Party of One
State Representative Ron Wilson has always marched to the beat of a different drummer, rarely falling in line with his colleagues in the Harris County Democratic delegation and frequently skewering them with verbal zingers and legislative booby traps.
Now that he's the only black Texas lawmaker to have voted for the controversial Republican-crafted redistricting plan, Wilson has formally declared war on the party's white liberal establishment and many of his fellow African-American officials.
After a turn on the witness stand two weeks ago in the Democratic lawsuit challenging the plan, Wilson attacked colleague Garnet Coleman for his history of manic depression. Many considered it a low blow, but that was just one more unstatesmanlike wisecrack in an ongoing torrent of invective by the Houston legislator.
What hasn't surfaced publicly is an incendiary deposition in which Wilson opens up on a handful of elected Democrats, using language that makes his comments about Coleman seem tame by comparison.
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Wilson took a shot at state Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston, testifying that "he's got his head up his ass half the time." Just to help the court reporter, Wilson spelled it out: "A-S-S. Ass."
Ellis "is taking a position that black people don't deserve another seat in Congress," Wilson explained later to The Insider. To describe minority officials who fought the redistricting plan, Wilson used some rather charged racial imagery:
"That's the effect of all this dancing around, shuffling and jiving, and the tap dancing. They are saying to the public, black people do not deserve another seat in Congress, even though the population is there to justify it."
Wilson was asked during his December 1 deposition whether he was supporting the plan because he intends to run for the redrawn Ninth Congressional District against 25th District incumbent Chris Bell. Wilson claimed that Coleman was spreading that rumor, sounding "like some old, whiney, 3-year old girl." A bit later, Wilson opined that "I don't consider [Coleman] an African American."
After the deposition, he contended that Coleman "has placed the interest of party politics and his own economic welfare above the interests of African-Americans, the community I represent. He's seen fit to sing the piper's tune and to be Chris Bell's boy by betraying black people."
If the plan stands, Bell would have to run for election in the redrawn Ninth District, which is dominated by African-Americans. Although Wilson denied he plans to run against Bell, he said any qualified black would win. "I think he gets his butt kicked," opined Wilson, who later said he'd bet his house that Bell will lose.
Wilson also accused Coleman of being indebted to white Democrats because he receives large cash payments through his media buying firm, Coleman Strategies.
He "takes it in and doesn't have to report to anybody how he spends it. He literally makes his living being a leech off of campaigns."
Coleman responds that most of his company's campaign work has been pro bono -- unpaid -- and he has made little from Coleman Strategies. He points out that Wilson's position, as the only one of 16 African-Americans in the legislature to vote for redistricting, speaks for itself.
"I don't know that anyone understands Ron but Ron, but it's clear that he's gone over the top in his comments, and that is unfortunate. He's really gone over the top in the policy positions he's taken vis-à-vis his constituents." As examples, Coleman cites Wilson's votes against hate-crime legislation and for a budget that eliminated health care dollars for low-income children.
Congressman Bell previously criticized Wilson for improper conversations with U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a key backer of the redistricting effort.
"Bell cannot tell me who I can and cannot talk to," Wilson told The Insider. "As a member of Congress, he talked to Tom DeLay a number of times and that's okay. That's why I say he's a racist bastard. That's the arrogant attitude he has, and why he shouldn't be in Congress."
"Representative Wilson's comment about me is as ludicrous as the other comments he's been making lately," replies Bell, who notes that Wilson endorsed him in his 2002 race. "The only thing he can accuse me of is being a good Democrat who has fought for the party and not Tom DeLay."
Even Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee came in for some verbal pummeling from Wilson after her court testimony against redistricting.
"She thinks she can spend all of her career just berating people, jumping on 'em and calling 'em out every chance she gets. And when they get ready to draw the lines, does she honestly think they're going to help her? I don't think so!"
In his deposition, Wilson portrayed himself as a minor player in the redistricting drama who recognized the Republicans would win, so he was trying to at least salvage a second black congressional seat for Harris County blacks. "Stevie Wonder can see the Republicans have the numbers...You can scream, you can holler, you can beat your wife, you can cry to your girlfriend; if the numbers are there, they're there."
Perhaps the most pungent unreported trial verbiage came in an exchange between Wilson and the Democrats' pro bono attorney, Susman Godfrey partner Lee Godfrey. Asked by Godfrey if he was the only black to support redistricting, Wilson answered, "I am the only one that had the -- things -- big enough to do it."
Godfrey then noted that "those things are not something we can see as we're sitting here, would that be correct?" Wilson invited Godfrey to come up to the witness stand and "I'll show it to you." A trial lawyer claims that Wilson muttered under his breath -- not on the record -- to Godfrey: "You'll see the rumors about black men are true!"
Wilson contends he actually whispered, "You'll see the rumors about black men aren't true." In the context of the testimony, that explanation doesn't make sense.
Given the heightened hostility between Wilson and the party establishment, it's certain he'll face a challenge in the spring Democratic primary. State Board of Education member Alma Allen ran against Wilson two years ago and will likely get support from peeved party officials eager to remove a major embarrassment.
"If he gets an opponent, it will be because somebody doesn't like how they're being represented," says Representative Coleman. "I believe there are people out there who live in District 131 who do not believe they've been well represented."
"They've been trying that for the last two years, and I expect them to keep trying," responds Wilson, who shows no signs of cooling his rhetoric. "But Chris Bell's got more to worry about than someone running against me. What he's got to worry about is somebody running against him, in a district that's going to be over 70 percent African-American."
Bell claims to be unconcerned. Referring to the representative's wager of his house on a Bell defeat, the congressman chortles: "If you look at polls, it looks like Mr. Wilson will be moving soon."
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