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VS. IM LANDTROOP 1111111111111111 THE 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 powerhotthes 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 Republicanand 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 andat the waitresses’ insistencepumpkin 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 dyingextremism in the name of survival. After all, this was a candidate who’d declared at an April Tea Party rally: “This is a spiritual battleit’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 rightwing 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 concernalong 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, Ifind Heflin at the game. Between the redand 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 sideshe 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 REP. JOE HEFLIN ID 85 2006 ELECTION RESULTS 217 Votes MARGIN OVER “People out here don’t think the way people in Austin do.” 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG