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Hank Gilbert, Liberal Fantasy?

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Liberals in Republican-strewn states like Texas have long fantasized about a straight-shooting, cud-chewing, good ol’ gal or boy preaching the liberal gospel with a twang, capturing the public imagination, and coming out of nowhere to win a major statewide office. It’s kind of a sad fantasy when you think about it: We can’t elect a normal progressive sort of person, but maybe if we find somebody who looks conservative but is actually a liberal in disguise, we could somebody sneak into office. But it goes a long way toward explaining why some progressive Dems are fired up (see here and here and here) about Hank Gilbert’s dark-horse campaign for governor. Swearing he’d champion “the biggest educational plan since House Bill 72 was passed in 1984,” Gilbert, a rancher and former teacher and Democratic nominee for Agriculture Commissioner in 2006, formally announced he’s gunning for Rick Perry’s tiara yesterday, starting a 13-city “Road to Prosperity” tour. The Dallas Morning News reports that just 10 folks showed up for Gilbert’s kick-off there—counting four reporters and two campaign staffers. In Tyler, near his hometown of Whitehouse, Gilbert drew 30. It will be a long, hard slog. But the same is true for the other Democrats in the field. Gilbert is best known, by those who do know him, for the energetic-but-underfunded campaign he mounted for Ag Commissioner. He lost with just 42 percent of the vote—but that represented more votes than any other Democrat running for a state executive office. A leading activist opposing the Trans-Texas Corridor, he became an overnight sensation with progressives (who just love a Bush-bashing man in a hat, apparently) with a peppery speech at the ’06 state convention, declaring that “today’s political outlook in Texas really sucks.” A goodly number of Democratic activists are excited about Gilbert —especially given the alternatives. But Gilbert is cussedly insistent about being a “fiscal conservative,” endorsing a “pay-as-you-go” approach that might not leave much room for progressive programs. At the same time, Gilbert is giving progressives—and moderates—some promising talk about education. Since he started running in August, Gilbert has made it his central theme, with a plan to create seven new tier-one universities and reform higher-education funding. While his other proposals are a thin on detail right now (see his Web site), he has said that he supports online tutoring, graduation-coaching for at-risk students, better early-childhood education and a $5,000 pay raise for teachers.This emphasis on education is—well—smart. Many of the Southern Democrats who’ve won governorships during “red periods” in their states have made better schools their signature issue: Bob Graham in Florida, Mark Warner in Virginia, Dick Riley in South Carolina, and four-term early-education innovator Jim Hunt in North Carolina come to mind. Hunt used to talk about schools (which he pronounced “skewels”) so insistently that his campaign speeches were, to paraphrase Joe Biden on Rudy Giuliani, little more than a noun, a verb, and “skewels.” It worked like a charm, right through the Jesse Helms years. Which makes sense: Education is one progressive issue that a majority of moderates can be relied upon to embrace. Especially when it’s argued for as an essential part of the state’s future economic well-being—an argument that Gilbert is also making, as the Tyler Morning Telegraph reports. Gilbert will be out-spent by Tom Schieiffer, and he’ll be out-recognized by Kinky Friedman. But there’s an outside chance that he’ll catch enough fire to beat the other Dems and then launch a David-vs.-Goliath insurgency against Rick Perry or Kay Bailey Hutchison. Which bring us to that old fantasy again. It probably won’t happen, of course, and the candidate in question is not exactly a liberal in disguise. But Gilbert has made a start on a canny campaign that, with a grassroots upswell of enthusiasm, could provide a memorable storyline in a primary campaign that—on the Democratic side—has been looking like a yawner.