The Day the Democrats Died

Learning to love the one-party state

At least in the Heights, the new process of voting Republican was relatively painless. For the first time in 35 years as an eligible voter and in a decade at the same residence, this Houston native deserted the traditional Democratic primary stop. That meant bypassing Jones Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Eighth Street and slipping into the First Baptist Church Heights Fellowship Hall.

Holding down the fort in the combined precinct 351 (my stomping grounds in the rainbow-hued west Heights) and 353 (to the east and slightly older, whiter and more affluent) was the husband-and-wife GOP precinct worker team of Tim and Sharon Hattenbach. Both could pass for ex-hipsters and certainly would make any Democratic convert feel right at home.

They even graciously invited me to attend the precinct convention after the polls closed. But since party switching must be taken in small measures to avoid a fatal overdose, I prudently declined.

It was D day -- the day the Democrats at least temporarily died in Houston. If you wanted to have any say, no matter how feeble, in the choice of judges, sheriff or top prosecutor in Harris County, the only way to go was GOP. With George W. Bush heading the Republican ticket in a looming general election, the odds of any Democrat winning countywide, even the lone surviving Donkey Judge Eric Andell, seemed longer than ever.

Like the political dark ages in Texas from the end of the post-Civil War reconstruction era through the '60s, there was only one party's primary where the real decisions of power were made. Back then, it was the Democrats. Their dominant conservative wing warred with a steadily growing moderate and liberal faction that finally won power once blacks and Hispanics got the vote. Democratic conservatives bolted to become Republicans, who now hold sway even if the GOP is already showing its own intra-party fissures between westside religious conservatives and the pragmatics who hold office.

The Democratic slide accelerated in 1996, when the GOP had twice as many voters (161,946) as Democrats (85,211) entering polling places. In 1998 the county's Democratic voters sank to an all-time low of 32,213. Last week there was a record imbalance, with three times as many Republican voters (165,958) as Democrats (56,168). Turnout among Democrats for their primaries has also declined steadily since 1988, when 15 percent showed up at the polls. By 1998 it had dwindled to less than 2 percent, and barely perked above 3 percent last week.

My experience was duplicated all over town. It seemed like everyone wanted to sleep beside the pods. A lawyer friend known for his Democratic allegiances ventured into the River Oaks polling place at St. Anne's Catholic Church on Westheimer. "I went there to hijack!" he declares proudly, before displaying the typical switcher's paranoia. "They all looked at me like I was up to something when I went in and asked for my ballot."

Outside the holy environs, Republican campaign workers scuffled as one renegade tried to pass out flyers smearing John Culberson.The material accused the District 7 congressional candidate of being a Bill Clinton-like sleaze. "It's the worst insult there is, apparently, at the 'R' primary," reports my pal, a steadfast Clinton supporter.

A journalist friend declared his intention to vote GOP just to "pull it" for Arizona Senator John McCain, even though the Straight Talk Express had lost its motor and had its tires stripped at "Super Tuesday" the previous week.

Of course, not all such conversions take. Don Stowers, an energy newsletter editor and longtime Democrat in a gentrifying neighborhood near Bellaire and Stella Link, planned to vote GOP, but got cold feet at the last minute.

"When I walked in and saw what the people looked like who were voting in the Republican primary versus the paltry few on the Democratic side," says Stowers, "I just couldn't bring myself to do it."

And what did they look like? "There were just some stuffed shirts, whereas the Democratic people were just more laid-back and comfortable," Stowers says. "This neighborhood, especially with the new people moving in with the big houses, has become increasingly Republican."

A high-profile Rice academic retained his political monogamy this time around, but just barely.

"I tried to, but I just couldn't walk to the right," confesses the professor. "I really wanted to vote in the Republican primary, but I just couldn't. I've never done it."

Former city councilman Vince Ryan, a Democrat, also faced down the devil. "I was tempted to vote in the Republican primary, to vote on some of the judicial races in which there are no Democrats in the fall," explains Ryan. He says he stuck with the Democratic primary "so the numbers look good." That didn't take long -- there were no contested races on the ballot in his precinct.

Plenty of his fellow party members did defect. Democratic consultant Nancy Sims says her own husband, and lots of Democratic friends, took a walk on the wild side.

"There was nothing to vote for," says Sims of the paltry Democratic ballot. "Who's D.A. and who's judge are important, especially to the politically aware people. They felt to have any impact on decision-making they had to vote Republican."

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