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Senate runoff contenders MJ Hegar, Royce West clash over Democratic credentials, ethics

West questions why Hegar gave money to GOP incumbent Sen. John Cornyn, while Hegar calls West a career, millionaire politician.

During the most contentious debate in their Democratic race for Senate, Royce West on Monday challenged MJ Hegar’s credentials as a Democrat, sparking an exchange that found Hegar casting her rival as a career, millionaire politician.

The sparks flew when KVUE-TV Austin political reporter Ashley Goudeau, who moderated the debate for the station, allowed the candidates to ask each other a question. Hegar asked West about how to form a unified front against their potential Republican rival, incumbent Sen. John Cornyn. But West, a state senator from Dallas, countered by asking Hegar why in 2011 she contributed money to Cornyn’s political campaign -- and why she voted in the 2016 presidential primary.

Early voting for the July 14 runoff began Monday and continues through July 10.

“Well, I gotta tell you, I’m disappointed, because I think that this is why people tune out from politics and why they are really tired, why we have low voter turnout,” Hegar told West after his question. “You know that that’s not true, and you’re intentionally misleading voters, and Texans have a very sensitive BS meter. They know what you’re doing.”

Hegar said she gave Cornyn’s campaign $25 because she couldn’t get a meeting with him, suggesting that he would only meet with donors.

“That is when I made the commitment to run for office because it’s disgusting that you should have to write a check for $25 to get a meeting with your representatives,” Hegar said. “It’s a broken system. It’s a system you’re a part of, by the way, and that you’ve been upholding.”

Hegar, a former Air Force combat veteran from Round Rock, then took another shot at West.

“We have money in politics,” she said. “We have politicians frankly, like you Royce, who become millionaires in office, and have spent their time legislating in their own best interest instead of the interests of their constituents. I’m done with it, I’m tired of it. And so is Texas.”

Hegar also said West has refused to divest his financial portfolio if elected to the Senate, a charge that West denied. He said he hasn’t been asked whether he would do so.

West has represented southern Dallas in the Texas Senate since 1993.

“I didn’t want to go down this road, Royce,” Hegar ended.

West, who has had a lucrative career as a bond attorney and has done work for local governments in Texas, took exception to Hegar’s charge.

“I’m from the projects at Dallas, OK,” West said. “If you’re taking a shot at me because I’ve been a successful lawyer, basically providing job opportunities for people in my community, then take that shot. I have no problems with it.”

West then stepped up his attack on Hegar for voting in the 2016 GOP primary, which she called a protest vote against then presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“People have a right to know that if you have supported John Cornyn in the past, in terms of giving him money. How will he use that against you?” West said.

“People have a right to know also that you voted in a Republican primary,” he added, saying that her vote in the GOP primary came at a time when Republicans were trying to abolish the Affordable Care Act and curb women’s rights.

The argument boiled over into the candidates’ closing statements.

“The question is whether you need a true Democrat in office, and whether you want someone at this moment in our history, where we really need to have someone that has the experience to deal with the issues of Washington, bring fresh ideas,” West said. “That’s Royce West.”

Hegar had the last word.

“Experience does matter, and I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of career politicians condescending to me that my 12 years in uniform bleeding for our constitution on foreign soil, five years working in health care or my experience as a mom of a 3- and a 5-year-old are not important enough to consider,” she said.

“Unfortunately, I think John Cornyn is the person who won tonight because we’re allowing them to divide us instead of unify us,” the former Air Force helicopter pilot said. “We have to stand together. If we’re going to deliver the kind of reform that we need, we can’t do this politics as usual.”

Cornyn campaign manager John Jackson said the debate was a “train wreck.”

Gromer Jeffers Jr., political writer. The Howard University graduate and Chicago native has covered four presidential campaigns and written extensively about local, state and national politics. Before The News, he was a reporter at The Kansas City Star and The Chicago Defender. You can catch Gromer every Sunday at 8:30 a.m. on NBC 5's Lone Star Politics.

gjeffers@dallasnews.com @gromerjeffers
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