No one expected the Jewish Democrat from New York City to win the 1990 race for Texas state House District 49, especially with the incumbent Republican running attack ads that asked Austin voters if they wanted Elliott Naishtat — “a liberal social worker from New York City” — as their next representative.
“Until I was elected, it was written in the Texas Constitution that if you’re from New York City, you can’t serve in the Texas Legislature,” said Naishtat, jokingly. “When I ran, a lot of people said, ‘You don’t have a chance, you’re from New York City, you’re a Yankee, you’re a carpetbagger.’”
Naishtat went on to defy expectations in November, defeating the incumbent Republican by more than 10 percentage points. Since his 1990 win, he has not faced anything more than minimal opposition in any of his primaries or November general elections.
After serving for more than two decades, Naishtat unexpectedly decided in December not to seek re-election for his seat in 2016, despite there being no possibility of a competitive challenger from either party. After his decision — prompted by health concerns and a desire to pass the torch to the next generation — the number of candidates to replace him quickly grew as seven Democrats and no Republicans announced they would make a run for the seat.
“There are a few who stand out a little bit more than a couple of the others, but I’m very pleased with the level of quality and competence, the energy, the passion, of everyone who is running,” Naishtat said.
The seven candidates have all attempted to channel Naishtat’s passion and advocacy for public health policy, including women’s healthcare and improving mental health services.
“As an Austinite knowing that I could count on him to do the right thing, it was very reassuring to know that he would lead on these issues,” said Gina Hinojosa, one of the candidates running for HD 49.
Throughout his entire career as a representative and as vice-chair of the Public Health Committee, Naishtat has sponsored legislation advocating for underserved communities throughout the state.
“I was looking forward to trying to address many of the same issues that we tried to address during the heyday of the War on Poverty, but on a different battlefield, so to speak,” Naishtat said.
With HD 49 encompassing all of West Campus and UT, Naishtat said it has been an honor to have consistently fought for issues close to students, including the campus carry bill passed last session that allows concealed carry of firearms on campuses. Naishtat, a strong opponent of guns on campuses, helped pass a last-minute amendment to the campus carry bill giving college presidents the power to enact gun-free zones.
“He’s kind of an institution in Austin,” said Kiefer O’Dell, Naishtat’s former intern and president emeritus of University Democrats.
While serving in the legislature for so many years, Naishtat has had the unique opportunity to forge numerous, strong relationships with constituents of all ages throughout his district.
“One thing that is really impressed upon me as I talk to residents across the district is just how many people have a close, personal connection to Rep. Naishtat,” said Heather Way, one of the candidates running for HD49. “It’s really incredible how many lives he’s touched across the district in these 25 years.”
For Naishtat, it has grown increasingly difficult to pass meaningful legislation and reforms without the help of some members of the Republican Party who still try to take a bipartisan approach to governing, especially as the number of Democrats dwindle in the legislature because of redistricting and a growing conservative electorate.
“I’ve always found Elliott to be a very respectful person, willing to listen to both sides of the issue, obviously having his perspective on what would be best for the State of Texas but always doing it in a very respectful manner,” said Rep. John Zerwas (R-Katy). “Although Rep. Naishtat and I disagree on a number of issues, … we’ve never had our relationship suffer as a consequence of that.”
Naishtat, despite his bipartisan approach to legislating, said he has always tried to be a “visionary” progressive, frequently filing progressive pieces of legislation — like domestic partnership benefits — that he knew wouldn’t get out of committee but would inevitably become law.
“Elliott Naishtat is my role model in the sense that he was an effective voice for Austin without compromising his core liberal values,” said Huey Rey Fischer, one of the candidates running for HD 49.
While he won’t have the opportunity to serve in the legislature once members reconvene in January 2017, Naishtat said he has a few words of advice for whichever Democrat wins the primary, which places him or her in the minority party in the House of Representatives.
“I’m not saying become best friends with every Republican, but you have to work across the aisle,” Naishtat said. “Be persistent, be nice, believe in incremental change, and always maintain your sense of humor.”