Home-Grown Politics

Democrats thought they had the Dream Ticket when they put up Tony Sanchez and Ron Kirk to head the ballot in 2002. After all, Kirk, the U.S. Senate candidate, was a former secretary of state and Dallas mayor who had shown that a black man could work with white businessmen. Sanchez was an oilman and banker wealthy enough to bankroll the campaign for governor. And he was the first Tejano to head a major-party ticket.

It looked like a good race for political documentarian Paul Stekler to use to examine the challenges faced by the Democratic Party as increasingly suburban Texas trends Republican. But, as Kirk found that Texas ain’t Dallas and Sanchez’s lack of campaign experience and vulnerability began to show, Stekler found a better story in a Hill Country state House race that forms the basis for Last Man Standing: Politics—Texas Style. The 83-minute film is scheduled to have its broadcast premiere July 20 on PBS’s P.O.V. documentary series (see www.pbs.org/pov).

Stekler moved Sanchez and Kirk and their GOP counterparts, Rick Perry and John Cornyn, to the background. Instead, the film follows Patrick Rose, a fresh young Princeton grad from Dripping Springs who challenges state Rep. Rick Green, a two-term Republican lawyer and businessman also from Dripping Springs, in the 45th District, which includes Lyndon B. Johnson’s hometown.

The district, which encompasses Blanco, Hays and Caldwell counties, was a Democratic bastion a generation ago, but it has grown with Austin’s spillover and many of those newcomers are Republicans who identify with fellow immigrant New Texan George W. Bush. They are offset in large measure by the growth in the number of Latinos who, when they vote, tend to favor Democrats.

In this swing district, politicking is done at the small-town parades, rodeos, chili and barbecue cook-offs and other get-togethers where the candidates frequently cross each other’s paths. Green was a charismatic 31-year-old aspiring deacon whose base was in the fundamentalist Christian churches but whose rising star also gave him entry to the Republican fundraising machine. Rose, 24, was an upstart Democrat who hoped door knocking the district to collect voters one at a time would outwork Green’s advantage. Rose estimated that he knocked on 15,000 doors over a year and a half and found out, “The more Democratic the neighborhood, the meaner the dogs.” His rudimentary Spanish also came in handy.

Rose got breaks as controversy dogged Green, first when he was criticized for appearing in an advertisement for a nutritional supplement and then when he represented a notorious, convicted swindler before the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Finally, the month before the election, news broke that Travis County prosecutors were investigating Green’s and Sen. Jeff Wentworth’s lobbying of state officials on behalf of Metabolife International, a San Diego-based company that markets nutritional supplements.

In the statewide election, Sanchez outspent Perry by 2 1/2 to 1, but it was not enough to overcome Republican accusations that Democrats were actually racists for nominating African Americans and Mexican Americans and that Sanchez was complicit in money laundering and even in the murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Mexico.

In legislative races, Republicans outspent Democrats by nearly two to one, helped by a tidal wave of last-minute donations (the corporate origins of which are now being investigated by the Travis County District Attorney). I guess I’m not giving away too much of the ending to note that the Republicans did sweep the statewide offices and win control of the House and Senate.

The filmmakers shot more than 200 hours of footage over five months. The finished work reflects Stekler’s appreciation of politics at the grassroots level. “The politics that I knew—as a volunteer, a pollster, an analyst and full-time political junkie—was full of people who were passionate about their beliefs and who had fun (yes, fun) participating in the electoral process,” he said in production notes. And while the conventional wisdom is that Texas has turned Republican, no less an authority than Karl Rove observes in the film that Democrats can win when they field good candidates who have a strong and powerful message.

Last Man Standing is the latest Stekler film to bring political campaigns to life. Stekler’s credits include George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, the four-hour PBS special Vote for Me: Politics in America (which included The Political Education of Maggie Lauterer, about a political novice’s campaign for Congress in western North Carolina) and Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics, which also was broadcast on P.O.V. His films have been recognized with two George Foster Peabody awards, three Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University awards and three national Emmy awards. He also runs the film program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Stekler said he went into filmmaking in part to let people know “how important politics was, how important the stakes of who won and who lost were, and to realize just how entertaining, colorful and dramatic it was as well. Politics matters. It determines if we go to war or not. It determines if abortion is legal or not. It determines what programs get funded or which do not. And for some of us, it defines the times we live in.”

office, for that matter) would do well to watch “Last Man Standing” to get a taste of the slander you’ll see tossed at you, the shoe leather you’ll have to wear down, the screen doors you’ll have to talk through and the lame jokes and insults you’ll have to endure from potential voters during more than a year of campaigning. And don’t forget those fundraising phone calls, made during every spare moment to keep the operation going—all so that you can wait past midnight on Election Day for the Caldwell County boxes to be reported.

Jim Cullen of Austin is editor of The Progressive Populist (www.populist.com).

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