Breaking form, Abilene Considers a Dem

Susan King and Mel Hailey, photo by Tim Eaton

On the flatlands at the eastern edge of West Texas, Abilene emerged in the late 1800s as a rowdy, frontier town that thrived off ranching, railroads, and agriculture. Today it’s a truck-stop city along Interstate 20. Abilene has shed the raucous reputation and become the type of place upon which Karl Rove built his strategy for electing President George W. Bush. Churches are plentiful. Nightclubs and bars aren’t. Three religious-affiliated colleges and Dyess Air Force Base anchor the city of 116,000 people. It’s the type of God-and-country locale where residents slap “Support Our Troops” magnets on their vehicles beside the Jesus fish and the Bush/Cheney sticker.

Finding a conservative candidate for public office in Abilene has always been easy. Republicans have embodied the ideals discussed at local Baptist churches, Church of Christ congregations, and other Christian places of worship. Democrats have not been a political factor. This year it’s different. After 20 years of service in the Statehouse, the ever-affable Republican Rep. Bob Hunter announced his retirement and left voters in this West Texas city with a difficult choice.

Republicans in Abilene are thinking about voting for a Democrat. Mel Hailey is a 58-year-old, self-professed social conservative and elder in the Church of Christ. Hailey is not the gay-marriage-supporting, Hillary-loving, pro-choice type of D. Hailey is practically a Republican. He’s fiscally conservative; he’s a professor of political science at Abilene Christian University; and most importantly, he’s pro-life. He differs from Republicans with his belief in the importance of government. While many Republican politicians vilify the government for which they work, Hailey believes government can have a positive effect on society and play a central role in improving the lives of citizens, especially poor ones. In his speeches, he likes to tout successful government initiatives such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrical Administration.

Until now the hard-fought political race in any election cycle in Abilene took place in the Republican primary. Hailey’s Republican opponent, nurse and former school board president Susan King, 54, in past years would be picking out office furniture for her suite at the Capitol in Austin after a primary win. Instead she finds herself in a real race. It’s not that King is a weak candidate by Abilene standards. She’d fit right in among the most conservative Republicans at the Capitol. She talks about cutting taxes, smaller government, and conservative values. She is a pro-lifer, too. She’s also a good Christian. But she belongs to a Presbyterian church, not the more prominent Church of Christ, to which Hailey belongs. The Church of Christ is one of the biggest denominations in the area. It founded Abilene Christian, which is celebrating its centennial this year.

Hunter, one of the most well-liked members of the House, says some Republican voters might choose Hailey partly because of his standing with the church. “That’s a very real thing,” Hunter says. “People here in our community want someone with a solid Christian commitment… They are very concerned with people of faith.”

Hailey won’t say that he expects every member of the Church of Christ to vote for him. He says, “A lot of Church of Christ members know who I am.” He then launches into a discussion about how voters in the neighborhoods around Abilene Christian University have begun to put his campaign signs in their yards. “It has become socially acceptable,” he says.

King claims she has supporters in Church of Christ congregations and that they respond to her conservative message. Just because Hailey belongs to the church does not guarantee him any votes. “It doesn’t matter what their denomination is,” she says. She is going to promote her conservative platform to every voter, and ultimately, they will choose her because of her proven conservative pedigree, she insists.

The amiable Hunter—his colleagues in the House refer to him as Dr. Bob—could make the difference for either candidate on Election Day. But he has declined to endorse anyone. Hunter attends a Church of Christ, as well, and is a senior vice president emeritus at Abilene Christian. He says he maintains friendships with both King, the fellow Republican, and Hailey, whom he knows as a colleague at the university.

At a recent candidates’ forum populated by retired teachers at the Wylie Elementary School near Abilene, King, who wore a hot pink coat with a black belt, sought to paint herself as the candidate who would most maintain a conservative agenda if elected. “I’m a combination of Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and what’s-his-name, (Alan) Greenspan,” King told the attendees. She talked tough about reducing government spending, lowering the tax burden and her pro-life stance.

Not to be outdone, the lanky, steely- eyed Democrat with a mustache and glasses told the forum attendees, “I am fiscally conservative, believe it or not.” Some members of the crowd nodded in appreciation. Like King, he reiterated his anti-abortion position. More nods. He also talked to the retired teachers, a generally altruistic bunch, about how important a strong government is to properly educate young people. That position earned Hailey a round of applause.

Voters in Abilene–like many at the forum at Wylie Elementary School–have approached Hailey’s candidacy with doubt. He knows he must say the right things and earn whatever votes he gets. Being a Democrat, Hailey has to be precise when he discusses the issues most important to Abilene voters. Asked about abortion at the Wylie Elementary School forum, Hailey said he doesn’t come close to being considered pro-choice. “Even being a pro-life Democrat, I have to convince people I’m pro-life,” he says. Knowing that anti-abortion claims might not be enough, Hailey touts his endorsement by the Texas Right to Life Political Action Committee. King wasn’t considered because she didn’t send back a questionnaire to the PAC.

It might be difficult to find anyone taking bets in a conservative Christian town like Abilene, but there’s no question that the odds are looking up that Abilene is in a position to elect a new kind of Texas Democrat.

Tim Eaton is a freelance journalist based in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST