Changes in Attitude
On Lobbying Day in February, when state legislators traditionally meet with interest groups, Planned Parenthood of Houston chartered a bus, rented a room and arranged with State Representative Martha Wong to cart 100 voters and local schoolchildren from her district into Austin. There was only one problem: When they got to town, Wong canceled.
Planned Parenthood political director Rebecca White recalls that Wong and her capitol staffers were simply too busy -- even though Planned Parenthood counts a whopping 10,000 members in Wong's district, more than a quarter of the number of people who had voted for her.
Wong's opponents say the slight illustrates a lack of diplomacy for which the Republican legislator has become infamous. The Planned Parenthood group went to Wong's office anyway and signed her guest book. It turned out Wong wasn't so busy after all; she agreed to meet briefly with the visitors -- but only the children, White says. Among a gaggle of middle schoolers was Whitney Alsup, then a 16-year-old sophomore at St. John's School. Alsup asked why the original meeting had been canceled. Wong raised her voice, Alsup recalls. "She said she didn't feel like she owed an explanation to middle schoolers."
In a phone interview with the Houston Press, Wong, a former elementary school principal, said she was forced to cancel the Planned Parenthood meeting because of a scheduling mistake by a staffer who, she added, "is no longer with us." She said the meeting had included adults as well as children, and she denied ever lashing out at them. "All I did was try and use my little teacher's voice to try and get the questions one by one," she said.
Still, progressives in Wong's district say the tiffs highlight a widening -- and unexpected -- chasm between their needs and her priorities. Wong was known as a moderate during her six-year tenure on the Houston City Council but has taken a sharp turn to the right in Austin, they say. Such complaints probably wouldn't matter in solidly Republican districts in the suburbs, but District 134 -- a hodgepodge of Bellaire, River Oaks, Meyerland, West University and a sliver of Montrose -- voted only 53 percent Republican in the past two elections. Urbanized, significantly gay and highly educated, it's torn between supporting the Republican Party's fiscal policies and the Democrats' social stances.
Wong's vulnerability is emblematic of a Republican Party that is increasingly divided and struggling to support a consistent message. A schism in the party is being led by Carole "One Tough Grandma" Strayhorn in her independent bid for governor against Republican Rick Perry. Strayhorn has given voice to a more moderate wing of the party concerned with a lack of progress in education and health care. Few observers believe Perry will lose -- he has the support of conservative rural voters -- but his close allies in more moderate districts might get caught in the crossfire. Among them is Wong. "She has toed that line," says Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, "and it's not at all clear that it has been a popular line in her district."
Wong has voted against five amendments that would have limited air pollution in the city; in favor of placing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot (she voted for it in her state affairs committee and it passed on the floor of the House, where she abstained); and against an education bill, supported by Democrats and 14 Republicans, that would have added $6,000 to the salaries of schoolteachers, who now earn less on average than teachers in 30 states.
Her conservative record has prompted a spirited opposition campaign this year by Democrat Ellen Cohen. Hammering Wong for capitulating to right-wingers, Cohen's race is the most closely watched and best-funded House challenge in the state. "Like the Spanish Civil War," Stein says, "this may be the race the people watch to see if Democrats can break through in Harris County."
"At the rate Cohen is going," he adds, "I think she has much better than a chance of winning."
At Martha Wong's recent campaign kickoff party in a Greenway Plaza strip mall, her tiny storefront war room held 50 people, many of them politicians and members of her family. The press was apparently uninvited and the speech short; the gathering was surprisingly low-key for a campaign kickoff, but then Wong has been keeping a low profile. She spoke with the Press at length two years ago yet declined to sit down for an interview for this story, citing a lack of time. "I've been very busy," she said. Not too busy to go block-walking, appear in a parade and speak to a small group of voters in her apartment building, though.
Wong's reluctance to discuss her district on the record (she eventually granted a 15-minute phone interview) comes at a time when many of her constituents are asking tough questions. For example, Planned Parenthood's White wants to know why Wong supported the so-called Women's Right to Know Act. It requires abortion providers to inform women that abortion could cause breast cancer, a relationship that has been disavowed by major cancer groups. "There is no scientifically proven link on that," says American Cancer Society spokeswoman Shelly Chetty. Indeed, right-wing legislators in South Dakota and Louisiana voted down similar bills. Yet Wong, who represents the Texas Medical Center, says studies show the "possibility" of a link and women should be informed.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.