The Tea Party Democrat
Lloyd Oliver wants toilet paper. Of the many troubling issues assailing his considerable girth and loosening composure at this precise moment, it is toilet paper, he concludes, that may grant him some modicum of sanity. It's all gotten to be too much. For starters, Lloyd can't breathe beyond a wheeze or bend over, not since that tumble he took some days ago while slapping up campaign signs on Kirby. Also, Lloyd's hungry. He didn't have anything that morning but coffee, never does. Next, his case file folder has somehow gone missing, though its cover screams in red and blue: LLOYD OLIVER ATTORNEY AT LAW. On top of all that, there's that bald bailiff. Oh, Lord, the bailiff, Lloyd says. What a tyrant of a man. He's hollering at Lloyd to stop talking though Lloyd hadn't been talking. The sweats have started, Lloyd realizes. It oozes from his every pore. He can feel it. He can't think. He needs air. Lloyd Oliver wants toilet paper.
"Why don't you go run on into that stall and get me some of that toilet paper," he says to me, after finding the napkin dispenser fresh out of napkins inside the 17th-floor men's room at the Harris County criminal courthouse. "Those damned judges," Lloyd says, though it's unclear what sway a judge would have on the napkin situation. "When I'm Harris County district attorney, we're gonna keep these things stocked full of napkins." Pause. "Ah! My back. I'm wacked out on so much pain, things ain't making a lot o' sense."
I'm holding most of Lloyd's things. This includes a bevy of folders, notepads and several Lloyd Oliver business cards. Lloyd is staring at the mirror, and his reflection, a mustachioed and squat apparition with a stomach like a potbelly stove, grimaces back. Lloyd, wearing an American flag tie and Texas pin, is squeezed into a navy blue suit and black tennis shoes he bought at Walmart. I get the TP and hand him a clump, stepping away. He pats at the globs of perspiration. "Oooh, wow" he lets out. "Now, that's better." Bits of toilet paper stick to his face here and there, but Lloyd either doesn't notice or doesn't mind, and barrels back outside to meet a client at "his desk" — a trash can in the corner. "This here is where I do most of my business," he says.
Lloyd Oliver, the Democratic nominee for district attorney, is an elemental being. Where other lawyers and politicians sashay and schmooze, Lloyd waddles, sweats and curses. He compliments women frequently on whatever "fine aroma" they may be wearing. He characterizes certain teenage girls as "sticking out every which way you can imagine." He finds flip-flops effeminate and can't imagine how an upstanding man could attract a woman without a pickup truck. He considers the consumption of bananas and almonds "eating like a horse." He has "great credit" at a Starbucks on Travis Street. He contends domestic violence is a "prelude to lovemaking." He is wary of Seattle because of all the "queers holding hands" and the "rag heads." He loves soup. And his opinion of the local Democratic leadership? "Frustrated homosexuals."
They're not too fond of him, either. After Lloyd, a criminal defense lawyer, ousted favorite Zack Fertitta in the primaries last May, the Democrats were seized by apoplexy and started doing embarrassing things. It started with Gerald Birnberg. The former chairman of the Harris County Democrats read the Houston Chronicle on May 30, saw a picture of Lloyd smirking beneath his mustache like some mischievous back-country sheriff and found out what he had to say. Like always, it was a lot. "If I could have voted in the Republican primary, (incumbent Republican Pat Lykos) would have gotten my vote," Lloyd said, adding that his opponent, Mike Anderson, would make a better prison guard than district attorney.
Birnberg dispatched a letter to the new chairman, Lane Lewis, who looped in the state Democrats. All agreed: Lloyd had endorsed a Republican, and had to go. They'd rather have no Democrat at all than Lloyd Oliver. But Lloyd wasn't going down like that. He challenged their decision in state court, and later won. "Where do you two goobers get the idea that you have the right to trump 30,000 good Democrats who voted for me?" he wrote in a formal complaint. "I heard you two clowns were lawyers. I want to see your Texas Bar card."
It was an old-fashioned Texas bar fight. The Democrats' complaint against Lloyd was pretty straightforward: He isn't, in fact, a Democrat. He's a Republican. They fretted Lloyd could bring down the entire ticket. He's run for office five times, usually as a Republican, the squeals went. Lloyd doesn't perceive much of an issue in this. So what if he is a Republican? he asks. Would that be so bad? Besides, party affiliations or political clout don't interest him. Such intangibles fail to juice the Oliver aesthetic. What he's after, along with getting his message out, is more business.
One of the unintended aspects of our democratic process is that it's a wonderful instrument of capitalism. And if there's anything Lloyd always wants more of, it's business. He's shameless about it. Lloyd lays it out like this: His name is the best advertisement he's got. So he plasters LLOYD OLIVER in boldface on everything. On his folders. On his pickup trucks. On his clocks. Every woman who's married him — four and counting — has taken his name; Lloyd wouldn't have had it any other way. "Never trust a woman with two last names," he admonishes.
Then there was the fact that most of his clients are low-income, minorities and Democrats. Why, Lloyd mentioned one day over iced vanilla coffee, he would be foolish to ride anything other than the Donkey.
Lloyd's wanton pursuit of business, however, has landed him in trouble a few times. In 2009, he was nearly indicted (it was no-billed) for barratry, the improper solicitation of clients, when he gave a six-foot seven-inch homeless man named Perry Mason a pair of size-17 shoes, a Whataburger double-meat burger, $20 and a stack of Lloyd Oliver business cards to hand out outside the Harris County Jail. Lloyd says he perhaps has more "gypsy cab drivers" out there, "but [I] don't pay them nothing." This, Lloyd argues, isn't a crime, but clean and simple entrepreneurialism. In fact, Lloyd hopes Perry Mason's still out there. (Perry Mason is.)
Under ordinary circumstances, Lloyd, who spent only $325 on the primaries, would be gone already, like his four campaigns before, while stronger candidates marched ahead. But through a strange string of events, he's somehow wiggled into the Democratic nominee slot after doing very, very little to get there. And now, Lloyd, an object of derision for Democrats and amusement for Republicans, called a "joke" by attorneys and pundits, nearly penniless and uninsured, indicted for bribery in 1988 in state criminal court and divorced, may actually win the entire election, bringing a bizarre climax to an otherwise troubled career. With the presidential election looming and the rise of straight-ticket voting, if Republicans founder under Mitt Romney and Barack Obama takes Harris County as he did in 2008, Lloyd may well be the burr that gets carried in, too.
Lloyd knows this, and understands his campaign may not matter much. So if he's going in, he's going to do it the Lloyd Oliver way.
"I'm the Tea Party Democrat!" he roared suddenly one day recently while driving to a PBS debate against his opponent, Mike Anderson. The sound of this pleased Lloyd. He began to laugh. "Yessir, the Tea Party Democrat. Ha! How 'bout that?"
On a recent Sunday morning, the Tea Party Democrat was splayed out on his living-room floor, inert, wearing just underwear and craving orange juice. Lloyd's back was bothering him something fierce, he said over the telephone describing his undress, and the only thing that made it feel any better "was to lie down on the damned floor." By the time I arrived an hour later at Lloyd's blue-shingled house, he was upright, wet from the shower, and wearing a white polo and camouflage shorts, his gray eyes big and glassy. He asked me inside. I entered, and found myself in the peculiar position of existing inside the Lloyd Oliver subconscious.
It was difficult to pinpoint what, exactly, was the most curious thing inside Lloyd's house. It could have been all the antique guns and knives, or the Republican paraphernalia everywhere. George W. Bush smiled from an image on Lloyd's fridge. Ronald Reagan flexed, shirtless, in another picture. Or maybe it was the giant jar of condoms on Lloyd's toilet beside the only Democratic sticker in the house — "Where it belongs," Lloyd said, chuckling.
But the wackiness only reached an apogee with all the asses and boobs. Hanging from the back of Lloyd's bathroom door was a naked female mannequin. Next to Lloyd's piano glowered a large-breasted bust of a black woman wearing star-studded sunglasses. In Lloyd's bedroom, beside a painting of a naked woman, there were more butts and boobs. "Have you seen my dad's house?" Lloyd's daughter, Paige, asked. "My dad's a single guy. He's definitely a ladies' man. He loves the ladies."
On this there's no argument. Machismo is very important to Lloyd. Wherever he goes, he's on the prowl for babes. Sitting in a coffee shop, he scoped them coming in and out. Crammed into an elevator, he crooned at a beautiful woman, who giggled. Lloyd, hair and mustache dyed charcoal black, has more dates than any 69-year-old man has a right to. And, in a way, this is awesome.
But it also speaks to a certain sadness in Lloyd that he'd never admit to — "happiest guy you'd ever meet" — though it's almost immediately salient. Lloyd is very alone, and often laments the mistakes he's made with women. "Should have held onto that one," Lloyd said of his third wife. "What a woman. But I messed it up. I'd come home after all the stresses and demands piling up on me, and would crash out and not want to do a damned thing."
With the exception of his daughter and sisters, women have always been transient in Lloyd's life. They come, but more often they've gone. Born in 1943 in Lubbock, Lloyd was raised in Dallas by his father and whatever woman his father happened to be with at the time. Robert Oliver was divorced four times. Just like Lloyd. When Lloyd turned 18, he moved out on his own, because that's what a man does.
Lloyd spends a lot of time thinking and talking about what a man should, and should not, do. A man should wear cowboy boots. A man should respect his mama and love his "little babies," he explained to one of his clients who was caught with some drugs and guns. A man's dinner should be made by his wife, and that dinner should be ready when that man arrives at home. "I'm a man of my times," Lloyd says often. "And I don't apologize for it."
The changes of today discomfort Lloyd. He distrusts social media — "No one's going to Twitter my ass." He doesn't understand why women now take two last names after marriage. "Pick a name, honey," he cautions, "pick a name." He doesn't like Mexico's burgeoning influence in Texas. "I love Texas. I love America. I do not love Mexico," he said, walking into a Mexican restaurant to consume vegetable soup. And he's apprehensive of homosexuality. That matter, more than anything else, shatters Lloyd's jovial temperament.
One day, I told Lloyd about some disparaging things a prominent local Democrat named David Jones had had to say about him. Jones had called Lloyd a joke and friendless. This upset Lloyd very much. He brought it up six times that afternoon. Lloyd said he has lots of friends — and gave me the numbers of several men to prove it. But his immediate reaction was that Jones, who by every account is straight, must be gay. "David Jones is a homosexual, and like most homosexuals he's frustrated," Lloyd said. "He's embarrassed. So he's a frustrated homosexual — what do you expect?"
Actually, there is one thing that no one, including David Jones, including Lloyd, did expect: That Lloyd would defeat Zack Fertitta in the Democratic primaries. There were several reasons for the bewilderment. For one, Lloyd did absolutely no campaigning. He plunked down his $1,250 to enter the race, bought a few signs that said "Lloyd Oliver For District Attorney No More Chicken Sh—" and "then went home and watched TV."
Fertitta, meanwhile, had pumped $100,000 into his campaign, secured important backers and hit the obligatory but important stops. Things appeared to be humming, and Fertitta said he was already focusing on the general election. But then, through no effort of his own, Lloyd somehow achieved overwhelming support among black voters. There was profound confusion over this. Rice University Political Scientist Bob Stein said he suspects it was because Lloyd's name sounds blacker.
With the added push, an accident of democracy that could have only occurred at the local level unfolded. Lloyd got 30,800 votes — 3,000 more than Fertitta. "I've never seen anything like it," said Adam Harris, Fertitta's campaign strategist. "We have no idea. Literally. No idea."
His dismay in part relates to Lloyd's voluminous past, which Lloyd readily acknowledges. "I got some skeletons in the closet," he said. "And some of them got some meat on 'em." Beyond the barratry charge involving Perry Mason — which he was nearly indicted for twice — the State Bar of Texas suspended his law license for 11 months in the mid-1980s. Lloyd, with another lawyer, had apparently hoodwinked a woman "with limited education" out of 26 acres and then committed perjury during the fallout, according to a state District Court decision. In strangeness only befitting Lloyd, he'd told prosecutors he barely knew Brenda Oliver, who'd helped him in the ruse, though, in fact, she'd once been his wife, as well as the mother of his child.
"So I took a vacation," Lloyd said, denying any wrongdoing. "Still don't have a problem with that."
Later, in 1989, he was indicted and tried for allegedly tampering with a witness and for bribery. The grand jury said Lloyd and another attorney, Thomas Beech, had funneled $15,000 to a parlor masseuse so she wouldn't testify against her ex-husband, 68, who'd allegedly had sex with her 13-year-old daughter. Lloyd was arrested while picking up the money at a bank but was later acquitted, though there had been tape recordings documenting apparent collusion. Lloyd maintains the money he got for the woman was her divorce settlement, and in no way a bribe.
At Lloyd's 1993 acquittal, his elation was expansive. According to a Houston Chronicle article at the time, he even referred to one prosecutor as "fair and a gentleman." Beech did not get off, however, and subsequently ditched town and became a bank robber in Arizona.
And the last reason his primary victory shocks is that Lloyd Oliver is just so undeniably Lloyd Oliver. He wallows in self-identity. It cloaks him like a trench coat. There's very little that's subdued about the man — and sometimes he seems almost make-believe. His zeal for women, his slow guttural timbre, the fact that the American flag factors so prominently in his wardrobe, it's almost like he's constantly auditioning for the role of Lloyd Oliver. And it's a character that very badly wants to be liked. One day at the Harris County criminal courthouse, as we ambled down the hallways, Lloyd was all backslaps, belly laughs and introductions. Everyone was his pal. Lloyd said if the election were held among attorneys, he'd trounce Mike Anderson. No question about it.
But is that true? Or instead, do snickers follow Lloyd? Nearly 90 percent of the members of the Houston Bar Association say Lloyd isn't qualified to be district attorney, according to a poll earlier this year. "He has this persona of a bumbling doofus," said Murray Newman, who manages a popular blog on Harris County criminal justice. "He wants it to seem harmless, adding that few attorneys respect him, either on the prosecution or the defense side of the aisle. "He just says and does incredibly stupid things."
That may be a little too hard on Lloyd. He was smart enough to bat away those indictments. He was smart enough to do right by his daughter, Paige, who says she respects him more every day. And he was smart enough to realize that in politics, if you just keep hurling shit at the wall, sooner or later, some of it's going to stick.
Little else, though, was sticking for Lloyd one Wednesday morning at 8. The coffee was on, and Lloyd sloshed some into a big clay mug, adding vanilla cream.
His back, he said. His accursed back. He had an appointment with a chiropractor, Bobbie Stowe, that morning to see if he could get some help. In the days before, I had carted around with Lloyd in a behemoth white Ford F250 a lot, often driving because Lloyd's back hurt. He'd sprawl out in the passenger seat and enter lengthy monologues on anything from politics to whether or not crack residue alone merits a conviction. These drives took us to a lot of places. We went to a very impoverished neighborhood, where Lloyd knocked on doors and declined to specify why. We went to the home of a "big ol' black woman and her ugly Mexican husband" to deliver some clothing Lloyd had laundered for their children. We got lost in search of a soup restaurant.
So this morning I asked Lloyd if he wanted me to drive. Today he did not. We climbed into the truck, and for a time Lloyd mused. "I think America's ready for a conservative Democrat," he said several times. But if true, how would Lloyd let them know he's it? Lloyd had lots of campaign signs in the back of his truck, but it's very likely they're pretty much useless — if anything, his primary victory underscores the irrelevance of local campaigns. Life on the campaign trail in small-ball politics can be strange and humbling. Everyone's attention rests elsewhere. No one knows who you are. "There are forces beyond me at work," Lloyd said, referring to the presidential election.
What Lloyd proves, actually, is that anyone can win locally. Consider the upcoming election. There will be all sorts of positions that will require your vote, and your decision will likely hinge on whether there's a D or R next to a name. In 2008, more than 65 percent of voters in Harris County went straight ticket. This year, some polls show, that number will hit at least 75 percent, maybe higher.
This has been one of the most quantifiable effects of the intensifying polarization we see all around us. The only thing that matters, explained one fervent Tea Party supporter at a recent rally, is someone's party. "True liberals and true conservatives are as far apart as Satan and Jesus," he said. More troubling yet, one must wonder whether partisanship has any place in local politics. What does political affiliation matter to a constable or superintendent?
Lloyd never expected to be in the position he's in now, had barely even asked for it. "Dumb luck," he said. And yet the nomination's been thrust upon him and gotten all these new thoughts going, dragging out a vein of existentialism. Maybe all of this was meant to be? He didn't know. As we walked into Bobbie Stowe's office at a small gym pulsing with techno music and lithe bodies, a lot of things seemed to be happening inside Lloyd's head.
Buff, tan and 60, Stowe was standing when we arrived. He'd already drunk nine cups of coffee that day. It was 9 a.m. Over the next few minutes, and for reasons unclear, Stowe explained he's often smarter than his patients and can bench more than his son, who, Stowe assured, "is a horse." Stowe's confidence and fitness appeared to transform Lloyd. He became insecure. He wouldn't talk. And when he did, his voice lacked his usual Texas bravado.
It was almost as if he knew what was coming. Stowe's chastisement of Lloyd was lengthy and thorough. Lloyd, according to Stowe, does just about everything wrong. He doesn't drink enough water. He doesn't eat the right foods. He never exercises. His insides are all messed up. They're like beef jerky. Lloyd's thyroid's no good. He may develop diabetes, if he doesn't have it already. Lloyd could die very soon.
"Lloyd's unhealthy," Stowe said, "because of this." Stowe patted Lloyd's belly. Stowe then eased Lloyd down onto an operating table and began to massage Lloyd's buttocks. The manifesto continued. At one point, the Paleolithic Era was even cited to evidence Lloyd's state of unhealth. He asked Lloyd what he'd eaten the night before, and Lloyd said he'd had Mexican food with two women. "Well, did you eat them, too?" Stowe responded, laughing.
Lloyd said he's trying. Really, he is. It's just this damn campaign. He gets home at night, he said, emotionally and physically drained, and pillages the fridge, "eating up anything I can, and then pass out in front of the television, and get up the next day and do it all over again." In a rare moment of emotional authenticity, Lloyd shook his head slowly. He seemed confused and depressed and tired. "I do not take care of myself, correct," he said, looking away. Lloyd paid Stowe $50 in cash and headed back outside.
I met him at his truck. Lloyd was sweating and putting on an American flag tie. He had to meet several clients at the courthouse, and his spirits were again high. He wanted to talk about the campaign and his opponent. Mike Anderson, he reminded lest I'd forgotten, is a tyrant. And that doctor? he said. "It's easy for him to stay in such shape. He's got that gym right there. It's easy when you have that, and a wife making all your meals for you." I asked Lloyd if he wished he still had a wife.
"Excuse me, are you ever lonely? What, about ten minutes out of the day? Big deal! Am I lonely? Do I get depressed? Maybe about ten minutes a day. The rest of it, I'm a happy guy. I enjoy myself. I do what I want to do. How could it get any better than this? I don't have some woman ragging on me all the time, making me do shit. I do what I want to, when I want to."
The vulnerabilities of the morning had vanished. And Lloyd was again playing Lloyd Oliver.
The next day, several men conspired around an oak conference table and drank weak coffee. Lloyd was at some friends' law offices on Texas, getting advice. In an hour, he had a debate with Mike Anderson on the local PBS show Red, White and Blue. The men wondered what questions Lloyd would get. Would the indictments come up? They'd heard local Democrat David Jones, who despises Lloyd, was the moderator and were worried what would happen.
Lloyd's entire campaign staff was also present. It's a staff of one — Justin Silver, 23, whom Lloyd hasn't been keen on from the get-go. Lloyd said he's never asked — too embarrassed — but has quietly wondered whether Silver is a homosexual. Silver, who is indeed gay, said Lloyd's reservations don't bother him. Even if Lloyd knew about his sexuality, he said, he doubts he would be treated differently. Lloyd's a good man, Silver said, and places him in a historical context. He perhaps does this to lend Lloyd a measure of absolution. He's from another time, Silver said. Lloyd is who he is.
But that was exactly what had Lloyd so concerned on the ride over to the debate. He expressed trepidation over how people would perceive him. He admitted he's politically incorrect. Is it wrong to use the word "faggot?" Or to call those who work on domestic violence "Nazi feminists?" More than anything, Lloyd said, he was worried about letting everyone down. He was scared to fail. "You know, I'm not a fearless man. What if I came away after a four-year stint in office as being a bozo and a clown? I'd be so ashamed."
But it's as though Lloyd can't help himself. He was, after all, driving around with a handicapped dangler hanging from his rearview mirror even though he's not handicapped. And when he got to the debate at the University of Houston, he joked with a receptionist that he couldn't remember why he was there, and then scrawled "no idea" on the sign-in form. It's as though he doesn't understand how foolish such antics — though perhaps endearing — would make a 69-year-old man look.
Mike Anderson, Lloyd saw on the sign-in sheet, had already arrived. This made Lloyd nervous. He said he didn't like that Anderson had showed up before him, and wandered away in a minor fright. He avoided Anderson, who had settled his tall and wiry frame into a cushioned chair in a small room for makeup. Anderson, a district judge for 12 years, is an adroit politician: "I'm going to leave the name-calling to Lloyd," he said. "If I'm at a campfire, we make jokes. But the stakes are too high for that. When you're making a decision on the death penalty, you take it seriously. Dropping playground one-liners is not the behavior I want out of my district attorney."
David Jones materialized in Anderson's room, face orange with foundation. He said he was going to punish Lloyd in the upcoming debate. Jones was jumpy and wouldn't sit still. He was going to bring up the barratry allegations, he said. We were to all watch Lloyd squirm.
Soon after, Anderson, Lloyd, Jones and the Republican moderator, Gary Polland, crowded around a raised table and the cameras rolled. Jones, who would otherwise side with the Democratic nominee, immediately got all over Lloyd. "The Democrats tried to run (you) off," Jones said. "They did...So now, Lloyd, you get to earn my vote back — if you can."
But of course Lloyd couldn't. He stumbled. His words wouldn't come out right. He lost his temper and blustered. He repeated his line that for some people, a man beating a woman is a "prelude to lovemaking." Jones kept after him. He said Lloyd was "hustling" cases outside the courthouse, and questioned his ethics. Anderson's spokesperson, Sara Kinney, rolled her eyes and mouthed, "He's so bad." The pummeling went on and on.
After it was over, Lloyd thanked Jones for the "hack job" and was surprisingly content. He thought he'd done pretty well. He wished he could have used his Tea Party Democrat bit, but otherwise thought his performance had been a grand success. Though about that Jones, he said, "what a prick."
As Lloyd was leaving, he suddenly stopped for a moment. There was a bowl of chocolates on someone's desk. Lloyd looked this way and that, told me to be his "lookout" and quickly stole a few. He popped a Snickers in his mouth and asked if anyone had any interest in getting lunch. He knew a great Vietnamese place nearby.
The next day, the Chronicle published its endorsement of Anderson, as well as a devastating front-page piece on Lloyd headlined "Two Reasons to Avoid Straight-Ticket Voting." The story called Lloyd sleazy and dug into his bribery indictment. It questioned his "fitness" to be Harris County district attorney. I called Lloyd to tell him of the lampooning. He hadn't read the story yet, nor had he had any warning it would run. But the column didn't bother him, he said. There's no such thing as bad publicity, he said, and asked, "Did they spell my name right?"
"Because that's all that matters."
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