Ron Wright is a political veteran running to join Congress’s league of conservative outsiders — up against a field of political newcomers.
Yet it's Wright who's attracting attention from the well-heeled conservative D.C. outside groups known for opposing their own party and aggressively seeking to slash spending and reducing the role of government.
Eleven Republicans and five Democrats are seeking the seat that will be vacated when long-time Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, retires at the end of this year. Texas voters go to the polls Tuesday. They’ll likely have to vote again in this race if no candidate gets 50 percent, triggering a May runoff.
No one in the crowded Republican field comes close to rivaling Wright’s political resume.
He worked for Barton for more than a decade, including two years as his Washington chief of staff. Wright has held several local party leadership roles in Tarrant County, and touts endorsements from many local officials.
He served on Arlington’s city council and as mayor pro tempore, a non-partisan role. He’s currently in his second elected term as Tarrant County’s tax assessor-collector.
If he makes it to Washington, Wright has pledged to join the hardcore conservative Freedom Caucus, a group of nearly three dozen lawmakers who rail against the political establishment, at times roiling their party’s leadership.
“Sometimes the most courageous vote a member can cast is a no vote,” said Wright told the Star-Telegram Tuesday. “Some ideas really are that bad.”
The district has shown plenty of disdain for the political establishment in recent years. It includes urban parts of Tarrant County, which narrowly chose President Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, as well as Ellis and Navarro counties, which backed Trump by substantial margins — 73 and 71 percent, respectively.
Though Republicans now control the White House and have majorities in both chambers, Wright said: “That doesn’t mean conservatives are in control.”
Barton, a member of the conservative tea party caucus, represented the district for more than three decades.
“When I got elected there were probably 100 members [of both parties] who were in the middle… they got beat or they switched parties,” Barton said in an interview with the Star-Telegram editorial board last week. “It helped make the system work.”
Before Barton announced his decision to retire, following leaked nude photos and Facebook messages, another Republican, Jake Ellzey, 48, was already polling to assess his chances in a primary race against the incumbent.
Ellzey has run once for political office — a failed state House race in 2014 — and is making his lack of political experience a cornerstone of his campaign for Barton’s seat.
In an interview with the Star-Telegram last week, Ellzey pointed to Barton’s support for the Dream Act, which offers a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants, as his motivation for first considering the race. Ellzey said he wasn’t familiar with Trump’s immigration proposal, which offered citizenship to 1.8 million illegal immigrants.
The retired Navy fighter pilot is touting his military experience. At 34, Ellzey said, he was selected from a 5,000-person aircraft carrier to lead tsunami relief efforts after a 2004 earthquake in Sumatra.
“There are a lot of people who had a lot more experience than I did,” said Ellzey. “I’m a war fighter, I’ve been at war... and my most precious experiences have been saving lives.”
Ellzey pledges to serve no more than 10 years if elected, champion term limits in Congress and decline a congressional pension.
He hasn’t met with any of the outside conservative groups. He’s been making the rounds with a different group of Republicans in Texas — local Chambers of Commerce -- and has the endorsement of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Ellzey said he wouldn’t join the Freedom Caucus, in part because he didn’t know any of the members.
Ellzey and Wright have each raised about $100,000 for the race.
Over breakfast in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square Tuesday, Wright described a different part of his resume without being prompted.
“Everything I’ve done in my life has helped me prepare for this moment... but the most important thing was my very first job, on a dairy farm,” said Wright. “Dairy cows have no sense of proprietary, so you have to learn to use a shovel. Nothing prepared me to go to Washington like that did.”
Wright, 64, says he has no plans to seek leadership roles if elected. He called Washington “a great place to work, and a terrible place to live.”
He’d like to serve on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which Barton chaired, but said leadership causes lawmakers to “give up a piece of their soul” to appease more moderate Republicans.
Wright said he’d had a positive meeting with the conservative Club for Growth, which has not endorsed his campaign.
The Club for Growth is involved in the races to replace retiring Texas Republican Reps. Lamar Smith, Sam Johnson, and Jeb Hensarling. All three represent districts considered more conservative than Barton’s.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce isn’t currently involved in any Texas Congressional races, but has left open the possibility of involvement in primary runoffs.
Other Republicans running include Deborah Gagliardi, Mark Mitchell, Troy Ratterree, Mel Hassell, Shawn Dandridge, Kevin Harrison, Ken Cope, Shannon Dubberly and Thomas Dillingham.
Democrats are also engaged in a spirited primary.
Jana Lynne Sanchez, a young Latina public relations expert, has raised about $175,000 for an aggressive anti-Trump campaign that’s attracted attention from Democrats in Washington. Ruby Faye Woolridge, who challenged Barton in 2016, has raised about $75,000, and draws support from one of one her party’s most reliable bases of support, African American Democrats.
Levii R. Shocklee, John W. Duncan and Justin Snider are also running in the Democratic primary.
“It’s time for a change, the current congressman’s been there too long,” Barton joked to the editorial board. “Let’s get a new man in there.”