Crashing the Grand Old Party

Dolly McKenna is the GOP candidate for the 25th District. But will Republicans vote for her?

At 9:45 a.m., congressional candidate Dolly Madison McKenna looks like she's died and gone to heaven. She's on the second stop of her "Cost of Ken Bentsen Day," a mission designed to show that her Democratic opponent is a cog in Big Government, which mindlessly crushes small businesses. And here in La Porte, at Gringo's Mexican Restaurant, owner Russell Ybarra is talking avocados.

Avocados! The heart and soul of guacamole, crucial to any combo plate, and suddenly an object of McKenna's deregulatory passion. Ybarra tells her that in winter, he must pay scandalous prices for second-rate avocados from California, even though Mexico is awash in cheap, high-quality fruit. Never mind NAFTA, he laments. Import regulations -- supported, of course, by California growers -- still bar Mexican avocados from the United States, unless they've been turned to pulp and their pits have been removed. But as any guacamole maker knows, without the pits, the pulp turns an icky brown.

At a restaurant table, McKenna sips coffee and scribbles notes as her press secretary, Mindy Tucker, snaps photos with a disposable Kodak. Ybarra is suitably picture-perfect. He's young, handsome and Hispanic (an important swing vote); he owns his own business; and he's located outside the Loop, in a part of the 25th Congressional District where, before she embarked on a life of politics, the refined, New York-bred McKenna rarely ventured.

McKenna, too, is highly photogenic. In the first round of the court-ordered special election for Bentsen's seat, she positioned herself at "the sensible center." She doesn't use that phrase much anymore, now that her party's right wing has threatened to abandon her, but she continues to look like a female version of the patrician blue bloods who once ruled the GOP. Her high-maintenance hair is blond, with just enough gray to hint at maturity; her conservative dress and jacket are a camera-friendly red; and her jewelry -- a heavy gold chain and matching earrings -- is obviously real. She does not quote the Bible. There's no chrome fish symbol on the back of her van. And there is no wildness in her eyes. She looks like the investment banker she used to be -- someone who knows which fork to use, who reads the Wall Street Journal and who cares more about the Fed than about fetuses.

McKenna's golden moment with Ybarra fades quickly. Beside him at the table is his friend Jack Howard, a white good old boy, the owner of a local billboard company -- precisely the kind of voter who's been giving McKenna fits. With a trouble-making grin, he asks, "How do you feel about the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution?"

McKenna has heard the question before. The Tenth -- the states' rights amendment -- is beloved by militia devotees and talk-radio callers, who construe it to mean that the federal government has wrongfully grasped all sorts of power. "I like all the amendments," she responds diplomatically. "States should be able to do things."

Howard doesn't settle for such lukewarm mushiness. He badgers her for a while, not accepting her assurances that yes, she really believes that the federal government needlessly intrudes on citizens' lives. "So," he says, "if you're gonna abandon the Tenth Amendment, what's the next thing you'll abandon? What about the Second?"

McKenna responds crisply: "I think everybody has the right to own a gun."
"Why?" asks the geezer.
"Why?" echoes McKenna.

"Why?!" he repeats. "When you get elected, you're gonna get asked that. And if you don't have an answer, the Bradys and all, they're gonna be all over you like a duck on a June bug."

The Second Amendment, he lectures, was written because the founding fathers believed that the American people needed guns to protect themselves against the federal government.

Mindy Tucker quietly tells her boss that time's up. McKenna says her good-byes.

"Don't let 'em do away with the Constitution!" exhorts Howard. McKenna smiles, but grimly. At least he's on her side.

Driving her van to another fact-finding visit, McKenna explains that Bentsen has been weakened by the redistricting that resulted from a federal appeals court decision rejecting the race-based configurations of adjacent districts. The new, reconstituted 25th District is far more Republican than it used to be, she explains; the African-American enclave of northeast Fort Bend County was cut out, while wealthy whites of West U were added. When her pollsters added those changes to the rest of the district -- Alief, Meyerland, Southampton, Bellaire, the Medical Center, the Astrodome area, Hobby Airport, Pasadena, Deer Park and La Porte -- they predicted a slim Republican majority.

McKenna didn't enter this spring's Republican primary, but after the federal judges' decision overturned the primary results, she smelled blood in the water -- as did nine other challengers to Bentsen. Of the 11 candidates in the special election, Bentsen placed first, with a little more than a third of the vote, while McKenna surprised pollsters by placing second, with 17 percent -- squeaking past Bentsen's nearest Democratic challenger, Beverley Clark, who won 16.9 percent.

Making it to a runoff is a high-water mark in McKenna's political career. This is the third time she's sought the 25th District seat: In 1992, she was the GOP nominee but was handily defeated by Democratic incumbent Mike Andrews; in 1994, she didn't even win her party's primary. If she loses next week's runoff to Bentsen, she may lose with it her last shred of credibility as a candidate, and thereafter be consigned to the political oblivion reserved for perennial seekers of office.

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