Cleaning House

Election night upsets rock the Texas Democratic Party

It’s about 9:30 p.m. on March 9th, the night of the primary, and Ron Wilson’s victory party is staggering toward its conclusion. The preliminary numbers from the polls don’t look promising for the 26-year incumbent Democratic state representative from Houston. In a sparse fluorescent-lit room in the campaign headquarters on the southwest side of the city, a handful of Wilson supporters sit on folding chairs and watch “NYPD Blue” on a television with fuzzy reception. A campaign staffer spreads plastic wrap over the five-foot-something remains of a six-foot-long deli sandwich. Occasionally, the poll results roll across the bottom of the television screen. With 12 percent of the precincts reporting, Wilson is losing to his opponent, State Board of Education member Alma Allen, by an 8-point margin. The representative, dressed from head-to-toe in black, watches the returns stoically. Someone reiterates the night’s oft-repeated chorus: “It’s still early. It’s still early.” But everyone knows that’s a lie. Outside in the strip mall parking lot, television crews circle like sharks that smell blood in the water.

The 50-year-old Wilson’s streak of 13 consecutive terms in the Texas Legislature appears to be coming to an end. Over more than a quarter of a century, he has been one of the institution’s most flamboyant and formidable lawmakers. While representing a working-class district in southwest Houston, he went from a maverick outsider to the trusted lieutenant of the first GOP speaker of the Texas House in 130 years. Wilson’s combustible temperament, stable of flashy cars, and anything-but-a-standard-suit-and-tie wardrobe made him unlike any other legislator in the state house. Last session, his alliance with first-time House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) won Wilson the chair of the influential Ways and Means Committee, transforming him into one of the most powerful Democrats in the lower chamber.

As the evening continues, the so-called Craddick Ds—the Democratic representatives who sided with the GOP—are falling across the state. Among those who will lose their positions are Rep. Glenn Lewis (D-Fort Worth), Rep. Jaime Capelo (D-Corpus Christi), and Rep. Timoteo Garza (D-Eagle Pass). (By evening’s end in Hidalgo County, Rep. Roberto Gutierrez (D-McAllen) barely survives to reach a runoff.) For the Republican leadership, the defeat of Wilson and Lewis are the biggest setbacks. In a post-election statement, Craddick laments the loss of two “fine legislators, honorable men, and good friends.”

For Lewis, the night marks the end of a six-year stint representing District 95 in Forth Worth. He loses to 33-year-old Marc Veasey. Like Wilson, Lewis’ influence in the state House had risen with Craddick’s. Lewis, 50, chaired the County Affairs Committee, served as vice chair of the House Administration, and sat on the House Select Committee on School Finance, as did Wilson. Both men have been prominent Democratic supporters of vouchers. And both men failed to go to Ardmore to combat Republican-driven mid-decade congressional redistricting. But while Lewis largely equivocated on redistricting, Wilson cooperated with the effort as a member of the Redistricting committee and then served as the only non-expert witness for the GOP in the federal trial to defend it. During the campaigns, Veasey pounded Lewis for redistricting and vouchers. Like Alma Allen, he also made the case that all of his opponent’s collaboration with Republicans hadn’t done the district much good.

At about 10:30 p.m. in Mi Charrito Mexican restaurant in Houston, Rickey “Mr. Saxophone” Ford stops playing his keyboard. State Rep. Rick Noriega (D-Houston) steps to a microphone and introduces Alma Allen, a 64-year-old Houstonian who has spent most of her professional life in education—as a teacher, as a principal, and as a current State Board of Education member.

Allen thanks Noriega as well as a long list of prominent local Houston Democrats who have supported her campaign including state Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), state Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), and Democratic Party officials past and present. It is these people, particularly fellow black elected officials, whom Wilson had gone out of his way to antagonize during a contentious and partisan 2003.

In a deposition this past December, Wilson called Coleman a “whiny little 3-year-old girl” and noted that he didn’t “consider [Coleman] an African American.” A few weeks later, in a press release, Wilson mocked Coleman for having bipolar disorder. During the federal hearing on congressional redistricting, Wilson told the three-judge panel that Ellis has “his head up his ass half the time.” To erase any remaining ambiguity, Wilson proceeded to spell “ass.”

As early as December, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Charles Soechting hit back by publicly endorsing Allen. Democratic party chairs normally don’t get involved in primaries and certainly not against incumbents. This year was different.

Wilson says that his party let him down—not vice-versa. He explained that his support for the Republican redistricting plan was worthwhile because of the opportunity to create another majority black congressional district in Texas. “Because I didn’t do what white, liberal, extremist Democratic leaders wanted me to do, they’re trying to punish me,” Wilson told The Houston Chronicle. “It’s a racist attitude. They think they ought to control the minds and hearts of every black in the Democratic Party, and if you don’t do what they say, they’re going to try to drag you back to the plantation like a runaway slave.”

And yet his most effective foes were fellow black lawmakers from Houston. Their message was that the long-time incumbent had abandoned his district. Coleman bought three 30-minute time slots on Houston’s KCOH radio station. He dedicated his time on the city’s airwaves to dissecting Wilson’s voting record and emphasizing how the incumbent had hurt his middle and low-income constituents on issues such as public education, health care, and college tuition. “Democracy works, if you work it,” says Coleman of his efforts on behalf of Allen.

For his part, Noriega helped mobilize Allen’s Hispanic outreach program, which pulled in support from the roughly 1,800 Hispanic households in the district. “They were ripe for empowerment and getting involved in something over which they felt they could have some control—some way of influencing their own destiny,” says Noriega.

For decades, Wilson’s reign seemed like the only true destiny in the district. Allen should know. In 1998, she ran against Wilson for the same seat and lost badly. During that race, her candidacy generated little buzz and a mere $10,275 in funds. Six years later—running against the same incumbent and on more or less the same platform—Allen’s campaign received national attention and more than $150,000 in donations.

Allen succeeded in tapping into Democratic outrage across the country for funds, partly due to Democratic blogs, such as the Daily Kos. “Ron Wilson has sold out the Democratic Party time and time again, and it’s time we take him out,” reads a posting on the web site, which is run by progressive activist Markos Moulitsas Zúniga. “It’s critical that we send a message to Democrats nationally that cooperating with Tom DeLay and Republicans on redistricting is completely unacceptable…the Democratic grassroots won’t tolerate it.”

From Northfield, Minn., to Brooklyn, N.Y., Democrats read similar messages and contributed to Allen’s campaign over the Internet. Nathan Epstein, a 29-year-old DVD programmer from Los Angeles, gave Allen $20.27. Epstein says he doesn’t know much about Allen and has never set foot in Houston. “I just wanted to help out the party,” says Epstein.

But the majority of Allen’s campaign contributions came from a single source, the Texans for Insurance Reform, a political action committee formed earlier this year by Texas law firms specializing in personal injury suits. Treasurer Mike Slack, an Austin-based class action lawyer, redirected Observer questions about the PAC to Dan McClung, a powerful Democratic operative from Houston. Like so many of the influential Democratic consultants in Houston, he once worked for Wilson. No more.

McClung also helped redirect Democratic donations to Marc Veasey’s campaign against Rep. Glenn Lewis in Fort Worth. In that race, Texans for Insurance Reform gave Veasey more than $30,000. Veasey used the cash in part to promote a platform that focused on issues closer to home. He emphasized the lack of economic development under Lewis’ watch. He suggested that perhaps Lewis was too busy padding his resume in Austin to bother wooing restaurants and grocery stores to return to commercial corridors overrun with liquor stores and pawnshops.

Lewis, however, says that Veasey’s motivation for running had nothing to do with street-level considerations. Lewis attributes Veasey’s candidacy to an internecine spat between Democratic leaders that started last summer on the eve of the redistricting hearings in Dallas.

At that time, Veasey was working as a field coordinator for U.S. Rep. Martin Frost (D-Arlington), rounding up opposition to the Republican redistricting plan, which had targeted his boss’ seat. Veasey visited Lewis, asked him to testify at the hearings, and handed him a set of talking points.

Lewis read over the script. He agreed with most of it, but he told Veasey that in addition to criticizing Republicans, he planned to chastise former Speaker of the House, Democrat Pete Laney.

Veasey warned Lewis to avoid criticizing Laney. “I told him, if you go and talk badly about the former Democratic leader to Statehouse representatives, people are going to be upset with you,” recalls Veasey. “You shouldn’t do that.”

“The whole thing was condescending,” recalls Lewis. In the end, he voted against the redistricting plan but refused to testify at the public hearings. A few months later, Veasey announced his candidacy against Lewis.

At Mi Charrito, it’s celebration time. Just after 11:00 p.m., staff member Chris Watson steps to the microphone and announces that the local news channel has just declared Allen the winner. “It’s a done deal,” says Watson.

The crowd cheers. Music pours through a set of speakers. The Mexican restaurant erupts into a dance party. With flowers in hand, Allen sashays into a crowd of supporters, and gets down to the sound of James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”

Party leaders who worked for months to defeat Wilson and Lewis can now sing a few lines from another famous James Brown song: “Get ready, that’s a fact/Get ready you Mother for the Big Payback.”

Felix Gillette is an Austin-based freelance writer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST