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Over in Texas Tuesday, while minorities stood in line for hours to vote, state Rep. Harold Dutton from Houston faced the most competitive primary challenge of his almost 35 years in office. Texas is one of 10 states that use a primary runoff system, which means that if more than two candidates are running, the winner must receive 50 percent of the vote, plus one. Dutton fell a few points shy of the required majority and will advance to a runoff election in May with Houston City Council member Jerry Davis, who came in second. Here's where the weirdness develops: The candidate who came in third with 20 percent of the vote might not actually exist in the material world.

Natasha Ruiz performed pretty well for a candidate who was nonexistent on the campaign trail, and there's increasing evidence Ruiz herself literally doesn't exist. This really annoys Richard Bonton, who came in last with just 9 percent of the vote. Poor Bonton ran for the seat in 2018, as well. He managed 34 percent against incumbent Dutton, who easily cleared 50 percent and avoided a runoff. Now Bonton is losing to possibly imaginary candidates. This is the electoral version of that dream you have where you show up for class or work without your pants.

BONTON: There's definitely something fishy going on. You have a person with no ground work, no community service, no nothing. … You look up Natasha Ruiz — there's nothing.

www.youtube.com

Bonton isn't just full of sour grapes. Dutton hired a private investigator to look into this and the trail leads to a "Natasha Nicole Demming." It's Demming's voter registration record with Harris County, Texas, that matches the official paperwork "Natasha Ruiz" filed when starting her very much implausible candidacy.

Wednesday, ABC 13 called the phone number "Ruiz" filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. Natasha Demming answered. She claimed she hadn't run for office at all and was a truck driver from Colorado. That's an impressive biography. I'm tired of politicians who actually run for office. The fact that Demming isn't even from Texas gives her a fresh perspective that Dutton lacks after four decades in the Texas House of Representatives and even longer as a real person.

Official documents obtained by ABC-13 show that "Natasha Demming Ruiz" paid the $750 filing fee in cash. She listed her occupation as "teacher," which in itself doesn't discount that she's also a truck driver (we pay teachers terribly). "Ruiz" or whoever she is filed her candidacy on the last day of eligibility, December 9. The Democratic Party admitted to its shame that things were "so hectic" that day that no one actually took "Ruiz's" picture. The signature on the Treasurer document is different from the filing document. It's a big mess.

Someone with the names "Natasha Demming" does spend time at the address the "candidate" gave. Demming insists she hasn't lived in Houston for years, but she is registered to vote at her grandmother's address. She seems to have no idea how she wound up running for office and publicly humiliating Bonton.

DUTTON: We have never seen [Ruiz], we never talked to them, they never showed up, they never had a sign. They don't seem to be a real person.

Texas House District 142 is majority minority. Only 13 percent of the population is white. Thirty-eight percent is black, and 46 percent is Hispanic. A cynical and dishonest person might run a fake candidate with a Hispanic-seeming surname. It's a variation of the "name recognition" con used in the Eddie Murphy film The Distinguished Gentleman. However, that was a bad movie I saw at a dollar movie house in college. This actually happened. A candidate with no yard signs and who never showed up at a single campaign event somehow received 2,597 votes in this election.

Dutton is reportedly considering legal action, and he's still prepared to compete in the runoff against Davis. Voter turnout for Texas runoffs is appalling. In 2018, turnout decreased 60 percent from the March primaries to the May runoffs. Two state House incumbents lost their seats in runoffs. Let's hope Dutton has better luck. And please buy a drink or something for Bonton if you see him.

[Texas Tribune / ABC - 13]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).

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