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Former state Rep. John Wray and fellow Republican Brian Harrison are locked in a brawl for Wray’s old seat as Tuesday’s special election runoff approaches, battling over their resumes, public education and their conservative credentials.
But the fight has turned especially personal in the final days, as Wray’s wife accuses Harrison of “false, negative attacks and rumors about our family.” Wray’s campaign says the basis for the accusation is an anonymous text message that recently surfaced in the race, spreading an unconfirmed rumor about the reason Wray did not seek reelection last year after holding the seat for three terms.
Harrison’s campaign denies that it is responsible for the text.
“There is no reason for us to bring up the suspicious nature of Wray’s unexplained and abrupt decision to leave office,” Harrison consultant Chris Homan said in a statement.
Harrison and Wray are in the runoff to replace former state Rep. Jake Ellzey, R-Waxahachie, who is now in Congress. Ellzey has endorsed Wray to succeed him in House District 10, a safely Republican district that covers rural parts south and southeast of Dallas.
Harrison is the former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Donald Trump, and he also ran in the May special election for the congressional seat that Ellzey ultimately captured. Backed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Harrison has campaigned as the more conservative candidate on the ballot Tuesday.
Even before the allegation of family attacks burst out into the open last week, things were contentious between Wray and Harrison. Wray has been accusing Harrison of exaggerating his time in the Trump administration and portraying him as hostile to public education. Harrison has been calling into question Wray’s conservatism, while linking him to the Democratic stances of the teachers’ groups that support him.
“[There is a] very clear choice in this election between a movement conservative with a proven conservative track record to go along with it, versus somebody who is objectively rated one of the least conservative members of the Legislature when he was there,” Harrison said in an interview.
Wray says Harrison cannot be trusted, especially as the district goes through a critical period with redistricting underway at the Legislature.
“We don’t really have time for on-the-job training,” Wray said in a recent radio interview where he also pressed his criticism that Harrison has inflated his resume. “I think that that is super, supremely important because I believe in transparency. I don’t want to deceive my constituents and my voters, and I want to be forthright.”
One of the defining contrasts in the runoff has to do with familiar territory for Republican-on-Republican contests in rural Texas: public education. Harrison is a supporter of “school choice” — the concept of allowing parents to use government-provided financial assistance to pursue non-public school options for their children — while Wray opposes it. The split has mobilized third-party groups on both sides of the issue, including teachers’ unions that oppose school choice and are otherwise often more aligned with Democrats.
But no issue has fueled a more tense finish to the race as the circumstances leading up to Wray’s decision not to seek reelection, which he announced in July 2019. He was vague about his decision at the time, saying “these elected jobs are not meant to be lifetime positions” and that it was “time for me to return full time to Ellis County and join my fellow citizens to elect the next conservative state representative.”
In announcing his comeback bid in July, Wray said he “took time off to spend more time with my family” and that he could not “stay on the sidelines” any longer due to the issues confronting the Legislature.
The Tribune is not repeating the rumors about Wray’s decision to not run for reelection because it has not been able to confirm them. But they have come up in social media posts about the race since it began in July and forced his strongest response yet Thursday with the release of the video featuring his wife. Michele Wray has been a fixture in her husband’s comeback bid, appearing alongside him in campaign materials dating back to the initial special election.
“The false, negative attacks and rumors about our family are the lowest form of politics we’ve ever seen,” Michele Wray says in the latest video, going on to describe her husband as a “good family man.”
The anonymous texts that Wray’s campaign indicated prompted the video surfaced last week as early voting was underway and do not include a disclaimer saying who paid for them. Under state law, it is generally illegal for someone to send out text messages en masse with the goal of influencing an election and without such a disclaimer.
“Last minute false desperate attacks were expected,” Wray consultant Craig Murphy said in a statement. “This one categorically has no basis in fact.”
The original version of the video with Michele Wray, posted Thursday, told viewers that election day was Aug. 31, raising the possibility it was produced ahead of the initial special election, before the text surfaced.
Murphy said the Aug. 31 date was an error, and the campaign re-posted the video with the right date after being informed about it Friday.
Contentious from the start
Harrison and Wray were the top two finishers in the Aug. 31 special election for the seat, which attracted eight candidates total. Harrison came in first with 41% of the vote, while Wray got 36%.
Harrison appeared to get an election day boost from the late Cruz endorsement, and he emerged from the first round emboldened, calling on Wray to forfeit the runoff.
Wray did not oblige, and things only got more heated from there.
Wray alleges Harrison has deceived voters about his time in the Trump administration, when Harrison was the chief of staff to U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar. Wray has accused Harrison of claiming to instead be Trump’s chief of staff, sourcing it in a mailer to an alleged comment Harrison made “at the polls” on Aug. 31. Harrison says he has never claimed to have been Trump’s chief of staff.
Wray has also latched on to a Politico article that came out during Harrison’s congressional run that said Trump thought about firing Harrison and Azar over the department’s COVID-19 response. Harrison has responded by highlighting a Trump tweet at the time in which he said reports that he wanted to fire Azar were “Fake News.”
Meanwhile, Harrison has gone after Wray by drawing attention to his poor scores with some conservative groups when he served in the Legislature. And Harrison has attacked Wray over a 2019 vote for legislation to add contraceptive coverage to the state health insurance program for low-income minors. (Wray voted for the bill upon initial approval but was absent for the vote on final approval and wrote in the journal afterward that he would have voted no.)
But education has proven to be perhaps the most galvanizing issue in the race. While Harrison has the support of the American Federation for Children, a national school choice group, Wray is being backed by teachers unions including the Texas State Teachers Association, Texas AFT and Association of Texas Professional Educators.
In a sign of how much the race means to them, the American Federation for Children has spent $25,000 on behalf of Harrison in the runoff, according to the group, while the three unions have invested $13,000 to help Wray, according to records with the Texas Ethics Commission.
Tensions spiked around the issue of education earlier this month when Wray’s campaign began circulating a clip of Harrison at a forum discussing his support for “school choice” — or a system “that would take money from local public schools and shift it to Dallas and Houston,” as Wray later described it. The clip omitted the first part of Harrison’s answer in which he praised the public schools in the district, an omission that Harrison was quick to denounce.
In an interview, Harrison said he supports “school choice” as it is characterized in the Texas GOP platform: “Texas families should be empowered to choose from public, private, charter or home-school options for their children’s education, using tax credits or exemptions without government restraints or intrusion.”
While standing by his support for that cause, Harrison has sought to put Wray on the defensive over the positions of the teachers’ groups that have endorsed him, including their advocacy for mask mandates for students and history of endorsing Democrats in high-profile elections, including Beto O’Rourke for U.S. Senate in 2018.
Wray has distanced himself from the positions that run counter to today’s GOP orthodoxy.
“Texas State Teachers Association has endorsed me, but I absolutely am opposed to mask mandates, vaccine mandates and [critical race theory],” Wray said in a radio interview Wednesday.
TSTA spokesperson Clay Robison said it does not agree with Wray on every issue but far prefers him to Harrison. Robison said Harrison is “running straight from the right-wing agenda playbook, and if that’s the case, public schools are definitely an afterthought, if that, as far as he is concerned.”
In the fight over education, Harrison has gotten an assist from Cruz, a fellow school choice backer. The senator alluded to the contrast in a one-minute video that he recorded for Harrison in the runoff.
“In Austin,” Cruz says, “Brian will put our kids’ education ahead of the teachers’ union bosses and ahead of the special interests.”
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators, Politico, Texas AFT and Texas State Teachers Association have been financial supporters 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.
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