Democrats in Dallas Identity crisis By Sam Attlesey Dallas —-One of the key_battlegrounds in the Republican campaign to Make Texas-a two-party state is Dallas, a Republican stronghold where it is becoming increasingly difficult for a Democrat to win a countywide race. If the GOP can’t make decisive gains here next year, it probably can’t do it anywhere in Texas. The preliminary skirmishing has been appropriately intense. Dallas County Republican chairman Fred Meyer pretty well defined the local party’s strategy by magnanimously decreeing that it is “socially acceptable” for Democrats to switch parties in Dallas. Conservative Democrats holding office from the precinct level on up seem inclined to accept the invitation, but their course is far from settled. The response to all this among moderate and liberal Democrats ranges from apprehension to jubilation. There had been rumors and back-room talk throughout the hot summer in Dallas that the discontent of some of the conservative Democrats had reached the boiling point. Talk of a mass defection and walkout was common. With conservative darlings like John Connally and Ronald Reagan parading around the landscape seeking support for their presidential bids, it became almost unbearable for the conservatives to think about their own party’s prospective candidates: Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, and Jerry Brown. Some of the unhappy Democratic precinct chairmen remembered fondly the days when they had a George Wallace to support. While con. servative Democratic leaders of old like George Bock, Manuel DeBusk, and Earl Luna pouted and bemoaned the party’s fate, some Democratic officeholders decided it was time to act. The switch was on. It started with a splash on August 31, when veteran Democratic State Sen. Bill Braecklein, the Senate president pro tempore, announced his defection. Flanked by local and state GOP leaders, Braecklein said that Carter would make it difficult for a Democrat to win in his 16th senatorial district. The district includes rich, white areas like Highland black areas in South Dallas. The senator immediately gained the endorsement of Gov. Bill Clements, state GOP chairman Chet Upham, and then-county GOP chairman Bill McKenzie. Those unqualified endorsements did not sit too well with Republican State Reps. Lee Jackson and Frank Gaston. Both had been seriously considering a run for Braecklein’s Senate seat. Although they have now decided against challenging Braecklein, he will receive at least token opposition in the GOP primary. As for the general election, well, state Democratic chairman Billy Goldberg has let it be known that Democrats must make an example of Braecklein and his switch. That probably means Ron Kessler, who has given up his post as Dallas County Democratic chairman for a race against Braecklein, can expect some financial support from outside Dallas County. The next defector was Garland State Rep. Anita Hill. When she switched she took her husband, Harris Hill. with her. That was a double blow to the Democrats, since he just happened to be the secretary of the county Democratic party. He had been considering resigning from the post since mid-summer, he said. Representative Hill said, “I don’t consider I am leaving the Democratic Party but that it has left me.” The Hills were soon followed by Democratic State District Judge Theo Bedard. Her appointment earlier this year by Clements had surprised and hacked off local Republicans, but speculation was that part of the reason for the appointment was an understanding that she would switch. She denied that, saying she changed simply because the GOP is more closely aligned to her philosophy and that Texas is now a two-party state because of the election of Clements. Other Democratic judges in the Dallas County courthouse also are thinking seriously of switching, but they are waiting until closer to the February filing deadline to see if they will have opposition. State Rep. Clay Smothers, the outspoken black conservative from Oak Cliff, came next, letting it be known he was planning to switch to the Republican Party and challenge U.S. Rep. Martin Frost next year. Others followed the example of former county commissioner David Pickett, who started showing up at Republican Party functions and telling GOP leaders he would be more than willing to help their party. But perhaps the hardest blow to the Democrats came when popular Don Byrd, the former Dallas police chief, decided to seek the sheriff’s office as a Republican, saying the party was more representative of his philosophy of how government should operate. Democrats and Republicans alike had courted Byrd, who is regarded by most political watchers as a shoo-in to win the sheriffs post currently held by controversial Republican Carl Thomas. GOP leaders, who have turned against Thomas, were able to persuade Byrd he had a better shot at winning the countywide election as a Republican even though he would have to battle an incumbent in the Republican primary. And reportedly the offers of financial support were more attractive if Byrd signed on as a Republican. Despite his decision, Byrd can expect some support from Democrats, who are as convinced as the GOP that he can restore a sense of professionalism to the politically sensitive sheriff’s office. Local Republicans content with a Byrd in their nest now are looking for other candidates, and they recently found one in south Dallas County when they convinced Duncanville city councilman Nick Cariotis to switch to the GOP and challenge Democratic State Rep. Ray Keller. Cariotis lost to Keller in 1978 in the Democratic primary. Meanwhile, Connally charisma has proven too much for Betty McDonald, a former leader of the conservative Democratic wing and a former member of the State Democratic Executive Committee. She signed on as one of two Dallas County coordinators for Connally. Noting the defections, Dallas attorney and former state GOP chairman Ray THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13
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