February 9, 2014
by Brandon Formby
The race to represent most of northern Dallas County in the Texas Senate has become an expensive war between two well-known Republican businessmen with opposing views of where the GOP — and Texas politics — should head.
Republican Sen. John Carona, largely considered a moderate Republican, is facing a well-funded challenge from tea party-backed Don Huffines in the March 4 primary. The winner is widely expected to claim the seat because the only general election opponent is Libertarian Party candidate Mike Dooling.
Carona says his challenger is a hypocrite for claiming to oppose all taxes even though Huffines’ development company has benefited from helping create government taxing districts. He portrays Huffines as the poster child for a far-right faction of the GOP that puts ideology and opinion ahead of pragmatism and governance.
“They will not cast a vote to fix anything,” he said.
Huffines accuses the six-term incumbent of being unethical for hiring lobbyists to protect his business interests before the Legislature of which he is part. Huffines also paints Carona as an ineffective leader who isn’t in touch with what constituents in the district want.
“It’s important that the voters have a choice between a true conservative and the most liberal Republican in Austin,” Huffines said.
Senate District 16 includes North Dallas, the Park Cities, Addison, Farmers Branch and parts of Coppell, Carrollton, Garland, Irving and Rowlett. The contest is already a multimillion-dollar battle with billboards, cable network advertisements and a steady flow of glossy mailers. Early voting begins Feb. 18.
Some similar stances
From July through most of January, Carona raised $2.9 million and spent $2.5 million. During the same period, Huffines raised more than $1 million and spent more than $893,000. Carona headed into the final month of the campaign with more than $705,000 in his campaign coffers, compared with Huffines’ $157,000.
For all of the accusations and criticisms, the men share similar stances on several issues likely to face the Senate when it reconvenes in January. Both say the federal government should better secure the Texas-Mexico border to prevent illegal immigration into Texas. They also want to cut government spending and eliminate bureaucratic inefficiencies.
“The big issue in Austin is people are going to have to make decisions about the proper way of spending,” Huffines said.
They both also want to expand the number of charter schools in the state. And they each want to end the practice of relying on toll roads as the primary means for financing new highway construction.
“You’re taking taxpayers down the most expensive road,” Carona said.
Carona was first elected to the Senate in 1996, after serving three terms in the Texas House. He is president, CEO and chairman of Associa, the largest homeowners’ association management company in the U.S.
He touts himself as a pro-business legislator who wants to minimize regulations and business taxes. He is frustrated that lawmakers have not found adequate funding for the Texas Department of Transportation.
Carona opposes moving Texas’ utility companies to a capacity market. That would pay power plants not just for electricity they provide, but whatever capacity they have available.
The incumbent said his experience and expertise make him the better candidate because he will be more effective at handling Texans’ major concerns.
“One of the benefits to having served a number of years is that you’re given the larger issues to resolve,” he said.
This is Huffines’ first run for any elected office, though he’s no stranger to politics. He helped form a super PAC that supported Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid. On Friday, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., headlined a rally for Huffines’ campaign.
Like most tea party candidates and voters, Huffines is a fierce advocate for term limits. The political newcomer said he would only serve three terms if elected. Like Carona, he’s unhappy with the lack of funding for Texas roads.
Huffines also wants Texas to bill the federal government for the costs local and state government entities take on to jail, provide higher education and offer health care to those in the U.S. illegally.
“I have felt quite a bit of frustration at the direction of our state party and our state government,” he said. “We’re really at a pivotal crossroads.”
Both men have criticized the other for how their business lives intersect with their political aspirations. Huffines paints Carona as self-serving because he has authored legislation that affects the homeowners’ association industry.
Carona in 2001 authored a law aimed at addressing HOA abuses without reducing associations’ powers too much. He called it a proactive move meant to head off a “tidal wave of legislation.”
State lawmakers are not precluded from voting on matters that affect an entire industry, like they are from legislation that involves their company specifically. Huffines still questions the ethics.
“It’s always about what’s going to benefit him,” he said.
Carona disagrees. He said he’s never voted on a bill that affected the financial interest of his business or those of his relatives.
Meanwhile, Carona blasted Huffines last month at a candidates’ forum after his challenger said he was against all taxes.
In the early 2000s, Huffines Communities planned to build developments on farmland along U.S. Highway 380 between Denton and Prosper. Two subdivisions were planned — Providence Village and Savannah.
Huffines Communities used special taxing districts to help finance construction of roads and water lines. A handful of people moved into rent-free trailers put on Huffines’ empty land. After living there long enough to qualify for voting, those newcomers cast the lone ballots to create the special districts.
Records show those voters then empowered the districts to take on about $280 million in debt, to be repaid by future homeowners. Records show about $70 million in debt has been issued.
Those now living in each of the districts pay about $2.5 million in property taxes annually. Most of that goes to repay the bond debt approved by the residents who temporarily lived rent-free in trailers before the neighborhoods were built.
“He does not do a project that does not rely on government assistance and that government assistance is taxpayer money,” Carona said.
Huffines said Carona created hundreds of special government districts as a legislator, though he said he didn’t know of any that benefited the incumbent’s business.
When asked whether he thinks his political stance and business dealings are in conflict with each other, Huffines said the success of his developments speak for themselves.
“It’s just not something the voters in our district are concerned about,” he said.
Staff writer Reese Dunklin contributed to this report.
BACKGROUND: State Senate candidates
Occupation: President, CEO and Chairman of Associa, a property association management company
Political Career: Texas House, 1990-1996; Texas Senate, 1996-present
Amount raised*: $2.9 million
Amount spent*: $2.5 million
Hometown: Highland Park
Occupation: Co-owner, Huffines Communities, real estate development firm
Political Career: No previous runs for public office
Amount raised*: $1 million
Amount spent*: $893,000
*-Includes money raised from July 1, 2013 through Jan. 23.
On Twitter: @brandonformby