By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
In a darkened side room off the Crystal Ballroom at the Rice Hotel, the crinkled, bearded face of former Texas lieutenant governor Bill Hobby glowed ghostly in the moon-like aura of a computer screen. Midnight had come and gone, but Hobby and a tense, mostly silent circle of campaign staff continued to scan a scroll of county election returns searching for 40,000 outstanding votes that could resuscitate -- or provide a dignified burial -- for son Paul Hobby's faltering bid for state comptroller. Hobby pere, a former state political master turned computer geek, practically pugged his nose against the CRT, totally absorbed in the columns of figures and percentages.
Paul, the boyish looking 38-year-old former federal prosecutor and scion to the Hobbys' 20th century legacy of Houston leadership, had earlier seemed to be the Democrats' possible lone star in an otherwise uniform Republican rout of all statewide offices and Harris County-wide positions on the ballot. His operatives spread the message through the packed ballroom that early trends looked good, with Hobby only a few points behind opponent Carole Keeton Rylander and doing better than comptroller and Democratic lieutenant governor hopeful John Sharp and attorney general candidate Jim Mattox. The GOP was on its way to the peak of a three-decade process, transforming a one-party state from Democrat to Republican. On a night when Democrats celebrated numerous national victories that may save President Bill Clinton from impeachment, the Republican dominance in Texas had never been stronger. But there was still the possibility that Hobby might be the one seed to survive the sweep.
Earlier in the evening Hobby closed to within 6,000 votes of Rylander, but as the night wore on his momentum stalled and the gap began expanding. Hobby was ready to throw in the towel and concede with a million votes left to be counted, but his staff advised caution.
So the candidate made a brief, informal speech to a thinning crowd in the ballroom chilled by the spreading knowledge that time -- and votes-- were running out. "I can tell you from the bottom of our hearts," said Hobby, with his wife Janet and two of his three children around him, "we never anticipated how positive this experience would be." Hobby's voice quavered and he stopped, then started again with an uncompleted thought about his campaign staff and volunteers. "If you ever need to rent a big family in a big fight, [one that will] ride long distance, do underwater demolition, whatever you call for ... " Without conceding, he concluded, "Go home, drive carefully, hug your kids."
Back in the side room, the diehard vote counters, ramrodded by campaign manager Michael Moore, focused on Travis County, where liberal boxes in gay state Representative Glenn Maxey's district were reputed to be out. Then the spotlight turned to the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso. In a political emergency room, the doctors searched for a bolt of electricity to revive a fading patient. But the remaining boxes were too small and scattered to provide the needed margin for a predawn comeback. Having known the outcome for some time, a few staffers drifted out for a smoke, a drink, or plenty of both.
Within a few minutes, Paul Hobby began quietly embracing one person after another in the room and then on the balcony outside. If this is the future of the state Democratic party, it would just have to wait a few more years.
Hobby has an estimated personal wealth of $50 million and a newly built family nest in River Oaks, so his is a comfortable immediate future. Having thrown $2 million of his own cash into the race and made a respectable showing, he's still in a good position to run again for state office, presumably in a climate with more favorable political winds for Democrats. Hobby had really wanted to run for lieutenant governor this time around anyway, but was muscled out of the race by Comptroller Sharp. According to political sources close to Sharp, the comptroller is now likely to abandon state politics and concentrate on making money. Since Hobby does not have that problem, he could inherit the helm of the next statewide Democratic ticket, or perhaps political soul mate Al Gore's Texas effort in 2000, by default.
In an e-mail parry to a request for an interview several days later, Hobby wrote back: "I am trying to get people thanked properly and spend time with family. In the near term I have to look at my business options, and work to pay off my debt. I'm not thinking any farther than that."
Early in the evening, a crew of musicians played chamber instrumentals in the anteroom, and matrons modeled sequined American flag vests and sweaters in the crowd. U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison happily chatted in English with a Spanish-language station television reporter, while county chairman Gary Polland bustled about, touting the coming GOP sweep to anyone who would listen.
County Judge Robert Eckels pored over a computer web site with local election returns. The first gush of data on absentee and mail votes pretty much said it all concerning the judicial contests on the ballot. Every Republican with a Democratic opponent drew between 58 and 62 percent of the early vote, an advantage that would narrow but never disappear. The result is that, of the entire local judiciary, only one Democrat, District Judge Katie Kennedy, retains her seat, and that's because she wasn't up for re-election. At least there will be one more sitting duck incumbent on the ballot for Republican consultants to sharpen their carving knives on in 2000. After that, if the current electoral environment persists, Republicans desiring incumbent flesh will have to eat their own in the primary.