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The Cul-de-sac Battleground

Rainbow suburbs may make Texas politics competitive again.
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This story was co-written by Dave Mann & Forrest Wilder.

Irving, Texas, still looks like a classic suburb in some ways. There are plenty of exquisite lawns, towering privacy fences, bland corporate campuses, and Anglo Republicans eating at Applebee’s.

But Irving, like many Texas suburbs, is changing fast. In the evenings, South Asian immigrants crowd Thomas Jefferson Park—it’s become known as “Gandhi Park”—to play cricket or stroll with their families. Irving’s North Lake College boasts one of the largest enrollments of students from Nepal in the country. There are mosques and Hindu temples among the Baptist churches. Spanish is frequently heard on the street.

Born from Dallas white flight, Irving is now just 22 percent white. In 1980, it was 89 percent white. Latinos comprise 42 percent of the population, and Asian-Americans and African-Americans constitute another 11 percent each, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They moved to the suburbs for the same reasons as anyone else: good schools and a chance to own a home and raise a family.

Many Texas suburbs are experiencing similar transformations. Places like Sugar Land and Alief and Round Rock—once overwhelmingly Anglo and Republican—are rapidly becoming more diverse. The demographic changes are profoundly altering the political landscape. For two decades, the GOP fueled its takeover of Texas by culling votes from the booming suburbs that ring Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio. Conservative voters flocked to the suburbs and boosted Republicans into every level of government, from constable to governor.

The path to political success in Texas still runs through these mini-mall-lined boulevards and tree-dappled cul-de-sacs. But now the Democrats hope suburban voters will propel them back to power.

Democrats have gained 11 seats in the Texas House in the past three election cycles after losing seats in every election for 30 straight years. At the height of its power in 2003, the GOP held a 26-seat majority in the 150-member Texas House. Democratic gains have whittled that advantage to 77-73. Democrats need three more seats to reclaim the majority.

Many of the Democratic gains in the House were in suburban districts: Hubert Vo and Kristi Thibaut in the western Houston suburbs, Diana Maldonado and Valinda Bolton in the Austin area, and Chris Turner and Carol Kent in the sprawling Metroplex. All their districts were drawn to be Republican seats during the 2000 redistricting. In the past decade, demographic changes have stripped away the GOP’s strength.

But there’s a catch: Anglo Republicans in these areas are typically more likely to vote than Democratic-leaning minorities. That explains why an overwhelmingly minority city like Irving is still represented by Republican state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown. In 2008, little-known Democrat Bob Romano came within 20 votes of toppling Harper-Brown in Irving’s House District 105. The near-upset surprised Democrats and Republicans alike. Romano had no money, no name recognition, and virtually no support from the Democratic Party. If he had won, control of the Texas House would have been evenly split, 75-75, between the two parties. But the Dems hadn’t paid sufficient heed to the demographic changes in the district and let their chance slip away.

Democrat Loretta Haldenwang, a 26-year-old who moved from San Antonio to Irving three years ago, is determined to not let that happen again. Unlike Romano, Haldenwang is running a full-bore campaign. She started campaigning 18 months ago, and her team has knocked on 12,000 doors since then. She’s receiving hefty financial support from liberal stalwarts, including Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn and Annie’s List, a statewide political network dedicated to electing Democratic women. House District 105 is “the type of district we’ve been successful in during the last two cycles,” says Robert E. Jones, political director of Annie’s List.

Haldenwang says Harper-Brown, the three-term conservative incumbent, is out of step with the needs of her constituents, pointing to her conservative positions on pocketbook issues like utility rates, homeowners insurance and school funding. “We definitely had a real demographic shift,” says Haldenwang, whose name is Bavarian. “Every ethnicity, every religion, every color under the sun is part of Irving.”

That diversity, she says, has created a “kaleidoscope of ideas and people that are getting out to the polls and are ready to vote differently.”

The Harper-Brown campaign concedes that her narrow victory in 2008 got its attention, but her team argues the political dynamic is different now. For one, they say, Haldenwang can’t count on the Obama campaign to energize new voters or rally the base. Instead, the national political mood is a major liability for Democrats. “The real problem Loretta is having is that her views are to the left of the political spectrum of the district,” says Harper-Brown campaign spokesman Brian Mayes. “The policies and the issues that Loretta supports are not popular nationally. She’s trying to bring the same Washington-style policies that have put our country in the situation we’re in right now; she’s trying to bring those policies to Irving.”

Haldenwang contends that anti-incumbent fervor could just as well hurt Texas Republicans, who have held every statewide office for 16 years and control both chambers of the Legislature. “If you’ve really had enough, with regards to this election, you’d vote Democratic,” she says.

Harper-Brown is also calling attention to Haldenwang’s youth, lack of experience, and relative newness to the district. “I think there’s a very good chance she was moved here—I know it’s a cliché to say it—by some liberal special interest groups,” Mayes says.

Harper-Brown’s campaign has gone further, engaging in what Haldenwang calls “pretty nasty race-baiting.” The demographic changes in Irving have spawned racial tensions. In 2007, the city made national news by implementing a program to check the immigration status of everyone booked at the local jail and turning undocumented immigrants over to the feds for deportation. The program created a rift in Irving between the Latino and immigrant communities on one side and some Anglos on the other. The controversy died down, but the tensions haven’t subsided.

Haldenwang says that Harper-Brown’s pitch is: “I’m from South Texas, I worked for someone named Castro, trying to make people believe I want to open up the borders and let people just walk back and forth,” Haldenwang says. “I’ve gone to these intimate settings with homeowners and they’ve told me they’ve heard stories from people surrounding her campaign that my last name is really Garcia and I’m Hispanic.” The Harper-Brown campaign says these accusations are “preposterous.”

Harper-Brown seems to be counting on an agitated base to keep her in office. Whether this form of reactionary politics succeeds on Election Day will tell us just how much Irving has changed. 

 

There’s a different sort of cultural transformation underway in House District 52, north of Austin. For decades, Williamson County has cultivated a sort of anti-Austin image. Instead of Keepin’ It Weird, WilCo, as it’s often called, has prided itself on maintaining law and order and electing conservative Republicans. But an influx of more liberal-minded voters from nearby Austin and other parts of the country—drawn by the area’s cheap housing, robust economy and good schools—has moderated southern WilCo’s politics. The percentage of Latinos has climbed, too, though not as rapidly as in some other older suburbs. Between 2000 and 2009, the county’s Hispanic population increased from 17 percent to 22 percent.

Two years ago, Diana Maldonado, a Latina Democrat from Round Rock, eked out a narrow victory in House District 52. A mix of the suburban and rural just north of Austin, the district had been controlled by Republicans for 16 years. This year, Maldonado hopes to fend off a strong challenger, Round Rock political operative Larry Gonzales, who says Maldonado is not conservative enough for the district and insists her election was a fluke.

The Gonzales-Maldonado race will test whether Texas Democrats can overcome a tough political climate in swing districts that are trending in their direction. Like many Republicans this year, Gonzales is trying to connect Maldonado to national Democrats and capitalize on a political mood favoring Republicans. Maldonado, meanwhile, is trying to keep the conversation focused on local issues like jobs, transportation and public education. “People say, oh, it’s a fluke, or she was riding the Obama wave, but I think it’s more about keeping politics local,” Maldonado says.

The Gonzales campaign hopes to stir the district’s hefty cache of reliable Republican voters by talking about a mix of issues—health care reform, for example. “Rep. Maldonado’s vigorous and dedicated support of the new health care bill has voters in HD-52 very worried,” Gonzales wrote in an e-mail.

Maldonado has responded by moving to the right. In September, she signed a letter to President Obama calling on him to redeploy surveillance aircraft from Iraq to the Texas-Mexico border.

Gonzales, on the other hand, makes no apologies for his muscular partisanship. For most of the past 20 years, Gonzales has worked for GOP elected officials, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, during legislative sessions. During campaign seasons, he has turned his attention to Lazarus Graphics, a political consultancy that puts together direct mail for conservative candidates.

Gonzales knows how to go on the offensive. In July, he spoke at a Georgetown Tea Party rally. On his website, he blasts “a liberal, over-reaching federal administration in Washington, D.C.,” and advertises his belief in state sovereignty.

Maldonado says such ideological stances are irrelevant to the needs of the booming district: jobs, education and transportation. “His positions have to do with guns, a sovereign state,” she says. “And quite frankly, we’re not going to have those kinds of debates at the Capitol during the 140 days we’re in session.” 

Maldonado was the first Latina elected as a state representative from Williamson County. If elected, Gonzales would make history of a sort, too—he’d be the only Hispanic GOP member in the Texas Legislature. And he could win. House District 52 tilts slightly Republican. Sen. John McCain got 49.5 percent of the vote to Obama’s 48.5 percent in 2008. Maldonado, a single mom of two and former Round Rock school board president, thinks she’s the underdog this time, a position she enjoys. “I’m the salmon swimming upstream,” she says. 

It’s likely that the northern Austin suburbs will sooner or later become solidly Democratic. In a year that conventional wisdom suggests is anti-Democratic and anti-incumbent, Maldonado is hoping for sooner.

 

House District 133 should already be solidly Democratic. The district includes the Houston suburb of Alief, which may be one of the most diverse areas in Texas. Alief sits between the western city limits of Houston and the exurb of Katy, and was once a white-flight suburb. “When I was growing up in Houston,” says Keir Murray, a campaign consultant to Democratic state Rep. Kristi Thibaut, “the Alief area was a bedrock middle-class suburb. All white, all Republican.”

Not anymore. Diversity is evident nearly everywhere in Alief. In a single mini-mall, you can see business signs in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Arabic. Murray estimates that 16 percent of Thibaut’s constituents are of Asian descent, mainly Vietnamese. There’s a monument to South Vietnam, which looks oddly out of place in an Alief strip mall. There are statues of two soldiers and a plaque commemorating the people of South Vietnam. “This is like a little microcosm of Houston here,” Murray says.

If Thibaut’s district consisted of only Alief, it would be an easy Democratic win. Instead, to maximize Republican districts, map-drawers sliced Alief into several House districts during the last redistricting. Thibaut’s House District 133 is split into very different halves. Westheimer Road—a main east-west artery through Harris County—splits the district. North of Westheimer Road is a wealthier, largely Anglo, Republican area, consisting of larger homes in leafy subdivisions. There’s nary a mini-mall nor Vietnamese restaurant in sight—what one observer describes as the “1950s suburbs.” If you travel south of Westheimer, you enter Alief and the landscape changes. “It looks like the U.N.,” as an organizer in Alief puts it.

House District 133 is a bellwether of Democrats’ ability to seize on the state’s changing demographics. The changing face of Texas tends to favor the Democrats, but the party has had mixed success at getting these new voters to the polls. So much of it simply comes down to the ground game.

There aren’t many undecided voters in politically divided House District 133. It’s base versus base. Though the Democratic base is much larger—the district is nearly 70 percent minority—the race remains a toss-up. That’s because the white Republicans in the district’s northern half vote at a higher rate. Their high turnout kept the seat in the GOP’s hands for years even as the area grew more diverse.

Thibaut first ran for the office in 2006. She was a little-known candidate who received scant funding and lost handily to Republican businessman Jim Murphy. Thibaut won 43 percent of the vote. Undeterred, she took on Murphy again in 2008. Buoyed by a coordinated Democratic campaign in Harris County, more money and—perhaps most important—Barack Obama at the top of the ballot, Thibaut ousted Murphy by 400 votes.

This year, Murphy has returned for a third race against Thibaut. Murphy didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview. But the GOP clearly believes that without the Obama boost, Thibaut can be beaten. The central question in District 133 is whether minority voters who turned out to support Obama will return to the polls. “The challenge for me is turning out my base,” Thibaut says. “In my district, there aren’t that many persuadables. It’s a very base-versus-base district.”

Democrats have struggled with low minority turnout, especially among Latinos, all over Texas. Asked how she planned to turn voters out in a non-presidential year, Thibaut says, “I’m not going to tell you all my secrets. But I will tell you that we’ve reached out in the Alief area in unprecedented ways. We knock on doors and talk to people. But you can’t just ask people for their vote. At the end of the day, it’s about what you’ve done in the district since you’ve been in office.”

Thibaut says she conducted three job fairs in the district, each attracting about 3,000 people. She organized a school supply drive for the Alief school district. “I think when you’re sincere about it and you just don’t come out and ask for their vote, it makes a huge difference,” she says.

The district continues to change fast. The Thibaut campaign estimates that about 1,000 Republicans leave every election cycle. At some point—if the district isn’t altered much during redistricting next year—this will soon be Democratic territory. In 2010, Thibaut faces a tough race. As in other Texas suburbs, the Democrats’ success in this district hinges on how many people show up at the polls.

If Democrats can reliably turn out minority voters in suburban areas, they will be much more competitive in both legislative and statewide races. Texas’ largest cities are now reliably
emocratic. The rural areas and the exurbs remain solidly Republican. The party that wins the land of cul-de-sacs will control Texas in the years to come.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.