Brave Talk, Bleak Prospects

Outgunned county Dems feast before famine in 2000

It was obvious that super political consultant and flamboyant self-caricature James Carville hadn't spent much time on the ground in Texas lately. Windmilling his arms and raising his voice to a preacherly shout, the bald-headed keynote speaker at the annual Democratic Johnson-Rayburn Dinner in Houston last week exhorted his pre-Thanksgiving audience to arms with "We have sooooo much to be thankful for."

What do you mean "we," inside-the-Beltway paleface?

Given the facts of political life in the Lone Star State, only a Democratic sadomasochist could have reason for rejoicing, but since Carville is married to acid-tongued Republican Mary Matalin, he just might qualify. Mr. War Room entertained the gathering with a defense of his boss, President Bill Clinton ("forgive the bad thing and remember the good friend") and took potshots at GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush (if they taught masturbation in schools, "it might be the only thing your governor could make an A in").

Carville came to praise a local party still in retreat.
Steve Lowry
Carville came to praise a local party still in retreat.

Carville mercifully failed to enumerate all the "blessings" that have befallen Texas Democrats in recent years, including the extermination of all elected party members at the state and Harris County levels.

The handful of remaining Democratic judges here are in the predicament of those fabled prehistoric creatures that supposedly hide out in remote jungles, mountains and lochs, hoping no Republican comes along to run against them and administer the Darwinian coup de grace.

The dawning of the 21st century won't likely offer any immediate relief to Texas Democrats either, with popular Governor Bush the odds-on favorite to head the Republican national ticket. Even the grand doyenne of the Harris County party, Billie Carr, who cheered Carville on at the dinner, cautions there will be a few more years of darkness before any dawn.

"I tell my candidates that the heads of the ticket, president or governor, are like the tugboats pulling the down-ballot races," she says. Next year the good ship Bush is likely to be a battleship pushing a tide of votes that may ripple all the way to dogcatcher. While district races are not so susceptible to the phenomenon, it impacts anyone running statewide or countywide.

Carr is boot-tough, just back from radiation therapy for cancer, which she says is now in remission. After quipping that all the radiation did "was knock the red out of my hair," she promises to be on the campaign trail next year for the candidates of her beloved party. Immediate victories, however, are not in the forecast.

"The thing about politics is change doesn't come about real fast," says Carr. She learned that lesson the hard way, fighting for decades to get her liberal wing of the party represented at the state and national levels. Then the dominant conservative faction splintered off, with power players such as former governor John Connally, Senator Phil Gramm and former congressman Kent Hance bolting to the GOP.

Carr's liberals and progressives inherited the state Democratic Party, but not the positions of power personified by former president Lyndon Johnson and legendary House speaker Sam Rayburn. For the Houston dinner, the very invocation of the names of these Democratic giants spotlighted just how far the Texas party has fallen since their passing.

To be sure, there were some hopeful signs for the 600 or so attendees at the Hyatt Regency affair, a three-fold increase over the previous year. The event raised about $80,000 for the cash-short local party, and the crowd was peppered with younger grassroots activists rather than fat-cat contributors. Those new party enthusiasts better have the patience of Carr, because the Democrats are so far down that it may take till 2004 before they can expect to win anything countywide.

How the party reached its current nadir is a matter of dispute. Liberal Carr figures Republicans learned to adopt Democratic techniques while her own party failed to embrace evolving campaign technologies.

After the defection of conservative Democrats, Carr says, "Republicans took a page out of our book. They began to do grassroots politics, find their people and tell them, 'There's nothing wrong with being a Republican. Stand up and be counted.' "

Meanwhile, the Democrats failed to capitalize on their support base among minorities and women by not offering candidates that could excite those voting blocs, opines Carr. In 1998 the party candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and comptroller were all white males.

"The people that represent the Democratic Party were not on the ballot," she notes.

One of the candidates who did run emceed the Johnson-Rayburn affair but has a take that is very different from Carr's. Houstonian Paul Hobby made a strong race for comptroller against Carole Keeton Rylander. But he could not overcome the repercussions from Bush's rout of former land commissioner Garry Mauro, a liberal with strong ties to Clinton.

According to Hobby, the Texas party's influence shriveled as it began to be seen as a reflection of national Democratic positions emphasizing big government and liberal policies.

A moderate with the appeal -- and finances -- to run statewide if Bush leaves the state scene, Hobby figures the best chance for Democrats is with candidates who run as individuals and can counter the unpalatable image Texans have of national Democrats.

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