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.

According to many scientists, health risks do correlate with exposure to air pollution. And District 134 suffers from among the highest ozone levels in the city. The district accounts for the bulk of the citywide membership in the environmental group Mothers For Clean Air, which strongly supported the five clear air measures that Wong helped defeat. "I think they understand the issue," says director Jane Laping, "and they realize it affects their health and their children's health."

Wong doesn't deny that her district is socially moderate, but it's unclear whether she possesses enough armor in Austin to cast moderate votes and get away with it. If she had voted against her party, she likely would have found herself in the shoes of Carter Casteel (Republican, New Braunfels), a moderate who faced retaliation from Republican bosses in this year's primary and was ousted. Of course, now she faces Cohen. "Martha is just the tip of the iceberg on this," Stein says. He thinks if enforced conservative voting patterns persist, many more Republicans in major cities, such as the suburban Houston reps Peggy Hamric and Joe Nixon, will also become vulnerable to moderate Democrats.

When asked to cite a case in which she has bucked her party's conservatives, Wong mentions her stance on the gay marriage amendment. This session she spoke against the amendment's language banning civil unions between gay couples and in favor of its definition of marriage as "between a man and a woman." "Since voting either for or against the bill would have put me in conflict with my beliefs," she wrote in a statement, "I abstained."

Cohen is reaching out to all voters in the district, even people such as Elizabeth Urquhart, a pro-life Republican.
Daniel Kramer
Cohen is reaching out to all voters in the district, even people such as Elizabeth Urquhart, a pro-life Republican.

In one of the gayest districts in Texas, an abstention wasn't socially moderate, says the GLBT community. Although state voters eventually passed Proposition 2, nearly 60 percent of ballots in District 134 rejected it. The vote has emboldened gay activists such as April Ayers, a local member of the Human Rights Campaign, who is so eager to oust Wong that she has created a blog called Firemarthawong.com. "The thing that cracks me up is Martha Wong claiming to be in the Republican image," says Mike Holloman, an investor who is raising a son with his male partner in West University. "She basically is doing exactly the opposite of what the Republican Party stands for, which is small government -- keeping the government out of our lives."

One realm where people in Wong's district might actually want more government in their lives is education. After all, the affluent district includes Rice University and the University of St. Thomas. It's full of overachievers who pine for their kids to get into Harvard and obsess over the quality of Poe Elementary and Bellaire High. So what do education groups think about the long overdue Republican school finance plan? "I know Governor Perry is very proud of it," says Clayton Dowling, executive director of the Texas School Coalition, which represents property-rich districts, "but I think some people are going to be shocked."

Passed in May, the bill cuts school property taxes by a third over two years, raises teacher pay by $2,000 ($500 of that restores prior cuts) and allows districts to raise local taxes by four cents for "discretionary spending." Dowling is unimpressed. He says teacher pay in Texas is still $4,000 below average, that a requirement to hold a district-wide vote to raise the tax rate will be expensive, and that maxing out the local increase still won't provide enough money for schools to do more than cover the cost of higher health care and gas prices. "I didn't hear much about increasing capacity," he says. "...They were more focused on commitments that they have as a party." Namely? "Cutting taxes."

Wong expressed regret that the Republican education reforms didn't go further. "I was disappointed that we were not able to completely pass HB2 last session which would have made our schools better for Houston children," she wrote in a statement. And yet she opposes Democratic proposals for a higher teacher pay raise. "Four thousand dollars would break the budget," she said.

Wong's votes would have been most favorable to the district if casting them had won support for her own proposals. But that mostly hasn't been the case. Her most significant piece of legislation, a proposed 5 percent cap on residential property appraisal hikes, failed to pass. Even Wong's own account of her accomplishments is brief. During the speech at her campaign kickoff party, she mentioned two successes: attracting new doctors to local emergency rooms (something she attributed to tort reform) and helping to pass tuition bonds for the Medical Center. Then she moved on. "There's lots of good food," she said, "so you should eat at least two hot dogs."

At a minimum, Wong understands how to keep many of her supporters coming back for seconds. Bill Kelly, Cohen's campaign adviser, likes to tell a joke: "Why on a Saturday in Houston is there so much traffic?...Because Republicans are driving around looking for a place to vote." Indeed, the party's grassroots presence in Harris County is no laughing matter, and the faithful in Wong's district are mobilized. With fund-raising in both campaigns neck and neck (according to the July 17 Quorum Report, Cohen had $427,000 in cash on hand to Wong's $450,000), Republican leaders think the race will boil down to getting people to the polls. "I think Martha has done a good job," says Harris County Republican Party chairman Jared Woodfill. "I think she has a very strong grassroots organization."

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