Turning Houston Blue

Can the Democrats sweep Houston? (Maybe. But don’t hold your breath...)

Yard signs at Harris County coordinated campaign office.

You normally don’t think of Houston as a bastion of Democratic Party politics. For years the city has been dominated by the oil industry and the GOP-they’ve often seemed one and the same. Houston gave us George H.W. Bush, Tom DeLay and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and some of the nation’s most prolific Republican campaign donors call the city home.

Democrats are hoping to overcome that profile. They’re pouring tons of money into a campaign to transform the Houston area into a Democratic stronghold they hope will help swing future state and national elections. Their goals aren’t small. Many within the party believe Houston is the key not only to recapturing Texas for Democrats but also to putting the state back in play in presidential elections. All of which makes Houston one of the most important battlegrounds in the country this year.

That may sound grandiose, but to understand the Democrats’ strategy, you have to consider that Houston is essentially its own swing state within Texas. Harris County, which encompasses the city and its suburbs, is home to 3.9 million people, outnumbering the populations of 23 states, and is roughly the same population as Oregon. Now consider that Harris County-in theory, at least-is already Democratic. Surveys and polls repeatedly show that more of its eligible voters identify with Democrats. It’s just that many of those people don’t vote. Moreover, the area is growing. Subdivisions are sprouting at the city’s edge like weeds. The people moving in are mostly Democrats. Harris County is undergoing a demographic shift that will soon put Anglos in the minority.

Practically speaking, a Democrat can’t win a statewide race in Texas without carrying Harris County. If the party can increase its turnout just enough in this presidential year to turn Harris County blue, Democrats will control five of the state’s largest counties and could become competitive again in races for governor, lieutenant governor, and U.S. Senate. Democrats are feeling the urgency to capture a statewide race and at least one chamber of the Texas Legislature by 2010 to gain a say in the next round of legislative and congressional redistricting.

But Houston’s size and shifting demographics have local Democrats dreaming well beyond the Governor’s Mansion. They talk of a day when Houston could be for Texas what Philadelphia has been for Pennsylvania-a metro area that votes so overwhelmingly Democratic it provides a large enough advantage to deliver the state almost by itself. (In the 2004 election, Philadelphia handed Democrats a 400,000-vote edge in the state’s largest population center-a margin Republican areas of Pennsylvania couldn’t surmount.)

Harris County Democratic Party Chair Gerry Birnberg points out that if big margins in Houston could help a Democratic presidential candidate capture Texas, the Electoral College map would shift decisively. He says New York and California likely will vote Democratic for a generation. “If you can start a presidential cycle with California, New York and Texas already in your column, there is not an electoral map you can draw that a Republican candidate can win,” Birnberg says. “Harris County is ground zero. We don’t get there without Harris County.”

Democrats have never lacked for grandiose plans. Execution is usually the problem. In the here and now, Harris County Republicans still hold every county office and every district judge position. The GOP has carried Harris County in every presidential election since 1964.

For the past two years, though, local Democrats have worked toward flipping Harris County in 2008. They’ve recruited more candidates than ever before, raised money specifically for the effort, and designed a comprehensive campaign that coordinates the state and county party apparatuses with candidates on advertising, voter registration, and get-out-the-vote operations.

At the same time, circumstances seem to have conspired to favor Democratic gains. Corruption scandals engulfed a county commissioner, the county judge, the sheriff, and the district attorney (who eventually had to resign)-Republicans all.

And in March, the Democratic presidential primary ignited unprecedented voter interest and turnout, which seem likely to carry over into the general election.

It all seemed like the proverbial perfect storm to sink Houston Republicans in 2008-that is, until a very real storm arrived September 12. Hurricane Ike devastated the area, knocking out electricity for nearly three weeks in some neighborhoods. The storm and its aftermath precluded weeks of campaigning and voter registration, a period when no one, including campaign staff, was thinking about politics-the sort of interruption that typically benefits an incumbent.

If Democrats don’t sweep Harris County this year, it might take a while. In 2010, statewide campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor and perhaps U.S. Senate may suck up much of the Democratic campaign money in the state, and Barack Obama won’t be at the top of the ballot to bolster turnout. Ike or no Ike, Harris County’s Democrats think this is their year.

For inspiration, Houston Democrats need only look north to Dallas County, where Republicans also dominated local politics, at least until 2006, when Democrats swept every administrative and judicial office in the county. Although the area had been trending Democratic, the GOP was somehow caught off-guard, and the rout stunned Republican strategists statewide. Strategists in both parties realized immediately where the next battleground would be.

The GOP retained control in Harris County two years ago, but the margin was already shrinking. Democrats won 48.5 percent of the countywide vote in 2006, an increase from previous years. “They were competitive, but they all lost,” says Richard Murray, political scientist at the University of Houston.

For Gerry Birnberg, the improved 2006 showing was an important first step. A lawyer by trade, he’s been involved in county politics since the early 1970s. Back then, Houston was so thoroughly Democratic that some political operatives didn’t even want to admit to working for Republicans. The first case Birnberg argued before the U.S. Supreme Court involved printers who feared that if they put their names on Republican political mailers-as state disclosure laws required-their careers would be finished.

Republicans chipped away over the years, and in 1994 they swept every county office. “We haven’t recovered from that blow,” says Birnberg, who lost that year himself, coming up short in a bid for the local court of appeals. But for Birnberg, the absolute low point for Democrats in Harris County may have been 2003, the year he became county party chair and the DeLay redistricting plan kicked half a dozen Democratic congressmen out of office. The party was “just getting overwhelmed by the Republicans,” Birnberg says.

Larry Joe Doherty

Democratic percentages in Harris County have been creeping back up since 2002, but it’s been slow going. (In 2006, the party fielded only 10 candidates in the county’s roughly four dozen judicial races.) But Birnberg and other party leaders bided their time, and after the 2006 election, they saw their opportunity. Historically, Harris County Democrats perform one percentage point better in presidential election years. Added to the 48.5 percent Democrats garnered in 2006, that one percent could put the Dems within spitting distance.

In November 2006, just weeks after the Dallas success, Birnberg and other party leaders, including Democratic strategist Matt Angle, began organizing the 2008 effort. The Harris County campaign was split into two tiers. Birnberg and the county party would recruit candidates, register voters, and run get-out-the-vote efforts. This tier is run by Bill Kelly, a political consultant who directed successful state House races in Houston for Hubert Vo in 2004 and Ellen Cohen in 2006. (Kelly declined an interview request for this story.)

Simultaneously, Angle and a group of major campaign donors, including Houston trial lawyer Dave Matthiesen, would organize the Harris County Project, which, with help from the state party, would raise money for a major ad campaign targeting specific voters through mail and television advertisements.

As the national political environment continued to turn against Republicans, Birnberg all of a sudden had no trouble finding potential candidates. “We didn’t have to do much recruiting,” he says. Too many people wanted to run. Birnberg formed a committee of 40 local leaders to vet more than 70 potential judicial candidates. Birnberg is adamant that no one was told they couldn’t run, though several were encouraged to wait for another election. The party wound up with a full ballot of 40 judicial candidates in Harris County-roughly four times the number from two years before. The party is also fielding strong candidates against County Judge Ed Emmett, Sheriff Tommy Thomas, and Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt, and for district attorney.

Republicans haven’t helped themselves. Nearly every county officeholder has been touched by scandal. The FBI and the district attorney have been investigating County Commissioner Jerry Eversole for misuse of campaign funds and for having a county contractor design his house. Eversole recently told the Houston Chronicle that an indictment wouldn’t surprise him. The Sheriff’s Department also has been the subject of a federal investigation after more than 140 inmate deaths at the county jail since 2001. Meanwhile, Sheriff Thomas admitted that his deputies had improperly surveilled two men who had filed a wrongful-arrest lawsuit (and later won $1.7 million in damages) against the department. And then there’s former District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, well known nationally for his hard-line stand in support of the death penalty. He was forced to resign in February after tawdry e-mails he wrote to staff and others became public. Not to be outdone, Thomas’ Sheriff’s Department had tried to delete 750,000 county e-mails-a trove that included racist rants written by deputies. The e-mails were protected by a court order and later became public. (Adrian Garcia, a Houston City Council member and former police officer, is running for Thomas’ job.)

But perhaps no race is more important to Harris County Democrats than tax assessor. It may sound dull, but Democrats say their future success in Harris County may hinge on whether Democrat Diane Trautman can defeat incumbent Bettencourt. That’s because the tax assessor’s office, in addition to assessing taxes, also maintains the voter rolls. Although Bettencourt isn’t facing a federal corruption probe, he has generated his share of controversy.

Traditionally, higher voter registration and turnout aids Democrats, and local Democrats accuse Bettencourt-a delegate to the 2008 Republican National Convention-of overzealously scrubbing the county voter rolls to minimize Democratic turnout. The Houston Chronicle reported in July that Bettencourt has used technicalities to purge voters, including people who fail to check the correct box on a form. Bettencourt is “more focused on keeping people from voting than getting people to vote,” Birnberg says.

“We purge based upon federal and state law,” Bettencourt told the Observer. “Every add or deletion I make is subject to [Texas] secretary of state approval.” He noted that Birnberg hadn’t filed any official complaints with his office and attributed Birnberg’s criticisms to election-year politics.

Bettencourt will be tough to beat. In recent elections, he has performed better than fellow Republicans (he garnered 25,000 more votes than President Bush in Harris County in 2004), an indication that he attracts votes from Democrats as well as Republicans.

Democratic strategists are counting on a turnout spike from Obama’s presence on the ticket. The turnout in the March 4 primary, driven by the first contested presidential primary in Texas in 20 years, was stunning. More than 400,000 Democrats voted in Harris County’s primary, a record number. That number alone, Birnberg notes, gets Democrats close to the 600,000 votes they think they need to win the county. That is, if those primary voters return for the general election.

Excitement about Obama’s candidacy remains high in Harris County, and many observers expect a massive turnout among African-American voters. Murray, the University of Houston professor, predicts the African-American share of the vote in the county will jump to about 23 percent (from 17 percent), and almost all those voters are expected to be Democrats. Murray also expects an increase among Latino voters, who could number 170,000-three times the Latino turnout of 1996.

Despite all these advantages, the races in Harris County will likely be tight. Democrats face a bigger challenge in the Houston area than they did in Dallas two years ago. While the suburban areas of Harris County are trending minority and shifting Democratic (especially the suburbs closest to the city), they’re still largely Anglo. And among those who reliably vote, a majority are Republicans. Moreover, the GOP won’t be caught off guard this time. Republicans have been preparing for two years to defend Harris County. They may not have christened a coordinated campaign for the occasion, but they have raised plenty of money, and they’ve got a reliable get-out-the-vote operation that has worked for years.

Westheimer Road runs west from downtown Houston through a seemingly endless gauntlet of chain stores, fast food joints, and gas stations. Thirty minutes from downtown, past the city line, the roadside monoculture gives way to the empty fields and leafy subdivisions of Houston’s far western suburbs. The Harris County Democratic Party has established a campaign office here in a drab brick storefront in a half-empty strip mall. The county party offices are here, as are those of three legislative candidates: Kristi Thibaut (who’s challenging Republican state Rep. Jim Murphy), state Rep. Hubert Vo, and Chris Bell, the former gubernatorial candidate running in a special election for state Senate. The office-sharing is a big part of the party’s coordinated effort.

On a sunny Saturday morning in early October, nearly 200 campaign volunteers cycle through the office to gather materials to canvass in the surrounding neighborhoods. For years, this area-an unincorporated section of Harris County wedged between Houston and Katy-was mostly Anglo and dominated politically by Republicans. That has begun to change. The area’s population is increasingly diverse. More blacks, Latinos, Vietnamese, and South Asians have moved out of the city in search of affordable houses (Thibaut’s district is roughly 65 percent minority). It’s the kind of suburban area in which Democrats must perform to win Harris County.

Gerry Birnberg

It’s only the second weekend of active campaigning since Hurricane Ike knocked out the area’s electricity and its politicking. The storm’s ultimate impact on local elections is anyone’s guess. Democrats lost three invaluable weeks in late September when they suspended their voter registration and block-walking efforts-a loss that should favor the incumbent Republicans.

In the western suburbs, where damage was less severe, life has returned mostly to normal. But the campaign must still make up for lost time. Volunteers in matching T-shirts gather their materials and cart off yard signs for nearly every candidate on the ballot, along with the blue signs that read “Vote Democrat, Be the Change.” (The coordinated campaign, fearful that many first-time voters drawn by Obama won’t vote in down-ballot races, is encouraging Democrats to vote straight-ticket.)

The canvassing is a large, all-volunteer effort. The coordinated campaign-in charge of boosting turnout-has hardly any paid organizers. This has caused some grumbling among Democratic st
ategists. Although few wanted to crit
cize the effort on the record, they wonder if the party is funneling enough money to its ground game. Some Democrats worry that too much money is being spent on persuasion-phone banking and the hundreds of thousands of mailers with which the campaign will flood the county in the final month-at the expense of turnout. (It’s an axiom in politics that advertising may bring voters over to your side, but nothing convinces one to get to the polls like a knock on the door.) After all, Harris County is already majority Democratic on paper, if only all the Democrats voted. The party doesn’t have a message problem, the argument goes. It has a turnout problem.

Back at the west-side campaign office, Kristi Thibaut sounds optimistic. Two years ago, she lost to Murphy by 2,900 votes in her race for state representative. In that campaign, Thibaut was on her own. She had trouble raising money and creating excitement about the race-even in 2006, an election year that favored Democrats. “A state rep race doesn’t drive people to the polls,” she says. “Last time, it was me trying to gin up excitement. It was just my campaign out there trudging along.” Now she has more money and more help. “There’s no comparison. [The coordinated campaign] is like an overlay to what my campaign is doing. All the layers are just reinforcing that message to vote Democrat.” On this Saturday, she estimates that between the coordinated campaign volunteers, her own people, and third-party groups, 150 people were block-walking on her behalf. She says the turnout efforts will do the job. And, besides, given all the energy and excitement surrounding this election, if someone doesn’t turn out to vote this year, they were probably a lost cause to start with.

The same may be true of winning Harris County. As Thibaut put it, “If we don’t do it this year, it might not happen.”

Investigative reporting for this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Institute.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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