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FEATURE Cleaning House Election night upsets rock the Texas Democratic Party BY FELIX GILLETTE 1 t’s about 9:30 p.m. on March 9th, the night of the primary, and Ron Wilson’s victory party is staggering toward its conclusion. The preliminary numbers from the polls don’t look promising for the 26-year incumbent Democratic state representative from Houston. In a sparse fluorescent-lit room in the campaign headquarters on the southwest side of the city, a handful of Wilson supporters sit on folding chairs and watch “NYPD Blue” on a television with fuzzy reception. A campaign staffer spreads plastic wrap over the five-foot-something remains of a six-foot-long deli sandwich. Occasionally, the poll results roll across the bottom of the television screen. With 12 percent of the precincts reporting, Wilson is losing to his opponent, State Board of Education member Alma Allen, by an 8-point margin. The representative, dressed from head-to-toe in black, watches the returns stoically. Someone reiterates the night’s oft-repeated chorus: “It’s still early. It’s still early?’ But everyone knows that’s a lie. Outside in the strip mall parking lot, television crews circle like sharks that smell blood in the water. The 50-year-old Wilson’s streak of 13 consecutive terms in the Texas Legislature appears to be coming to an end. Over more than a quarter of a century, he has been one of the institution’s most flamboyant and formidable lawmakers. While representing a working-class district in southwest Houston, he went from a maverick outsider to the trusted lieutenant of the first GOP speaker of the Texas House in 130 years. Wilson’s combustible temperament, stable of flashy cars, and anything-but-a-standard-suit-and-tie wardrobe made him unlike any other legislator in the state house. Last session, his alliance with first-time House Speaker Tom Craddick \(RMeans Committee, transforming him into one of the most powerful Democrats in the lower chamber. As the evening continues, the so-called Craddick Dsthe Democratic representatives who sided with the GOPare falling across the state. Among those who will lose their D-Eagle By evening’s end in Hidalgo County, Rep. Roberto the Republican leadership, the defeat of Wilson and Lewis are the biggest setbacks. In a post-election statement, Craddick laments the loss of two “fine legislators, honorable men, and good friends.” For Lewis, the night marks the end of a six-year stint representing District 95 in Forth Worth. He loses to 33-year old Marc Veasey. Like Wilson, Lewis’ influence in the state House had risen with Craddick’s. Lewis, 50, chaired the County Affairs Committee, served as vice chair of the House Administration, and sat on the House Select Committee on School Finance, as did Wilson. Both men have been prominent Democratic supporters of vouchers. And both men failed to go to Ardmore to combat Republican-driven mid-decade congressional redistricting. But while Lewis largely equivocated on redistricting, Wilson cooperated with the effort as a member of the Redistricting committee and then served as the only non-expert witness for the GOP in the federal trial to defend it. During the campaigns, Veasey pounded Lewis for redistricting and vouchers. Like Alma Allen, he also made the case that all of his opponent’s collaboration with Republicans hadn’t done the district much good. At about 10:30 p.m. in Mi Charrito Mexican restaurant in Houston, Rickey “Mr. Saxophone” Ford stops playing his keyboard. State Rep. Rick Noriega Alma Allen, a 64-year-old Houstonian who has spent most of her professional life in educationas a teacher, as a principal, and as a current State Board of Education member. Allen thanks Noriega as well as a long list of prominent local Houston Democrats who have supported her campaign past and present. It is these people, particularly fellow black elected officials, whom Wilson had gone out of his way to antagonize during a contentious and partisan 2003. In a deposition this past December, Wilson called Coleman a “whiny little 3-year-old girl” and noted that he didn’t “consider [Coleman] an African American?’ A few weeks later, in a press release, Wilson mocked Coleman for having bipolar disorder. During the federal hearing on congressional redistricting, Wilson told the three-judge panel that Ellis has “his head up his ass half the time.” To erase any remaining ambiguity, Wilson proceeded to spell “ass.” As early as December, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Charles Soechting hit back by publicly endorsing Allen. Democratic party chairs normally don’t get involved in primaries and certainly not against incumbents. This year was different. Wilson says that his party let him downnot vice-versa. He explained that his support for the Republican redistricting plan was worthwhile because of the opportunity to create another 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/26/04