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Dead Heat

After 22 years in the state House, Danburg faces an uphill battle.
Deron Neblett

How long has Debra Danburg been representing Montrose in the state legislature? When she was first elected, Jimmy Carter was heading the Democratic ticket.

How much longer will she be representing Montrose? That's a much more difficult question to answer.

In part, the answer is easy -- because of redistricting, the eastern half of Montrose is no longer in her district. But because of that redistricting, the 52-year-old Danburg, who's been in the legislature since 1980, faces the real possibility of seeing her tenure in Austin end.

Not only is her new District 134 designed to elect a Republican, but the Republican she faces is well financed and armed with high name recognition: former city councilmember Martha Wong.

It's a race that sees Democrat Danburg arguing she's more fiscally conservative than the Republican Wong, while Wong is trying to reassure voters she's a social moderate who somehow won't have to deal with abortion rights issues in Austin.

"It's an extremely close race -- it likely will have a margin of a few hundred votes, maybe even a few dozen," says University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray.

The district now includes such Houston enclaves as River Oaks, West University Place, Bellaire, Meyerland and the Museum District. It's a highly educated, mostly white and affluent district that tends to get out and vote -- about 67,000 did so in 2000, Murray says, compared to an average of 40,000 for house districts statewide.

Both sides tend to agree that the district splits about 55-45 in favor of the GOP, but both also note that there are plenty of independents among its residents.

Twenty of the district's 52 precincts were in Danburg's former district; 24 were in Wong's District C City Council constituency.

"The Republicans are going to vote Republican; it's just a matter of getting the vote out," says Wong, a 63-year-old "semiretired" educator. "Independent people who voted in the city elections know me and know me well, and they will vote for me."

"The race is shaping up as 'too close to call,' " says Danburg, "which is a lot better than what it was with a district drawn up to be 55 percent Republican…We have more independents in this district than almost any district in the state, we have more people who do split their tickets, and there are Democrats who have carried this district, like Paul Hobby and Eric Andell." (Hobby ran for state comptroller in 1998, Andell for an appellate judgeship in 2000.)

Murray says the district "is winnable by a strong Democrat. This year looks like it will be a good ticket-splitting year, with [Democratic lieutenant governor candidate] John Sharp probably a winner, and he always does well with ticket-splitting. That's Debra's hope, to overcome the generic-Republican edge. But Martha's got a good résumé and is a tireless campaigner."

The races should cost each candidate around $400,000 -- Danburg on the lower side of that level, Wong above.

Almost all of that will be spent on mailouts, although Wong is on the air with radio ads. Both are also doing lots of blockwalking in neighborhoods each claims to be intimately familiar with even if they haven't represented them.

When the talk turns to economics, both try to outshout each other in offering hosannas to big business. "Many of our CEOs live in the district," Wong says, "and so it's people who are going to help run our city, and [it's] corporate America, and I think it's important that they have someone who is going to represent their viewpoint at the state legislature, and I think I am going to be able to that. I know I will."

(Finally corporate America can have a voice in the legislative process!)

"I'm really good at balancing business and environment," Danburg says. "I'm very much of an environmentalist, but virtually every bill I have passed that's environmentalist has either been supported by business or business has been completely neutral."

(Yes, "business" always supports only the toughest environmental bills.)

Wong claims Danburg has voted 74 times to raise taxes (a claim her campaign manager later modifies to 74 times raising taxes "or to make raising your taxes easier").

"Her voting record does not represent what the people in this district want," Wong says. "Her whole history has been someone who is not a fiscal conservative, so I think she is certainly disguising her former votes when she presents herself in that manner."

Danburg disputes the figure of 74, which she says includes procedural votes and matters designed to actually block taxes. In the oil-bust years, she says, "Governor Bill Clements, John Sharp and a whole bunch of us were working together to 1) balance the budget and 2) avoid an income tax. So there were a bunch of little bitty tax and fee increases."

In fact, Danburg's literature claims that "only one candidate is protecting your pocketbook." Wong, she notes, voted for a property tax increase while on City Council.

While Danburg is at least somewhat on the defensive on economic issues, the roles are reversed on social issues. Wong has to convince voters she's not a rabid right-to-lifer, and so far she's been using a strategy of hoping the subject goes away.

"My position is that [abortion] is a personal point of view. There's a federal law out there, and I'm not going to break the law," she says, referring to Roe v. Wade. "And I'm not going to encourage my own children to go out and have an abortion."

But surely states deal with abortion-related issues, such as parental-notification laws. "The notification law has already passed, as I understand it," she says. "I don't expect to [propose changes], maybe someone else will. I'm not going to mess with that. I have my own issues that I am working on and I don't have time."

Danburg scoffs at Wong's stance. "If it's a federal issue, why have I had to work against over 50 bills in the last six sessions that were all designed to either limit or overturn Roe v. Wade? I mean, it's gonna come up…My being there makes a difference on this issue," she says.

Both candidates have amassed some baggage in their tenures as elected officials. Wong made headlines fighting against sexually oriented businesses, but she also garnered some ridicule when she noisily objected to a group's use of a city park for a festival that would include a thong-bikini contest. In 1998 she criticized the city's health department for having "an obvious over-representation" of blacks in its ranks; three years earlier she was investigated (and cleared) by the city's ethics commission for claiming kickbacks were the cause of a city contract going to a political rival.

If Wong has been too outspoken at times, Danburg has been criticized for not being outspoken enough on business issues.

One prominent lobbyist for a public interest group says Danburg will offer support for so-called consumer issues early in the process, but ends up switching sides. "She'd commit to doing something and then sell you out," says the lobbyist, who did not want to be identified. "The business lobby would always say to her, 'Do this or we're going to come after you in your district.' She'd do it, and then they'd come after her anyway."

The race in the 134th District is attracting attention not only because a longtime legislator is facing a tough race to survive. The race is one of about a dozen statewide, according to Murray's estimate, that will determine whether Republicans take over the House.

Wong faced a difficult primary fight, but her opponents then are now working on her behalf. The primary battle meant that she got a head start on introducing herself to voters. Danburg, on the other hand, started slowly and had some trouble getting a campaign manager. (She says she simply didn't want to raise money while her colleagues with contested primaries were seeking funds.)

Both sides agree that winning will take a lot of grunt work -- the candidates and their volunteers knocking on doors, passing out literature, making phone calls and fighting the other side's spin.

"Martha was attacked in the primary for not being conservative enough on social issues, being too moderate, and now Debra's trying to push Martha to the right," Wong campaign manager Eric Burns says. "I don't think people are going to buy it -- we fought that fight already."

At-large City Councilmember Annise Parker is a Danburg supporter. "Martha ran hard to the right in the primary because of her ultra-right challengers, and it's proving a little more difficult positioning herself back to the mainstream," she says. "Not that I would characterize her as far right."

Parker lives in the district and obviously realizes what it takes to get elected there. "I don't think anyone knows how it's going to go," she says. "It's not straight-ticket for either side. They really like to look at the candidates and look at platforms and issues. Whoever works the hardest, and has the most one-on-one contact with voters, is probably going to take it."


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