West Texas is losing population and political power. Amid the anxiety, will its independent-minded politics give way to the Tea Party?
It’s 6:50 p.m. in Sterling City, minutes before the first home game of the season. I’m in the town’s Dairy Queen offering to buy two girls their Dr. Peppers with a credit card in exchange for $3 cash, the admission cost to the game. I’m told the town has maybe two ATMs, and neither is working. The Dairy Queen is packed. The entire town of around 1,000 seems to be here, and everyone is clad in purple and red T-shirts, the respective colors of the Garden City Bearkats and Sterling City Eagles. For all my toe-tapping, it’s clear the three workers manning the Blizzard station and taking drive-thru orders won’t have time to deal with the line. I’ll be late to meet state Rep. Joe Heflin, one of the last Democratic officeholders in the region. I’m not too worried. Heflin’s already impressed that I came out here—not just to a six-man football game, but out to West Texas, to see what remains of the political culture that once dominated the state.
I arrived in the region five days earlier. From faraway Austin, I’d watched the Tea Party movement sweep into Lubbock during this spring’s Republican primaries, taking out longtime incumbent state Rep. Delwin Jones. Charles Perry, the candidate who unseated Jones, had been a vocal Tea Partier during the primary, his website touting him as “all of the things that will drive Austin liberals crazy.”
Conservative Democrats like Heflin ruled this region not so long ago. West Texas Democrats, in a long line of legislative powerhouses ending with House Speaker Pete Laney, ruled the state Legislature. But Heflin, who replaced Laney in 2006, now looks like a relic. In 2008, every county he represents voted at least 52 percent Republican in statewide races, and one went as high as 87 percent. Heflin is widely considered one of the GOP’s top targets.
Meanwhile, the region’s political power is shorting out. As the state’s population swells, populations in some West Texas counties are down by 20 percent from a decade ago. Those who remain look different—Hispanic populations are higher than 50 percent in some counties. Those who vote have tended more and more toward Republican—and maybe toward the Tea Party’s brand of hard-right conservatism. Was the region swinging further right, or were its changing demographics going to swing it back toward the Democrats?
I started with Tea Party candidate Charles Perry, whom I had met at the Lubbock Breakfast House, an archetypal local joint where pans clatter in the background and people shout greetings to friends. Perry’s Sunday school teacher was a few tables over, and he told me I just missed the local United Way president. For $3.50, I got eggs, home fries, fruit and—at the waitresses’ insistence—pumpkin pancakes. Perry had contented himself with oatmeal and coffee.
Perry’s Tea Party affiliations led me to expect the conventional narrative: The movement came to West Texas out of concern for a way of life that’s dying—extremism in the name of survival. After all, this was a candidate who’d declared at an April Tea Party rally: “This is a spiritual battle—it’s good versus evil.” But Perry, who’s guaranteed a House seat because he’s running with no Democratic opposition, came across as more studious than fiery. He’d beaten a longtime incumbent Republican, he said, because “people were ready for something different. They recognized that there were things that needed to be getting done that weren’t getting done. Tea Party’s nothing new. They’re just more vocal.”
Despite his Tea Party credentials, Perry said that like Heflin, he’s “a center-right guy.” Traces of right-wing ideology came through, though. “We understand that there’s risk and reward in life,” he said, “and the government’s role is not to say, ‘We’re here to pick you up when you fall,’ … You stifle independent thinking.” Perry had harsh words for the “clowns” at the Environmental Protection Agency, who have been pushing Texas to boost regulation. But he was eager, in the tradition of West Texas legislators, to sound a
collegial note. He rated Heflin’s race against Republican Joe Landtroop a toss-up and was philosophical about it: “As a Republican goes, I’d like to see a Republican take the seat,” Perry said. “It’s a pickup. As an individual and policy goes, I don’t think Joe and I are a lot different. Trouble is, he’s on the D ticket.”
The next day, still in search of West Texas’ Tea Party mojo, I drove 30 minutes west to Levelland to see Joe Dee Brooks. Brooks is an ardent Perry supporter and a major employer in Hockley County, which voted 74 percent Republican overall in 2008 statewide races. Brooks, like Perry, turned out to be more pragmatist than firebrand. In his office at Allied Oilfields, which manufactures drilling equipment, Brooks said that while he’s no fan of welfare, he chairs the South Plains Community Action Association, which oversees Head Start, some child-nutrition programs and health care projects for needy families. “Democrats created it,” Brooks said. “I don’t really believe in a lot of it, but I think it’s good for our communities and our areas and the people that need these programs.” He estimated that the programs provide 1,800 jobs.
Jobs were Brooks’ overwhelming concern—along with community survival. Levelland had about 12,900 people in 2000, but in the last nine years, the county has lost 2 percent of its population, according to Census estimates. That’s as the state gained 19 percent. In the context of West Texas, though, it’s doing pretty well. Brooks mostly went Tea Party, he said, because the incumbents weren’t working hard enough for the region. It wasn’t just Perry’s predecessor, state Rep. Jones, but also Reps. Carl Isett and David Swinford, who both resigned earlier this year and left others to handle constituent services. “They just quit,” Brooks said. “I’m thinking, you wanted to serve us? That just told me that the guy lied to me for the last 15 years.”
For Brooks, the Tea Party movement was less about policy and more about ending partisanship and business as usual. He hopes to see a more limited, less regulatory government. “The state of Texas is here to provide us some highways, they’re here to provide us some education, they’re here to provide us some protection,” Brooks said. “That’s what simple government does.” Most of all, he wants to protect Levelland, and he says making business cheap and easy will help the town keep its local industries. Though he’s not in Heflin’s district, Brooks likes the incumbent and worked with him in the broader community. But the West Texas Tea Partiers, he said, might bring some energy to the Capitol and help the region. “It’s basically, ‘Hey, let’s get on with getting stuff done,’” Brooks said.
Armed with my $3 from the Dairy Queen, I find Heflin at the game. Between the red- and purple-clad fans, he’s wearing beige and khaki. “How much more neutral can you get?” he said, laughing. Heflin can’t afford to take sides—he might be the only Democrat these conservative farming folks will consider supporting. When he’s not giving me the rules of six-man football, Heflin’s on the lookout for constituents to chat up. We walk over to a stadium entrance, where the sound of livestock can be heard between the crowd’s roars. One of the ticket collectors, a mustachioed man in a white cowboy hat, comes up to talk to Heflin about some transmission lines that might go up on his property. They complain together about the utilities for a while, until the man starts talking politics. “Instead of cutting back, it’s always, ‘How can we raise more money?’” he says. “The Republicans—and I’m a hard-core, right-wing Republican—but we brought all this on ourselves. We did a terrible job. Lost focus. We kept worrying about—what was her name, Mary Ann Shively [Terri Schiavo]—was gonna die. What does that have to do with Congress?” Heflin smiles and nods. This is one more “hard-core Republican” vote he’s going to get.
It’s 70 miles from Levelland to Crosby County, Heflin’s home county. Crosby County is struggling: In the last decade, it lost 13 percent of its population and 20 percent of its nonfarm employment. Crosbyton still has its Dairy Queen, one sign of lingering prosperity, but everybody will tell you it’s been a rough few years. I figured this would be the kind of place where the Tea Party would thrive—until I swung into town and saw row upon row of yards, each with their little blue sign entreating the neighbors to “Re-elect Joe Heflin.”
I wandered into Charley’s Place, drawn by the scent of grease, and fell in with the Houses and Henns. Over bacon-wrapped hotdogs and other specialties, the two couples told me they were staunch conservatives. But they liked their Democrat, Heflin. “He’s done a lot for small towns, for West Texas,” Trixie Henn said. The only one to hesitate was her husband Steve, a farmer who said he needed to double-check whether Heflin was pro-life. “I’ll ask him,” Steve said. “He comes to town.”
Steve can rest easy: On social issues, Heflin is one of the most conservative in the House. He’s anti-abortion and has endorsements from just about every gun group. That’s been one secret to his hanging on in this Republican region.
Across the table, Carl House said he supported Heflin, but was excited about the Tea Party. The movement hadn’t really expanded in West Texas past Lubbock, the Houses and Henns said, echoing what I’d heard from others. But Carl said he’s for them, and he and Steve were happy to see Jones lose to Perry. They felt Jones was too moderate on social issues like abortion.
In some places people seem to tune out politics, but these folks see serious political stakes in their everyday lives. Carl commutes daily to work in Lubbock, 40 miles away, which he’s done for years to keep the family in Crosbyton. Steve is luckier: He farms in the area, and his eldest two sons plan to farm as well. But as farms need less labor, more kids must move out of counties like Crosby to find work. Everybody’s worried about whether there will be enough jobs in the future. “We have the hospital,” Trixie said. “We have the school …”
“We have the gin,” added Jody House—the cotton gin. She said both her children had moved away for lack of jobs.
“Well, it’s not gonna be over as fast we thought,” Joe Heflin said. The Sterling City Eagles, who were getting killed in the first half, are threatening a comeback. Heflin might as well enjoy it: He’s going to be seeing a lot of these games as the campaign season heats up; reminding people he knows them is no small part of his winning strategy. In Austin, many think Heflin will lose. “People in Austin don’t understand,” he said, leading me over to the Garden City side, where he’s spotted some supporters. “People out here don’t think the way people in Austin do.” Heflin said things are no different than in past election cycles—every time, there’s speculation he will lose. But Heflin said he knows how to defend his seat—and it starts with being here, at this game.
“The thing I hear the most,” Heflin said, “is, ‘Oh, I recognize you! I saw you in the paper!’” He smiles. “I’m like, ‘That’s right.’ And it’s not by accident.” In a district stretching hundreds of miles through conservative rural counties, Heflin takes advantage of the 26 weekly newspapers starved for content, feeding them a steady diet of story ideas, press releases and photos. In case that doesn’t reach enough folks, he writes more than 100 notes a week, congratulating kids on becoming Eagle Scouts and grandmas for reaching 95. It’s partly why he claims he’s not shaking in his boots about Landtroop’s challenge. His constituents know him, Heflin said, and “they still believe the individual has to do the job. If [lawmakers are] doing you a good job. You don’t change because the party says you need to change.”
earlier that friday afternoon, on my way to the game in Sterling City, I stop back in Crosbyton. While Crosby County is almost 53 percent Hispanic now, the three school districts in the area are between 67 and 79 percent Hispanic. Such numbers aren’t unusual in this region—and the youth of the Hispanic population is one of the reasons that Anglos still dominate, so far, on election days. What’s going to happen when they don’t?
I followed a gaggle of Crosbyton moms and daughters into town, all dressed for the football game. Then I followed a few a bit farther, into Diane’s Hair Express. Diane Muñoz, the owner, had little to say about politics beyond telling me that she’s a conservative and an independent who supports Heflin. Her parents were migrant laborers who settled here, she said, and like everyone else, Muñoz worries about the town’s future. She pointed me to her 17-year-old daughter Amanda, a political savant who loves Sarah Palin as well as Condoleezza Rice.
“I believe in the core values of the Republicans,” Amanda said decisively. Like her mother, Amanda also loved Heflin and “would vote Democratic Party just to vote for him.” She was especially passionate on pro-life issues, but with some concerns about the GOP’s take on immigration. It’s one of the only parts of the Republican platform she said she doesn’t like: “It feels anti-Hispanic, not anti-illegals.”
Amanda can understand Spanish, but doesn’t speak it particularly well. She tries with her mother’s parents, longtime area residents who rarely speak English. She hopes to return to Crosbyton after college, if there’s a job. “That is my history,” she said of her West Texas Latina identity. “That is my heritage.”
Amanda reminds me of Jaime Hernandez, a hotel maintenance worker I met an hour away in Plainview. He pronounced his name “Jamie,” but kept the traditional Spanish spelling. Hernandez lived on the same plot of land as the last four generations of his family—it’s the land that’s kept him in the area. He said that when his wife moved up to West Texas from her home in the Valley, she was shocked by the differences in the Hispanic communities. “It was a whole different thing,” he said. “She didn’t like it over here.” Hernandez was more critical of his town than Amanda was of hers. While he said he considered Plainview a “white man’s town,” Hernandez is among the many Hispanic residents of West Texas who don’t vote. Amanda, meanwhile, hopes to run for office someday.
Sterling City’s brief rally fails, and the Bearkats resume their domination. Heflin and I trade Austin gossip for a while—that world felt far away. We theorize about what will happen to the budget, which members will take power in the next session. We acknowledge that West Texas representatives will need to band together to keep West Texas alive. “It’s kind of like we’re stuck in a time zone,” he said of the region. We walk out to his car, and he asks—twice—if I know how to get to my hotel in San Angelo. I remind him I still have the road map he gave me a few days earlier, so I’ll be fine. He drives away, and I consider doing the same. But I want to savor the last few hours I have in West Texas, so I go back to the crowd. The Sterling City cheerleaders continue chants about O-F-F-E-N-S-E, although Sterling City appears to have little of that tonight. I wait in line to buy a soggy, soft pretzel and dip it in cold nacho cheese sauce. I consider interviewing some of the parents and kids around me. As the populations of Garden City and Sterling City cheer their six-man teams, I’m sure some people are thinking of the days, only a few years ago, when these teams were full-sized and these small towns
eren’t quite so small. I almost approach one woman before thinking better of it. This is West Texas after all, and no one wants to talk politics in the fourth quarter.