Soul Searching

Asleep at the Switch

The party fell victim to the complacency that came from being the only show in town, politically speaking, for over a hundred years, according to State Democratic Chair Molly Beth Malcolm, a former Republican who switched parties in 1992. "Democrats believed that Texans knew what Democrats stood for. What the Republican Party did was came up with a plan and began to work it. While the Democratic Party was resting, the Republican Party began to define the Democratic Party, and we ended up on the defensive."

Former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower believes that the Democrats' problem lies not in a failure of strategy, but in the neglect of its core message and voters: "There is such a depth of cynicism and a sense of betrayal about the Democratic Party among its natural constituency -- which is a majority of working families and small businesspeople and family farmers and old folks and children and environmentalists. So what you have is not a growing Republican Party, but a declining Democratic Party. We've not had candidates who not only carried this message but acted on it while in office. I support those who are insurgent, like Jim Mattox, within the party, who are willing to fight for it being not a corporate party but a people's party again."

And then there are those who favor denial -- a tactic popular among legislative and campaign staffers, who insist that the current Republican moment is simply that, a moment, an aberration caused by a photogenic ex-president's son and his deep fundraising pockets. This group is fond of pronouncements such as, "The Democratic Party represents the vital center in Texas," and "We just haven't been effective in communicating our message."

This year's slate of Democratic candidates comprise the full spectrum of responses to the Republican challenge, especially at the top, where three men -- Garry Mauro, Jim Mattox, and John Sharp -- represent the party's present, as well as several possible directions for its future.

Mauro: Standard Bearer

Garry Mauro

photograph by Jana Birchum

Number one on the Democratic ticket is Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, an old-time Texas liberal who believes in clean air and clean beaches, a strong public school system, and that, in general, government can be used for good. Mauro was first elected as part of the infamous Democratic Class of '82 that included Ann Richards as treasurer, Jim Hightower as agriculture commissioner, and Jim Mattox as attorney general. His campaign season memoir of his political career (Beaches, Bureaucrats, and Big Oil) features photos of Mauro with political soulmates Jake Pickle, Lloyd Doggett, Ralph Yarborough, and Mickey Leland. Of his crusade to get the state its share of profits from oil drilled on state land, Mauro writes: "When the extent of the oil and gas reserves in Texas became known, big landowners and big oil companies were always trying to cut the state out of the enterprise and they tended to get their way in the legislature."

But for the most part, this is not the Garry Mauro Texans have seen on the campaign trail. To the casual observer or newcomer (of which this state, and especially this part, has many), Mauro seems to be playing a poor man's Bush, opposing him on points of policy but not offering an alternative ideology -- or really even an alternative point of view. Take their tax cut proposals, for example: school supplies versus automobiles. Who's the liberal here? Clemency or lethal injection for Henry Lee Lucas. Who's the liberal? But you don't have to dig deep within the man's platform to see the commitment to the Democratic agenda: support for public schools (a more and more radical position in the era of privatization and vouchers) and enforcement of the Clean Air Act (which Governor Bush has stalled). The man fought Texas oil companies over drilling royalties, for heaven's sake, a fact that is not made much of by either Mauro or the Texas media.

"I think in [Mauro's] heart, he's tied to the roots of the Democratic Party,"said Hightower. "Some of the pitches he's making -- about HMOs, Bush's cronyism with his former business partner, the nuclear waste dump -- are the kind of issues Democrats ought to be talking about, [but] I don't really think he has focused his campaign on that in the way that the people of Texas can hear it clearly." In a way, Mauro's candidacy characterizes the still-complacent wing of the party that seems to think it's okay to behave as if they still have electoral majorities locked up. Like Ann Richards before him (in her second campaign, anyway), Mauro hasn't taken much of a memorable stand, except to oppose and criticize everything that the extremely popular Bush proposes or supports. Like her, he's far more talented and capable of doing the job he's running for than his campaign suggests.

And like his longtime comrade Bill Clinton, Mauro balances his lefty tendencies with numerous appeals to the center. Still, his record as land commissioner is characterized by stands on business and the environment which suggest, as one Democratic campaign worker did, that Mauro "would be the most liberal governor Texas has ever seen." Granted, he never had much of a chance against incumbency, money, and a name like Bush. But it's too bad he didn't at least take the chance to make a better case for the message of the party he has served for so long.

Mattox: The Insurgent

Jim Mattox

Then there's Mattox, the insurgent. He's still viewed by his party as an outsider, though he's the hottest thing running on the Democratic ticket and has already served seven years in the office for which he's running. He calls himself a populist, which does not necessarily equal liberal but rather independent, outspoken, and wary of big corporations and their attendant abuses of power. A little like Pat Buchanan, minus the xenophobia and bigotry.

Every chance he gets, Mattox preaches it straight: "I view big business with a level of skepticism. The Attorney General's office was formed in an effort to watch out over the big corporate giants of the day -- the sugar trust, railroads, steel trust, Standard Oil, and all that group. I still maintain that healthy skepticism in relationship to the banks, insurance companies, big utilities, big oil and chemical companies, and the corporate law firms that represent 'em. So by and large, they are all supporting my opponent.

"I entered politics probably because of my interest in Christian ministry -- the kind where Jesus took the whip and chased the money changers from the temple. Some folks say, 'Well let's don't rock the boat. These money changers, every once in a while, contribute a little bit to us.' Frankly, the approach probably needs to be somewhere in between those two."

National Public Radio aired a story last month positing Mattox's candidacy as a referendum on the revival of the Texas populist tradition. And since Mattox is running about 16 percentage points ahead of former Supreme Court Justice John Cornyn, it looks like the results may be positive. Hightower says the populist constituency is indeed a majority, albeit one that has been neglected. "The Republicans always had the fat cats, but we've got the alley cats," he said. "There are a whole lot more alley cats than fat cats, but we've got to reach out to them and to organize them and make them the center of the party. Right now, they're not even in the party, they're not asked to be a part of it."

At least one Republican old-timer dismisses that claim out of hand. As for Mattox's lead in the polls: "All it tells me," he said, "is that name identification is extremely important."

Roy Spence suggests a third possibility -- that the Mattox vote may not be a universal mandate for populism, but rather a case of the right man for the right job. People "want someone in that attorney general's role who's feisty. [They think], 'We've got enough corporate lawyers, let's put somebody in there who's a public defender.'"

Sharp: The Technocrat

John Sharp

As lieutenant governor, Comptroller of Public Accounts John Sharp would be the most powerful Democrat in the state -- for what it's worth to the Democratic Party. Like Mauro and Mattox, Sharp is also a longtime Democratic fixture, but with the downturn of his party's fortunes, he has made himself scarce. He's gone to almost paranoid extremes to keep the stigma of other Democrats' failures from bringing him down, given on the campaign trail to pronouncements on the insignificance of party affiliation and the importance of bipartisanship. Sharp refused to endorse Mauro, and chose not to stand with him at the state Democratic convention in June.

Jim Hightower thinks Sharp's defection has hurt him in his dead-heat race against Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry: "Why should Democrats be for him if he's not for the Democrats? I think that's why he's having trouble. There's no reason that race should even be close. Sharp's been around forever -- he's got a good political name, he's got money. He's running around from meeting to meeting, saying, 'I'm more Republican than my Republican opponent is.'" But ad guru Spence thinks Sharp has his finger closely on the pulse of the Texas electorate: "John is smart. He has a New Democrat message of fiscal responsibility and opportunity. His gut instincts are as good as anybody in the state in terms of what people want out of their public servants."

Sharp isn't the only Democrat laying low this season. There's comptroller candidate Paul Hobby, perhaps one of the last real conservatives to be lured by tradition and family connections into the Democratic Party. Though his lieutenant governor-father had a progressive streak, the son is "business oriented," according to one Republican supporter. Hobby himself "is a Republican," according to one Democratic loyalist, citing Hobby's rejection of Lt. Gov. Bullock's offer of the state party chairmanship as evidence. Hobby is keeping close to Railroad Commissioner Carole Keeton Rylander in the polls with the help of a bipartisan coalition; a swing through a recent campaign fest revealed few party regulars, except for some scattered legislative types.

Hightower says Sharp, Hobby, and the rest of the passionately centrist Democrats will never succeed "trying to out-Republican the Republicans to try to slice off 50.01% of that minority of the vote, rather than reaching out to the vast majority of people who are not voting." Hightower quotes Harry Truman, who said that, "If you give the people the choice between a Republican and a Republican, they'll choose the Republican every time."

And front-runner Mattox would like a little more support, at least from his fellows on the November ballot: "I believe those individuals who are seeking office under the Democratic banner have an obligation to articulate for our party and articulate the platforms. [People are] looking for somebody to lead 'em, and I'm the only one who's really trying on behalf of the Democratic ticket overall. I'm not a white knight, I'm just a loyal Democrat who believes in the two party system."

History Lesson

George W. Bush would have fit right into the Democratic party of days gone by. Time was, Frank Erwin -- hardly a bleeding heart or a lefty -- was the state Democratic chair (as well as chairman of the UT Board of Regents), and the party's idea of social action was founding UT's Forty Acres Club for the prominent to meet and mingle. Old-guard Texas Democrats see themselves in Bush's philosophy, and they see something else -- a winner, which the young bucks of their own party haven't been able to provide. Old Democratic stalwarts like Bullock, former LBJ Press Secretary George Christian (now working on Republican AG candidate John Cornyn's campaign), and former state Sen. John Montford (now Texas Tech chancellor) have lined up behind Bush, leaving other Democrats twisting in the wind. Will the Democrats of the future be consigned to the irrelevance that the GOP suffered until recently?

Maybe not.

Governor Bush's dominance may not signal a new Republican monolith and trickle downward on November's ballot. Texans are used to splitting tickets, at least at the top: The state has gone Republican in the presidential elections of '52, '56, and '72, and in every election since 1980, while continuing to elect Democrats at the state level. And in a foreshadowing of Bullock's now-famous renunciation of Mauro, Governor Allan Shivers endorsed Eisenhower for president in 1952.

Just as the Texas Democratic Party once consisted of the conservatives (or Texas Tories) and the progressives (or Scholz Liberals), the Texas Republican Party is now dividing along ideological lines: the moderates, many of them defectors from the Democrats, and the religious right-wingers (or Shiites, as they are known in the Legislature). Malcolm believes that "What you see going on in the Republican Party today is what went on in the Democratic Party in the Sixties and Seventies. It's the kind of bifurcation that plagued the Democrats in earlier times, when to be a contender was to be part of the Democratic Party, regardless of ideology. There were two wings -- liberal and conservative. Now the Republicans have a growing split, between the center-rights and the super-rights."

Malcolm, a former school teacher, says that if the masses of new Republican voters knew who/what they were casting their lots with, they wouldn't. She first became politically aware about 10 years ago, inspired to get involved by the plight of a student in her elementary school class who was being sexually abused, but who couldn't get help through the local bureaucracy. She found the Republicans out recruiting, selling their message -- and they promised her an ideological home. "They said, 'Oh yeah, we have a lot of people who are pro-choice in the Republican party.'" But Malcolm came to feel she didn't have a place in the party after all. "In 1992, our precinct convention passed the most bizarre resolutions I've ever heard. They were against basic human rights; I switched parties that night, and never looked back." She says it's her mission to expose the nefarious, stealth Republican agenda for what it really is.

Given enough rope and time, the Republicans might just do Malcolm's job for her. The group that The New Republic called "probably the most radical state Republican Party in the United States" has a platform rife with near-maniacal tidbits, like its opposition to tracking U.S. citizens through the use of bio-chip implants, and their call for a return to the gold standard [see sidebar]. As some of the freshest Austin conventional wisdom goes, large Republican gains in this year's legislative elections could end up backfiring, angering voters and frustrating the goals of Bush and his moderate conservative coalition. "The more Republicans you get in place, the more you're going to see the radical right element demanding that they get what they want," Malcolm said.

But some wacky planks in the party platform, and escalating partisan infighting, will not be enough to derail the Republican movement. There is a force against which no amount of Republican craziness, or Democratic rightness of message, can prevail: money. The Republicans have financial powerhouses funding a flush coordinating campaign, targeting strategic legislative races, as well as key issues like private school vouchers. Democrats have completely lost the fundraising advantage. Though they still have Waco philanthropist Bernie Rapoport and a few like him, their support seems more or less cursory. Republicans have smelled blood, coming ever closer to their goal of gaining a majority in the Texas House of Representatives (a goal they achieved in the Senate in 1997). More than just dominance of the Legislature is at stake -- the Legislature controls congressional redistricting (which will happen after the 2000 census), which will affect the balance of political power in the state for the next decade or so.

In an ambitious moment, a longtime Republican ruminates on the worst-case scenario for the Democrats: "One of the major parties could disappear; parties have disappeared before -- the Federalists, the Whigs, on and on. If there are enough defections from the Democratic Party by the few remaining conservatives, and some moderates, and if the Republicans continue their big-tent policy, we might evolve into a situation where it's the Republican Party and some other name party. Or a true conservative party and a liberal party." To stave off obsolescence, will the Democratic Party emulate the aggressive posture and grassroots tactics that have worked for the Republicans? "I think we should," said Molly Beth Malcolm.

Hightower believes a change in the party's fortunes is possible, likely from the outside. "It's got to come from the outside, as it has throughout history. In the Twenties, it was the pressure from Huey Long and John L. Lewis, who was organizing the C.I.O. [Congress of Industrial Organizations],that forced Roosevelt, after he was in office, to embrace a New Deal approach. I think we're at a similar period in history."

By not conceding the Bush landslide and by knocking on his million doors, however, Mauro may have started a Democratic revival from the inside -- increasing party visibility with Texans and energizing local Democratic officials who must be wondering lately what it's all about. True, the strategy was born less of idealistic grassroots populism than an utter lack of cash with which to buy TV time. You wouldn't know it from Mauro's vacuous, warmed-over, Republican campaign slogan, Texas Families First (first before whom? Single people? Why kick the lonely when they're down?), but deeply buried within the crumbling Mauro campaign may lie the seeds of regeneration for the Texas Democratic Party.

Among insiders and those in the hinterlands connected to the campaign only through the evening news and the Texas Poll, Mauro's got the stink of a loser on him now, and it appears that only those looking to make a statement will be casting votes his way. But one Democratic insider insists, "In 20 years, people are going to be writing books about Garry Mauro's campaign. Knocking on a million doors, and organizing county Democratic parties in Podunk, Texas, at the same time you're doing it up in North Texas -- that's not been done before. If campaigns were won on getting out there and being seen by the people, and being in small newspapers, Garry Mauro kills George Bush."

But campaigns aren't won by small newspapers. They are won (usually) by good candidates with a strong message, an extensive organization, and lots and lots of money, and if they want to start winning again, Democrats will have to have all of these, not just one. The 1998 ticket is the last of an era where candidates can still win votes with familiar names and histories of longtime service to the state: Mattox, Sharp, Hobby, and maybe Richard Raymond, are still contenders due to residual strength from Democratic heydays past. And time is running out. If Democrats don't move quickly from this period of introspection into serious attack mode, Republicans -- through the 2000 census and the subsequent redistricting -- will make them pay.

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