Houston, We Have Hope for Dems

The Observer catches up on Houston area political races with Richard Murray


This election cycle the Texas race for governor will dominate the lion’s share of media attention, both within the state and outside our borders?the rest of the nation being more than eager to chortle along at our political shenanigans. Yet we shouldn’t allow fun with Rick, Chris, Carole, and Kinky to obscure some fascinating local races that could have a major impact on the state and the nation. Democrats need only 15 seats to win back the U.S. House of Representatives. There are at least three competitive congressional races right here in Texas. (Read “Taylor Made” on page four to learn a bit more about one of them, Republican Van Taylor’s efforts to unseat Chet Edwards.) In the state House, this could be the year when Democrats emphatically signal that they are on track to retake the lower chamber.

Perhaps no other region in Texas has a higher concentration of competitive races this cycle than the Houston area. This is not surprising. It’s the nation’s fourth-largest city, after all. Houston is also home to a demographic shift that could prove advantageous for local Democrats. Anglos are leaving the suburban band around Houston for the exurbs or inner-city gentrification.

The Houston area has a piece of one of the surest Democratic congressional pickups in the nation, the race to fill Tom DeLay’s seat. DeLay had planned to step down and anoint a successor, when a Democratic lawsuit yanked him back onto the ballot. Rather than face the voters as a poster child for corruption, DeLay opted to withdraw, leaving the race without a Republican on the ballot. After much internal bickering, area Republicans finally agreed on former City of Houston Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs as the consensus write-in candidate. Then Gov. Rick Perry ordered up a last-minute special election, the winner of which will serve the last two months of DeLay’s current term. The special election will be held simultaneously with the general election, allowing Sekula-Gibbs to double her fundraising possibilities, but no write-in candidate has ever won in Texas. Democratic challenger Shane Sklar is running a competitive race against Republican Ron Paul in the Houston area, as well.

The most competitive state rep contest in Texas is happening in Houston proper, where Democrat Ellen Cohen is endeavoring to knock out incumbent Republican Martha Wong in District 134. This will be the most expensive statehouse race this cycle. Together, the candidates are on track to break the million-dollar mark. The 134 is a district of political sophisticates, among them Richard Murray, a University of Houston political science professor. The Observer caught up with Murray recently to get a briefing on some of the Houston races. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

Richard Murray

Texas Observer: How is Nick Lampson doing in his race to win Tom DeLay’s former seat in Congress?

Richard Murray: We are kind of in uncharted waters here. This unusual ballot situation enormously favors Lampson. [It’s] hard enough to win when your name is on the ballot… [The Republicans’] designated candidate was not picked until very late in the process and doesn’t have much time to educate voters. Most of the voters don’t live in the city of Houston, so the fact that you have a city councilmember running is not particularly helpful in this district. And there are a lot of other Republican wannabes who are probably going to be, let us say, lethargic in working for the designated candidate. A lot of them would like perhaps themselves to run in 2008.

[Lampson] is well financed. He’s been campaigning for a year in the district and should be in a very strong position to win the race. He did represent 20 percent of the district back when he was in Congress, and he has family connections to Fort Bend County.

TO: Why do you think Lampson opted not to participate in the special election Perry called?

RM: It puts the pressure on Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. She has to do an extra educational effort. They put this special [election] first on the ballot. Before you get to the regular ballot, you have to vote in that. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs is on that special ballot with four or five other people. There is no Democrat on that ballot. Of course, it’s largely a meaningless election because you have this little, tiny bobtail term. It would be confusing, particularly for Democratic voters, if you voted right at the beginning for Lampson, the Democratic nominee, and then had to make sure on a separate page later that you voted for him again. Now Sekula-Gibbs, she has to run an extra educational program, she has to say you are not finished when you voted for me right off the bat, you’ve got to go on the next page, and you can’t vote a straight ticket, you’ve got to write my name in specifically on that ballot for the regular congressional term. That’s getting complicated, and the more complicated you make things for voters, the more you lose some of them.

TO: So it’s possible the favor Perry did for her was no favor at all?

RM: It looked like a favor in Austin, but then here on the ground it looks to me like it’s an extra complication, because the whole deal is what happens in the election for the regular term. Now of course, if Perry had, as he should have done as governor, called the special very early, then whoever won that would have had the benefit of being a sitting member going into the general election. But because Republicans didn’t have agreement on who their candidate would be, he couldn’t do that. They were afraid that they would end up with Lampson leading or even winning, leaving them out in the cold for the general election. So he delayed, and now it’s of no benefit, in my judgment.

[Lampson is] right in the middle of prime time on the regular ballot. I think the Libertarian [Bob Smither] gets 10 to 12 percent in this situation. [Richard] Morrison [a former DeLay opponent] got 41 percent [last election]. Now, it’s a better year for Democrats, and Lampson has at least four times as much money. Let’s say Lampson doesn’t perform particularly well and he gets 46 percent. If Smither gets 10 to 12 percent, which I think he will, that leaves about 40 percent. Well, hell, everybody ain’t going to write in, and everybody ain’t going to write in one person’s name either, so it looks to me like mathematically, it’s a near lock.

TO: Is there a chance for an upset in Ron Paul’s race in the 14th Cong. District?

RM: It’s sure a long shot, but there is a kind of weird outside chance. Paul is perhaps the most interesting of the 232 sitting Republican members. He votes like sometimes he’s from another galaxy. [He provides the] most frequent opposition [of any Republican] to President Bush on the things that the president really cares about, like the war in Iraq. It’s a reshaped district. Paul hasn’t represented many of those constituents much. Sklar might be able to sneak up on him. I don’t think Paul is nearly the formidable force he was 15 or 20 years ago, when he had a lot of wind behind his sails.

Paul is a Libertarian, but he’s a strong pro-lifer. So he’s for government intervening in the bedroom, but absolutely not in Iraq or in your wallet. It’s an interesting mix of positions. He doesn’t get a lot of the usual [support from] chamber of commerce Republicans because he ain’t the guy to carry any water for you in Washington. He’s not a go-along get-along.

TO: So he’s not a bring-home-the-bacon kind of politician?

RM: No, he’s all for selling the hog and getting out of the farming business.

TO: Democrats are very excited about Ellen Cohen’s chances against state Rep. Martha Wong. Are they right to be optimistic?

RM: I think it’s a great race. I’m happy I live in the district and get to look at it closehand. You have a couple of great resume candidates: a couple of widows in their 60s, hard, smart campaigners. They are going to be super-well funded. They will spend half a million dollars on the race on each side. It’s the best-educated district in the state, I think. The combination of Rice and the Medical Center and so forth, you’ve got a huge number of people with graduate degrees. It’s a Republican-leaning district, but the biggest defections among Republicans are among well-educated, upscale Republicans, nationwide as well as in this district. Kerry, a weaker candidate than Gore, received more votes in this district than Gore, although he still lost. Nothing has changed in the last 20 months to improve the general position of Republicans. You’ve got a mix of different types of voters, not many minorities, but a lot of independent, well-educated voters, which gives Ellen Cohen a real shot. It’s going to be a hell of a brutal, hard-fought race.

TO: What is the Hochberg program, and is it being applied to other races in the area?

RM: In 2001, the Republicans [through control of the legislative redistricting board] were trying to create a gerrymander in the southwest part of Houston that split up the 300,000 or so people that lived in the Alief-Southwest community. [Scott] Hochberg moved into this very low-registration, low-turnout district that the Republicans tried to save by putting five or six Republican precincts in the district. Most of it was apartments and condos, heavily minority, but not many voters. Hochberg was able, by very hard work and innovative programs, to get into apartment complexes and get some younger voters registered to win the district quite handily in 2002, even though that was a great year for Republicans. He held it in 2004. This, I think, is the last rodeo in that district. I think Hochberg wins by sufficient margin that the Bob Perrys and other [GOP funders] won’t put any more money into it. The Republicans are the Fort Apaches. Their neighborhoods are shrinking. They are dying off. They are moving out.

TO: What about Hubert Vo’s race, where former state Rep. Talmadge Heflin is trying to get his old seat back?

RM: I think this time Vo wins handily. Heflin does not have much money, and 2006 is not as good a year for Republicans as 2004. The Vietnamese community is larger. The Anglo community is smaller. I just think it plays out as again, reasonably competitive, but my guess: Vo wins with 55 percent this time and sort of puts that district to bed going forward.

TO: Is another potential for a Democratic pickup in the statehouse the race to replace Republican Joe Nixon?

RM: First the disclaimer: My son Keir is running [Democrat] Kristi Thibaut’s campaign over there. It used to be a terrifically Republican district. In 1984, I think Reagan got 82 percent in that district. But every presidential election shows the Republican vote steadily dropping because, again, Anglos are moving out, blacks, Hispanics, folks from around the world are moving in. John Kerry, a pretty weak candidate, got 44 percent in that district. And if you reran the election this time around, he might actually carry it. With no incumbent, it’s going to be the second most competitive district here, I think, after the Martha Wong-Ellen Cohen race. [Republican] Jim Murphy has been elected to the community college board, so he has some political experience. The Democratic candidate has not been elected, but she has been politically active. They are attractive candidates.

TO: Are Democrats rerunning the Hochberg program for that race?

RM: That district is kind of half way between the Vo district and the Hochberg district, literally and demographically. It has a lot of apartments like Hochberg’s in the southern half, but it has the more stable and still Anglo-dominated neighborhoods in the northern part of the district. It’s another one of these 10 or 12 districts around the state that were drawn by a very, very clever gerrymandering map in 2001, but they decay over the 10 years of the Census. The state House races are the one place Democrats have a real shot of making lemonade out of lemons from redistricting plans.

TO: Are the demographic and political changes in Houston a model for the rest of the state?

RM: Countywide, I’d look at Dallas County. Dallas is a smaller county geographically. It’s half the size of Harris and mostly built out. The demographic shifts there are much more dramatic. Democrats, if they don’t sweep the county this time, are certainly going to be doing so in a few years. Harris County, bigger, with more new land to develop, is somewhat behind the curve. Most of our voters now are in the big metro areas. You have some infilling in the close-in neighborhoods near downtown, where land values have gone up. Lots of people want to live there because of the commutes and cultural attractions. But those new infillers, while they are affluent, are not nearly as reliably Republican as the people that move out into comparably priced homes on the perimeter, such as they do in Williamson County, Denton County, or Montgomery County. So having a lot of these new inner-urban residents, Democrats can live with that. But they get the big bonus in the huge donut around this inner-urban gentrification zone, where the Anglo voters are moving out. And it’s the subtraction of Anglos more than the addition of particularly Hispanics that puts these areas increasingly into play.