Bush Envy

After three terms and several campaign drubbings, Schechter is calling it quits.
Deron Neblett

The fallout from last week's Democratic meltdown continues to ripple across the local landscape. Three-term Harris County Democratic chair Sue Schechter plans to throw in the towel and resign early next year.

"I'm just not sure I'm the right person that can recruit the next set of candidates," says the weary attorney and former state rep. "I've just given it my best shot, and I just don't feel like I've got in me to give it another best shot."

The usually upbeat 50-year-old managed to recruit more than three dozen Democrats to run this year for countywide civil and criminal court judgeships, with high hopes a handful could win. The performance of appellate judge Eric Andell in carrying the county in a losing effort in 2000 fueled that optimism and convinced the party faithful that a breakthrough year was at hand. The theory was that increasing numbers of Hispanic voters coupled with a white Republican flight from the county would create competitive races.

But none of those Democrats came closer than 7 percentage points to victory last week. Schechter called the election outcome "a killer" that convinced her it was time "for someone new to give it their best shot." She does not plan to recommend a successor when she submits her resignation to the county party's executive committee at its next scheduled meeting in January.

Asked what she plans to do next, the chairwoman joked, "I'm going shopping. It's the best cure for a major depression."

When the Democratic slate was announced in January, Republican political consultant Allen Blakemore chortled that Schechter "may be liable for deceptive trade practices. She is going to lead these poor souls to slaughter, and it's going to end up being a cruel joke."

After the balloting last week, Blakemore wondered, "How in the world is the Democratic Party going to recruit candidates for county offices? Nobody's going to be willing to do it. Why would they? The best-qualified Democratic candidates just got trounced."

Schechter says she hasn't seen precinct breakdowns, but suspects the party may have made a fatal mistake in targeting potential independent and GOP swing voters at the expense of turning out traditional Democrats.

"I just don't think the resources that were available were spent as much on the base as they were spent on the swing voters," says the chairwoman. "The coordinated campaign ran a huge swing program, and we have found that swing has never helped us. I think we do better when we go to the base, as we did in 2000."

Organizer Giovanni Garibay worked with state Representative Garnet Coleman on the Harris County-coordinated Democratic campaign. He says the swing effort cost several million dollars and focused on suburban areas around the Beltway, using Palm Pilots to record receptive voter households. "We did ignore the base over the summer, and when we went to them in the last stages of the campaign, it wasn't soon enough." By Election Day, says Garibay, it was apparent the swing-voter campaign was a failure.

Other party organizers blamed the tendency of many Democratic candidates to try to embrace Republican positions and even identify themselves with President George W. Bush.

From the campaigns of Dream Teamers Tony Sanchez (governor), Ron Kirk (U.S. Senate) and John Sharp (lieutenant governor) to embattled Debra Danburg (state representative District 134), strategists tried to woo Republicans and independents. They relied on a nonpartisan, occasionally Bush-hugging strategy that failed to entice the opposition while effectively turning off core supporters.

Kirk promised to work well with the president, hardly a rallying cry to send his partisan troops into battle. Sanchez asked voters to judge him based on the trust Bush had shown in appointing him to the University of Texas Board of Regents. Sharp played up his conservative credentials via a testimonial from baseball great Nolan Ryan. None of the attempts to blur party lines staved off defeat, and Democratic organizers say it depressed turnout among loyalists.

County vote totals reflect the dampening of party enthusiasm.

In 2000, Democrats led the GOP in the number of straight-party ballots, 264,747 to 260,705. This year the trend reversed, with Republicans dominating 180,266 to 169,570.

Incumbent Danburg was so desperate in her contest -- she faced former city councilwoman Martha Wong in the redrawn District 134 -- that in the closing days of the campaign she targeted GOP-leaning polling locations with brochures featuring an old photo of a smiling Debster embracing Bush when he was Texas governor. The misleading headline below the picture read, "Some Republicans Like Debra Danburg." Some of her own appalled volunteers simply refused to hand them out.

Democratic political consultant Grant Martin says such tactics have a double-barreled negative impact. The opposition doesn't fall for the bait, and the candidate's supporters are demoralized in the process.

"I just think it's not credible and it's not going to work," says Martin. "What right-minded person in West University Place is going to think that Debra Danburg and George Bush have anything in common at all? I would be insulted as a conservative voter to be told that and expect me to believe it, or else I'd just start laughing."

Republican consultant Blakemore, a West U resident, had a similar reaction to Danburg's campaign rhetoric that she was more conservative than Wong and the true tax-cutter in the race.

"I can see why it's demoralizing to the true party faithful in the Democrat ranks," says Blakemore. "They don't believe cutting taxes is a good thing, and for their candidates to go out and talk about that, well, that has to hurt them to their very soul."

District 25 Congressman-elect Chris Bell found out the hard way in last year's mayoral campaign that when Republicans have a choice between one of their own and a Democrat campaigning as the next best thing, the real deal wins every time. Fellow councilman and conservative Republican Orlando Sanchez ran far ahead of the third-place Bell because westside GOPers would not cross party lines, even in a nonpartisan race.

"It's not like, 'God, he has a lot better budget plan' or 'It seems like he really has an idea what he wants to do with the public works department,'" lamented Bell afterward. "It's just that he's a Republican."

By attempting to play footsie with the Republicans, Bell also sent hard-core Democrats reluctantly crowding into the camp of incumbent Lee Brown, who then edged out Sanchez in the runoff for re-election as mayor.

Bell learned from that experience, and successfully ran a congressional campaign based on bread-and-butter Democratic issues mixed with hardball attack ads against GOP businessman Tom Reiser. It helped that he had a district with a Democratic edge. Bell didn't needlessly antagonize Republicans, but he didn't pander to them, either, in achieving one of the few Democratic victories in contested county races.

Too bad some statewide and local Democratic candidates didn't get the message in time.

Bell says disorganization in the effort to get out the vote in the black and Hispanic areas may be partly to blame for the Democrats' poor showing.

"I heard there was a lot of infighting in the community, that a lot of money was being spent but it wasn't spent effectively in what would really drive the vote," says Bell. "As far as the black-brown coalition coming together, I don't think that happened. There's still significant mistrust between those communities, and if I heard that once, I heard it a hundred times during the course of the campaign."

Schechter agrees.

"It appeared that the coordinated campaign ran a fairly segregated-type effort," explains the chairwoman. "Only Hispanic professionals doing Hispanics, and only African-American officials doing African -American, and only Anglos doing the swings. I thought the Democratic Party was about everybody at the table together, not anybody running something separate."

She recalls an incident in the final days of the campaign where ten people were working the party phone bank and they all happened to be African-American. An organizer asked her, "Can we get these people to call into an Hispanic precinct?" Schechter's reaction: "If we can't, we need to fold up the tent of the Democratic Party and all go home."

Apparently too many Democratic voters reached the same conclusion on Election Day.

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