Berman, Schaefer Compete For Seat
By ADAM RUSSELL
Longtime state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler will face challenger and relative political newcomer Matt Schaefer to represent Tyler and Smith County in Texas House District 6.
The two will compete in the May 29 Republican Primary.
Berman, 76, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and former Arlington city councilman who was elected to the state House in 1998, is seeking his eighth term. He touts a conservative anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-business voting record and endorsements from groups supporting those causes.
He said he is the lone "full-time" representative in the House and that his office gets things done when constituents need him.
Schaefer, 36, a Navy Reserve lieutenant commander and attorney, sharpened his political skills while working as a consultant, researcher and spokesman for U.S. Congressmen from Texas, a state representative and most recently U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.
He said he is a principled conservative who will offer a fresh perspective and ability as a legislator. Schaefer said Berman's legislative style does not allow him to deliver on substance for the district.
The race has featured see-saw battles during several debates.
Schaefer has attacked Berman's legislative record early and often. He said the legislator's record is not conservative because it has increased the size and scope of government and spending.
Berman has defended his record as in-line with his constituents and said now is not the time to send a rookie legislator to Austin.
Term-limit pledges continue to be a sounding board for Berman's opponents.
In 1998, while running against then incumbent Rep. Ted Kamel, R-Tyler, one of Berman's platforms during his successful campaign was that he would serve four, two-year terms. However, in 2004, he said senior House leadership and Gov. Rick Perry called on him to remain a member to maintain the conservative continuity in the House. Berman said voters released him from the pledge by re-electing him.
"Seventy percent (of voters) said, 'Stay,' so I did stay," he said.
Schaefer also pointed to Berman's commitment to not participate in the Legislative Retirement System. During the same 1998 race Berman said Kamel had found the "golden egg in Austin," referring to the state retirement.
Regarding his commitment to not take the retirement money, Berman said "circumstances changed," and that he will take the retirement because his wife does not receive Social Security.
Schaefer said Berman used the pledges to defeat Kamel but reneged.
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. He 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.
However, he steered into conflict with House leadership during an unsuccessful attempt to oust House Speaker Joe Straus before the 2011 legislative session. Despite his seniority level, Berman was given poor committee assignments and failed to get bills he filed out of committee.
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 2011, Schaefer announced he would run for Berman's seat before the representative was expected to announce he would not seek re-election. Berman announced he would seek re-election because Schaefer was not a viable candidate.
In January, Berman was hospitalized and found to have non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. With two chemotherapy treatments remaining, Berman said his doctors recently informed him the cancer was in remission.
The House membership is expected to be a relatively inexperienced group during the next session. Turnover during the last election, retirements and additional incumbent losses expected this cycle would make Berman one of the senior members of the House next session.
Berman said his seniority will allow him to land plush committee appointments. He said there is no animosity between he and Straus and that he is in prime position to represent District 6.
He said he would seek positions regarding higher education and public safety.
Berman also would like to improve public education spending. He said more money should go to classrooms and teachers and that the state should thin its administrative rosters. He said the state could cut hundreds of millions of dollars by returning to a "county superintendent" structure. Assistant superintendents, principals and teachers from individual districts would answer to a central superintendent instead of multiple levels of administration for each district.
One of his focuses during the coming session would be backing Perry's Budget Compact, he said.
The compact, which Berman said he signed, emphasizes: no higher taxes, stricter limits on spending, truth-in-budgeting, cutting of wasteful programs, and keeping a well-funded emergency reserve, or "rainy day" fund.
Berman said conservative legislators delivered on their promise to address the $25 billion shortfall legislators faced that year by cutting spending rather than raising taxes. Schaefer said legislators used accounting "smoke and mirrors," to defer billions of dollars for Medicaid and education until 2013.
"We need tested leadership," he said. "People know my record; they know me and what I stand for."
Peeling away Berman's voters has been Schaefer's plan since the incumbent announced he would seek an eighth term.
Schaefer's blue-collar background, political and military credentials have allowed him to reach out to grassroots groups and veterans, he said. Having educators in his family has given him insight to what teachers and administrators face in and around classrooms, he said.
"The different aspects of my life have prepared me to be a good listener," he said. "That's what I want to do, listen and then take those concerns to Austin and give principled, effective representation."
Schaefer has focused on Berman's legislative record. He says it is not as conservative as people think and is filled with votes for more regulation, more bureaucracy and more spending.
He said the representative's opinion that the state has balanced its recent budgets without raising taxes is misleading.
Legislators used "accounting tricks" to balance the books, Schaefer said.
One of the "accounting tricks" was funding Medicaid for 17 months rather than the full 24-month biennium, pushing billions of dollars into the 2013 budget.
Berman said 181 members of the Senate and House worked to pass a balanced budget without raising taxes and delivered.
"The day we get back (into session), we have to deal with that problem" Schaefer said. "So I have to put an asterisk beside the budget."
During debates, Schaefer pointed to Berman's vote that created a new state agencies, more regulatory control/bureaucracy and his vote giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.
Berman said he does not support overzealous regulation. He said his votes that led to more regulatory control of businesses, such as builders, were to protect consumers from unscrupulous practices. Voting against in-state tuition for illegal immigrants would have constituted a vote against all higher education institutions when the bill was considered, Berman said.
Schaefer said those votes increased government oversight on small-business owners and passed costs on to taxpayers.
Berman said he has filed more than a dozen bills each of the past few sessions trying to do away with benefits for illegal immigrants. He said he will continue to do so.
On illegal immigration, both men agreed that ending benefits would end incentives for illegal immigrants to cross the Texas-Mexican border and save the state billions of dollars.
Schaefer said he is passionate about policy and an avid researcher. He said inattentive legislators allow bad policy to pass into law, and that he will keep a watchful eye.
He said he respects the way state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, conduct themselves as legislators. He said he may not agree with the two on all policy decisions but that the two serve effectively.
Schaefer said Berman's seniority means nothing if he does not work effectively for constituents or the state.
"Fourteen years seniority is not getting (Berman) what he wants," he said. "He is a principled man, but sometimes he takes the wrong approach to get things done. I am going to take a different approach and let my principles guide me."
The challenger said he has not polled to determine where his campaign is, as far as name recognition and his ability to beat the incumbent but said he will run his campaign until the end as if he were behind.