Licking Their Wounds
Republicans still dominate Harris County, but an inside-the-party tiff may be a harbinger of harder times ahead
The great Harris County GOP tax assessor-collector shootout of 1998 is now history, and triage reports on the political damage are still pouring in. Few participants escaped the scattershot without minor wounds, and the roster of walking wounded ranges from the party's self-touted racially inclusive image to the judicial aspirations of commissioner Steve Radack's wife.
With demographic forces inexorably eating away at a decade of GOP dominance in Harris County, the spectacle of Republicans bashing Republicans had the earmarks of a party so blinded by success it may be forfeiting its future in a binge of internal rivalries, and fracturing its base instead of diversifying it. This fight operated on so many levels of animosity, the audience needed a program to follow it.
In round one, commissioner Radack bulldozed through commissioners court the interim appointment of former pro football player and black Republican businessman Willie Alexander as tax assessor to fill out the term of the late Democratic incumbent Carl Smith. In doing so, Radack indulged his pretensions as county political kingmaker while playing Sluggo to his favorite Mr. Bill, County Judge Robert Eckels. Radack brushed aside Eckels's plea that the court wait until the party executive committee named a nominee to run for tax assessor before it filled the seat on an interim basis. The two Democrats on the court joined Radack and GOP commissioner Jerry Eversole in supporting Alexander.
Radack also got in some good licks at another of his least favorite local Republicans, county party chairman Gary Polland, by putting the commissioner's man, Alexander, in the office over Polland protege Paul Bettencourt and then daring the party to snub a qualified African-American. The reply wasn't long in coming.
In round two, the county GOP executive committee, composed of the party precinct chairmen, struck back, naming party vice chair Bettencourt as the party nominee for the tax assessor post on next November's ballot. Alexander didn't even make second. That honor went to county treasurer Don Sumners, who had himself been ousted as the party nominee for treasurer in the spring primary by Radack-supported Jack Cato.
The executive committee vote made neophyte public servant Alexander the lamest of lame ducks. Just about the time he learns where the bathroom and coffee machine are located, he'll be vacating his county office.
Since Democrats settled for a no-name CPA, Ora Harrison, as their tax assessor candidate, nobody expects Bettencourt to have much trouble capturing the office for the GOP in November.
"This race was no more about Willie Alexander and Paul Bettencourt than the man in the moon," says GOP consultant Allen Blakemore. "You could have switched those two people, or substituted different characters. This was entirely about a power play between Radack and Eckels, between commissioners court and the executive committee, between the executive committee and Radack, and between Radack and Gary Polland. It wasn't about the people who were voted on at all."
What it was all about varies, depending on the participant questioned.
According to Radack, in pushing Alexander's candidacy, he was giving his party a chance to reach out to minority voters. "I think it was an opportunity missed," says the commissioner, who then drew a bead on the party chairman. "The person who should be the most embarrassed by it all is Gary Polland," sniped Radack, "because he was the advocate of the open tent. This was his term. This was what he wanted. He was the one boasting and talking about minority outreach programs."
Predictably, Polland doesn't see it in quite those terms. "I think there was the thought that if a minority candidate was put forward by Radack, the party couldn't turn him down." says Polland, who then offers the commissioner some advice. "Go play that game in the Democratic party. That's where they play that game. We don't do that."
Polland cites the victory of black former prosecutor Mike Fields over a white county court incumbent in this spring's GOP primary as proof the party is reaching across ethnic lines.
By setting up Alexander, Radack effectively cast the party precinct and district chair people as racially intolerant heavies, a role that left some of the key members of the group fuming, despite the fact that their man won. Senate 6 district chair Mike Dugas accused Radack of playing "the race card" in an attempt to fill the tax assessor position with a yes man. According to Dugas, Radack previously executed the same maneuver in backing Mike Fleming for county attorney and Jack Cato for county treasurer.
Dugas then skewered Radack with the ultimate Republican insult. "I think Mr. Radack would make a good candidate for president on the Democratic ticket," says Dugas. "He lies, he has Clinton-type arrogance, he would make a wonderful Democrat. In my estimation, he is totally out of touch with the Republican party , especially the grassroots conservatives."
Dugas figures Radack used Alexander as a stand-in for his political grudge match. "Radack played him like a violin, man, and just threw him out there to play the race card. Radack thinks he's a legend in his own mind, that if they don't put Willie in, they're racist, and if they do put him in, well, then he got what he wanted. He thinks it's win-win. Personally, I think it's lose-lose."
One of the few black GOP executive committee members, Jim Bowie, says that when the commissioners court reneged on its promise to let the group select a nominee before it made an interim appointee, "We just had to send them a message. Unfortunately, Willie Alexander got caught in the middle." Bowie advised Alexander in advance that he had no chance to win, but Alexander chose to continue after being assured by Radack he could win.
Senate 6 chair Sheryl Berg believes Radack placed the party officials in the position of looking like bigots just to further his own agenda. Since Radack's wife, Sherry, is a judicial candidate facing one of the last Democrats left on the county bench, Kathy Stone, Berg figures some party activists may transfer their anger from the commissioner to his spouse.
"It's going to hurt her, and that's the sad thing," opines Berg. "As much as I was saying [the executive committee vote] was not a retaliation vote against Steve Radack, it was a blunder move on his part, and I think it's going to hurt his wife, 'cause he's certainly not reaching out to the grassroots."
"In order to do that, somebody would have to just not vote or bring themselves to vote for a Democrat," muses Dugas. "Of course, I've voted for a few Democrats in my life, but very few."
You get the feeling that with a little help from Steve Radack, Kathy Stone just might be in a position to join that select group.
With a lock on county-wide elected positions now that tax assessor Smith is gone and only two Democratic judges are left, perhaps Republicans can be forgiven for indulging in intra-family squabbles. But according to political scientists at UH and Rice, that dominance is waning, and the party is going to have to start translating its diversity rhetoric into action to stay on top. Whatever Radack's personal motivations might have been in pushing Alexander for tax assessor, he was on solid statistical grounds.
According to UH Center for Public Policy director Richard Murray, the GOP tide that flowed into the county starting in the late '70s is now draining into neighboring Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. Since 1990, census figures indicate that 100,000 mostly Anglo residents have moved out of Harris County, which registered a net population gain of about 50,000, says Murray, thanks to the arrival of 150,000 people of either Hispanic or Asian extraction born outside the United States.
"It's not so much that those populations are Democratic, because they're not very political," says Murray. "It's the loss of the 100,000 Anglo votes that's undermining the Republican base."
Because Republicans currently receive less than 5 percent of the county black vote and approximately 25 percent of the Hispanic total, if that ratio holds into the next decade, the numbers game is weighted in favor of a Democratic future.
"The Republican party problem here is that they remain in terms of vote support almost exclusively an Anglo party," says Murray. "And the Anglo percentage in Harris County is just dropping below 50 percent. The long-term health of the party depends on it becoming much more diverse, or it will be the minority party."
Rice University Social Sciences Dean Bob Stein concurs with Murray on the numbers, but gives the figures a slightly different spin. Stein says that while Radack had the right idea in pushing party diversification, his candidate was a member of the wrong ethnic group.
"The future of the Republican party in the South is the Hispanic voter, not the black vote," says Stein, who points out that it is hard to appeal to both blacks and browns at the same time, since the two blocs often view themselves in competition.
"What they probably want to do is go after the Hispanic vote. African-American voters are just never going to find a comfortable place in the Republican party, particularly in the South. According to Stein, while black population growth in the area has slowed to rates similar to Anglo growth, the momentum is all on the side of Hispanics.
"In the Hispanic community, fertility rates are significantly greater, in-migration is greater, they have a traditional family, conservative public-policy perspective, and they see themselves often at odds with blacks. If you're looking to build your party, are you going to go to the AA or Hispanic voter?"
"It's clear you go to the Hispanic voter. They're the future in this region."
Given the potential receptiveness of Hispanics to GOP appeals, Stein is critical of the GOP conservative leadership in Harris County for not making a greater effort to reach out. "Gary Polland is a jerk," snaps Stein, "and these guys are at odds even with Governor Bush. Give them a million bucks [for minority outreach] and they wouldn't know what to do with it."
Murray cautions that writing off the black vote carries considerable risk for the GOP. To continue to concede 95 percent of a large, disciplined vote to the Democrats makes it almost impossible to maintain control of the county as the white vote dwindles.
Businessman Bowie, the only black man to serve on the GOP state executive committee this century, figures the party will broaden its base when it faces losing that hard-won dominance. He jokes that when he joined the party 30 years ago, the local GOP membership couldn't have filled a phone booth.
"What the Republican party has going for it now is that it's winning without the minority vote," says Bowie. "We don't have to spend one second getting anybody over to anywhere, because we're winning.
"Now, when that changes ... well, everybody wants to be a winner."
County Judge Eckels, who declined to vote for Willie Alexander's appointment, says the appointee "was set up from the beginning, and we did a disservice to him and to the party by taking the action we did at the commissioners court." If so, you'd never know it by talking to the interim tax assessor, who seems happy to enjoy a few months in the high-profile post before returning to private life. In fact, Alexander is counting on his new political profile for future forays into GOP electoral politics.
"Now everybody knows I'm out there," says Alexander of the publicity blitz that came with his appointment. Noting that he lost the nomination because he did not have the support of the party bureaucracy, the black Republican vows to get acquainted with a new circle of political friends.
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"I listened to those folks on the grassroots," says the tax assessor-collector for four months. "They said, 'Hey, we don't know you.' So I'm going to go back at that lower level -- work both ends -- and if the right opportunity comes along, I'll jump in."
Alexander's formula for wooing the black vote for his party in the future is to present himself first, and his party second. "I want people to vote for me because of the ideals I espouse," declares Alexander. "Strong family, less government, private sector leading the way. For those of you who believe as I believe, vote for me, I'm Willie Alexander, and, oh, by the way, I'm a Republican."
The future of the GOP in Harris County likely depends on getting the mostly white party rank-and-file to adopt an attitude with Alexander and other minority hopefuls: "Oh, by the way, he or she is black/brown/Asian, too." Otherwise, they just might find themselves back in that little old phone booth one of these years.
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