The Dark Horses

Redistricted Centex Democrats bravely into battle go

The Dark Horses
Illustration By Doug Potter

The sun is just coming up over the East Texas horizon as our aging, beat-up sedan cruises down U.S. 290 East toward the Travis County line. At that point, we will leave the boundaries of the 10th U.S. Congressional District, currently represented by Austinite Lloyd Doggett. Yet on another, less familiar map, we are not really leaving the 10th at all – we are simply heading into territory inside the new 10th, which will come into full existence on Nov. 2, 2004.

This July morning we are traveling from one end of the new District 10 to the other. Before U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, applied the Calvinist doctrine of predestination to Austin's voters, such a trip simply involved a direct, 30-mile drive down Interstate 35, from the southern border of Williamson County to the northern one of Hays. But post-re-redistricting, we have barely begun our journey. When we reach our turnaround point, we will be about 140 miles from home, in the northwestern suburbs of Houston.

Tomball, to be specific. When we get there, we will have dropped 387 feet in altitude, from the edge of the Central Texas Hill Country to the East Texas coastal plains. But make no mistake – for one of our fellow passengers, Lorenzo Sadun, the trip is uphill the entire way.

This daunting journey is precisely what Tom DeLay calculated when he split the old 10th into three different districts. The new 10th represents what the arch-partisan DeLay fantasized about – a centralized bastion of liberalism destroyed, sprawled into a completely different landscape, and one in which Democrats became, if not extinct, at least as docile and hard to find as the horned toads once ubiquitous in Central Texas. The district was drawn to be such a sure electoral bet for Republicans that – following a brief early flirtation by Austin Mayor Emeritus Gus Garcia – no Democrat even bothered to file for the seat.

So in the new 10th, there is now only one thorn remaining in DeLay's side – Sadun, a 43-year-old married father of three, an unpretentious mathematics professor at UT-Austin, and an earnest liberal Democrat who simply couldn't stand to see his congressional voice vanish without a fight. Professor Sadun is now mounting a diligent, quixotic write-in candidacy for Congress against former U.S. attorney Michael McCaul, winner of the GOP primary. Indeed, conventional wisdom decrees that Sadun barely rises to the level of thorn – on election day, he will be pulled painlessly from Big Tom's ribs by McCaul, whose Web site strikes the reassuring tone of an officeholder-elect (emphasis ours): "Since the election ended, I've been traveling the district, meeting with future constituents and listening to their concerns."

Conventional wisdom has an insistent, intimidating voice. Lorenzo Sadun is ignoring it. And he's not the only one.

Personal Connections

The Republican Goliaths who would represent most of Central Texas – newcomer McCaul, 17-year incumbent Lamar Smith of San Antonio (CD 21), and Williamson Co. favorite son John Carter (CD 31) – would appear to be shoo-ins. (As does Doggett, correspondingly gerrymandered into his new, bizarrely shaped CD 25, which runs from East Austin to Mexico, and where he faces little more than token opposition from novice GOP candidate Rebecca Armendariz Klein.) But the elephants must first go through the formality of a November general election, and three men have chosen to pick up a sling and face them. All three fit the white, male Democrat demographic (known at the Legislature as "WD40s") that DeLay has targeted for isolation or elimination.

Sadun declared too late to be an official nominee, but his write-in candidacy has earned the backing of the state party. In CD 31, Jon Porter, a 34-year-old Cedar Park lawyer, has decided to see if Fort Hood's military families, formerly represented by Chet Edwards, remain willing to support a Democrat. And in CD 21, Rhett Smith – no relation to the incumbent – hopes that the redrawn district burrows so far into Austin that it will tip in a Democrat's favor.

Each of the districts is anchored by metropolitan areas, but the Texas countryside remains traditionally home to retail politics – county fairs, Fourth of July picnics, Memorial Day parades ... home to handshakes, baby-kissing, and creating name ID. This morning, our destination is the Hempstead Watermelon Festival.

Although the weather is bracing and the countryside lush, the trip down to Hempstead offers little political comfort: A cafe in Chappell Hill features a discouraging marquee: "Bush is the man."

Nonetheless, Hempstead remains a good target for a Democrat. Even for East Texas, Waller County has a particularly high percentage of African-Americans, likely the reverberation of historically black Prairie View A&M University just six miles east of Hempstead. The Watermelon Festival won't put Sadun in front of a lot of voters – Hempstead has just 4,173 citizens, and all of Waller County only 29,183 – but a write-in candidate can't afford to miss a single one.

You shake their hand and they see that a Democrat is 
a  real human being and doesn't have horns and a 
tail.  – Lorenzo Sadun
"You shake their hand and they see that a Democrat is a real human being and doesn't have horns and a tail." – Lorenzo Sadun (Photo By John Anderson)

The scene is not without unintentional comedy. Sadun is clearly a fish out of water – a liberal, Jewish college professor from an urban university (with his balding head, glasses, and mustache, Sadun bears more than a passing resemblance to the feckless stereotype of an intellectual in the "Mallard Fillmore" comic strip) trying to convince country folks that he's their guy. The candidate is a little awkward, but compensates with enthusiasm, passing out cards and shaking hands as quickly as he can.

Most of the responses are politely noncommittal – "Nice to meet you" and little else. Some people politely make it clear that they are hard-shell Republicans, while a few are downright ornery. One peppers Sadun with "facts" – "the decline of public schools began with the removal of corporal punishment"; "we have more racial problems now than we did back in the Fifties." Yet another is preparing a parade float for the Kingdom Kids, an organization that "goes into schools and teaches Christian values. Thank God the school lets us in." Unaware that Sadun and campaign manager Patti Edelman are Jews, he blithely lectures them at length, adding that homosexual marriage will destroy America, and then advises, "When in doubt, read the instructions. The instructions are in the Bible." He doesn't specify a testament.

Not a likely Sadun voter, but the conversation ends with a glimmer of hope, at least of finding common ground. The self-appointed preacher walks back to Edelman minutes later and remarks of Sadun, "He's a nice guy. You know, I don't vote straight ticket. I'm Republican, but I vote for the man. I'll vote for a Democrat if I like him. As long as he has strong moral fiber." One wonders if Sadun might have swayed him a little further by recounting his active role in his synagogue. Probably a stretch.

But Sadun will strike a few more sparks in Hempstead. This is not 100% Bush Country, and rural Democrats are far from extinct. On the local level – where being Dem is more of an East Texas tradition than an ideology – they often win. On the parade route, we spot a sight that would be rare even in Austin – one of Sadun's bright green bumper stickers on the back of a van. At the festival grounds, a woman approaches the candidate furtively, as though the KGB were in her shadow, and gently says, "I heard you say you're a Democrat. I am very Democrat."

Unfortunately, she lives in Madisonville, outside CD 10, but another person – an actual district resident – loudly and proudly tells Sadun between bites of watermelon that he'll support him "as long as you're a Democrat. I don't want to talk bad about our president, but we've got to get that jackass out of the White House." In another moment, a frail-looking woman in a motorized wheelchair angrily declares, "I'm tired of the government giving money to the rich. I can't get social security or disability right now."

Sadun gets into an extended discussion with three African-American ladies who ask him what he will do in Congress. The question gives him a chance to reel off his list of the core beliefs that he learned from his parents, who immigrated from Italy just before World War II: "Live up to your responsibilities; leave this world a better place than you found it; stick up for your rights; and stick up for the other guy's rights."

These moments are enough to uplift the Long Shot.

"People are of different backgrounds, but the nice thing about a festival is, there's a bottom line that we all agree upon," says Sadun. "Okay, it's watermelon. But that's a start. It's a place to start a conversation, it's a place to make a personal connection. You make a personal connection with enough people, you make progress. And if it's somebody who has totally different political views and would never vote for you in a million years, okay – you shake their hand and they see that a Democrat is a real human being and doesn't have horns and a tail. This is important, because right now we've got a pretty widely split country, where people are used to hearing the same things over and over again, and never hearing the opposite opinion."

Sadun acknowledges being a bit out of his element, but says, "I'm learning to make this my element. If you're going to represent people, you gotta understand who they are, and you don't understand who they are sitting at UT. You find out who they are by going out to where they live, doing the things they do, and appreciating what they do. Whatever the results of this election, I'm going to come away from this with a much better understanding of where we live, and who we live with, than I had before."

Common Values

Unlike Lorenzo Sadun, Jon Porter doesn't need to develop Texas street cred. He's as native as they come – born in 1970 in Pasadena, about two blocks from the legendary Gilley's honky-tonk. His family bounced around from Houston to Corpus Christi, to College Station, Lewisville, and Flower Mound. He's also familiar with CD 31 – he got his undergrad degree from Southwestern University in Georgetown, and now lives in Cedar Park. In between, he got a law degree from the University of Arkansas, spent a few years as an investigator and prosecutor with the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners, and last year became a partner at McDonald, Mackay and Weitz, LLP.

Also putting him in better position than his CD 10 colleague is that Porter is the true Democratic nominee in CD 31, so his name will actually appear on the ballot.

But it's questionable whether that will help him much, beyond straight-ticket votes. Porter knows he also has a difficult fight for name recognition. A recent error in one of the district's prominent community newspapers, The Rockdale Reporter, exemplified this struggle – it incorrectly stated that "Milam County will no longer be represented by District 11 Congressman Chet Edwards of Waco but by Congressman John Carter of Round Rock after the November general election." (Immediately after the primaries the Chronicle made the same mistake, earning a stern chewing out from Porter's wife, Nisa, a former Chronicle employee.)

District 10
District 10

So Porter is constantly on the road, wearing out tires and shoe leather. June 5 finds him in the Killeen back yard of Bobby Grant, chair of the Bell County Democrats, raising the funds he'll need to continue his treks. Earlier today, he was in the tiny town of Bartlett; now, he's also in front of a modest crowd, just 31 people.

Porter needed to hustle even to convince Dems to support him. "When I first met him, I wasn't totally impressed," Grant confesses. "But as the days go on and the weeks go on, this guy is a hard worker who campaigns. He'll go anywhere, do anything; he's smart, intelligent, you can ask him a question and he can give you an intelligent answer. And I can't say that much for Mr. Carter over here in Round Rock." At community gatherings, Grant complains, "You usually get to see a video" of Carter rather than the representative himself. (Rep. Carter's campaign did not return calls requesting an interview, nor did that of Michael McCaul.)

In the shadow of Fort Hood and one county south of the president's Crawford ranchette, one might be quick to stereotype Bell County's military culture as a bunch of die-hard Bush loyalists. Not so, say the veterans gathered in Grant's backyard.

"My philosophy is," Grant explains, "I believe in helping that guy like, when I was down at Wal-Mart today or when I went by the HEB, those people work[ing] at those checkout stands and trying to make a living on the wages they're making, I have a concern for those people. I also have a concern for the deficit that we're running up in this country." Grant says that he is 66 years old and doesn't want his grandson to "wake up one day and say, 'I wonder why my grandfather didn't try to stop some of them.' That's what I'm trying to do right now. Elect people that will maybe put some brakes on what we're doing right now in this country.

"Plus, the Iraq situation is just a travesty, I think," says the retired reservist.

"We shouldn't be in Iraq," agrees Vietnam vet Bill Perkison. A former intelligence analyst, he suspects that the Bush administration saw what it wanted to see in the flawed Iraqi intelligence. "We are not a preemptive-strike country; we never have been, and we never should have started. In the case of Afghanistan, because the Taliban was there, located and known, I support Bush and I support what we did there, and I think we should have done it even while Clinton was in office, and we should have wiped that nest of terrorists out. And we should still be focused on finding those people," rather than attacking Iraq, he says.

More than one person at the party calls him- or herself a formerly "passive Democrat" or says, "I've never been involved in politics until now." They say they've found themselves newly motivated by the appalling record and style of the Republican leadership.

Porter lays out his philosophy to the small gathering: "The reasons that we're doing this ... going forward for a common ideal, for our common values, and our common values are that, in fact, America does work when Americans work; are that health care, access to good insurance, should be a right and not a luxury. We're doing this because the national deficit is so out of control; the Democratic Party, despite being labeled as tax-and-spend liberals, are now the party of fiscal restraint, and we can prove it – back when we were in control, the deficit was lower, the debt was being paid off.

"Now, under George W. Bush and John Carter, the deficits have gone up. Each and every one of you owe more than $24,000 apiece to the national debt. My 21-month-old son owes $24,000 to the national debt. We are enslaving our children's future. For what? Tax cuts for the wealthy. An unjust war built on a stack of cards and lies, where we're losing lives every day, because the president and his people did not listen to their generals."

Medicare, social security, and insurance, Porter tells them – these should be our national priorities, and they're not being met by "compassionate conservatism."

"Across the board, people are just really upset," Porter tells me later. "Frankly, people are just real pissed off, and they're looking for a place to vent it. ... I've met Republicans who come up to me and tell me, 'Jon, either (a) I'm going to vote for you, or (b) I'm so frustrated I'm just going to stay home.'" In Bartlett, Porter talked about the jobs that Bush claims to have created, and, "[a] guy came up to me and said, 'Jon, I have two of those jobs.' He was working Wal-Mart and McDonald's. And he was a former Dell employee."

District 31 

Across the board, people are just really upset. 
Frankly, people are just real pissed off, and they're 
looking for a place to vent it. – Jon Porter
District 31
"Across the board, people are just really upset. Frankly, people are just real pissed off, and they're looking for a place to vent it." – Jon Porter (Photo By Lee Nichols)

Is it realistic to imagine Porter can win? Don't try to tell him otherwise. He knows that pairing several small counties with the booming – and staunchly Republican – Williamson was intentional, but says, "Robertson, Milam, and Falls are ours. They will fall into our camp if I don't spend a second in those. Those are strongly, strongly, strongly Democratic counties. Erath, [Coryell], and Hamilton are right on the cusp. They could go either way.

"We could win all those outer counties very easily, with a little bit of work, and it wouldn't be enough because of Bell and Williamson. I want to tell you right here and now: Bell is in play. And with a little bit of work from you, and talking to friends and family, we can take Bell County."

But Porter will need more, much more, than unblinking optimism. This fundraiser collects about $1,000, bringing his total war chest to $14,000. John Carter's stands at $722,000.

Smith vs. Smith

If there are many Democrats in Comal County, most haven't chosen to come out to their county party's Memorial Day picnic in New Braunfels' Landa Park. The picnic begins with a modest number of folks sitting under the beautiful oak tree in the center of Landa's dance slab, listening to a high school jazz orchestra. Once the band wraps up, it quickly becomes clear that most of the audience were the musicians' parents, who fold up their lawn chairs and leave. For the rest of the rally, the crowd numbers about 60 – and if you discount the invited politicians and the many folks working some sort of booth or another, there are only about 20 who actually showed up just to listen.

The size of the audience doesn't diminish the ardor of the speakers. Supreme Court candidate and labor lawyer David Van Os, state party chair Charles Soechting, and congressional candidates Henry Cuellar and Charlie Gonzales all try to whip up fervor. By far, the hottest fire and brimstone comes from longtime Comal County activist Hal Casky. The Democrat is elderly and seems frail – until the moment he begins to speak.

"I want to talk to you about the far right and the Christian Coalition that has taken over and polarized this nation of ours," Casky thunders. "I'm proud to say that I attended SMU Perkins Theological Seminary years ago – Hallelujah! And I want to tell you that I'm a liberal, and I know as much about the Bible as the far right could ever dream of knowing!"

"Amen!" comes a shout, and the crowd – what there is of it – goes wild.

"I am sick and tired of being sick and tired and pulling up against these idiots who think they know what is in the scriptures, and they do not! They cannot tell you the difference between poetry, they can't tell you the difference between allegorical language, nor can they tell the difference between mythology, and they know very little about biblical history! They are a group of provincial liars!

"What we have to do is attack those people. And I want you to quit being ashamed of being a liberal person and taking the holy scriptures seriously. Because let me tell you something: There's more love in those holy scriptures than there is hate."

Rhett Smith isn't nearly so rousing a speaker, and like Porter, he's having to work hard to make voters aware that there is an alternative to Lamar Smith. "What is important to me is to fill a need for a political voice," says the 54-year-old grandfather, accountant, and Navy veteran. "I will try to visit personally every single precinct in the district."

On Lamar Smith's Web site, it is obvious that illegal immigration is the congressman's front-burner issue – to him, there is no graver threat to the U.S. "That's his only big issue, besides supporting Republicans," Rhett Smith says. "And of course, he doesn't step up and support education. He's got a very poor record on education.

"We really need to build a better relationship with our neighbor to the south, Mexico. We've never really gotten the boost from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which got a bad rep. If we had invested a little bit more and been a little more creative in dealing with that, we'd have gotten a better boost. ... For a fraction of pennies on the dollar of what we spend in nation-building, we could easily educate and train an awful lot of people in Mexico about environmental laws, about highways and transportation, maybe help them build some of the infrastructure, their health and medical care program.

District 21 

I think they were so greedy, DeLay and his crowd, of 
trying to dilute Lloyd Doggett and some of the other 
Democrats. But when you do that, you've got to shift 
people somewhere. … We've got to have a huge 
turnout in Austin/Travis County. – Rhett Smith
District 21
"I think they were so greedy, DeLay and his crowd, of trying to dilute Lloyd Doggett and some of the other Democrats. But when you do that, you've got to shift people somewhere. … We've got to have a huge turnout in Austin/Travis County." – Rhett Smith (Photo By John Anderson)

"We could bring these people up to speed, because obviously they're many years and years behind the industrialized world, but with a little injection of American creativity and American know-how, we could bring these people up to speed in a few years instead of ... always working with a third world country."

Challenger Smith is soberly realistic about his candidacy, but looks for silver linings: "I think I have a better chance than John Courage did, and he was a heck of a candidate," he says, speaking of the Dem who in 2002 garnered 25% of the vote against Lamar Smith in the old CD 21, which encompassed more of the Hill Country and less of Austin.

"I think there's going to be a negative Bush/Cheney vote, and a negative Tom DeLay and Lamar vote. You know, Lamar is pretty shy about getting in the media, and perhaps that serves him well." (Lamar Smith was asked for an interview about Rhett Smith, but a campaign spokesman would only comment, "He doesn't know him, he hasn't seen him, and he won't vote for him.")

Smith knows that to win, it will take more than Comal, where only one elected official is a Democrat. In fact, he's banking on Austin. CD 21 has long covered western Travis County, but re-redistricting pulled it into the heart of the city, right across 38th Street from Central Market. "The new map [of this district] kind of favors the Democrats," Smith says. "I think they were so greedy, DeLay and his crowd, of trying to dilute Lloyd Doggett and some of the other Democrats. But when you do that, you've got to shift people somewhere, so obviously you're going to dilute Republican voting strength. They were just taking a gamble that they could have it all. ...We've got to have a huge turnout in Austin/Travis County."

Nonetheless, here he is in Comal, under an oak tree, his shirt stained with summer sweat, meeting the few Democrats on hand. "Those Democratic chairmen in each of those counties are very active, really go-getters. The guys in the large counties are good, but the guys in the small counties really just put their heart into it," Smith says. "We're going to fight for every single vote." end story

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state politics, Lorenzo Sadun, Lloyd Doggett, Tom DeLay, Michael McCaul, Lamar Smith, John Carter, Jon Porter, Hempstead, Bobby Grant, Bill Perkison, Hal Casky, Rhett Smith, John Courage

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