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.

Citing another reason why he's not concerned about the race, Woodfill points to Wong's 2002 campaign against State Representative Debra Danburg. Ousted from her Montrose stronghold by Republican-led redistricting, Danburg ran against Wong on the wind of support from many of the same groups that are now supporting Cohen. Danburg "had way more name ID than Ellen Cohen and a lot more money at the time," Woodfill says. "The Democrats were saying that Martha was vulnerable to Danburg -- and she beat Danburg soundly. So what's changed? They've got a weaker candidate that has less money."

The money was trickling in; at a Cohen fund-raiser last month in West University, the crowd was a predictably sympathetic group of gay professionals. But Cohen was conveying much more than solidarity with their cause. She stood on a staircase and talked about living in Montreal in the late '60s with breast cancer: Wanting to help other women with her disease, she'd discovered Reach to Recovery, a counseling program run by breast cancer survivors for the newly diagnosed, pitched it to her local hospital and met resistance. "We don't want any do-good women in our hospital rooms," the surgeons said. But Cohen found one surgeon who believed in her cause, and the program quickly spread to every hospital in the city. "That was my first experience of sitting down with people who don't always agree with me," she said, "and understanding what their concerns are and what we can do about it."

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.

To hear Cohen talk, collegiality has been one of the hallmarks of her career. The young daughter of a Jewish attorney in Cleveland, she married before she could graduate from college, but she seems to have learned how to balance opposing ideas. Cohen and her husband soon moved from Montreal to Houston; she joined the American Jewish Committee here and served for ten years as its executive director. She established ties with religious leaders outside the Jewish community such as Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza and black preacher Kirbyjon Caldwell, and organized lunches with business leaders of different faiths to discuss religious freedom.

In 1990, Cohen became the director of the Houston Area Women's Center. She has nurtured it from a tiny operation into a counseling facility and shelter for survivors of domestic violence with 125 beds and a $5.5 million annual budget -- all by pitching the center to men and women from a cross-section of the political spectrum. For example, she has worked with the Republican-leaning owner of the Houston Astros, Drayton McLane Jr., and the wives of Astros players to put on a crucial annual fund-raising event. Each year it nets hundreds of thousands of dollars. "Our biggest challenge was to say to the community, '[Domestic violence] is something that's an equal opportunity enforcer; it touches every faith, every socioeconomic group, every ethnicity,'" Cohen says. " 'No one's immune from it. We are the fourth-largest city in the United States, and we need to do something about it.' And people did."

Cohen sees in her private-sector work a corollary in the political life of Mayor Bill White. She respects his success in uniting the different ideologies and interest groups of the city around common goals. "He is not out there trying to stir up things, he's not trying to get one group to fight against another group," she says. "Quite to the contrary, he wants to hear what you think."

That trait, more than anything else, is what has been lacking in Wong's leadership, says campaign manager Kelly. "When you represent an independent-thinking highly educated district, when you represent Rice University, the Medical Center, you need to take stands for things," he says. "I think one of the things Representative Wong hasn't done is be a person who has taken some strong stands."

Cohen opposes Wong's vote to slash $200 million in state funds from the Children's Health Insurance Program. The vote gave up $1 billion in federal matching funds and kicked 180,000 children from the insurance rolls. She supports the five clean air amendments that Wong opposed, pointing out that major companies -- most recently Toyota -- have avoided Houston because of its dirty air. She defends the right to make one's own "personal life decisions" in bedrooms and clinics. And she wants to pay schoolteachers better salaries.

Though sure to resonate with many voters, Cohen's socially moderate stances still don't explain how her race is different from Danburg's. Both women agree that there isn't much space between them on the issues. Indeed, the biggest difference between the two campaigns is probably four years. The independent gubernatorial races of Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman are likely to strip off straight-ticket voters this year -- a likely hit to Wong in a majority Republican district. And in some ways Wong has become an easier target as an incumbent. "Now she has a voting record," Danburg says, "and her voting record is not in tune with that district."

Cohen also lives closer than Danburg to the district's center of gravity. Danburg inhabited liberal Montrose and had few connections with the newly drawn 134's conservatives. Cohen, on the other hand, has lived in Republican-leaning Bellaire since 1977 and is perceived as nonpartisan.

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