Changes in Attitude

When voters elected Martha Wong, they thought they were sending a moderate Republican to Austin. Critics say once there, she took a right turn. Now her district is rethinking its representation.

On Lobbying Day in February, when state legislators traditionally meet with interest groups, Planned Parenthood of Houston chartered a bus, rented a room and arranged with State Representative Martha Wong to cart 100 voters and local schoolchildren from her district into Austin. There was only one problem: When they got to town, Wong canceled.

Planned Parenthood political director Rebecca White recalls that Wong and her capitol staffers were simply too busy -- even though Planned Parenthood counts a whopping 10,000 members in Wong's district, more than a quarter of the number of people who had voted for her.

Wong's opponents say the slight illustrates a lack of diplomacy for which the Republican legislator has become infamous. The Planned Parenthood group went to Wong's office anyway and signed her guest book. It turned out Wong wasn't so busy after all; she agreed to meet briefly with the visitors -- but only the children, White says. Among a gaggle of middle schoolers was Whitney Alsup, then a 16-year-old sophomore at St. John's School. Alsup asked why the original meeting had been canceled. Wong raised her voice, Alsup recalls. "She said she didn't feel like she owed an explanation to middle schoolers."

At her campaign kickoff party, State Representative Martha Wong stressed her contributions to health care and the Texas Medical Center. She avoided other issues.
Daniel Kramer
At her campaign kickoff party, State Representative Martha Wong stressed her contributions to health care and the Texas Medical Center. She avoided other issues.
Ellen Cohen, Wong's Democratic challenger, is staking out moderate stances on social issues.
Daniel Kramer
Ellen Cohen, Wong's Democratic challenger, is staking out moderate stances on social issues.

In a phone interview with the Houston Press, Wong, a former elementary school principal, said she was forced to cancel the Planned Parenthood meeting because of a scheduling mistake by a staffer who, she added, "is no longer with us." She said the meeting had included adults as well as children, and she denied ever lashing out at them. "All I did was try and use my little teacher's voice to try and get the questions one by one," she said.

Still, progressives in Wong's district say the tiffs highlight a widening -- and unexpected -- chasm between their needs and her priorities. Wong was known as a moderate during her six-year tenure on the Houston City Council but has taken a sharp turn to the right in Austin, they say. Such complaints probably wouldn't matter in solidly Republican districts in the suburbs, but District 134 -- a hodgepodge of Bellaire, River Oaks, Meyerland, West University and a sliver of Montrose -- voted only 53 percent Republican in the past two elections. Urbanized, significantly gay and highly educated, it's torn between supporting the Republican Party's fiscal policies and the Democrats' social stances.

Wong's vulnerability is emblematic of a Republican Party that is increasingly divided and struggling to support a consistent message. A schism in the party is being led by Carole "One Tough Grandma" Strayhorn in her independent bid for governor against Republican Rick Perry. Strayhorn has given voice to a more moderate wing of the party concerned with a lack of progress in education and health care. Few observers believe Perry will lose -- he has the support of conservative rural voters -- but his close allies in more moderate districts might get caught in the crossfire. Among them is Wong. "She has toed that line," says Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, "and it's not at all clear that it has been a popular line in her district."

Wong has voted against five amendments that would have limited air pollution in the city; in favor of placing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot (she voted for it in her state affairs committee and it passed on the floor of the House, where she abstained); and against an education bill, supported by Democrats and 14 Republicans, that would have added $6,000 to the salaries of schoolteachers, who now earn less on average than teachers in 30 states.

Her conservative record has prompted a spirited opposition campaign this year by Democrat Ellen Cohen. Hammering Wong for capitulating to right-wingers, Cohen's race is the most closely watched and best-funded House challenge in the state. "Like the Spanish Civil War," Stein says, "this may be the race the people watch to see if Democrats can break through in Harris County."

"At the rate Cohen is going," he adds, "I think she has much better than a chance of winning."

At Martha Wong's recent campaign kickoff party in a Greenway Plaza strip mall, her tiny storefront war room held 50 people, many of them politicians and members of her family. The press was apparently uninvited and the speech short; the gathering was surprisingly low-key for a campaign kickoff, but then Wong has been keeping a low profile. She spoke with the Press at length two years ago yet declined to sit down for an interview for this story, citing a lack of time. "I've been very busy," she said. Not too busy to go block-walking, appear in a parade and speak to a small group of voters in her apartment building, though.

Wong's reluctance to discuss her district on the record (she eventually granted a 15-minute phone interview) comes at a time when many of her constituents are asking tough questions. For example, Planned Parenthood's White wants to know why Wong supported the so-called Women's Right to Know Act. It requires abortion providers to inform women that abortion could cause breast cancer, a relationship that has been disavowed by major cancer groups. "There is no scientifically proven link on that," says American Cancer Society spokeswoman Shelly Chetty. Indeed, right-wing legislators in South Dakota and Louisiana voted down similar bills. Yet Wong, who represents the Texas Medical Center, says studies show the "possibility" of a link and women should be informed.

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