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Thirty or so residents clustered in a cozy living room last week in the friendly forest of Kingwood, tittering as First Court of Appeals Justice Eric Andell performed his Democrat-on-the-gallows routine.
"I'm not even an endangered species," the 54-year-old jurist wailed. He used the same theatrical flair he often displayed during a court-reality TV show he hosted several years ago. "Taxonomically, I'm extinct. I have no one to mate with."
Engineer Roy Hearnsberger and wife Sue, both Republicans, opened their home for a pre-election meet-and-greet buffet. The thin, balding, blue-eyed Andell hoped to cherry-pick a few GOP votes in his campaign.
He jokingly apologized for breaking the heavily Republican bedroom community's political barriers. "They stopped me at Kingwood and 59, and I'm here on a visa," he deadpanned through waves of appreciative laughter. "Normally Democrats have to be outta here by eight-thirty, but they extended it by 30 minutes, so I gotta be outta here by nine."
Andell had ventured up the Eastex Freeway to the home base of his opponent, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Terry Lee Jennings, on the sort of raid he's been conducting into Republican forums and neighborhoods for the past several years. One of the last two surviving Democratic justices in Harris County, Andell has to convince GOP voters to cross party lines and wade deep into the ballot to punch position 75 so he can keep his job. Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore is expected to lose Harris County by an eight- to ten-point margin, so Andell has to find that many crossover voters to reach 50 percent. In the process, he's trying his best to parlay his ubiquitous presence on community boards and projects into nonpartisan appeal.
"I've already voted, and your name was not easy to find," crowed one older Republican in the audience. "I put your sign up in my yard because my deer-hunting buddy told me you were a good guy." Andell is hoping a lot of his old friends broadcast the same message across political lines.
The judge has both clung to his party identity and run from it. He says he refused to switch parties when GOP county chairman Gary Pollandmade the same overtures that caused First Court colleague Murry Cohen to jump the political fence. Andell was assured that he would be protected in getting through the GOP primary against challenges from the right, he says. (Cohen, whose wife works for Planned Parenthood, sailed through the primary this year after bumping a fringe opponent off the ballot and hiring a Polland associate as his campaign manager.)
After the presentation, host Hearnsberger admitted he's puzzled as to why his longtime friend hasn't changed parties. "I have asked him, but I'm not sure I got too clear an answer," says Hearnsberger, who's chairman of a local hospital board, and met Andell through the judge's involvement in Kingwood-area community projects. "But I guess he has his reasons, and I've never questioned Eric about anything he does outside of being a judge."
Candidate Jennings, on the other hand, is doing his best to seal Andell in a partisan lockbox and throw away the keys. A Jennings campaign flyer banners: "Did you know there is only one liberal Democrat judge sitting on the bench in Harris County left to be defeated? Help defeat the last liberal Democrat on the First Court of Appeals."
Andell touts his high bar poll ratings, his almost nonexistent backlog of cases and two citations as appellate judge of the year. Jennings surveys the same record and sees a do-nothing judge who issues fewer opinions than most of his colleagues. He has put out a directory of Andell opinions claiming the judge's rulings reveal "a strong liberal judicial activist philosophy in favor of criminal defendants and civil plaintiffs."
Jennings says the critique should not be taken as an indication of how he would have ruled in each case. That qualification may be dictated by Texas judicial canons, which prohibit candidates from discussing their positions on individual cases.
The morning after the Kingwood affair, Andell breakfasted on coffee and a bagel at Katz's Deli on lower Westheimer. He addressed the question, Why doesn't he switch parties and make his judicial life a whole lot simpler -- and longer?
"I wouldn't have my integrity," answered Andell slowly. "Maybe I'd have a free pass, but not with integrity."
Andell claims he has remained in the same party because when governors Mark White and Ann Richardsappointed him to vacant benches, he pledged to them he would seek re-election only as a Democrat. He was unopposed for the appellate judgeship in 1994, one year after his appointment to that bench.
Asked whether his party affiliation or his judicial position was more important to him, Andell replied, "Being a judge. Because I don't view my judicial post as being a Democrat or Republican. I never have."
Until this election, Andell says, party affiliation was never an issue. With the nearly all-Republican judiciary, he believes judicial impartiality in the county is in jeopardy. As an example, the judge points to the recent attempt by Harris County Republican officials to pressure Justice John Anderson. They wanted Anderson to change his 14th Court of Appeals opinion overturning the state law banning sodomy between consenting adults of the same sex.