Erosion on the Back 40

Ultraconservatives might be losing traction in DeLay Country

Being a “God, guns, and gays” Republican (for, for, against) has served Charlie Howard well in state House District 26, a conservative bastion southwest of Houston that includes Sugar Land, where the GOP faithful sent Tom DeLay to Congress 11 times.

Howard, a 65-year-old, far-right social conservative loyal to Speaker Tom Craddick, is seeking a seventh term in Austin. His primary race might be the weathervane to indicate whether Texas’ political winds are shifting.

The district, a fast-growing span of master-planned communities and shopping malls, is comfortably Republican, and the GOP primary is usually the real election. Is it possible even this district might be edging closer to the middle, and further away from Howard?

Howard easily defeated his last primary opponent in 2006, drawing 67 percent of the vote. This year, he faces a challenge from 53-year-old Paula Stansell, an educator at Houston Community College who’s hoping that an influx of newcomers might break the lock ultraconservatives have held in and around Fort Bend County.

Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston Center for Public Policy, says that long-term demographic changes could be transforming the 26th into a kinder, gentler district. “There is a pretty clear line of minority voter advancement into previously Anglo areas,” Murray says. “Howard’s district is right in line with that.” Anglos, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians each account for about 25 percent of the area’s population growth, which means that the percentage of Anglos is dropping steadily. “If Howard is opposed, he shouldn’t take it lightly,” Murray says. “It could be a very meaningful election.”

In his 13 years at the Lege, Howard has been comfy: He’s well liked by fellow social conservatives in the Fort Bend GOP and enjoys ample cashflow from James Leininger, the San Antonio multimillionaire patron of school vouchers, and other Craddick supporters. According to a Texans for Public Justice report, in 2006, some of Howard’s top contributors were Leininger, SBC Corp. (a major Craddick funder now called AT&T Inc.), Texans for Lawsuit Reform (in support of lawsuit caps), and the Chickasaw Nation (an Oklahoma American Indian gambling empire that wants to keep gambling illegal in Texas).

Howard won his first chairmanship in the 2007 session, of the Local and Consent Calendars Committee. He’s been a reliable vote for school vouchers, though they have never passed. He co-authored, with Pampa Republican stalwart Rep. Warren Chisum, the 2005 constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. He supports building a wall between Texas and Mexico. He wrote the “Religious Viewpoints Anti-discrimination Act,” which passed in 2007 and set up a system allowing public school student leaders to pray at morning announcements and football games. He wrote bills in 2003 and 2005 that would have given the State Board of Education the power to censor textbooks, which might have allowed anti-evolution, anti-gay, and anti-sex politics to dictate how kids are educated.

There are some Sugar Landers-especially those who like to call themselves fiscal rather than social conservatives-who feel it’s time for change. In a growing suburban district like Fort Bend, change is not out of the question. It all depends on getting new voters to the polls.

Stansell is hoping public education will be the issue that carries her past Howard. The existing school finance system, she says, doesn’t account for inflation and could leave school districts in a crunch.

Suburban folks, regardless of party, want good schools, and focusing on education has helped other longshots take down entrenched incumbents. It worked for Rep. Diane Patrick in 2006, when the Arlington Republican defeated powerful, 19-year incumbent Kent Grusendorf in the Republican primary. Patrick won with a grassroots effort to get moderates and educators to the polls, and with the support of Texas Parent PAC.

Successes like Patrick’s could be a sign of Craddick’s crumbling power and its corrosive effect on those closely allied with him. In 2006, a half-dozen Craddick loyalists-Republican and Democrat-lost primaries to more independent-minded candidates, despite seemingly unlimited funds from Craddick supporters.

Stansell is among a growing number of fresh faces turning to grassroots strategies to garner support, despite opponents with seemingly limitless funding from corporate interests.

Stansell realizes she won’t have much money. “Charlie Howard has a lot of support outside of Fort Bend,” she says. “I’m hoping to have support in Fort Bend.” She’s counting on a lot of door-knocking to get her name out. (Howard declined to comment for this story.)

Ronald Booker, who lost to Howard in the 2006 primary, says, “Paula’s biggest problem is that nobody knows who she is. She’s going to have to spend all her money to get her name out there.”

Division within the Fort Bend GOP also could be a sign of the changing district. In November 2007, the local Republican Party imploded as top officers resigned after being hounded, sued, and all-round disliked by fringe social ultraconservatives who wanted to control the party, says Beverly Carter, owner of The Fort Bend Star. A group of fiscal conservatives formed the Fort Bend Conservative Club, a political action committee of business leaders, to endorse like-minded candidates.

Precinct Chair Mickey Mixon, who supports Howard, says there are liberal Republicans in Fort Bend. “I think a lot of people that call themselves Republicans are Republicans because there’s not much of a Democratic party in Fort Bend County,” Mixon says. “So they claim to be Republican so they’ll have a say in what goes on.”

Precinct Chair Frank Yonish, a self-described moderate Republican, says Stansell is underfunded and unknown, and Howard will probably win. “We need to get the moderates to vote and know the issues,” Yonish says. “I think the moderates, the more economic and fiscal conservatives, are the majority in Fort Bend. But when they go and vote, they’re not familiar with the stances of the candidates. They vote for the name they recognize.”

Megan Headley is a former Observer legislative intern.

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Published at 12:00 am CST