Three of four candidates running for an open local Texas House District faced each other Thursday night in their first public forum.
About 60 people attended the forum hosted by Grassroots America - We the People.
Randy Davis, Philip Hayes, Cole Hefner and Jay Misenheimer are running for Texas House of Representatives District 5. The official monthlong filing period for all local and statewide races begins Saturday.
The District 5 position will be vacated by Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who is running for Sen. Kevin Eltife's senate seat. Eltife has said he would not run for re-election.
Misenheimer, 52, a businessman from Lindale and former Lindale ISD school board member, did not attend because of a scheduling conflict.
Davis, 65, of Emory, a retired U.S. Army sergeant and active Texas Guard captain with 23 years of military service, said there is a problem at the top in the Texas House. He said he would stand up for what is right, his principles and would not bend to pressure and follow up on promises.
"We face a lot of dangers within and without, both foreign and domestic," he said.
"I'll be a leader in Austin. I've performed under fire and led men and women and held lives in the decisions I made, and I believe it gave me the ability to be a tested and true leader for East Texas."
Hayes, 24, a former Hideaway alderman, touted his years of grassroots efforts on behalf of conservative Republicans. Hayes said Texas can lead the nation with hard work, innovation and liberty and that the state shouldn't settle for mediocre leaders who have no vision.
He said he would stand for the principles of the district with courage and not bow to political or lobbyist pressure.
"You have to be more concerned about the future of this state than your political future, and that is what I will do," he said.
Hefner, 34, an insurance businessman from Mount Pleasant and former Upshur County commissioner, said he'd stand against the degradation of American principles, including the Supreme Court ruling on same sex-marriage, lawlessness along the Texas-Mexico border and the killing and sale of the unborn by Planned Parenthood.
"We have to have people in Austin who have a fire in their belly to defend those principles," he said.
Davis said the passage of Proposition 7 to bring billions of dollars to transportation is a right step but is not a long-term solution for a growing state.
Hayes said state leaders need to be proactive when it comes to infrastructure. He said the state is trying to keep up with the pace of growth, but leadership needs to focus on ensuring tax dollars are maximized to maintain the current system and meet infrastructure needs into the future.
Hefner said state leaders should stop diverting billions of dedicated transportation dollars and focus on needs.
"We need to get our fiscal house in order and start spending money where we've told taxpayers it would be spent," Hefner said.
Candidates were asked how the state could reverse the number of high school graduates needing remedial courses to be college ready.
Davis said the emphasis on teaching to tests is dumbing down students. He said teachers should be able to teach, and students should meet basic education standards to move forward.
Hefner said educators need more freedom to do their jobs, and local administrators and teachers should be empowered and allowed to meet the needs of students in preparing them for the workforce or college.
Hayes said state leaders should move the state away from mandates that do not help educate and that decisions should be returned to the local level. He said state leaders need to break Texas' one-size-fits-all standard for education.
Davis said dependence on federal dollars worries him. He said it drives federal mandates in education and other areas, such as taking on refugees from the crisis in Syria.
Hayes said the state should measure the cost of federal mandates and economic impact when considering accepting federal funds. Texas should focus on handling state needs with its own revenues and maintain a good balance for independence.
Hefner said Texas should focus on remaining independent as much as possible and determine if strings attached to federal dollars is worth accepting the money.
Davis said state leaders should end benefits for illegal immigrants, such as education, and crack down on businesses that hire people here illegally.
"You're rewarding illegal behavior, and until you stop rewarding illegal behavior, it will continue," he said.
Hayes said the state should create a state border patrol under the direction of the Texas Rangers and send the bill to Washington, D.C.
Hefner said he would work to enter an interstate compact with other border states to solve a problem the federal government continues to ignore.
Davis said an armed citizenry empowers people. He said well-trained gun owners should be able to carry firearms and that Concealed Handgun License holders are the most law-abiding residents in the state.
Hayes said Vermont is a good model to follow for gun rights. It provides gun ownership rights for any citizen who is not a felon who pass a test. The state does not require licenses or limit concealed or open carry.
Hefner said gun-related crimes would not decline by taking away firearms from law-abiding citizens. He advocates for constitutional carry and allowing administrators or teachers to carry firearms.
MOST DIFFICULT PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Davis said, while on duty in Vietnam, he had to bust three fellow military personnel who were selling drugs to soldiers. He said that almost cost him his life but that he did the right thing.
Hayes said he almost failed out of college his freshman year after breezing through high school. He said the experience taught him prioritization of time and the need to double-down efforts on a path to a master's degree.
Hefner faced a budget deficit and political strife when he became a county commissioner. He said the court made tough decisions to cut the budget, including employee positions and benefits and pay cuts for court members.
District 5 includes a large geographic area from Titus County to the northeast, including the cities of Talco and Mount Pleasant to Rains County to the northwest, including Lake Tawakoni and Emory, and Camp (Pittsburg), Morris (Naples and Daingerfield) and Wood (Quitman and Mineola) counties and a large portion of Smith County.
In Smith County, the district includes Hideaway and Lindale to the northeast and covers all of eastern portions of the county, including the cities of Arp and Troup.
The party primaries are March 1. No Democrats have announced as candidates in District 5. If no candidate receives 50 percent plus one vote, there will be a runoff in May.