Brave Talk, Bleak Prospects

Carville came to praise a local party still in retreat.
Steve Lowry

It was obvious that super political consultant and flamboyant self-caricature James Carville hadn't spent much time on the ground in Texas lately. Windmilling his arms and raising his voice to a preacherly shout, the bald-headed keynote speaker at the annual Democratic Johnson-Rayburn Dinner in Houston last week exhorted his pre-Thanksgiving audience to arms with "We have sooooo much to be thankful for."

What do you mean "we," inside-the-Beltway paleface?

Given the facts of political life in the Lone Star State, only a Democratic sadomasochist could have reason for rejoicing, but since Carville is married to acid-tongued Republican Mary Matalin, he just might qualify. Mr. War Room entertained the gathering with a defense of his boss, President Bill Clinton ("forgive the bad thing and remember the good friend") and took potshots at GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush (if they taught masturbation in schools, "it might be the only thing your governor could make an A in").

Carville mercifully failed to enumerate all the "blessings" that have befallen Texas Democrats in recent years, including the extermination of all elected party members at the state and Harris County levels.

The handful of remaining Democratic judges here are in the predicament of those fabled prehistoric creatures that supposedly hide out in remote jungles, mountains and lochs, hoping no Republican comes along to run against them and administer the Darwinian coup de grace.

The dawning of the 21st century won't likely offer any immediate relief to Texas Democrats either, with popular Governor Bush the odds-on favorite to head the Republican national ticket. Even the grand doyenne of the Harris County party, Billie Carr, who cheered Carville on at the dinner, cautions there will be a few more years of darkness before any dawn.

"I tell my candidates that the heads of the ticket, president or governor, are like the tugboats pulling the down-ballot races," she says. Next year the good ship Bush is likely to be a battleship pushing a tide of votes that may ripple all the way to dogcatcher. While district races are not so susceptible to the phenomenon, it impacts anyone running statewide or countywide.

Carr is boot-tough, just back from radiation therapy for cancer, which she says is now in remission. After quipping that all the radiation did "was knock the red out of my hair," she promises to be on the campaign trail next year for the candidates of her beloved party. Immediate victories, however, are not in the forecast.

"The thing about politics is change doesn't come about real fast," says Carr. She learned that lesson the hard way, fighting for decades to get her liberal wing of the party represented at the state and national levels. Then the dominant conservative faction splintered off, with power players such as former governor John Connally, Senator Phil Gramm and former congressman Kent Hance bolting to the GOP.

Carr's liberals and progressives inherited the state Democratic Party, but not the positions of power personified by former president Lyndon Johnson and legendary House speaker Sam Rayburn. For the Houston dinner, the very invocation of the names of these Democratic giants spotlighted just how far the Texas party has fallen since their passing.

To be sure, there were some hopeful signs for the 600 or so attendees at the Hyatt Regency affair, a three-fold increase over the previous year. The event raised about $80,000 for the cash-short local party, and the crowd was peppered with younger grassroots activists rather than fat-cat contributors. Those new party enthusiasts better have the patience of Carr, because the Democrats are so far down that it may take till 2004 before they can expect to win anything countywide.

How the party reached its current nadir is a matter of dispute. Liberal Carr figures Republicans learned to adopt Democratic techniques while her own party failed to embrace evolving campaign technologies.

After the defection of conservative Democrats, Carr says, "Republicans took a page out of our book. They began to do grassroots politics, find their people and tell them, 'There's nothing wrong with being a Republican. Stand up and be counted.' "

Meanwhile, the Democrats failed to capitalize on their support base among minorities and women by not offering candidates that could excite those voting blocs, opines Carr. In 1998 the party candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and comptroller were all white males.

"The people that represent the Democratic Party were not on the ballot," she notes.

One of the candidates who did run emceed the Johnson-Rayburn affair but has a take that is very different from Carr's. Houstonian Paul Hobby made a strong race for comptroller against Carole Keeton Rylander. But he could not overcome the repercussions from Bush's rout of former land commissioner Garry Mauro, a liberal with strong ties to Clinton.

According to Hobby, the Texas party's influence shriveled as it began to be seen as a reflection of national Democratic positions emphasizing big government and liberal policies.

A moderate with the appeal -- and finances -- to run statewide if Bush leaves the state scene, Hobby figures the best chance for Democrats is with candidates who run as individuals and can counter the unpalatable image Texans have of national Democrats.

Next year most judicial races here will likely not have any Democratic contenders. County party chair Sue Schechter says she has almost finalized a strategy that focuses on fielding competitive candidates in the races for district attorney, sheriff, county attorney and tax assessor-collector.

"We just don't have the resources to do both," says Schechter. "So we have to prioritize, and I'm leaning toward the county races because people have a difficult time getting excited about judicial races."

(Rumored as a possible Democratic candidate for district attorney is former TSU president James Douglas. However, Douglas's controversial stature even on the TSU campus makes one wonder how he could make a respectable showing in a countywide race against likely Republican contender Judge Ted Poe.)

While Schechter claims the party is on the rebound, she admits to lingering problems. One was personified by the dearth of elected Democratic leaders attending or contributing financial support for the Johnson-Rayburn dinner. The three Houston-area state senators, Mario Gallegos, Rodney Ellis and John Whitmire, did not participate or attend, and even Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who contributed money, passed on the chance to introduce Carville. (One Insider tablemate detected good news in Sheila's absence: "I guess that means there are no funerals here," she cracked, referring to Lee's incessant appearances at constituent burials.)

The disconnect between local elected officials and the party troubles Schechter, who is trying to rebuild an organization that is widely regarded as irrelevant by officeholders. By contrast, the GOP under chair Gary Polland has mounted effective joint campaigns for all officeholders and candidates, bankrolled by large contributions from incumbents.

"The party has been so weak that they just see it as not being needed," says Schechter. "We have a difficult time getting them to support us. We really need them."

Senator Gallegos says he passed up the dinner because it was also his wife's birthday. But he makes it clear that not only has the Democratic Party not helped him and fellow officeholders, it has actually been a negative force. Gallegos claims the party takes from the county and gives nothing in return.

"You bring a president in here, he raises $10 million for the Democratic Party, and all of it goes back to Washington, D.C.," says Gallegos. He sent a letter to the Texas Democratic Party asking for help in countering Bush's blitz in the Hispanic media last year.

"I got Bush in my backyard, doing mail, TV, radio and all of this," Gallegos warned the party, pleading for money to launch a counter campaign. None ever came, and Bush narrowly carried Gallegos's district.

"If Clinton comes in one more time," says the senator, "part of that money has got to stay in Harris County." Gallegos feels his resources are best spent building his own political organization and helping fellow candidates.

Gallegos's political consultant, Marc Campos, says he routinely counsels officials not to contribute from their officeholder accounts to the local party.

"I just don't think those guys have invested into Hispanic outreach," comments Campos. "They allowed George Bush to dominate the airwaves without ever responding in 1998, and now Bush is going around saying, 'Half the Hispanics in Texas voted for me, and I am a different kind of guy.'

"I blame it all on the Democratic Party, and that's the last place I'd want to put my dollars."

With party solidarity like that, it could be decades before Democrats see the light again in Harris County.

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