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The Day the Democrats Died

Crossover voting came of age in the latest primary.

Scott Gilbert

At least in the Heights, the new process of voting Republican was relatively painless. For the first time in 35 years as an eligible voter and in a decade at the same residence, this Houston native deserted the traditional Democratic primary stop. That meant bypassing Jones Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Eighth Street and slipping into the First Baptist Church Heights Fellowship Hall.

Holding down the fort in the combined precinct 351 (my stomping grounds in the rainbow-hued west Heights) and 353 (to the east and slightly older, whiter and more affluent) was the husband-and-wife GOP precinct worker team of Tim and Sharon Hattenbach. Both could pass for ex-hipsters and certainly would make any Democratic convert feel right at home.

They even graciously invited me to attend the precinct convention after the polls closed. But since party switching must be taken in small measures to avoid a fatal overdose, I prudently declined.

It was D day -- the day the Democrats at least temporarily died in Houston. If you wanted to have any say, no matter how feeble, in the choice of judges, sheriff or top prosecutor in Harris County, the only way to go was GOP. With George W. Bush heading the Republican ticket in a looming general election, the odds of any Democrat winning countywide, even the lone surviving Donkey Judge Eric Andell, seemed longer than ever.

Like the political dark ages in Texas from the end of the post-Civil War reconstruction era through the '60s, there was only one party's primary where the real decisions of power were made. Back then, it was the Democrats. Their dominant conservative wing warred with a steadily growing moderate and liberal faction that finally won power once blacks and Hispanics got the vote. Democratic conservatives bolted to become Republicans, who now hold sway even if the GOP is already showing its own intra-party fissures between westside religious conservatives and the pragmatics who hold office.

The Democratic slide accelerated in 1996, when the GOP had twice as many voters (161,946) as Democrats (85,211) entering polling places. In 1998 the county's Democratic voters sank to an all-time low of 32,213. Last week there was a record imbalance, with three times as many Republican voters (165,958) as Democrats (56,168). Turnout among Democrats for their primaries has also declined steadily since 1988, when 15 percent showed up at the polls. By 1998 it had dwindled to less than 2 percent, and barely perked above 3 percent last week.

My experience was duplicated all over town. It seemed like everyone wanted to sleep beside the pods. A lawyer friend known for his Democratic allegiances ventured into the River Oaks polling place at St. Anne's Catholic Church on Westheimer. "I went there to hijack!" he declares proudly, before displaying the typical switcher's paranoia. "They all looked at me like I was up to something when I went in and asked for my ballot."

Outside the holy environs, Republican campaign workers scuffled as one renegade tried to pass out flyers smearing John Culberson. The material accused the District 7 congressional candidate of being a Bill Clinton-like sleaze. "It's the worst insult there is, apparently, at the 'R' primary," reports my pal, a steadfast Clinton supporter.

A journalist friend declared his intention to vote GOP just to "pull it" for Arizona Senator John McCain, even though the Straight Talk Express had lost its motor and had its tires stripped at "Super Tuesday" the previous week.

Of course, not all such conversions take. Don Stowers, an energy newsletter editor and longtime Democrat in a gentrifying neighborhood near Bellaire and Stella Link, planned to vote GOP, but got cold feet at the last minute.

"When I walked in and saw what the people looked like who were voting in the Republican primary versus the paltry few on the Democratic side," says Stowers, "I just couldn't bring myself to do it."

And what did they look like? "There were just some stuffed shirts, whereas the Democratic people were just more laid-back and comfortable," Stowers says. "This neighborhood, especially with the new people moving in with the big houses, has become increasingly Republican."

A high-profile Rice academic retained his political monogamy this time around, but just barely.

"I tried to, but I just couldn't walk to the right," confesses the professor. "I really wanted to vote in the Republican primary, but I just couldn't. I've never done it."

Former city councilman Vince Ryan, a Democrat, also faced down the devil. "I was tempted to vote in the Republican primary, to vote on some of the judicial races in which there are no Democrats in the fall," explains Ryan. He says he stuck with the Democratic primary "so the numbers look good." That didn't take long -- there were no contested races on the ballot in his precinct.

Plenty of his fellow party members did defect. Democratic consultant Nancy Sims says her own husband, and lots of Democratic friends, took a walk on the wild side.

"There was nothing to vote for," says Sims of the paltry Democratic ballot. "Who's D.A. and who's judge are important, especially to the politically aware people. They felt to have any impact on decision-making they had to vote Republican."

Democratic Party chair Sue Schechter says one close friend told her she was voting Republican, and asked for advice on candidates to support. "I told her, 'I don't know,' " says Schechter. "I hadn't been keeping up with their candidates."

Ever the optimist, Schechter is ready to forget the primary debacle and get on with the contest that really counts: Al Gore versus Bush. Never mind that Houston is smack in the center of Bushland. If this were World War II, Schechter would organize the resistance in Berlin. For now, she'll settle for Republican-occupied Texas.

"It's been a hard struggle for us throughout the '90s, with President Bush at the top of the ticket and then George W.," says the party chair. "Our emphasis in November will be Al Gore; that's what people are interested in, a presidential race, and that's who we'll be focusing on."

Considering that Bush buried Democrat Garry Mauro in the governor's race two years ago, Schechter's mission would seem to have impossible written all over it. She disagrees.

"Garry didn't lay a glove on him," Schechter counters. She is ready for the intensive media coverage and debates in the one-on-one presidential contest. "Finally someone is going to talk about George Bush's record. Even if the party doesn't take out ads or go up on TV, people are going to hear about it."

Based on her party's turnout over the last decade in Harris County, Schechter's warning shouldn't cause Bush supporters to lose much sleep.

Kingmakers on the Blink?

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack easily won his primary race against marginal candidate "Texas" Sam Fayad last week, but his influence as a political mover and shaker absorbed a few dings. Radack threw the weight of his vaunted sign brigade behind district attorney hopeful Mike Stafford, only to see the assistant county attorney limp in fourth, barely ahead of Lloyd Kelley, in last place. Prosecutor Chuck Rosenthal and visiting Judge Pat Lykos will meet in the runoff in that race.

While Radack's own position is secure, his backing for other candidates has assumed a poisonous touch. He had succeeded in getting Willie Alexander appointed tax assessor-collector by Commissioners Court, only to have the Harris County Republican Executive Committee put Paul Bettencourt on the ballot to win in that race.

So is Radack's backing now the kiss of death in GOP circles? "If I hurt Michael Stafford, well, he asked for my help, and I tried to provide it," says Radack, admitting to the possibility that the association of the two might not have boosted Stafford's chances.

"It's certainly possible," Radack says. "Absolutely, there are people who don't like my politicsŠ.I have had people contact me and ask for my support in the runoff, so maybe somebody needs to tell some of these people running, 'cause they may be making a big mistake if I support them."

Westside religious activist Dr. Steven Hotze had endorsed two GOP challengers who lost to female incumbent judges. Sharolyn Wood beat Allan Davis, while Bush appointee Martha Hill Jamison easily defeated Frank Gerold on her way to a runoff with Joe Maida.

Asked whether the election results depreciate the value of Hotze's endorsement, Radack opines, "I would say the numbers bear that out."

The two tarnished kingmakers do agree on one race. Both are in Rosenthal's runoff corner. And look for Radack to be working the highways and byways for Rosenthal. After all, even if Stafford lost the primary, according to Radack, "he definitely won the sign war."

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