Abbott targets anti-school choice incumbent in Texas House District 33 Republican primary runoff

Rockwall Republican state Rep. Justin Holland faces Katrina Pierson in the District 33 primary runoff race after he voted against Gov. Greg Abbott’s school choice plan.

By Caroline Love, KERA NewsMay 21, 2024 10:00 am, ,

From KERA News:

Rep. Justin Holland has represented Texas House District 33 since 2016. But keeping that seat may be a challenge.

The Rockwall Republican cast some controversial votes last session. He voted in favor of a bill that would have raised the age to purchase assault rifles from 18 to 21 if passed. He also voted for impeaching Attorney General Ken Paxton and against Gov. Greg Abbott’s school voucher program.

Abbott’s fight to pass school choice failed in the legislature — so he took it to the voting booth. He supported several primary challengers of incumbent Republicans who didn’t vote for school choice. He also endorsed Holland’s challenger, Katrina Pierson, in the runoff. Paxton endorsed her before the March primary.

Holland has faced backlash for his controversial votes. The Rockwall County Republican Party chapter condemned Holland on social media before the March primary, saying he went against Republican priorities.

Pierson, a former Trump campaign spokesperson, said voters in the district made it clear they don’t support Holland’s decisions during the primary.

“When you turn your back on voters, they tend to not like that very much,” she said.

Pierson got about 40% of the vote in March – Holland got 39%. A third candidate, Dennis London, received around 22%. He’s not on the ballot for the runoff.

Abbott has said he needs Pierson’s help to pass school choice – something Holland said he still won’t support.

“Ultimately, I feel like this will eventually harm public schools from a funding perspective,” he said.

Holland said the legislature needs to focus on paying teachers more and increasing school funding.

Supporters of school voucher programs say they don’t take money away from public schools. Colleen Dippel, the founder and CEO of Families Empowered, said it gives parents the freedom and resources to decide what’s best for their child regardless of family income. The Texas organization guides parents through their search for educational options for students from pre-K to 12th grade.

“We’re going to trust them,” Dippel said. “We’re going to empower them to have the opportunity to all have access to the same choices.”

The Families Empowered Political Action Committee has donated to several Texas candidates that support school choice — including Pierson. She has also received donations from Texans United for a Conservative Majority.

The PAC was created by two the same West Texas billionaires who also founded the Defend Texas Liberty PAC. The leader of that PAC, Jonathan Stickland, was removed as president after he met with white supremacist Nick Fuentes.

Trace Johannesen, the mayor of Rockwall, said PACs and statewide officials weighing in on the runoff don’t have best interests of district 33 residents in mind.

“How could they possibly know a thing about Rockwall?” Johannesen said.

Johannesen has endorsed Holland for reelection. The Rockwall Republican said he doesn’t usually endorse candidates. But Johannesen said he’s frustrated with the growing division in the Republican party.

He said Holland’s race is a symptom of that problem.

“Our party is being divided, and that’s not how our party supposed to work,” Johannesen said.

But Pierson said the fact that Abbott and Paxton have endorsed her shows that she’s the true conservative in the race — something she said will benefit her in one of the most conservative districts in Texas.

“The fact that there’s not even a Democrat running tells you that,” Pierson said.

No Democratic candidate means whoever wins this runoff is the presumed winner in November’s general election. And that person’s vote could tip the balance for — or against — school choice in Texas.

Early voting starts May 20 and goes until May 24. Election day is May 28.

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