Originally published in the Tyler Morning Telegraph
By ADAM RUSSELL
Staff WriterThe challenger to longtime state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, called for debates to discuss East Texas issues and allow the public to vet candidates.
Berman, the seven-term Texas House District 6 incumbent, and his opponent Matt Schaefer, officially filed for a place on March primary ballots Monday. On Tuesday, Schaefer challenged Berman to debate.
Berman, 76, is seeking his eighth two-year term. He said he was aware of Schaefer’s request but had not received a direct invitation.
“As usual for seven campaigns I plan to participate in candidate forums where voters can hear from candidates and make their minds up,” Berman said.
Schaefer, 35, said he looks forward to discussing pressing state issues with voters and answering their questions. Berman said voters know his conservative voting record and that no one knows Schaefer.Berman has run unopposed since 2006. His closest challenge came in the GOP primary that year, when local businessman Gus Ramirez garnered almost 48 percent of the vote. Berman made headlines in recent years for outspoken views on illegal immigration, Sharia law, abortion, even President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
He consistently receives high marks from conservative political action groups for his legislative voting record.
After a difficult 2011 session and summer special session, Smith County GOP insiders said all indications were that Berman would retire if a strong conservative candidate could be found.
In early July, Schaefer, a former small-town West Texas attorney and East Texas regional director for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, announced he would run for Berman’s seat.Schaefer is a Naval Reserve lieutenant commander, a former campaign operative for U.S. Congressman Randy Neugebauer and counseled state Rep. Carl Isett during 81st Legislative state agency sunset reviews. It is his first campaign for elected office.
Shortly after Schaefer announced he would challenge for the seat, Berman announced he would seek an eighth term.
In a late July mass email, Smith County GOP Primary Administrator Sharon Emmert called Berman out for what she called an “inexplicable reversal.” She announced her support for Schaefer and asked that local Republicans follow suit.
After the email circulated, Berman acknowledged he was set to step down but that “no substantial” conservative candidate emerged. He said Schaefer’s lack of local profile makes him vulnerable to other potential candidates.“I wanted to get out, but I wanted to get out with the right candidate, and I don’t support (Schaefer’s) candidacy,” he said.
Schaefer said he is offering a “fresh conservative approach to voters” and that he is eager to face tough questions from the public regarding his platform. Debates are part of the American political process, he said.
“I hope the forums will help people get to know me,” he said. “It’s the same for incumbents. If you are proud of what you have done, you shouldn’t have a problem defending it. I think (debate) is good for everybody.”
Smith County Republican Party Chairman Ashton Oravetz agrees. He said forums benefit challengers more than incumbents because they give exposure to newcomers. But he expects local party clubs and conservative groups will want to vet the candidates before the primary.
The deadline for candidates to place their name on March primary ballots is Dec. 15, meaning more candidates could join the race. Local political groups and civic clubs are expected to schedule multiple forums, but no dates have been set.
Shirley Hightower, League of Women Voter board member, said candidate debates create informed voters. The league typically holds candidate forums, which allow residents and moderators to ask questions.
“We feel (debates are) important to give people the chance to get to know the candidates,” she said. “It’s a big part of being an informed voter.”