmaker, who has been a part of the state legislature since 1993 and is now the state senate’s President Pro Tempore (the senator who presides over the US Senate in the absence of the vice president), says that he will win by building a multicultural grassroots coalition in spite of Hegar having deeper pockets. Hegar has raised more than $3.7 million, compared to West’s $1.1 million, according to OpenSecrets.org.
While Hegar has more cash, West has the backing of a large part of the Texas African American and Latino political establishment including Rep. Al Green, Eddie Bernice Johnson, his predecessor in his senate position, Rep. Sylvia Garcia, and even celebs like Steve Harvey, Tom Joyner and Dallas Cowboys legend, Emmitt Smith.
West spoke with BET.com about what it’s going to take for him to win, the level of satisfaction with his state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the potential effect it will have on his chances of being successful on election day.
BET.com: You’re looking to challenge Sen. John Cornyn in the U.S. Senate race this November, but you must first face MJ Hegar in a runoff July 14. How do you plan to beat her?
Sen. Royce West: The biggest thing I have to do is get a coalition together, which we’re doing. I’ve got to bring together some of the [prior] candidates in the race, which I’ve been able to do, to back me. Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, [who came in third in the primary], she’s going to be backing me. I’m reaching out to others to see if I can get their backing.
If I can get their backing, and not only their backing, but support. I’ll be able to mount a race that will far exceed the number of votes that Hegar received. She received 22 percent of the vote and I received about 14-15 percent. That’s not a huge percentage to be able to make up, given the population and the voter profiles in the state of Texas.
BET.com: You mentioned not being as well funded as Hegar. What are some specific ways you can work around that?
Sen. Royce West: I’ve got to have a grassroots movement. From that vantage point, we will continue to do as we have done in the past 26 years. We’ll have the ministerial alliances in the African American community. We will make certain that the Divine Nine (Black Greek-letter organizations) are well informed and hopefully get their vote out. One of the main operatives for Ramirez will be working for my campaign in order to help me pull together Latino and African American leaders as well as Anglo leaders in order to make certain the grassroots effort will be able to meet the massive amount of monies that she will have in order to make certain we win the primary.
BET.com: What are you offering voters that Cornyn is not?
Sen. Royce West: Leadership. Cornyn has frankly backed everything that Donald Trump has done and you can’t tell the difference between the two of them. I’ve known John Cornyn for close to about 30 years and he’s not the same person that I first met here in Texas.
I’ll be able to offer support for gun smart issues. I’ll be able to offer support for women’s choice issues, solving the immigration problem, I’ll also be able to look at issues of civil rights and voting rights. I’ll be able to do that with fresh eyes and with a purpose in making certain we get them done.
BET.com: Dallas County, which is where your Texas state senate district is, has come under a shelter in place order due to coronavirus. Are you satisfied with the response from your state so far?
Sen. Royce West: Yes I am. The thing is, we’re beginning to see that the lead taken by Dallas County is starting to be recognized and other counties are doing the same thing. Dallas County was the first to do a shelter in place and we’re beginning to see other counties, specifically in North Central Texas do the same thing with the recognition that we’ve got to make certain that citizens stay in place to be able to contain the spread of this virus similar to what was done in China.
BET.com: Gov. Greg Abbott is reportedly leaving coronavirus responses up to local municipalities. Is that really the best decision?
Sen. Royce West: I think you maintain as many tools in your toolbox as possible. I think there’s a recognition that we need to make certain that we have a shelter in place and it’s appropriate to allow local elected officials to make those decisions and it appears as though most of the local elected officials are making the correct decision in terms of the sheltering in place and frankly all of the recommendations that are being made by the CDC and our state Department of Health and Human Services.
BET.com: Back to Cornyn for a second. He’s been accused of blaming coronavirus on China and also accused of reportedly accusing House Democrats of politicizing the pandemic. Is he making matters worse?
Sen. Royce West: He is making matters worse. Again, he’s parroting Trump. Trump came out and said this is a Chinese deal and then Cornyn turned around and said the same thing. It’s not Democrats that are politicizing this, it’s Republicans in Texas. For example, the attorney general of the state of Texas has said that if a woman wants to exercise her choice to healthcare, that is, get an abortion, that that is not an essential surgical need. And they’re using this particular virus to cut down on women’s rights in the state of Texas.
BET: There’s been a $2 trillion stimulus package agreed on in Congress. How will that help the people of your district specifically?
Sen. Royce West: Based on what I understand is in the bill, we’ll be able to make certain that people can get some relief, especially those that have been terminated through no fault of their own. We’re expecting double digit unemployment in Texas just like the rest of the country. So...we’re making certain that through this legislation that people will be able to get some monies in order to keep their families going. In terms of small businesses, there’s supposed to be some monies in there for small businesses also. So my staff and I are looking at that right now to determine what’s in the bill and how the money’s going to be flowing.
BET.com: Finally, if coronavirus continues to be disruptive by the time of the runoff, how will that affect voting in Texas and is your campaign prepared for whatever happens?
Sen. Royce West: Our campaign will be ready. We don’t know how long this virus is going to run. Based on what health care experts are saying, the warmer it gets in terms of temperatures, the virus will diminish. If that’s the case, we will be ready for the election in July. So now the question becomes what form will voting take?
There’s a push by the Democratic party right now to have mail in ballots. Don’t know whether or not that’s going to occur, but we do understand and appreciate that you’ve got to put in the infrastructure for that and that’s not being done right now and obviously that’s going to take some time.