By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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This week Harris County Democratic Party chair Sue Schechter unveils what party officials hope will be the slate that breaks the Republicans' iron grip on county-wide judgeships. She's recruited the latest crop of candidates with a siren song based on the county's changing demographics, plus an expected surge of Hispanic voters in the coming election.
The last big judicial wipeout for the county occurred in 1994, when Republicans ran the table on their Democratic opponents and virtually exterminated the opposition. Eight years later, a few brave Democrat hopefuls are signing up for the spring primary and banking on the notion that what went around then finally comes back around for them in 2002.
Part of the optimism comes from the election two years ago. One Democratic judge, Eric Andell, broke the 50 percent barrier in Harris County, and narrowly lost based on the vote in the 13 outlying counties of his appellate court district. Other Democratic judicial candidates came within several percentage points of winning even with scant campaign budgets.
University of Houston political scientist Dr. Richard Murray says the recent census confirmed previous projections that the county's Republican base is steadily eroding to the point that the two parties are nearing parity.
"In the last decade we had lost about 95,000 Anglo residents net in Harris County," notes Murray, "while we gained more than 100,000 African-Americans. Since Republicans are very dependent on the Anglo vote and get virtually no black vote, that switch of 100,000 going in opposite directions is quite meaningful."
The second factor is a November ballot that is expected to include two high-profile Hispanic Democrats, gubernatorial contender Tony Sanchez and Houston City Controller Sylvia Garcia, who's running for Precinct 2 county commissioner.
Murray figures that Sanchez, a multimillionaire banker from Laredo, will have plenty of money to work Harris County Hispanics, 60 percent of whom live in Precinct 2. The opportunity to elect the first Hispanic governor and county commissioner could prove a potent inducement to get out the Latino vote.
"We would expect heightened participation," says the professor, "and probably a bit more solid Democratic voting from Hispanics in 2002 because of the particular climate on the ballot."
Last summer, Schechter began meeting with interested lawyers to spread the message that the time was ripe to run for a bench. Criminal defense attorney Mike Charlton organized a group of lawyers to raise money to recruit criminal court candidates and help collect signatures to get them on the primary ballot.
Schechter based her sales pitch on Murray's figures and the vote totals from recent elections.
"We've all looked at the numbers and agree that if you just graph it out, then in 2002 we ought to be pushing across the line," says the Democratic chair. "Now, with no Bush at the top of the ticket, it looks very much like this could be very much like 1994, when Republicans swept out 19 Democratic judicial incumbents."
Some of the recruits, like Al Leal and Ruben Guerrero, are former judges who lost their jobs when the GOP wave swept through the local courthouses. Bruce Mosier ran a strong judicial race two years ago and is seeking a county civil court bench. Mitchell Contreras and Robert Hinojosa hope to ride the expected Hispanic surge to district court benches.
Another candidate, former criminal district judge Werner Voigt, drew the ire of fellow Republicans for his preference for probations, and was defeated in the party primary. Voigt also gained a certain notoriety by fatally shooting a homeless man in April 1997. The derelict was attacking the judge after Voigt tried to retrieve a briefcase stolen by the man on a downtown street. Voigt is back as a retooled Democrat seeking the 183rd District bench occupied by Joan Huffman. In a sign that some Democrats have trouble swallowing Voigt's "conversion," Ira Chenkin will oppose him in the primary.
If Republican judges are sitting ducks in 2002, they have yet to raise warning flags.
GOP consultant Allen Blakemore, who has an extensive stable of jurist clients, scoffs at Schechter's prediction of a Democratic breakthrough.
"I'm proud of Sue Schechter for finally doing her job as party chairman to convince some people to run," snipes Blakemore. "But she may be liable for deceptive trade practices. She will lead these poor souls to slaughter, and it's going to end up being a cruel joke."
Blakemore dismisses Andell's strong showing as a phenomenon based more on the personable judge's cross-party appeal than any genuine trend. He instead focuses on the defeat of well-funded, effective Democratic candidate Sofia Androgueas a better barometer of the relative party strengths.
"A lot of people are going to expend a lot of effort, and personal sacrifices are going to be made by these candidates, and they're not going to win," concludes Blakemore. As for that predicted Hispanic wave, the consultant is in no hurry to build a dike around his judges.
"It's just not there yet. Give 'em another six or eight years, and we can have this conversation. Not a chance this time."
"He only wishes that were true," retorts Schechter. "He's seen the same numbers we've seen. He knows his time has come."
It's an argument that won't get settled till we go to the polls next November.