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.

To convincingly build on her neutral image is sure to be Cohen's biggest challenge. She frequently stresses that managing a $5.5 million organization has made her a financial conservative. "That's who I am," she says. "I am not going to spend money we don't have; I am not going to send money towards programs which pander towards one group or another at the expense of health care for our kids. I am going to encourage anything I can do to get businesses to move to Houston."

Of course, Wong also has a strong image as a penny-pincher. "In 2003, there was a $10 billion budget shortfall," Woodfill points out, "and she toed the line on spending and balanced it without creating an income tax or increasing spending." The work had certainly pleased Ron Brunner, a volunteer who showed up at Wong's campaign office. He was grateful that Republicans slashed property taxes in May and was keen to see Wong make good on her platform to establish strict appraisal caps. "Individuals are paying more than their share," he said.

The strategy of pummeling the tax man has given Republicans considerable traction in years past, especially in the suburbs. But in urban District 134 it may no longer be enough.

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.


On a humid June morning in West University, a storm cloud loomed overhead and the wind picked up. Cohen sprang between houses wearing heavy-duty hiking sandals and a fanny pack strapped with ice water. She carried flyers, buttons and a smile. "I never like to take anybody for granted," she said as she affixed a doorknob with a hand-scrawled note.

Across the street on a sidewalk Cohen encountered Elizabeth Urquhart. The two women instantly hit it off. Urquhart wanted to know more about Cohen's work with the Houston Area Women's Center. Cohen expanded the conversation to discuss her successful fight against breast cancer. "Good for you," Urquhart said.

"I care passionately about quality health care," Cohen continued. "My husband had his life extended at the Medical Center by 18 years because of the quality of the doctors."

"Oh, I agree," Urquhart said. "My husband just had a second liver transplant; it couldn't have happened anywhere else." Only a minute later did Urquhart think to ask if Cohen was a Democrat or a Republican.

"I am a Democrat," Cohen said quickly, "and I have found that the district is largely independent."

"Democrats," Urquhart said. "I can't vote for pro-abortion."

"I can understand that, you have to have issues," Cohen said. But, she quickly added, "You have to look at the big picture."

"You can't have lines," Urquhart agreed.

Cohen's approach could apply to a slew of other races in Republican-held districts in coming years. "Ellen can raise the debate to a new level of information and sophistication," Stein explains. But she must also remain likable. "I think it comes down to the person. People here will be voting for the person."

And little did Cohen know that Wong was also getting personable with voters a few blocks away. As rain started to fall, Cohen ran into Vivian Ban, a high school student from Clear Lake who was wearing a Wong T-shirt and handing out Wong flyers that said, "Be Right, Vote Wong." "Of all the gin joints and all the places," Cohen said, shaking Ban's hand. Ban mentioned that Wong was nearby. "Do you want me to find her?"

She dialed Josh Robinson, Wong's campaign manager. "I'm here with some people from the Houston Press," she said, "and they're wondering if they could speak with Martha." She listened, intoned a knowing ohhhkaay and hung up after a moment. "I think they're on their way over here," she said. And indeed, a Jeep Cherokee quickly pulled up. But Ban sprinted into a seat without saying a word and the Jeep made a hasty U-turn and sped away.

Wong isn't the only Republican in District 134 who has bolted. Jeffrey Dorrell, a Republican precinct chair in the district for the past decade, is fed up with her and has resigned his post to organize a group called Republicans For Cohen. As far as Dorrell sees it, Wong has fled from him, abandoning her stance as a Republican moderate after she nearly lost the Republican primary in 2002 to a more conservative candidate. "One of the things that has motivated her approach to the more difficult issues was trying to shake off that label that she was not Republican enough," he says. "But I think it has produced some unfortunate votes, and failure of leadership."

He's most incensed that she abstained on the gay marriage amendment instead of voting against it. "We might as well have a mannequin in the chair," he says.

If too many more voters such as Dorrell go to the polls, Wong might be in trouble in November. Cohen is actively appealing to them, knocking on every door and pitching herself to anyone who will listen. Wong, meanwhile, is by her own account targeting a more limited list of "Republicans, independents and some Democrats."

Standing before a prim stone house, Cohen had deferred to Ban. "You got to this one first," Kelly said, "so you definitely go ahead."

"Well, actually I'm not going to this house," Ban said.

"Oh, okay, skip around."

Ban laughed. "There you go," she said.

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