Dateline Texas

General Hollowell's Last Stand



Rex Shaw, the county clerk for Upshur County, does not harbor any great enthusiasm for vote tabulation, but when the losing candidate in the local state representative’s race asked for a manual recount, it fell to Shaw to take care of matters. “I guess you’d call me the recount supervisor,” he told the Observer. “I am so thrilled I just want to shout.”

Indeed, the recount that took place November 20 in House District 5 lacked the drama of its Florida counterpart. The man who had requested it, long-retired state Representative Bill Hollowell of Grand Saline, had lost the first count by a wide-enough margin (with 48 percent of the vote, to his opponent’s 52) that his chances of overturning the election were little better than his chances of being crowned Queen Yam in the East Texas Yamboree, Gilmer’s annual festival honoring that orange tuber.

The mystery was why Hollowell, a former paleoconservative Democrat who switched parties to run against incumbent Democrat Bob Glaze, had asked for the recount to begin with. Hollowell himself has not explained it. Ever since making his request, he has not responded to inquiries from the media–a sensible decision, since one can only imagine to what inner circle of infernal despond the Bush team might have consigned a Texas Republican who had not only called for a hand recount, but started blathering about it to reporters.

An even deeper mystery is why Hollowell ran at all. He first served in the Texas House during the Eisenhower Administration, and as a legislator he was not one to let common sense get in the way of his conservative principles. He gained notoriety for his work on the appropriations committee, seeing as how he was more or less opposed to appropriations. In 1973, Molly Ivins called him “Grand Saline’s answer to the Piltdown man.” When he stepped down in 1990, no one thought he was just taking a breather.

On the day of the recount, he was nowhere to be found.

Nonetheless, the counting proceeded apace. As has been widely noted during this prolonged election season, manual recounts are routine in Texas. Any candidate who loses a machine count may request a hand count, provided he or she is willing to foot the bill if the result doesn’t change. Two years ago state Representative Rick Green, a Republican from Dripping Springs, took office only after a manual recount of punch-card ballots in Hays County produced enough votes to turn the election in his favor. There was nothing racy about the hand recount then, just as it was noncontroversial in east Texas this year.

In Gilmer, county clerk Shaw conducted the recount by the book, shooing three members of the media out of the courthouse room where 12 people were reviewing more than 12,000 optical scan ballots. (Texas election law states that anyone other than the counting teams and the official observers must remain at least 30 feet from the room’s entrance.) If a reporter crept closer to peer through the door glass, so as to catch a glimpse of the assembled east Texas matrons penciling vote counts onto their tally forms, and if in that moment Shaw, a slim older gentleman with a wide stance and a straight face, happened to walk out of the room and catch her in the act, he would warn her, “Thirty feet.” That reporter would then retreat back toward the soda machines.

One county away, in Tyler, where Hollowell had also requested a recount, local officials adhered even more stringently to the thirty-foot regulation. The second-floor hallway of the Smith County Office Building was cordoned off, and a young sheriff’s deputy was stationed in front of the cordon. The deputy seemed decidedly bored, even though just down the hall, Smith County citizens from both political parties were hand-counting punch card ballots, on the same day that Bush attorney Michael Carvin told the Florida Supreme Court that such a process was “inherently flawed and unconstitutional.” The Smith County recount was executed with little difficulty. Of the 11,121 cards reviewed in Smith County, ten ballots were “dimpled”–indented but not punctured–and counters had no trouble determining the voter’s intent in each case. (According to a Texas law passed in 1993, dimpled ballots may be counted so long as the voter’s intent can be discerned.) “Maybe people in Texas have a stronger thumb than they do in Florida,” said Smith County Judge Larry Craig after it was all over.

Once the counts in Upshur, Smith, and Van Zandt counties were finished, Hollowell, predictably enough, had lost again. Despite his silence he made the front page of the Thanksgiving edition of The New York Times, so well did the recount illustrate the disingenuousness of the Bush position in Florida. It was the public final scene in an otherwise obscure tragicomedy, the Last Campaign of General Hollowell–in which a conservative ghost of Texas’ political past entered into an uneasy alliance with certain right-wing spooks of the political present, and didn’t get anywhere.

Old hands in Austin, regardless of their political affiliation, recall Hollowell with something like fondness. He was known as “General Hollowell,” because he had attained the rank of major general in the Texas Air National Guard (the same institution that kept Bush out of harm’s way during the Vietnam War). He was anti-liquor, pro-God, pro-states’-rights, against campaign contributions, and entirely opposed to state-subsidized jazz festivals. In naming him to its ten-worst-legislators list in 1983, Texas Monthly called Hollowell “a total stranger to rational argument,” but often his reasoning was less suspect than the premises he started from. For instance, he once argued that funds designated for alcohol treatment should be eliminated from the Department of Corrections budget: “I submit to you that if they’re incarcerated in the penitentiary, their problem with alcohol is going to be solved.” Some years later he proposed a constitutional amendment providing that in the event of nuclear attack, former members would be allowed to fill sudden vacancies in the Legislature.

Hollowell, who had never married, stepped down ten years ago to take care of his aging mother. Shortly thereafter, according to sources in Van Zandt County (where Grand Saline is located), Hollowell checked his mother into a nursing home, and then checked himself into the nursing home as well, remaining there for some time after she passed away.

Meanwhile, the politics of House District 5 altered significantly. The change was unusually swift in Van Zandt County, owing to the fact that Canton, the county seat, is home to a Republican consulting firm called Winning Strategies. This is the same outfit that came under fire two years ago, after it was revealed by the Observer and other publications that the firm was underwritten both by donations from conservative über-funder James Leininger and by tax-supported subsidies from the Canton Economic Development Corporation, a city agency.

Winning Strategies subsequently announced it was getting out of politics, but the Republican ascendancy has continued in District 5, as it has in other small-city and rural regions where party-switching and suburban transplants have eroded the conservative Democratic base. (In 1998, Republicans took over the Van Zandt county commissioner’s court; this year former Winning Strategies consultant Jeff Fisher was elected county judge.) Other organizations have stepped in to promote conservative Republican candidates. This year the Free Enterprise PAC, a Dallas outfit funded by such right-wing luminaries as Leininger and David Duke supporter Jim Lightner, spent liberally in East Texas.

Re-enter Hollowell, who left the nursing home, got married, and switched parties, perhaps hoping to benefit from the rising Republican tide. He was fêted at the opening of the party headquarters in Canton. “The Republicans here are so well funded that it was a wonderful party, with hot dogs and everything, and they closed the street and had a stage,” recalls Vince Liebowitz, a reporter and editor with two Van Zandt County newspapers. “Bill Hollowell is kind of a sacred person around here, he was in the Legislature for so long, and everybody was calling him the general or the colonel or whatever his rank was.”

But there were problems with his campaign from the outset. One was his longstanding opposition to campaign contributions. Hollowell spent his own money on newspaper advertisements that touted his refusal to accept donations. Yet according to reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, the Free Enterprise PAC spent more than $30,000 on his behalf, paying for phone surveys and bulk mailings. A second problem was the narrow focus of Hollowell’s campaign efforts. His advertisements went after opponent Glaze for taking money from the beer distributors. In other ads he pledged to devote his attention to nursing homes. Presumably, a further stumbling block was that many people in Van Zandt County knew he had lived in a nursing home not too long ago.

In spite of his inconsistent stand on campaign contributions, his antique political views, and questions about his health, there was something poignant about General Hollowell’s crusade, in the pie charts he had printed in the papers showing what percentage of Glaze’s contributions came from outside the district, and in the campaign reports he himself filed showing box after box of “gasoline” expenditures. What was implied was that while Bob Glaze was off taping a commercial financed by deep-pocketed strangers, old Bill Hollowell was gassing up the Crown Victoria and driving over to the café to shake some hands.

Of course, anyone at all familiar with the Texas Legislature should know that handshakes are not quite enough, even when supplemented by far-right-financed direct mail.

In the end, it makes a strange kind of Hollowellian sense that the general’s last stand would be to ask for a recount. When you consider all the fascination inspired by the Florida counts, it’s almost as if we the people had forgotten that vote tallies do actually play a part in the process, along with all the money and posturing. And it’s as if the two presidential candidates, both champion fundraisers and posturers, wanted to ignore that inconvenient notion, in order to bend the result their way.

General Hollowell, on the other hand, actually wanted voters to elect him because of what might be called, for lack of a better term, his ideas. It’s a quaint concept, but one that does carry some appeal.