A New Texas, At Last?

The state political conventions may not mean as much as they used to in the old days, when a slate of candidates was actually selected by delegates, over a weekend of horsetrading, boozing, and brawling. There’s very little brawling these days, and in the case of the Republicans at least, virtually no boozing. Now the conventions are about squeezing as much publicity out of an utterly predictable two-day event as possible, and firing up the troops for the fall campaigns. But they still mark the traditional kickoff to the campaign season, and they offer a chance to reflect on where electoral politics is headed in this state.

As Jake Bernstein reports from Dallas in this issue, for once it is the R’s who are in serious disarray. Partly it’s the usual infighting, as the conservative Christians chafe under the more moderate Republican leadership and candidates. And partly it’s brain drain–the R cadre of consultants seem to be feeling the absence of their guru Karl Rove, maybe more than anyone could have predicted. But what really has them shaken up is what used to be called the Democrats’ Dream Team, until that phrase was canned: Tony Sanchez for Governor, Ron Kirk for U.S. Senator, and John Sharp for Lieutenant Governor, the most ethnically diverse ticket the state has ever seen. In recent weeks, after both outgoing U.S. Senator Phil Gramm and his would-be Republican successor John Cornyn called the slate a racially divisive “quota” ticket, some Democrats, who convened in El Paso last month, have sought to downplay how premeditated this diverse ticket really was. But it’s widely known that Sharp began recruiting both Kirk and Sanchez shortly after he narrowly lost the Lieutenant Governor’s race to Rick Perry in 1998.

And where is the shame in that? For the first time, the top of a major party ticket looks like Texas. Hispanics will soon be the largest ethnic group in the state–both parties should be courting them like crazy. And even if Sharp was motivated, as some have whispered, by political expediency more than anything else–higher minority turnout may wind up getting him elected, but not Kirk or Sanchez–the genie is now out of the bottle, and there may be no putting him back in. Which is to say, even if the strategy doesn’t work this time around, the Democrats may never be able to step back from this momentous leap into the future, even if they wanted to. It’s a question that must have occurred to Sharp and company when the plan was first hatched: If we do this now, will there always have to be at least one candidate from the Hispanic community at the top of the Democratic ticket, from now on? (The corollary question, whether the Dems will always have to have a millionaire oilman on the ticket, is for another editorial.)

If the answer is yes, then Texas has turned a corner in its political history, one which by all rights should have been turned a long time ago. And the implications are weighty. The Democrats could lock up, once and for all, Hispanic allegiance to the party, and probably ensure Democratic hegemony for the foreseeable future. Of course, it might be a different Democratic party, with different priorities. It could mean, among other things, that the long-neglected border’s time has finally arrived. That could become the real story of this election, how that strip of Texas (which, were it a state of its own, would rank dead last in just about every per capita spending category from public health to highway infrastructure to higher education) finally got it’s due from a state government that simply ignored it for generations.

Which raises another question: How will the Republicans respond? It’s not that they haven’t seen this coming for years. But their eleventh-hour overtures to Hispanics in Texas have been justifiably ridiculed, and their single best argument–What have the Dems done for you lately?–will ring a little hollow if the governor is from Laredo next year. Which raises the disturbing specter, already rearing its ugly head in Phil Gramm’s farewell spleen-venting in Dallas, that the Texas R’s will go the Pete Wilson route. They may try, in other words, to stave off their eventual obsolescence for a few years more by making themselves the White People’s Party. Some would say, of course, that they are already doing that, and they’d be right. But look at the history of California in the 1990s, and you’ll see that racial politics can get a lot worse. How much worse? Let’s hope we don’t find out. –N.B.

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Published at 12:00 am CST