Fort Bend has been called a bellwether county so often that it’s easy to become skeptical about the use of the term—even if the description is accurate.
Fort Bend, which sits just southwest of Houston, is among the most diverse and fast- growing counties in Texas, part of the “Big Five” fast-growing suburban counties along with Collin, Montgomery, Denton and Williamson. It has pleasant subdivisions with genteel names like First Colony and Sugar Creek and an abundance of retail outlets along Highway 6, which barrels through Sugar Land, the heart of state House District 26.
After 16 years, Republican incumbent Charlie Howard is leaving the legislative seat once held by Tom DeLay, long before he became U.S. House majority leader. Four Republicans, including two women of color, are running for the open seat.
County GOP Chair Mike Gibson said the candidates have no “overriding” disagreements on policy issues and that the candidates’ backgrounds will partially determine their success.
Republicans have dominated Fort Bend County for years. They still do, despite the departure of many Anglos and the arrival of many people of color and first-generation immigrants that have transformed Fort Bend into a majority-minority county. The county’s population is about 660,000, of which 36 percent is white, 24 percent Hispanic, 21 percent black and 17 percent Asian, according to the most recent U.S. Census.
The political implications of Fort Bend’s shifting demographics, for the county and our increasingly diverse state, make the GOP race for District 26 worth watching. As with many areas in Texas, particularly fast-diversifying suburban areas, Republicans in Fort Bend will have to win an increasing number of minority voters if they hope to hold the seat in future elections. As Fort Bend goes, so goes….well, you get the idea.
“Fort Bend is the most interesting of the Big Five counties because it’s closer to the central city of Houston and more affected by the general demographic changes,” University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray says. “The part of Harris County that abuts Fort Bend has lost almost all of its white population. Whites who used to live in the northwest [of the county] are moving south and west, or out of the county. … Now Missouri City is heavily minority and Democratic, and Sugar Land will change pretty dramatically over the next 10 years, becoming much less Republican as the outmigration [of whites] continues.”
Democrats hope to claim the county through building coalitions among its United Nations assembly of residents. Republicans are also courting the melting pot. Of the four competitors for the District 26 seat, the people of color are—Sonal Bhuchar, a trustee and former board president of the Fort Bend Independent School District, and Jacquie Chaumette, mayor pro tem of Sugar Land. Bhuchar is originally from India. Chaumette is from St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands. The other candidates are Rick Miller, former chairman of the Republican Party of Fort Bend County, and Diana Miller (no relation to Rick Miller), a real estate agent.
Bhuchar and Chaumette have big fundraising hauls and are considered strong contenders in the four-way race. Gibson, not surprisingly, downplays the candidates’ race. “We don’t look at Sonal as South East Asian or Jacquie as Caribbean, but as Americans with strong skill sets that we feel good about running as Republicans,’’ he says.
“In terms of even the diversity, the population in Fort Bend County tends to be professional and highly educated and tends to be more conservative,” Gibson says, adding that Republicans need to invite newcomers “to embrace our core values.”
Over the past decade, Fort Bend has added 20,000 new residents a year, according to the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council. The South Asian community, in particular, has found its political voice on the school board and the Sugar Land City Council, electing Indo-Americans. The census shows the county has a large South Asian community.
“A lot of the Pakistani population is in Fort Bend, and we are also seeing Vietnamese there,” Murray says. “The first generation landed in Harris County and now are moving to Fort Bend.”
But the Asian community isn’t monolithic, politically or culturally. Despite Bhuchar’s presence on the GOP ticket in the District 26 race, neither Republicans nor Democrats can claim those votes. Murray offers several examples why. Before 9/11, Pakistanis tended to vote Republican, but the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim climate following the attacks has changed that voting pattern. On the other hand, first-generation Vietnamese tend to be Republicans, but their children are more often Democrats, reflecting a generational change. “The only Asian group that is decisively Democratic is Asians of Muslim descent,” Murray says.
If there is a unifying characteristic, he notes, it’s that Asians tend to support people from their community rather than political parties.
In November, the practice will be put to the test—no matter which candidate wins the GOP primary. Vy Nguyen, a lawyer whose family immigrated to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975, is the sole Democrat running for House District 26.
In Fort Bend’s melting pot, the party that attracts more Asian voters in the years to come will likely prevail.
“The thing that makes Fort Bend unique [from other diverse, fast-growing counties] is that we have an Asian-American population that is almost as large as the Hispanic population,” says Steve Brown, chair of the Fort Bend Democratic Party. The party can build a winning coalition around common concerns and “teach the state party how to do that as well,” says Brown, who is African-American. “Fort Bend is a microcosm of the state.”