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Ramon Romero Jr. prepares to pop open a bottle of champagne after he defeated Democratic Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth on Tuesday night. Photo by Dave Montgomery.

Dave Montgomery

Austin Correspondent

Tuesday’s primaries wrecked the careers of two senior members of the Tarrant County legislative delegation – Democratic Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, long regarded as one of the Texas Legislature’s most outspoken liberals, and Republican Rep. Diane Patrick of Arlington, vice-chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education.

Burnam, a 17-year lawmaker who currently serves as dean of the county’s 11-member delegation in the state House, was upended by east Fort Worth businessman Ramon Romero Jr. in a hard-fought Democratic primary battle for an inner-city Fort Worth district that is heavily comprised by Hispanics.

With no opposition from a Republican in the Novemember election, Romero, 40, is now bound for Austin as the first Latino member of the Tarrant County delegation.

Patrick’s defeat by first time political candidate Tony Tinderholt of Arlington seemed to be another success story for tea party activists, who rallied behind Tinderholt’s candidacy. Tea Party support also apparently helped first-term Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, who won office in 2012 on a wave of tea party support, easily survive what had been initially perceived as a tight race against GOP primary challenger Andy Cargile.

Romero, who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in 2012, defeated Burnam in the District 90 race by a vote of 51 percent to 49 percent after a nail-biting evening that sometimes saw the lead change by only a handful of votes.

After the outcome became official, Romero celebrated by popping a bottle of champagne at his east Fort Worth home with nearly 200 well-wishers that included City Councilman Sal Espino, Justice of the Peace Sergio De Leon and former councilman Steve Murrin, instantly recognizeable with his trademark handle-bar mustache and cowboy hat.

Although the story line for Romero’s victory will likely focus heavily on be the power of the Hispanic vote in the urban district, Romero and his supporters downplayed ethnic themes, saying that voters were ready for new leadership.

“We didn’t just get Hispanic votes. We got everybody’s vote,” said Romero, crediting his victory to a coalition of like-minded district residents seeking action on issues such as poverty, drug use, transportation and jobs. “There’s not one color. It’s brown, it’s black, it’s white.”

“It’s an historic win,” said Espino. “It’s a new generation of leadership. We thank Lon Burnam for his years of service but the District 90 community wanted to go in a different direction.”

Burnam, who depicted Romero as a Republican-friendly “fake Democrat,” watched the returns with scores of supporters at Mama Mia’s on Magnolia Street. Results from early voting showed him trailing but, at one point in the evening, he was guardedly optimistic that late returns could help him carve out a victory.

“I’ve known all along it would be a close race,” he said. “It’s about identity politics. This district is 70 percent Hispanic and people all over the world tend to vote for people they identify with. That’s not necessarily in their best interest.”

Burnam said legislative redistricting made him more vulnerable, taking away neighborhoods that “had traditionally been very supportive.” Burnam also faced a strong challenge in 2012 from Fort Worth School Board trustee Carlos Vasquez but survived.

Burnam was elected in 1996 and went on to develop a reputation for bucking the leadership and taking on quixotic causes such as abolishing the death penalty and imposing a state income tax on Texans earning more than $100,000 annually. But he also was an impassioned voice for social priorities championed by Democrats, including rolling back more than $5 billion in education cuts imposed by the 2011 Legislature.

Mindful that he was an Anglo representing a heavily Hispanic district, Burnam said he maintained a continuous vigil to watch out for issues affecting his constituents and served as a member of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. He was endorsed by the Mexican-American Democrats, the AFL-CIO and the past four chairs of the Tarrant County Democratic Party.

But Romero, in campaign messages on his Website, called on District 90 voters to “take control of our district” and put the community’s “ priorities at the top of our agenda.”

“Representing District 90 is not about simply stirring the pot,” Romero said in an apparent shot at Burnam. “It's about working across the table to start bringing results that matter back home to the families of Fort Worth.”

Patrick, a former university professor and former member of the Arlington school board, became the third Tarrant Republican incumbent in two years to fall to a tea-party backed insurgency in the Republican primary. Reps. Vicki Truitt of Keller, a committee chairman and member of the House leadership team, and first-term Rep. Barbara Nash of Arlington, were both defeated by tea party-backed candidates in 2012.

Final unofficial returns showed Tinderholt defeating Patrick by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent. He will face Democrat Cole Ballweg of Arlington in the November general election.

Tinderholt, 43, entered the race in December after quiting his job as vice president of education for a company that operated several vocational schools across the country. He served in the military for 21 years, including 10 years in Air Force intelligence and 11 years in the Army.

“When I talk about conservative values, I didn’t feel like I was being represented the way I wanted to be represented,” Tinderholt said in recalling his decision to enter the District 94 (check) race. He had the support of the NE Tarrant Tea Party and the Arlington Tea Party, he said. Additionally, Tinderholt said, “I consider myself tea party.”

Patrick, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday night, described herself to voters “as a committed conservative” who opposed Medicaid expansion in Texas, passed tax relief for small business, protected Second Amendment rights and used her expertise as a former educator to improve the quality of public schools.

She was endorsed by political action committees for the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Hospital Association and the Texas Association of Realtors.

Political watchers in Austin had dubbed the Stickland-Cargile battle for House District 92 in Northeast Tarrant County as the race to watch in Tuesday’s primaries to determine if the tea party still packed the same punch it had in previous elections. Stickland was one of a cadre of tea party backed candidates who took office in 2010 to shift both the House and Tarrant County’s delegation more sharply to the right.

But when votes were in late Tuesday night, Stickland secured the Republican nomination for a second term by a vote of 65 per cent to 35 percent. He will face Democrat Tina Penny of Bedford in November.

Of the eight Republican incumbents in the Tarrant County legislative delegation, Patrick and Stickland were the only two who drew Republican primary challengers. Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth was unopposed in the GOP primary but will face Democrat David L. Ragan of Richland Hills in the Nov. 4 general election.


Nicole Collier, a first term Democrat who represents District 95 in southeast Tarrant County, escaped Democratic opposition but will face Republican Albert McDaniel of Fort Worth
 

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