There are few things more Texan than low voter participation, but the example set by the Harris County Democratic Party over the last few months probably can’t be topped. On Saturday, Houston lawyer Shawn Thierry effectively won a state House seat by a vote of 13-11, with the deciding vote cast by a card-carrying organizer with the Lyndon LaRouche PAC, a fringe group whose politics are all over the map.
It was a bizarre conclusion to a chain of events that began with the sudden death, in January, of the powerful county commissioner for Harris County Precinct 1, El Franco Lee. The date of Lee’s heart attack put the party in an unusual position. Had it happened later or earlier, the vacancy would have been filled by traditional means. Instead, state law and party rules gave the responsibility of selecting a new Democratic nominee for the November election to the 117 Democratic party precinct chairs in Lee’s district.
When longtime state Senator Rodney Ellis won the race to replace Lee, the 79 precinct chairs in his district selected state Representative Borris Miles to replace Ellis in the Senate. And on Saturday, 24 precinct chairs met in a small room full of folding chairs at the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center in south Houston to pick Miles’ replacement. They adjudicated a fierce contest between Thierry and Erica Lee Carter, member of the Harris County Board of Education and, more importantly, daughter of longtime Houston congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.
Most years see no races resolved this way in Houston, but this year, there have been five such elections, including two minor judicial races. The campaigns to win them are very unusual. With the public completely out of the picture, candidates focus herculean efforts on pleasing the personal whims of precinct chairs, minor party functionaries who ordinarily have very little say in anything. And because Democratic nominees are essentially guaranteed a win in November in the five races so far resolved, and because incumbents can last a long time, this summer’s votes may be the last contested election Ellis, Miles and Thierry ever face.
There were supposed to be 27 chairs at Saturday’s vote. A few days earlier, one chair, another acolyte of Lyndon LaRouche, was stripped of his position after party officials determined he resides outside of the district he was representing. Lee Carter was thought to have a slim majority of the remaining 26 chairs.
But when the campaigns turned up to the center, personal crises had kept two of Lee Carter’s chairs from turning up. With 24 chairs remaining, things got off to a shaky start, presaging difficulties to come: When the chairs attempted to elect one of their own to preside over the meeting, the two candidates both got 12 votes, precipitating a literal coin flip.
The candidates gave brief speeches. Larry Blackmon, a long-shot third candidate, spoke about access to health care and the defense of the elderly. “You hear about black lives matter,” he said, “but grey lives matter too.” He and his wife had both had cancer, and EMT response time in the district was appalling.
Then came Lee Carter, much more polished: “We’ve heard a lot about what we’re going to do when we go to Austin, but I’m already there,” she said, having represented the Harris County Board of Education before the state legislature, fighting tea party lawmakers like Paul Bettencourt and Debbie Riddle.
During her appeal, Thierry hit Lee Carter hard, shuffling closer and closer to the front of the stage, ever more agitated: “I’m not somebody who rides on anything. I’d never ask you for something I’m not qualified for,” she said, implying Lee Carter was stepping above her station due to family connections.
“We talk a lot about family,” she added, rising to a shout, “but you cannot bring them in there when the door closes in that chamber.” As her allotted time ran out, she was drowned out by a rising chorus of cheers and boos.
Finally, the vote. In the first round of ballots, Blackmon took one chair, leaving Thierry with 12 and Lee Carter with 11. The lone Blackmon supporter, Craig Holtzclaw, would have to re-vote in the second round and act as a potential tiebreaker.
Bizarrely, committees like this are so rarely formed that party laws don’t really have any guidance about what to do in the event of a tied vote, apart from running the vote over and over again. If Holtzclaw had voted for Lee Carter in the second round, things could have gotten messy.
But he picked Thierry, who will now be heading to Austin soon with a sweeping mandate of two votes. Lee Carter’s dejected supporters left the room, and Thierry’s gathered to pray together, thanking God for the guidance he had shown members of the Harris County Democratic Party.
Afterwards, I talked to Holtzclaw, the tiebreaker, who said he had taken his responsibility seriously, talking to all three candidates for more than an hour apiece. “This is a unique opportunity to practice republican deliberation — as in, a real republic,” he said. During the interrogations, he had asked them to recount their personal stories, their accomplishments, dreams and hopes, “and then I gave them a long sermon on what I believe,” and measured their beliefs to his.
Holtzclaw made a decent case for what seems on the surface like a foolish system. He held, it turned out, the fate of House District 146 in his hands, and might have just selected its representation in Austin for many years. And he had done his homework.
But what is it Holtzclaw believes, exactly? “I am a LaRouche Democrat,” he said, as in yet another acolyte of the infamous semi-cult leader who thinks Obama is Hitler, has argued that the Queen of England controls the global drug trade, and who wants to colonize space. Ah.
Holtzclaw said he had voted for the candidates who communicated to him that they were willing to take elements of the LaRouche platform to Austin, namely, telling all those tea-party Texas Republicans that we need “big government investment in infrastructure.” That’s what LaRouche calls “the science of physical economy.”
Blackmon and Thierry, he said, had seemed to embrace that line more than Lee Carter. And that’s why she lost, in part.
Presiding over the event was the chair of the county party, Lane Lewis. This is going to be a great year for Houston Dems, he said: “We’ve obviously got the better slate of candidates.” Trump’s weakness in Texas was a huge advantage. “What’s strange to me is how closely tied, it is becoming apparent, that Trump is to the Russian communists and Chinese communists, and yet Republicans are going goo-goo and ga-ga over him.”
“I mean, he’s not even a Republican,” Lewis added. “He’s a communist, apparently.”
Harris County should be the bedrock of the Democratic Party in the state, but it’s become a shaky foundation. We won’t know what kind of state representative Thierry will be for a while, but who knows: Maybe LaRouche has the answers after all.