Representative-elect Gina Calanni sets agenda for the 86th legislative session
The first bill Democrat Gina Calanni, newly elected to replace state Rep. Mike Schofield in House District 132, said she wants to write this upcoming session will take aim at human traffickers and their victims.
Less than a month before the 86th legislative session is set to begin, the representative-elect said she is already in discussions with other local politicians - Democrats and Republicans - on what she believes is a bipartisan issue that tackles a reality many Katy area residents are starting to become of aware of.
Witnessing the exploitation of women, men and children in the greater Houston area compelled her to run for state office, said the 40-year-old mother of three boys.
“If we don’t actually stop the problem and provide a path, then this is only going to continue on,” Calanni said. “Then what? (Human trafficking) is going to surpass the illegal sale of drugs within the next five years. You can sell a human over and over, but you can only sell a drug one time. I’m not OK with that.”
‘More moderate than not’
Calanni edged out incumbent Schofield, who’s held office since 2014, by 113 votes during the Nov. 6 midterm elections, according to official results. Neither candidate broke 50 percent in the race, losing 1,106 votes to Libertarian Daniel Arevalo.
Calanni, a full-time finance director who has never previously held public office, doesn’t credit a “blue wave” for getting her there.
“We put in the work,” Calanni said regarding her campaign efforts, which involved numerous block walks, phone calls and conversations she had with community leaders. “We knew that seat was flip-able.”
Calanni faced stiff opposition in HD 132 with many precincts voting straight ticket , Republican, but 11 of the 32 precincts ultimately voted majority blue, according to data from the Harris County Clerk’s office.
She credits her victory to her willingness to work with politicians on the other side of the political aisle.
“I didn’t run on party politics. I ran on issues,” she said. “School finance reform, property taxes and sex trafficking. Those are the issues that people care about. I don’t represent only Democrats in 132, I also represent Republicans. I will be more moderate than not.”
Tapping into the Rainy Day Fund
Central to Calanni’s campaign were the issues of public school finance reform and rising property taxes. She strongly opposes public funding for charter schools or school vouchers.
The state currently finances 38 percent of public school education, but Calanni thinks that number should be at least 50 percent. She has no problem tapping into the state’s $12.5 billion Rainy Day Fund to address the issue but only if it’s more than a “Band-Aid fix,” she said.
“Our formula is not fixed right now,” she said, adding that property taxes should remain steady. “It’s antiquated and it’s not working.”
As a house freshman, Calanni said she understands that she won’t yet be on a committee, but she is willing to work with other representatives to push a bill that backs teacher raises and a sustainable plan that would help retain public educators.
Calanni also wants to build a reservoir that will supplement Addicks and Barker, which caused most of the flooding in the Katy area during Hurricane Harvey.
“I need to be an advocate for this area, because we are unincorporated and both reservoirs border 132,” she said, adding that in future meetings with the Houston mayor, the Harris Country Flood Control District, the city of Katy and other groups, she wants to ensure that any planning doesn’t leave HD 132 residents out in the cold.
Calanni is coordinating with other members of congress to address human trafficking. Representatives-elect Jared Patterson (R-106) and Jon Rosenthal (D-135) acknowledged they would be looking into preventative measures to human trafficking in the upcoming session.
“It’s the biggest issue we face that gets the least amount press, it seems,” said Patterson, who lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. “I am happy to work with Representative-Elect Calanni or anyone else to address human trafficking. I hear stories regularly about this issue here. I am hopeful that we can come together to beef up resources needed to make our communities safer.”
‘All it takes is one vote’
The night of the Nov. 6 general election, Calanni said she was anxiously awaiting results, watching she knew was going to be a tight race.
The unofficial results came late that night while Calanni lay on the couch next to her campaign manager. She had won by 49 votes. The gap later widened to 97, then 113 votes, where they were later made official by the Commissioner’s Court.
“I posted my (status) because we won,” Calanni said, recalling her social media post the night of the election. All it takes is one vote. But there was this chatter, ‘Are you sure?’”
The same night Schofield posted his own status update about the unofficial election results.
“As it stands right now, the unofficial results have us 49 votes behind,” Schofield said in a Facebook post. “The Harris County Clerk advises me that there are many votes yet to be counted - more absentee ballots and provisional ballots. We will continue to wait for a final vote count.”
As of this day, Schofield has not publicly conceded the HD 132 race to Calanni, choosing instead to avoid the topic altogether on his social media pages. But others in the House have been welcoming, Calanni said.
Even with official results posted on the state secretary’s website and a recent visit to the Capitol where she and other freshman had to pick out their seats for the next session, she’s still reassuring people that she’s “supposed to be here.”
“Yes, it’s official. I feel like I need a sign that says, ‘Yes, I’m supposed to be here,’’ Calanni said. “I won.”
Her biggest accomplishment is being able to tell her three sons - ages 16, 9 and 7 - that hard work does pay off. She’s living proof.
Just three years ago, Calanni was treading water after a divorce, a failed book deal and a broken heart. But she was able to turn it around. In 2017, her romance novella ‘How to Bake the Perfect Pecan Pie’ was featured in a nationwide woman’s magazine, ‘First for Women.’
Today, Calanni is the first woman to ever hold office in HD 132 and the first Democrat in the area since at least more than a decade.
She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in political science from St. Edward’s University in Austin. Before moving to the Katy area in 2009, Calanni worked in various customer-facing financial roles for Wells Fargo. She spent one year as a paralegal in the Travis County Attorney’s office in 2005.