Taking Back the House

Texas Democrats call this their November

Taking Back the House
Illustration by Doug Potter

Five seats. That's what it would take for the Texas Democratic Party to take back the Texas House of Representatives.

The House – currently apportioned at 78 Republicans, 71 Democrats, and one vacant seat – flipped Republican in 2002, after the GOP-slanted 2001 legislative redistricting drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislative Redistricting Board. It wasn't supposed to flip back, at least not this soon. The House Demo­cratic Caucus leader, Waco Rep. Jim Dunnam, expected to lead his party through a considerable desert, with several more fallow years of opposition. "Most smart people thought it would take a decade or more for us to come back," he explained. "Frankly, I thought the same thing in 2003 – that it would take until the mid-2010s, because the redistricting maps were so biased."

Instead, the Republican-run gerrymandering of the House, intended to build a permanent GOP majority in Texas and Washington, has apparently lasted but two full electoral cycles. In November 2006, the Dems recaptured five House seats: Allen Vaught in Dallas County's House District 107, Paula Pierson (Tarrant County, HD 93), Juan Garcia (Cal­houn County, HD 32), Ellen Cohen (Harris County, HD 134), and Valinda Bolton (Travis County, HD 47). Then came Bolton's District 48 neighbor, Donna Howard, who defied conventional wisdom and the theoretically unbeatable redistricting arithmetic by winning a 2006 special election to replace retiring Republican Todd Baxter.

The GOP situation worsened last September, when Grand Prairie freshman Rep. Kirk England switched parties, explaining that "the Republican leadership in Austin had no tolerance for the values and priorities of the folks I represent." England's switch marked the official reversal of a Democrat-to-Republican trend dating to the early Nineties. Then in December, Fort Worth Democrat Dan Barrett turned a 2006 blowout loss to incumbent Anna Mowery into a sweeping special-election victory over GOPer Mark Shelton.

Dunnam's putting a lot of hope in what he sees as a strong Democratic slate of new candidates. Even before filing, there was broad speculation that potential Republican candidates would be wary of what was perceived to be a Democratic year: No one wants to throw away a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars on an unwinnable election. Previously wavering Democrats, by contrast, were suddenly more eager. Meanwhile, some former self-described Republicans, dismayed at the party, followed England's example and switched from red to blue. (As HD 135 Democratic contender Trey Fleming put it, "I realized there was more to life than a tax cut.") "That's one thing that's been so refreshing," said Dunnam. "Previously, candidate recruitment was a challenge, but that hasn't been so this time. ... Even in places that aren't statistically competitive, they want to go out and fight."

But it's also an unpredictable year. While Gulf Coast Democrats are currently reluctant to discuss much beyond post-Hurricane Ike reconstruction, there are concerns about evacuees from battleground districts in South Tex­as even getting to vote. To confound matters even further, there's the wild card of the Libertarian slate, and, finally, add the inevitable national winds of the presidential race. While the Barack Obama campaign has generated indispensable energy, some state Democrat­ic activists worry about the potential distraction from in-state efforts, as new volunteers are cherry-picked to phone-bank or block-walk in perceived presidential battleground states (e.g., New Mexico). But Dunnam notes that, historically, presidential elections have little impact downballot in Texas. The Bush-Cheney ticket took the state by 21 percentage points in 2000 and 23 in 2004. In both years, Dunnam argues, state Democrats outperformed their own presidential ticket. "We ran strong in those races," he said, "without any coattails."

Republican Party of Texas spokesman Hans Klingler concedes this could be a game-changing year for House Republicans. "It's the post-Bush era," he said. It's been a long era: This is the first presidential election since 1996, and only the second since 1980, without a Bush on the ticket. Texans have been voting on a George W. Bush candidacy since 1994. That absence could be a vacuum. "We are defending a hill," Klingler said, "and it's sometimes harder to defend a hill than take a hill." Not that they're playing only defense: Republicans are eyeing supposedly low-hanging fruit like Houston's Hubert Vo (HD 149), who handed a surprise defeat to Talmadge Heflin in 2004 but has since been accused of being a slum landlord. And while Democrats look to retake the House, Republicans say they're targeting Travis County, trying to bust the myth of Austin's Blue Dot in a Sea of Texas Red.

Travis Co. and the Magic Five

Taking Back the House

Since Travis Co. House Democrats are currently six for six, their game plan is simple: Hold the line. Three incumbents face no or limited challenges. Eddie Rodriguez (HD 51) and Dawnna Dukes (HD 46) have no GOP challengers, although the Libertarian Party has fielded an opponent for each (Arthur DiBianca and Allen Hacker, respectively). In HD 49, Elliott Naishtat's GOP opponent, Jim Hasik, mothballed his campaign after filing and officially withdrew in August. That leaves Bolton, Howard, and Mark Strama facing Republican challenges, and Klingler describes two – Bolton and Howard – as serious targets. Just as Dun­nam is not depending on Obama's coattails, Klingler sees the presidential campaign and the Texas House races as somewhat disconnected. "Turnout during the primaries was a wholly owned entity of the top of the ticket," said Klingler, who noted it wasn't just the Democrats who had record primary voting. "But turnout in a general election is going to be from the ground up."

HD 48: Howard vs. Waggoner

Donna Howard
Donna Howard

In Howard's western Travis Co. seat, insurance agent and self-described public education advocate Pamela Waggoner tops her agenda with Republican mainstays of property taxes, illegal immigration, and what she calls "give-me-more-money" entitlement programs. Where she hopes to hit Howard hardest is on her vote against Jessica's Law, which enacted the death penalty for child rapists (which just became a harder sell, since on Oct. 1 the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 to confirm its earlier ruling rejecting a similar Louisiana law as unconstitutional). While she says the issue has stirred up voter support, she also accepts Klingler's analysis that it's a tough year for Republicans. "I can't agree with Hans more, but I believe desperately in what I'm saying," she said. "I may not win, but I have to stand on my values."

Pamela Waggoner
Pamela Waggoner

That, Howard argues, is why the district will remain Democratic: that her agenda of better public education and affordable higher education, more health care professionals, and improving insurance accessibility will win over voters, rather than depending on any pro-Democratic demographic shift. "The swing districts that were created in the last redistricting – mine, Valinda's, and Mark's – are being held by Democrats," she explained. "But we're also independents. We're very engaged with our community, and we are representing the moderate nature of the community."

HD 47: Bolton vs. Keel

The toughest race is likely Bolton's, and she's not surprised she drew a challenger. "As a first-term incumbent, you fully expect to have someone run against you," she said. What has raised a few eyebrows is who it is: Donna Keel, sister-in-law to Terry Keel and daughter-in-law of Patty Keel. Former Travis Co. Sheriff Terry Keel, who now serves as Speaker Tom Craddick's parliamentarian, held this seat for five terms before Bolton. Patty held the seat in 1996 after winning a special election, in order to "keep the seat warm" for Terry while he was finishing his term as sheriff. (Contacted to arrange an interview, Donna Keel's husband and campaign manager, Thornton Keel, said that Patty Keel would not talk to the Chronicle because earlier coverage of his candidate "could have come straight from Valinda Bolton's campaign.")

Valinda Bolton
Valinda Bolton (Photo by John Anderson)

Bolton questions whether the family name alone still carries much electoral heft. She points to 2004, when three Keels were on the ballot: Terry, Thornton running as Precinct 3 constable, and Patrick defending his position as district court judge. Only Terry was successful. "One of them won; two of them lost, one in a precinct that heavily overlaps this district and one was a countywide seat," Bolton said.

"Of all the seats, they need to take this one," said Bolton's campaign manager, Elizabeth Hartman. "But we think they've misread the district." She also expects this campaign to be vicious, because it was in 2006, when her candidate won the seat. Calling Terry Keel "the architect of [Craddick's] platform of absolute power," Hartman noted that the speaker helped her 2006 Republican opponent, Bill Welch, raise $1.3 million – "and we handed their hat to them." That was before Bolton completed a session during which she won the bipartisan Legislative Study Group's Freshman of the Year award and an election season in which she has won progressive, business, and law-enforcement endorsements. Hartman also expects Bolton's agenda – health care, education, transportation, and health insurance – to resonate with voters. "I believe that Mrs. Keel's issues are voter fraud, which the Republican attorney general has found to be a false accusation, and immigration issues," she said. "People's issues are pocketbook issues and their children."

Donna Keel
Donna Keel (Photo by John Anderson)

The gloves have come off for the Bolton-bashers. Reports have circulated of a telephone push poll conducted by Oregon-based RDD Field Services, claiming that Bolton is soft on child abusers. That's an attack her campaign finds particularly hurtful: After a career running battered women's shelters, including serving as training director for the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, last Lege session Bolton authored House Bill 3309, which gave abused children in Texas Youth Commission facilities better access to counseling and advocacy groups. No one is sure who paid for the poll, said Hartman, but "wherever it comes from, it reeks of desperation to attack a woman who has spent her career protecting women and children." Bolton was a little more sanguine. "A friend of mine I saw in church yesterday said, 'Well, it's a sign of how good a session you had because they're coming after you so vociferously.'"

Mark Strama
Mark Strama (Photo by John Anderson)

HD 50: Strama vs. Mikus

Where does that leave Mark Strama? Seemingly as the only challenged Travis Co. incumbent not on the GOP hit list. Strama's campaign manager, Karl-Thomas Musselman, has a simple explanation for the downgrading of this district from "must win" for the GOP: incumbency. "There's a difference in having a candidate running for the third term in office," he said.

However, it's Strama's record that his opponent, Jerry Mikus, hopes to use against him. While Bolton and Howard are attacked for not voting for the unconstitutional Jessica's Law, Mikus attacks Strama for supporting limits on campaign donations and opposing voter-ID bills. "Are you telling me the vote is so insignificant that no one needs to show a photo ID?" Mikus asked. Calling his an issues-based candidacy, Mikus contends he's not interested in a long-term House career and can rapidly push through his reforms – including the end of property taxes, shifting the bulk of state revenue to sales taxes, and targeting state spending on illegal immigrants. As for the idea that his is a marginal candidacy for which the GOP has low expectations, he said: "I'm glad. That's basically the way I want to run the campaign. I'll say no more."

Jerry Mikus
Jerry Mikus (Photo by John Anderson)

Musselman argues that repeated Repub­lic­an themes like "voter fraud" are not resonating with voters as the must-fix issues. "It really says something about the changing attitudes of Texas that the Democrats are within striking distance of taking back the House even under redistricting," he said. "It says a lot about the strength of the party and what people have had to stomach." As for Aus­tin being the center of a perceived Demo­cratic revolution, "It's interesting to call it the blue dot that's ever-expanding," he added, "because it started in 2002 in Patrick Rose's race." Back then, novice politico Rose knocked out two-term GOP incumbent Rick Green in Dripping Springs. Now the Democrats are looking to secure their positions in two Central Texas races outside of Travis – and that's where the GOP hopes to derail their plan.

HD 17: Dippel vs. Kleinschmidt

Tim Kleinschmidt
Tim Kleinschmidt

Republicans are targeting Eagle Lake Demo­crat Robby Cook's vacated seat, since in 2006 Cook (now retired) only held off Republican Tim Kleinschmidt 49% to 48% (Libertarian Rod Gibbs picking up the other 3%). Klein­schmidt is back for a second bite at the apple, but Dem hopeful Donnie Dippel hopes that momentum will be blunted. "In the last presidential election, this district tended to be a little more Republican than Democrat," said Dippel, who is running on a mixture of the state slate (education and the Children's Health Insurance Plan) and district-specific issues (water rights and the Trans-Texas Corri­dor). "A lot of people voted for Bush because he's Texan. In my district, people vote more for the people than the party, and that's part of the reason he carried it so well. But that's one of my strong points, too." Still, he sees the statewide picture as a big motivator for district activists. "People in Bastrop understand how important it is to hold this seat if we want any hope of taking the House," he noted.

Donnie Dippel
Donnie Dippel

HD 52: Maldonado vs. Daniel

The biggest win in the region for Democrats would be Williamson County's HD 52 – retired Republican Mike Krusee's old seat, where Democrat Diana Maldonado faces Republican Bryan Daniel. Insurance agent and former Bush appointee to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Daniel went openly negative in the run-off against perceived favorite son and County Attorney Dee Hobbs. He's now charged with winning a seat the GOP already holds. Like Mikus, Daniel argues that issues overshadow any perception that this might be a bad year for a Republican, although he does appreciate that eyes statewide will be on Williamson Co. "There has not been any kind of additional oversight or assistance to what I expected," Daniel said. "Going in, I had a good idea of the importance of this race."

Bryan Daniel
Bryan Daniel

John Gordon, Williamson Co. Repub­lican Party founder and a primary opponent of Daniel (he now plays down the bitter primary – in which Hobbs accused Daniel of a "bold-faced lie" and Gordon called the nominee an "empty suit" – as "some elbows under the basket"), warns either candidate against dividing traditionally rural areas of WilCo from the ever-expanding municipalities. He calls that a peril for governance as well as in trying to create a districtwide campaign strategy. "I identify nine or 10 communities in Williamson County; they don't talk to each other," he said. Gordon expects Daniel to do well in the north, east, and west of the county but for Maldonado to perform best in Round Rock. Hutto, riven by development issues, he calls a toss-up. Writing Round Rock Independent School District trustee Maldonado off as an "education candidate," he argued that it's hard to imagine that, "with as many issues as there are, with higher education and agriculture and power lines, that someone with a single issue will fare so well."

Diana Maldonado
Diana Maldonado (Photo by Sandy Carson)

Maldonado responds that writing off education as a "single issue" misses the concerns of district voters and that good schools are a major part of why the district is attracting high tech employers and expanding so quickly. A thousand new students every year make a coordinated approach to state funding and the direction of education – from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills testing to transportation – a public policy cornerstone. "When you have a state and federal system that overlap, how are school districts supposed to contend with this confusion?" she asked. "We need more leaders who know more about the education process, and we need more people to come in to talk to them about the practicalities of education on the ground." As for Gordon's concern about a fractionalized district, she added: "When Wall Street tanks and you've been in a war too long and people are losing their jobs and having problems paying their mortgage, whether a candidate is an agriculture candidate or an education candidate loses meaning. They just want to know if you're ready to lead."

Objective: Craddick

It's leadership that's also at the core of another important question of House electoral math. Only a two-seat gain is what many Dem­­s believe it will take finally to dislodge the man seen as the most obstinate roadblock to progressive legislation and real bipartisanship in the House: Speaker Tom Craddick.

Yet Dunnam argues the two-seat target is in fact irrelevant, because he believes Craddick's speakership is already doomed. In May 2007, during the closing days of the 80th session, Craddick faced open revolt from Democrats and Republicans and finally resorted to declaring that as speaker, he held "absolute authority" to ignore calls from the floor for a recall vote. "He doesn't have the votes today," said Dunnam, "so how can anyone say that he's safe unless there are these magic votes? Well, that's wishful thinking on the behalf of Craddick supporters."

The picture has shifted from last year. Some of the most vocal anti-Craddick Republicans are gone: Krusee and Fred Hill of Richardson by retirement and El Paso's Pat Haggerty and the late Buddy West of Odessa by primary defeat at the hands of a new wave of Craddick supporters. But other high-profile anti-Crad­dick GOPers, such as Byron Cook, Delwin Jones, and Charlie Geren (who famously on the floor called his own party's speaker a dictator), survived primary challenges, while three of Craddick's closest allies – Nathan Macias, Corbin Van Arsdale, and Thomas Latham – all lost primaries. They "were very loyal Craddick people," said Dunnam. "To me, it's another comment on Craddick that he couldn't protect his own people or didn't want to."

During the interim, anti-Craddick unity has reportedly increased, while even implicit support from Democrats tagged as "Craddick Ds" (whom he favored for chairmanships) has vaporized. San Antonio's Robert Puente retired; others, such as Eddie Lucio III and Patrick Rose, broke away last session; others, such as Norma Chavez and Dawnna Dukes, have geared down their Craddick-friendly stances to the point of cool ambiguity. Even Speaker Pro Tem Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, has his eye on the big gavel. Add all these factors to the pool of anti-Craddick Republican reps, such as speaker hopeful Jim Pitts of Waxahachie, Dunnam argued, and "regardless of November, I don't see how [Craddick] has the votes to come back. If the GOP picks up three or four net seats, then maybe – but we've picked up two already, and we will pick up more."

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  • More of the Story

  • Seven in Play

    Seven key races across the state could turn the House back to Democratic control
  • The Libertarians

    Democrats and Libertarians find common ground in their grudge against Republicans

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