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GOP Sweeps Week

In a darkened side room off the Crystal Ballroom at the Rice Hotel, the crinkled, bearded face of former Texas lieutenant governor Bill Hobby glowed ghostly in the moon-like aura of a computer screen. Midnight had come and gone, but Hobby and a tense, mostly silent circle of campaign staff continued to scan a scroll of county election returns searching for 40,000 outstanding votes that could resuscitate -- or provide a dignified burial -- for son Paul Hobby's faltering bid for state comptroller. Hobby pere, a former state political master turned computer geek, practically pugged his nose against the CRT, totally absorbed in the columns of figures and percentages.

Paul, the boyish looking 38-year-old former federal prosecutor and scion to the Hobbys' 20th century legacy of Houston leadership, had earlier seemed to be the Democrats' possible lone star in an otherwise uniform Republican rout of all statewide offices and Harris County-wide positions on the ballot. His operatives spread the message through the packed ballroom that early trends looked good, with Hobby only a few points behind opponent Carole Keeton Rylander and doing better than comptroller and Democratic lieutenant governor hopeful John Sharp and attorney general candidate Jim Mattox. The GOP was on its way to the peak of a three-decade process, transforming a one-party state from Democrat to Republican. On a night when Democrats celebrated numerous national victories that may save President Bill Clinton from impeachment, the Republican dominance in Texas had never been stronger. But there was still the possibility that Hobby might be the one seed to survive the sweep.

Earlier in the evening Hobby closed to within 6,000 votes of Rylander, but as the night wore on his momentum stalled and the gap began expanding. Hobby was ready to throw in the towel and concede with a million votes left to be counted, but his staff advised caution.

So the candidate made a brief, informal speech to a thinning crowd in the ballroom chilled by the spreading knowledge that time -- and votes-- were running out. "I can tell you from the bottom of our hearts," said Hobby, with his wife Janet and two of his three children around him, "we never anticipated how positive this experience would be." Hobby's voice quavered and he stopped, then started again with an uncompleted thought about his campaign staff and volunteers. "If you ever need to rent a big family in a big fight, [one that will] ride long distance, do underwater demolition, whatever you call for ... " Without conceding, he concluded, "Go home, drive carefully, hug your kids."

Back in the side room, the diehard vote counters, ramrodded by campaign manager Michael Moore, focused on Travis County, where liberal boxes in gay state Representative Glenn Maxey's district were reputed to be out. Then the spotlight turned to the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso. In a political emergency room, the doctors searched for a bolt of electricity to revive a fading patient. But the remaining boxes were too small and scattered to provide the needed margin for a predawn comeback. Having known the outcome for some time, a few staffers drifted out for a smoke, a drink, or plenty of both.

Within a few minutes, Paul Hobby began quietly embracing one person after another in the room and then on the balcony outside. If this is the future of the state Democratic party, it would just have to wait a few more years.

Hobby has an estimated personal wealth of $50 million and a newly built family nest in River Oaks, so his is a comfortable immediate future. Having thrown $2 million of his own cash into the race and made a respectable showing, he's still in a good position to run again for state office, presumably in a climate with more favorable political winds for Democrats. Hobby had really wanted to run for lieutenant governor this time around anyway, but was muscled out of the race by Comptroller Sharp. According to political sources close to Sharp, the comptroller is now likely to abandon state politics and concentrate on making money. Since Hobby does not have that problem, he could inherit the helm of the next statewide Democratic ticket, or perhaps political soul mate Al Gore's Texas effort in 2000, by default.

In an e-mail parry to a request for an interview several days later, Hobby wrote back: "I am trying to get people thanked properly and spend time with family. In the near term I have to look at my business options, and work to pay off my debt. I'm not thinking any farther than that."

Things were very, very proper at the GOP victory bash at the Renaissance [formerly Stouffer Hotel] next to the Compaq Center [formerly Summit].

 

Early in the evening, a crew of musicians played chamber instrumentals in the anteroom, and matrons modeled sequined American flag vests and sweaters in the crowd. U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison happily chatted in English with a Spanish-language station television reporter, while county chairman Gary Polland bustled about, touting the coming GOP sweep to anyone who would listen.

County Judge Robert Eckels pored over a computer web site with local election returns. The first gush of data on absentee and mail votes pretty much said it all concerning the judicial contests on the ballot. Every Republican with a Democratic opponent drew between 58 and 62 percent of the early vote, an advantage that would narrow but never disappear. The result is that, of the entire local judiciary, only one Democrat, District Judge Katie Kennedy, retains her seat, and that's because she wasn't up for re-election. At least there will be one more sitting duck incumbent on the ballot for Republican consultants to sharpen their carving knives on in 2000. After that, if the current electoral environment persists, Republicans desiring incumbent flesh will have to eat their own in the primary.

"Anything above a 60 percent lead in the early vote is an insurmountable lead," observed political consultant Allen Blakemore as he made his party rounds. "And because the Democrats put more of an effort this year in getting their people to early vote, I figure 58 percent is pretty safe, too."

Blakemore was right. One of the most competitive judicial contests -- pitting Democratic incumbent civil District Judge Kathy Stone against Sherry Radack, the attorney-wife of the controversial GOP county commissioner -- only narrowed to a 52-48 margin in favor of Radack, 267,585 to 245,639. Other incumbents carrying extra baggage, like renowned art collector John Devine and adulterous family law Judge Annette Galik, hardly seemed to suffer at all. Devine won by 6 percentage points and Galik 10.

Even more disturbing for the Democrats, the margin didn't seem much affected by the quality of the Democratic judicial candidates or the sophistication of their campaigns. Democratic attorney Sophia Androgue, whose campaign with polished TV commercials was considered one of the most effective, didn't do appreciably better against Jeff Work than other Democrats who ran minimal campaigns. All her endorsements and advertisements got her was a 4 percentage point defeat. Given the drubbing, Harris County Democratic Chair Sue Schechter will really have to lay on the schmooze to round up sacrificial lambs for future judicial contests.

The GOP lock on the judiciary is threatening to do what years of minority recruiting by the Republican Party hasn't. Although later returns showed that Democrats continued to harvest most of the African-American vote, black faces at the Republican victory party seemed much more numerous than in years past, along with the recognition that to have any chance of being elected a judge or being a gubernatorial appointment to a vacant bench, African-American attorneys would be wise to consider signing on with the GOP. That same "switch and win" reasoning process has drawn plenty of white former Democrats into Republican ranks here.

The process was at work last Tuesday night. Attorney Levi Benton, a former unsuccessful Democratic state rep candidate, circulated in the crowd at the Renaissance, and buttonholed party treasurer Paul Bettencourt, an easy winner over Ora Harrison for county tax assessor. With GOP District Judge Don Wittig on his way to winning an appeals court position, Benton suggested that Bettencourt put a good word in for him with Governor Bush's staff when it came time to appoint a replacement for Wittig.

As the Democrats learned long ago, a savvy splitting of electoral spoils is a sure-fire way to weld lasting coalitions with minorities. So far the GOP's Harris County judicial monopoly is translating into some opportunistic crossovers but little muscle at the black ballot boxes. While Governor George Bush managed to break 10 percent of the middle class black vote locally, down the ballot it was business as usual, with more than 95 percent of African-Americans and three-quarters of Hispanics voting Democratic. With minorities projected to dominate the county by the middle of the next decade, according to veteran Houston political scientists Richard Murray and Bob Stein, the one consolation for Democrats in their darkest night of the century is that faint glow on the horizon.

The fact that Texas was virtually the only good news for the GOP nationwide did not escape notice from the Democratic consultants whose candidates had been pulverized in Texas.

"I went to bed in one world where everything was lost," remarked Hobby consultant Dan McClung, "and then I picked up the New York Times the next morning and it was a wonderful day."

Of course, that's a little easier to say when you're the professional strategist eyeing future campaigns rather than the candidates who just got their brains beat out.

 

Join the after-election get-out-the-notes drive. Cast your news tips with The Insider. Call him at 280-2483, fax him at 280-2496 or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.


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