Billie's Last Convention Summer

The queen of Texas liberals hands over her reign

This year marks Billie McClain Carr's 49th as a Texas Democratic activist, but it will be her last as a member of the Democratic National Committee. Having battled cancer to a draw and wheelchair-bound from hip problems, the 72-year-old longtime leader of Texas liberal Democrats will make a final victory lap as a delegate to next week's state convention in Fort Worth and the national convention in Los Angeles come August.

Carr's retirement also marks the coming of age of a new generation of Democratic officials in Harris County. To replace her on the DNC, Carr's endorsing Sue Lovell. She's a veteran Democratic and gay rights activist who is also the single mother of three adopted sons.

At a raucous meeting of the Democratic Harris County Executive Committee last month, two other new-gen players, public relations exec and gay activist Francisco Sanchez and political consultant Janice Kinchion, beat out opponents in the election for secretary and treasurer of the Harris County party. Attorney Sue Schechter is the county chairman.

The highest-ranking Houston party official is Carl Davis, vice chair of the state Democratic Executive Committee.

The changing of the guard comes as Texas Democrats are at their lowest level of power in this century or the last. While the party still controls the Texas House of Representatives, every statewide and countywide position is in Republican hands. With GOP presidential nominee-to-be George W. Bushtopping the Republican ticket next fall, relief does not appear just around the corner.

Carr had initially planned to endorse Congressman Ken Bentsen's staffer Pat Strongfor her at-large DNC position. Strong decided her duties with Bentsen did not give her the time for the DNC and recommended Lovell. Carr agreed.

"Sue [Lovell is] a good Democrat, liberal and a lesbian," says Carr. "The gays had never really gotten a representative, and I thought it would be nice for Sue to go on and have that group have at least someone representing them as well as us."

According to Carr, there are only six openly gay members of the 440-member DNC, too few to even form a caucus there. Ten elected Texas representatives are on the DNC, plus state party chairman Molly Beth Malcolm and vice chair Davis of Houston. Three other Texans hold appointive committee positions.

Carr entered the DNC on the wave of party reform that began at the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The party voted then to enforce mandatory gender and ethnic balances for state delegations. That move cracked the conservative Democratic backbone at the 1972 confab in Miami and led to the nomination of George McGovern for president.

State DNC members are nominated at the state conventions but are elected at the national gathering. They are responsible for their own expenses, about $3,000 a year, to attend national meetings. The money must be raised from supporters if members don't want to -- or can't -- pay out of their own pockets.

Carr recalls that her first contribution came from a less-than-admirer who wrote, "I am sending this money to get Billie Carr out of town. I wish I could give you more so we could send her for longer and further."

The prospect of succeeding Carr is "a huge honor," says Lovell. "You can't fill those shoes. All you can do is hope that you can continue her tradition of standing up for people who have no one else to stand up for them."

Carr was prepared to retire two years ago, when she faced chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer that is now in remission. But she says an old friend, one whose rise parallels her own in the national party, persuaded her to stick around.

"I really wanted to not run last time," recalls Carr, "but the president said, 'Why don't you stay as long as I'm around? And then we'll both go out at the same time.' So I said, 'Okay.' "

Bill Clinton and Carr have been on the same wavelength since they met in the early '70s. Clinton was a 26-year-old worker in the McGovern campaign in Texas and was nursing some grandiose plans of his own. Over plates of Tex-Mex at Houston restaurants, Clinton eerily and accurately described his political future to Carr.

"He said, 'One day when I finish school, I'll go back to Arkansas and run for office, and maybe be governor. Someday, I'm going to run for president, and when I do, I want you to help me.' I just laughed and said, 'Oh, okay, just give me a call.' "

After his defeat in a second campaign to be Arkansas governor, an undeterred Clinton called to tell Carr he was running again. "How am I ever going to be president if I don't get re-elected?" he explained.

During the impeachment fight, Carr says, she never had any doubts Clinton would survive, though she did give him a piece of her mind at a White House meeting. "I told him he did a dumb thing and I hoped Hillary would hit him upside the head with a two-by-four."

Carr remains confounded by the meteoric rise of the younger Bush. One of her few serious fallings-out with the late lieutenant governor Bob Bullock occurred when he lent a helping hand to Bush in his first term as governor.

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