Turkeys (and Other Creatures) On the Ballot

Quick! It's almost Election Day!! Do you know who your candidates are? Check this guide to the mother of all ballots!

First came the water in leaden sheets and raging torrents. Then the pipeline burst and the river burned, sending billowing black columns to the sky and oil slicks to Galveston Bay. And finally, on November 8 in the Year of Our Lord 1994, comes the largest flock of contesting, contentious politicians in the history of Harris County, on a bilingual ballot that includes more than 200 names and more than 90 races on 12 pages. It will give new meaning to the term "down ballot" for those poor aspiring public servants vying for voters' ever-shortening attention spans in the MTV age, as well as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome to masses of voters.

Rumor has it that the proverbial plague of locusts gave up their rightful third place in the autumn disaster trilogy and headed elsewhere, figuring that all the prime television time and billboard space in the city had been snapped up by their human counterparts, desperate for name nourishment of any sort. Some of the brightest and the best have stooped to all sorts of unseemly antics to get public attention. State District Judge Eileen O'Neill, a local feminist heroine for her rulings protecting abortion clinics, listed her name three times in banks of bold headlines on her billboards, and has been opening her campaign talks with the similar repetitive introduction, "I'm Judge Eileen O'Neill, Eileen O'Neill, Eileen O'Neill."

If one of the class acts on the ballot has to employ that type of cornball tactic to pound her name into the public's consciousness, just imagine what sort of stunts have been performed by the candidates who constitute the dregs. (That poor soul who's been lugging the cross on wheels down the shoulder of the Eastex Freeway isn't running for anything, by the way.)

The campaign of another reputable candidate, Republican county judge nominee Robert Eckels, hit on the idea of purchasing ad space on the plastic wrappers that will enclose the November 8 editions of the Chronicle and the Post when they land on subscribers' front lawns, a novel development that has journalists at both papers fuming. But, hey, nowadays the papers' plastic condoms may carry more weight with readers than the editorials. Meanwhile, the freeways around town have blossomed with the billboards of such unknown judicial contenders as Russell Austin, Mary Craft and David Jennings Willis, all trumpeting the usual soporific lines about integrity, experience and quality. Good "American" names, jutting jaws and stern visages are the sum of the visual messages being beamed down to the passing motorist/voter.

A survey conducted by Rice professor Bob Stein in 1988 concluded that voters are usually in the dark when they make their choices in the slew of judicial races on the ballot. "We asked people who they could identify. You were in single digits of people who could identify the (judicial) candidates or rate them," Stein explains. "Everyone knows who George W. Bush or Ann Richards is. If you get down the ballot, if the last name you hear is 'Susan Soussan' as you're walking into the voting booth, it will stay with you." Stein estimates that up to 17 percent of the voters who will start out on the long, long trek to the end of this year's ballot will never finish. An equal number of voters will take the easy route and punch either a straight Democratic, Republican or Libertarian ticket.

Complicating matters for voters who want to make informed choices is the proliferation of "stealth" and "wealth" candidates -- those contenders tucked down on the ballot who've managed to obscure their true philosophical colors or lack of qualifications or shady background, or those whose only base of support is their own pocketbooks. Or both.

Blinded by this blizzard of meaningless billboards and television ads, it's easy to accidentally punch a hole for the numerous nesting gobblers hidden in this mother of all ballots. And that's why we're offering discerning voters our own bipartisan guide to the turkeys on the ballot, for an election in which polls suggest that more voters than ever before are willing to just say no and pull the trigger on incumbents and political wannabes of all stripes. So saddle up for a hunting trip through the electoral woods. By the way, this is a turkey shoot with no bag limits. And lest anyone think we're advocating violence against politicians, rest assured all shots should be taken in the voting booth. Along the way, we'll also identify a few other creatures in this year's political bestiary. They may not be turkeys, but they certainly should be sampled before you swallow them whole.

King Turkey
Our designated "Prime Gobbler" is Judge Dean Huckabee, a Democrat who's seeking re-election to the bench of the 247th District Family Court. For years, critics have portrayed the county's family courts -- which consider divorce, child support and custody cases -- as a good ol' boy network dominated by male judges and the attorneys and court experts to whom they grant lucrative "ad litem" appointments. In a year in which voters seem ready to give the beleaguered system a much-needed infusion of fresh blood, Huckabee stands as one remaining symbol of the Old Order.

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