Crashing the Grand Old Party

At 9:45 a.m., congressional candidate Dolly Madison McKenna looks like she's died and gone to heaven. She's on the second stop of her "Cost of Ken Bentsen Day," a mission designed to show that her Democratic opponent is a cog in Big Government, which mindlessly crushes small businesses. And here in La Porte, at Gringo's Mexican Restaurant, owner Russell Ybarra is talking avocados.

Avocados! The heart and soul of guacamole, crucial to any combo plate, and suddenly an object of McKenna's deregulatory passion. Ybarra tells her that in winter, he must pay scandalous prices for second-rate avocados from California, even though Mexico is awash in cheap, high-quality fruit. Never mind NAFTA, he laments. Import regulations -- supported, of course, by California growers -- still bar Mexican avocados from the United States, unless they've been turned to pulp and their pits have been removed. But as any guacamole maker knows, without the pits, the pulp turns an icky brown.

At a restaurant table, McKenna sips coffee and scribbles notes as her press secretary, Mindy Tucker, snaps photos with a disposable Kodak. Ybarra is suitably picture-perfect. He's young, handsome and Hispanic (an important swing vote); he owns his own business; and he's located outside the Loop, in a part of the 25th Congressional District where, before she embarked on a life of politics, the refined, New York-bred McKenna rarely ventured.

McKenna, too, is highly photogenic. In the first round of the court-ordered special election for Bentsen's seat, she positioned herself at "the sensible center." She doesn't use that phrase much anymore, now that her party's right wing has threatened to abandon her, but she continues to look like a female version of the patrician blue bloods who once ruled the GOP. Her high-maintenance hair is blond, with just enough gray to hint at maturity; her conservative dress and jacket are a camera-friendly red; and her jewelry -- a heavy gold chain and matching earrings -- is obviously real. She does not quote the Bible. There's no chrome fish symbol on the back of her van. And there is no wildness in her eyes. She looks like the investment banker she used to be -- someone who knows which fork to use, who reads the Wall Street Journal and who cares more about the Fed than about fetuses.

McKenna's golden moment with Ybarra fades quickly. Beside him at the table is his friend Jack Howard, a white good old boy, the owner of a local billboard company -- precisely the kind of voter who's been giving McKenna fits. With a trouble-making grin, he asks, "How do you feel about the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution?"

McKenna has heard the question before. The Tenth -- the states' rights amendment -- is beloved by militia devotees and talk-radio callers, who construe it to mean that the federal government has wrongfully grasped all sorts of power. "I like all the amendments," she responds diplomatically. "States should be able to do things."

Howard doesn't settle for such lukewarm mushiness. He badgers her for a while, not accepting her assurances that yes, she really believes that the federal government needlessly intrudes on citizens' lives. "So," he says, "if you're gonna abandon the Tenth Amendment, what's the next thing you'll abandon? What about the Second?"

McKenna responds crisply: "I think everybody has the right to own a gun."
"Why?" asks the geezer.
"Why?" echoes McKenna.

"Why?!" he repeats. "When you get elected, you're gonna get asked that. And if you don't have an answer, the Bradys and all, they're gonna be all over you like a duck on a June bug."

The Second Amendment, he lectures, was written because the founding fathers believed that the American people needed guns to protect themselves against the federal government.

Mindy Tucker quietly tells her boss that time's up. McKenna says her good-byes.

"Don't let 'em do away with the Constitution!" exhorts Howard. McKenna smiles, but grimly. At least he's on her side.

Driving her van to another fact-finding visit, McKenna explains that Bentsen has been weakened by the redistricting that resulted from a federal appeals court decision rejecting the race-based configurations of adjacent districts. The new, reconstituted 25th District is far more Republican than it used to be, she explains; the African-American enclave of northeast Fort Bend County was cut out, while wealthy whites of West U were added. When her pollsters added those changes to the rest of the district -- Alief, Meyerland, Southampton, Bellaire, the Medical Center, the Astrodome area, Hobby Airport, Pasadena, Deer Park and La Porte -- they predicted a slim Republican majority.

McKenna didn't enter this spring's Republican primary, but after the federal judges' decision overturned the primary results, she smelled blood in the water -- as did nine other challengers to Bentsen. Of the 11 candidates in the special election, Bentsen placed first, with a little more than a third of the vote, while McKenna surprised pollsters by placing second, with 17 percent -- squeaking past Bentsen's nearest Democratic challenger, Beverley Clark, who won 16.9 percent.  

Making it to a runoff is a high-water mark in McKenna's political career. This is the third time she's sought the 25th District seat: In 1992, she was the GOP nominee but was handily defeated by Democratic incumbent Mike Andrews; in 1994, she didn't even win her party's primary. If she loses next week's runoff to Bentsen, she may lose with it her last shred of credibility as a candidate, and thereafter be consigned to the political oblivion reserved for perennial seekers of office.

But McKenna views her prospects optimistically. She figures that one of the basic laws of politics gives her the edge over Bentsen: In low-turnout elections, such as the one next week almost certainly will be, Republicans are far more likely to vote than Democrats.

She cheerfully cites a poll that she heard on TV. Bob Stein, polling for Channel 11, found that at best, turnout for the runoff would be around 60 percent that of the presidential election, and that Republicans planned to vote at a much higher rate than did Democrats. "Sounds good to me," McKenna says.

In point of fact, Stein, a professor at Rice University, interprets his numbers differently. He first cautions that his small sample size leaves room for a large margin of error. And even so, he doesn't think the picture's rosy for McKenna. Of the voters who seemed likely to show, 29 percent said they planned to vote for Bentsen; 11 percent said they planned to vote for McKenna; and a whopping 60 percent said they were undecided. Significantly, many voters who supported McKenna's conservative opponents in the Republican primary refused to divulge their plans. "Those voters are likely to show up," says Stein, "but it's not clear what they'll do." They might even vote for Bentsen.

Over the years, as McKenna has run as a fiscal conservative but social moderate, she has repeatedly peeved social conservatives. In 1994, she sought the chairmanship of the state Republican Party, arguing against using abortion as a litmus test of GOP candidates. That year, she also wrote a letter to campaign supporters calling the religious right's platform "a hate-filled agenda of gay-bashing and intolerance that is much like the fundamentalism that has recently swept the Middle East, the neo-Nazis in Germany and now the neo-fascists in Italy."

The three-way race was heated and mean. In a particularly nasty moment, an opponent's aide physically blocked the door to keep McKenna from attending a meeting. In the end, she lost to anti-abortion conservative Tom Pauken.

Last year, when Dan Rather researched the Christian right for CBS Reports, he interviewed McKenna, who delivered an unsparing analysis of the race: "I was talking about [issues] and how to build the Republican Party, and people were saying, 'I don't care about the Republican Party .... I care about values.' What they want is to impose their view on the whole country."

Pauken has never forgiven her. In November, speaking as party chairman, he told the Chronicle that McKenna isn't the right candidate to challenge Bentsen. "She's been very much in your face against the conservatives," he said. "It will be awfully hard to come back in and get conservative support." So much for party unity.

As if that weren't enough, Al Clements, a Republican activist and the program director for the Texas Right to Life Committee, has recruited other pro-life groups to campaign against McKenna. "The last thing Republicans need," he told a Chronicle reporter, "is a high-profile woman parading around Congress, being the darling of the pro-abortion forces, saying, 'Look, I won.' "

Never mind that Bentsen, McKenna's opponent, voted against the ban on "partial birth" abortions. For conservatives such as Pauken and Clements, Bentsen is irrelevant. To them, the runoff will serve solely as a referendum on McKenna, and on whether the Republican Party has room for people like her.

Through the windshield, McKenna points excitedly to the sign identifying Deer Park Lumber, her last stop before her midday press conference. "Elect Dolly McKenna US Congress," commands the marquee -- a sign, literally, of support.

Today's "fact-finding mission" is designed to emphasize her common ground with fellow Republicans -- the things that they all believe, like that regulations were made to be abolished. Mainstream Republicans seem to be rallying to McKenna's cause. At a press conference later this day, she'll announce that Ken Lay, the influential chairman of Enron, has shifted his endorsement from Bentsen to her. And Mindy Tucker, the young press aide in the back seat, is more evidence of support: a staff member for Republican Congressman Sam Johnson, she's on loan for the runoff, part of Johnson's effort to propel more Texas Republicans into Congress.  

McKenna pulls into the lumberyard's parking lot, and accompanied by her little entourage -- Tucker, plus a campaign photographer and a lone reporter -- sweeps back to meet Dean Lawther, the owner and a Deer Park politician. Lawther wears a spiffy American-flag vest and a goatee that manages to seem not at all countercultural. His office -- a hyper-masculine affair, with wood paneling, cowboy prints and a cement floor -- includes three separate nameplates, all of which bear his name. Lawther knows precisely who he is.

He also knows precisely what Deer Park is. He briefly parries McKenna's questions about the federal government's intrusions upon his business -- filling out employment forms is a bother, and he doesn't like the minimum wage -- before steering her to subjects dearer to his heart: the politics of her race against Bentsen, and her chances in his domain. Deer Park, he points out, is a refinery town but a relatively wealthy one. He calls it a "blue-collar West U," a place where high wages mean that the occasional well-invested plant worker can retire in his fifties, and as a millionaire.

For the reporter, McKenna demonstrates her knowledge of the area, explaining, "Deer Park is increasingly Republican."

Lawther laughs: "Deer Park is increasingly conservative." The difference, they both know, is significant.

He reminisces for a moment. Deer Park, he says, used to be full of Democrats, a union stronghold, back in the days when unions were mighty and conservative Democrats bestrode the earth. Back in '61, Lawton remembers, Deer Park school buses wouldn't cross a picket line.

McKenna can't imagine the scene. She laughs, "I wasn't here in '61."
"Carpetbagger," Lawton retorts.
In front of a display of safety goggles and hard hats, the two pose for a campaign photo. McKenna once again brings up her experience as a small businesswoman. From 1989 to 1993, she and her husband ran McKenna & Company, a ten-person financial-services group. After she left to go into politics, her husband sold the company to Price Waterhouse.

Lawton shakes his head. "See," he says, "out here, people don't consider that a small business. A small business is when you sell something out of your house."

By the exit, McKenna poses for one last photo -- this one with the store's mascot, a mannequin dressed as a construction worker. "One of our fossilized customers," Lawton jokes.

McKenna smiles. To win this election, she needs all the fossils she can get.

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