Junior fights uphill battle in race for Texas House seat

This month, many students will be applying for internships for the spring semester. But if GW junior James “Jake” Gilbreath has his way, he might have some interns of his own come January.

The odds are stacked against him. Gilbreath is running as a Democrat for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in one of the most Republican parts of the state. His hometown is Waxahachie, just south of Dallas, and he is running in Texas’s District 10. He described it as a rural district with about 120,000 residents.

“It’s composed of suburbs of Dallas, but the bottom part is more rural, lots of farms, lots of open space and not a lot of residents,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Some have questioned why Gilbreath, a junior studying political science, would dedicate himself to running a campaign they consider futile. For him, he said, it’s a matter of principle.

“Too often people view it as winnable or not winnable,” he said. “It should be, ‘Is the representative doing his job? Does he deserve a second chance?’ I think that’s what’s missing in our politics.”

“It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about fighting for what you believe in … it’s about going out there and giving them hell, but if we lose, we lose. We don’t just stand up when it’s convenient,” he added.

The target of Gilbreath’s campaign is Jim Pitts, a conservative Republican who received some national attention after drafting legislation that would make 11-year-olds eligible for death penalty sentencing. Pitts has a favorable reputation in the district, which makes Gilbreath’s task more difficult.

“I have spoken with (Gilbreath) about what his motivations are in running against a guy like Pitts,” said Patrick Walker, an editor who covers the campaigns at the Waxahachie Daily Light. “(Pitts) is not perfect, but I think most people have been happy, even on the other side of the aisle.”

“Basically the situation here is that Jim Pitts has been in office for 12 years, and he has risen to become pretty powerful in the state House here,” Walker added. “He’s a pretty influential state representative, and you have to understand Ellis county is a very Republican-oriented county as far as voters go.”

Despite the area’s Republican leanings, Gilbreath said some people in the area are glad to have someone trying to change the current system that has left incumbent Pitts in power for years.

“It’s not that we can’t win. There is a lot of crossover appeal. A lot of people appreciate the fact that there’s a young person out there trying to make a difference,” he said. “We’re rebuilding the party, rallying around the ticket and standing up for ourselves.”

Gilbreath emphasized that the focus of his campaign is giving citizens a choice. In past years, Pitts has been elected by default because he faced no opposition.

“Win or lose, Pitts hasn’t been challenged since 1992. That’s not good for the district when the incumbent doesn’t have to worry,” he said. “Whether you agree or not, I’m giving people a choice.”

Gilbreath questioned whether Pitts has done an adequate job serving Texas and his district. He said a change in leadership is needed to address the state’s problems.

“Property taxes are too high, they aren’t paying teachers enough, schools are a disaster,” Gilbreath said. “While we have these terrible schools, the Republicans thought they could spend three special sessions (on redistricting). They’d rather score points with Washington, D.C. than Texas. It shows how irresponsible they’ve been. And my opponent supported redistricting.”

Republicans in the Texas legislature spent much of 2003 and 2004 working to redraw federal congressional districts so Republicans would outnumber Democrats in the House of Representatives. The process brought national attention when Democrats twice fled the state to prevent a quorum, but the changes ultimately took effect.

“They made a lot of Democrats mad, and they got me now for the redistricting,” Gilbreath said. “I think there’s lots of people like me who weren’t involved with state politics until they saw what (Republicans) do with the power. I’m going to make sure they hurt for it.”

Texas Republicans remain tight-lipped about Pitts. Mel Bryant, chairman of the Hill County Republican Party, declined to discuss Pitts’ record. He said he knew the media could distort his message, saying only that Pitts would win “in a landslide.”

Rusty Ballard, chairman of the Ellis County Republican Party, said he did not want to discuss Pitts’ record “because we’re approaching the election.” Pitts did not return several phone calls left at his offices.

One area in which Pitts has not been silent is his criticism of Gilbreath’s youth. Earlier this year, he told the Daily Light that Gilbreath should finish college, get a job, become a taxpayer and acquire some real-world experience before he runs for office.

“If he were my son, that’s what I would tell him,” Pitts told the newspaper.

Gilbreath said his age is irrelevant to the race.

“I think it’s hilarious that he feels the need to attack me,” Gilbreath said. “He’s a 12-year incumbent and a practicing lawyer since his 20s. The fact that he feels the need to attack me for my age is really a gratifying aspect of the campaign. I’m sure he has no problem with young people dying in Iraq, but when we want his job, we’re too young.”

Because money is tight, Gilbreath runs the campaign himself with the aid of a few volunteers.

“Every single day, there’s something going on with the campaign, whether it’s an event, putting out yard signs, going door to door … I don’t pay anybody to do my work,” he said. “I do it myself. People get my yard signs because I put them in the yard. When they get a call, it’s from me.”

Walker said both he and area residents have been impressed with Gilbreath’s campaign.

“In seeing him speak publicly, he obviously has a natural knack for it,” Walker said. “He has poise. I think that if he does decide to make politics part of his life, he will be successful at that.”

Gilbreath said he has no plans to leave politics if he loses the race; if he returns to GW, he said he would continue to be active in D.C. Last year, Gilbreath was a Hatchet columnist and active member of the College Democrats.

Walker said Gilbreath may need to make several runs against Pitts to emerge victorious.

“It’s going to be difficult for Jake to knock him off in just the first time he takes him on, simply because Jim is so well-entrenched … maybe he wants to come back next time and chip away a little more,” he said.

Gilbreath did not rule out the possibility of another shot at District 10.

“I say I have two loyalties in my life,” he said, “and that’s the Democratic Party and the state of Texas.”

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