The Power of Positive Thinkers

One unofficial theme of the 2000 Texas State Republican Convention, June 14 through 17, was Think Positive, and the virus was contagious enough that one could catch it standing in the concession line. A genial, rotund delegate from Williamson County wearing an elephant gimme cap (complete with trunk readily adjustable for voting Aye or Nay) said he and his fellows had arrived expecting “a good time, inspiration, and getting ready for the fall campaign.”

He dismissed the absence of G.O.P. presidential standard bearer Governor Bush as “no big deal,” a notion echoed by the leadership throughout the convention. “Everybody here is for [Bush],” Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry told reporters. “What’s important is the other forty-nine states that are out there. We want them to see and know George Bush just like we do.”

Indeed, the Party was Thinking so Positive at first that it was seeing double. Early speakers repeatedly told the delegates they were holding “the biggest political convention in the country,” bigger even than the national conventions, with some 16,000 registered delegates. By Saturday it became clear that closer to 7,000 real people (roughly the same number as Democrats in Fort Worth) had managed to make it to the George R. Brown Convention Center, and the leadership was hemming and hawing. “I don’t know why the 16,000 eligible delegates and alternates didn’t come,” G.O.P. spokesman Robert Black told reporters. “Hopefully, they were back in their districts working hard for Republican candidates and couldn’t take the time.”

It would have been unseemly to suggest that if the Republican Governor and Presidential Candidate couldn’t be bothered to attend, one could hardly expect loyal Party members Ira and Ann from Iraan to spend hard-earned money for a convention which in Bush’s absence promised neither glamour, drama, nor suspense. Bush did attend, after a fashion, in the dread form of the campaign video bio, and if that was utterly and commercially predictable, it was no more so than the rest of the proceedings. A few very minor committee and caucus squabbles (e.g., term limits) made it to the floor, and reportedly a losing candidate for national delegate loudly accused her opponents of being “unbiblical,” but otherwise everything was scripted, right down to the “point of order” interruption of Party Chair Susan Weddington by Senator Jane Nelson. In faux dudgeon Nelson seized the podium, and then promptly pulled out green cheerleading pom-poms and directed that green buckets be passed among the delegates for cash contributions to “Grow the Party.” Maybe they needed the cash – Rick Perry made much of his own $25,000 contribution to the state senatorial campaign of Todd Staples – but to judge from the corporate signage all over the room and the printed program (even some delegates reportedly complained about the relentless advertising of the Party’s true sponsors) this was an organization that definitely knows on which side the Bread is Buttered. (See also “Permanent Values,” by Molly Ivins, page 10.)

This is not to say the occasion lacked all revelation. Despite the smothering atmosphere of celebration and optimism – the phrase “all twenty-nine statewide offices are now held by Republicans” was apparently embossed onto the teleprompter – there were moments when the smiling guard dropped ever so slightly, allowing a brief glimpse of the nasty edge of the Party knife. Reliable Jon Lindsay welcomed the delegates to Houston as “paradise,” by which he explained that in the Houston area districts, “good” voters would soon greatly outnumber “bad” voters. It seemed at first an unremarkable partisan distinction between Republicans and Democrats, until Lindsay elaborated that he was talking about “suburban” vs. “inner city” citizens: a code so transparent that it could not be lost on even the most wilfully colorblind Montgomery County delegate. A few minutes later Land Commissioner David Dewhurst was translating his own remarks about “conservative family values” – dignity, loyalty, hard work – into Spanish, a gesture that carried a double irony. In the first place, it was abundantly obvious that despite Dewhurst’s sunny forecast of the “coming

Hispanic majority,” virtually none of those present belonged to it; and in the second, Dewhurst somehow neglected to add that he had polished his own Spanish in the service of the Central Intelligence Agency in Bolivia, helping to install the conservative values of the bloody Hugo Banzer dictatorship.

There was a momentary interruption of this mordant trend with the ascension of Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, generously applauded for his overwhelming (and essentially unopposed) victory, and his anomalous presence as the singular African-American star of the Texas G.O.P..

And then there was Rick Perry’s own folksy video biography, which introduced the Aggie Cowpoke to statewide office by means of a grainy still of the defeated Jim Hightower, hand in hand with Jesse Jackson. At another gathering, the photo’s point might not have been so obvious; but in this one, it lent particular sharpness to a question asked afterward of Perry, as to what the Lieutenant Governor saw when he looked out from the podium over the audience: did he notice the obvious lack of minority representation, either African-American or Hispanic? “All I see from the podium is a big bright spotlight,” responded Perry defensively, quickly acknowledging that the reporter was undoubtedly right in his overall description of the delegates. Perry went on to argue that in the last election he had received the votes of about 2 million Texans, and that therefore the delegates present were not necessarily a “reflection” of the entire Republican Party of Texas. “That may be a bit of a stretch,” he surmised, thereby placing himself in the awkward position of implying that the political convention now dominating statewide politics was not, in fact, a representative body of Texas citizens. Nobody had a chance to call him on it.

But the point was made more visibly later in the afternoon, as the day’s caucuses concluded and rivers of overwhelmingly fair-skinned delegates flowed down the escalators to an armada of buses waiting to shuttle them a few blocks west, to the convention hotels. Across the avenue in the officially designated protest area, a handful of youthful demonstrators, white and black, perhaps thirty in all, gathered to protest the pending execution of Gary Graham. (Perry ascribed the national and international Graham protests to “presidential politics,” but since Al Gore had apparently been struck mute on the issue, the charge seemed misdirected at best.) “Let the evidence be heard,” declared Njera Shakur of the Death Penalty Abolition Movement, over the chanting and drumming of the protestors. But with a couple of wandering exceptions the huge crowd of delegates, blocked by the buses, was barely aware that the protest was even taking place. One man took a moment to cross the street and denounce the press for even acknowledging this tiny group, and despite his virulence, he had a point. The demo had its own ritual quality that in miniature (although it grew each day, as the execution approached) reflected the much more massive ritual just adjourning in the Convention Center. While one could argue that the protest group was undoubtedly more representative of what Jon Lindsay would call central Houston’s millions of “bad” voters than the gathered Republicans, the most forcible impression was that these two groups of Texans live on quite different planets, and never the twain shall meet.

But for the moment, let’s Think Positive. David Dewhurst left us with the reassuring promise that in the new Republican future, we will all have “the opportunity to swim in the lake of [our] neighborhood, and eat the fish,” as well as “the opportunity to fill out a simple tax form” (presumably with waterproof ink). Attorney General John Cornyn described with satisfaction the results of the Texas Exile program, the Bush administration’s pretense of gun law enforcement: “200 arrests of career criminals, and 600 guns confiscated” (in the immortal words of Walt Whitman, Unhinge the doors from their jambs!). Party vice-chairman and fundamentalist Wallbuilder David Barton delivered (to enormous applause) his inevitable potted American history lesson, designed to prove by algebra that the largely deist Founding Fathers were in fact bible-beating presbyterians. And among the dozens of caucuses meeting throughout the cavernous building, one could hear committee representatives solemnly announcing the results of the platform deliberations: abolish the minimum wage laws; return to the gold standard; promote swift and unencumbered capital punishment; drive activist judges into exile; adopt “American English” as the national language; leave the United Nations; promote corporal punishment and prayer; and most urgently of all, prosecute President William Jefferson Clinton for all his real and imagined crimes, up to and including treason.

A bit earlier, Rick Perry, who heretofore has had little opportunity to demonstrate a Bushean talent for malapropism, gamely congratulated David Barton as the Texas Republican who “literally launched a thousand ships,” and then introduced the lovely Anita beside him as “the love of my life, and the wife of my children.” Perry’s speech lurched and stumbled from Reagan, to Freedom, to that immoral usurper in the White House, to the “decencies and virtues” of the (UnClinton) Bush, to the beaches of Normandy (where the graves of soldiers are an “almost surreal reminder of their love for me and for you”) to the glorious work that lies ahead: “education, transportation, the Internet … and high-tech appliances.” One could even begin to hope that a Governor Perry administration – whatever other consolations it will fail to offer – would at least allow the (almost surreal) possibility of maintaining the hallowed Republican political tradition of unintended stand-up comedy.

If Positive Thinking was one theme for Convention 2000, the Power of Prayer was the other. Since 1988, when fundamentalist Christian delegates rode Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign wave into this same convention center in downtown Houston, the Christian Right has been a growing presence. In 1988, Christian Right delegates (who congregated on the final day of the convention at a Christian Coalition prayer breakfast to hear Elizabeth Dole tell her tale of personal salvation) controlled only one-third of the delegates. By 1994, when then-Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee was the draw at a Grand Old Prayer Rally at the Tarrant County Convention Center in Fort Worth, Christian Right delegates were the majority. They canned Bush family friend and longtime Party servant Fred Meyer, and in his place as Republican state chair elected Christian-Right Party operative Tom Pauken.

If Christian Right delegates had to retire into a large auditorium to hold their Grand Old Prayer Rally in Fort Worth in 1994, there was no such hiding in the catacombs this year. The plenary sessions were prayer rallies; only rarely did the faithful get out of hand. Despite all the Christian fervor, for example, it seemed that the Republican congregation would have been politic enough to avoid the political auto-da-fé that denied Senator Florence Shapiro, the Party’s highest-ranking Jew, a delegate’s credential to attend the national convention in Philadelphia. Nothing personal, Kelly Shakelford of the Free Market Foundation told the Dallas Morning News. “The people love Florence. But this is a grassroots position.” The free marketeers worked in concert with the Christian Coalition, organizing slates of Christian conservative candidates. Shapiro later won a delegate’s credential from the national nominating committee, which filled thirty-four at-large slots and thirty-four alternate delegate slots.

Christian prayer was constant. A week before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against her school district’s appeal that “student-led” prayer be allowed at football games, Santa Fe Independent School District graduating senior Marian Ward delivered the opening day invocation. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay reminded delegates that the Republican Party is bound together by its “faith in God, our belief in the sanctity of human life, our acceptance of moral absolutes.” And Laura Bush drew her biggest applause by reciting a religious line of poetry from her husband’s ghosted autobiography, A Charge to Keep.

Perhaps it required a Jewish sensibility to fully appreciate that this was a Christian gathering. To fulfill his obligation to report on an event that lacked real news value, Austin American-Statesman political reporter Ken Herman filed a 1,500-word story on the religious tone of the convention. Party Chair Susan Weddington – who works for San Antonio tort reformer and Christian schools advocate James Leininger, and came on as vice chair with Pauken in 1994 – beseeched Jesus Christ to “rule over us again,” Herman observed. Austin delegate Carol Everett concluded a prayer “in the name of that ultimate crisis pregnancy, Jesus Christ.” Waco Baptist preacher Ramiro Peña prayed that “the mantle of leadership from on high would fall over our Governor, wherever he is even right now.” (Our Governor, having too recently faced congregants like these at Bob Jones U., was even right then about as far from this event as he could be, campaigning in Ohio and Kentucky.) “Forgive us as political people for putting our name on our politics,” said one supplicant. And so it went.

Christian delegates again determined who was “in” and who was “out.” “In” was a Christian group that saves gays and lesbians from the life they have chosen. “Out” (yet again) were the gay Log Cabin Republicans, who maintained a mobile convention booth in a motor home on the street in front of the convention hall. Lacking anyone to fellowship with, Log Cabin delegates chatted up reporters at the back of the hall, hoping to call some attention to their delegation in exile. (There were exceptions, as State Reps Tony Goolsby and Brian McCall, both of whom voted for the hate crimes bill last session, stopped to talk.) Asked to respond to two anti-gay comments Party Chair Weddington and Vice Chair David Barton made within the first ten minutes of the second plenary session, Log Cabin President Steve Labinski said, “The Party insults everybody, not just gays.” Labinski, a beatific-looking young man brimming with optimism, suggested that the Party needs to “reach out to all minorities, not just gays and lesbians.” He said he was participating in “a gradual process” that will change the Party. And he will be voting for George W. Bush in November.

In the time set aside for secular politics, Midland Representative Tom Craddick introduced the Republicans running for the state House, where Craddick and his aide Milton Reiser have recruited the candidates and raised the money that now have the Party within six seats of a majority. Senator Shapiro read the names of the twelve Republican Senators attending the convention and, citing Senate tradition, yielded the podium to the Party’s Senate candidates. Shapiro’s odd counting suggested which Senate races the Party is focused on. “I yield the floor to our two – actually our four – Senate candidates,” she said. “These are two – or actually four – of the most important races that we have in the state of Texas today.” Shapiro introduced Warren Lawless and David Swift, who faded into the background as Bob Deuell and Todd Staples stepped to the pulpit to address the convention. Deuell is running against Dallas Democratic Senator David Cain – and because Cain’s district is so conservative and George W. is at the top of the ballot, Deuell might upset the incumbent Democrat. Deuell is a physician from Greenville and a Reagan Revolution visionary. He spoke with reverence of meeting Ronald Reagan in 1996, talked about values, and promi
ed to “win one for the Gipper.”

But the convention crowd belonged to three-term Representative Todd Staples, who is running for the seat vacated by retiring Republican Senator Drew Nixon. Nixon served one term, then concluded he couldn’t survive a conviction on charges of soliciting of a prostitute (who turned out to be an Austin police officer) and carrying an unregistered concealed weapon. He might have misjudged his Party, which is so pro-gun it might have forgiven his attempt to connect with a prostitute (who at least was female).

(And in fact, the Senate could do worse. Nixon served his time on weekends in Travis County, then returned to put in a solid 1999 session, casting carefully deliberated votes and standing his ground as one of two Republicans to block Bush, Lieutenant Governor Perry, and San Antonio right-wing funder James Leininger’s vouchers bill. Before Nixon decided to retire from politics, he reportedly approached Democratic Senator Judith Zaffirini to solicit membership in the Democratic Party. Zaffirini had to tell Nixon that the Party’s commitment to diversity has its limits. Yet she must have recognized that Nixon was a better Democratic vote than any of the Three Amigos: Ken Armbrister, Eddie Lucio, or Frank Madla – Democrats who have yet to show up at their Party’s Senate Caucus functions.)

Beyond Perry’s $25,000, a lot more Republican money will be riding on Staples (see “Trials on Trial,” page 16), in what might be the most expensive state senate race in the nation. Staples, an amiable real estate appraiser from Palestine, promised to defend the district against trial lawyers who are running one of their own: attorney David Fisher. While the two silent Senate candidates stood and listened, Staples told the convention: “We cannot allow the liberal personal injury trial lawyers in Texas to turn back the clock on tort reform in Texas. I want you to make no mistake, the same people who support a liberal carpetbagger named Hillary in New York are supporting a liberal carpetbagger trial lawyer in Senate District 3. New Yorkers don’t want a carpetbagger, and East Texans don’t want a carpetbagger either.… I am not the hand-picked candidate of the liberal personal injury trial lawyers.” (Fisher, whose family is from San Augustine County, moved three years ago from Beaumont to Silsbee, where he currently practices law.)

In a brief interview, Staples touched on the environment, education, juvenile justice, and welfare reform, all mentioned in his speech to the delegates. Asked about his fundraising, he said he is a target of the trial lawyers: “The tobacco trial lawyers have already made the statement. They’re going to carry the financial burden in this race and I feel like I’ll be outspent. But I’ll gather the resources necessary to get my message of limited government out.” Asked about additional tort reform measures, Staples said: “We do not want to roll back the clock on the reforms we have made – joint and several liability, venue shopping.” Then he waded into the convention crowd, as the same God-like voice that announces the Dallas Cowboys’ games proclaimed, from somewhere on high, the beginning of yet another celebration on stage.

Wasn’t it wonderful?” Senator Shapiro asked in the Four Seasons’ bar after the second session ended. The program, the speakers, the music, Shapiro said. “Come on, wasn’t it wonderful?”

From where the Senator sat in the bar – and from where she stood on stage as Party Chair Susan Weddington called down “every current candidate for election in November” – it was wonderful, even if George W. didn’t show. To stand on that stage, with music booming and Weddington doing a candidates’ altar call as Mylar confetti and streamers exploded from the ceiling, was as good as it gets for the Party that now owns the state. Of course it all was scripted, choreographed, stage-directed, and almost lacking in news content. But what major Party convention isn’t? The Christians behaved. No one embarrassed the Governor. There was Congressman Joe Barton’s Ice Cream Social for the fundamentalist Christians and the Four Seasons’ bar for mainstream Christians and Jews. The whole affair was a triumphalist roar and a Grand Old Prayer Session of a Party that knows it is absolutely at the top of its game.


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Published at 12:00 am CST