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Energized Texas Dems Eye Post-Bush Era

Energized Texas Dems Eye Post-Bush Era

By Paul Sweeney
t r u t h o u t | Report

Austin, Texas - As Texans queued up in record-shattering numbers for early voting in what is likely to be the decisive Democratic primary on March 4 between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, long-suffering Democrats are suddenly wondering whether those long snaking lines could portend a paradigm shift.

While basking in the klieg-light glare usually reserved for Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats here are thinking the unthinkable: Could those outsized, multi-ethnic crowds of African-Americans, college students, Independents and suburbanites swarming to Obama rallies coalesce into something larger? Could that enormous affection for Hillary shown by women voters and Latinos in El Paso, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley, combined with the residual appeal in the Lone Star State of her barnstorming husband, former President Clinton, result in the revitalization of the Democrats here?

Could this red state possibly turn blue in November?

"The biggest impact the race is having," says Boyd Richie, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, "is that it's bringing people into the system who hadn't been involved before. Democrats here have been dispirited," he adds. "Just think how long the Bushes have been at the top of the ticket."

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, appeared on the ballot for the vice presidency or presidency in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992. His son, George W. Bush, won races here for governor and then president, appearing on the ballot in 1994, 1998, 2000 and 2004. "It's been a long time," Richie notes, "since we had not had a Bush on the top of the ticket."

Their legacy has been one of Republicans' claiming all statewide offices, majorities in both chambers of the Texas Legislature, the two US Senate seats and, thanks to the infamous Tom DeLay gerrymandering plan of 2003, hegemony over its Congressional delegation. From a majority of Democrats in 2002, Texas' G.O.P. congress members lead the Democrats 19 to 13.

Now, however, as Texas turns the page, voters are taking their role as kingmaker seriously. In the 14 counties with the highest number of registered voters, partial returns show that in the ten days of early voting through February 28 (early voting ended February 29), 698,992 voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary, or 9.18 percent of eligible voters. That compares with 114,114 Democratic voters in the 2004 presidential primary, or 2.57 percent, for the entire early voting.

Democrats here are clearly energized. "The turnout is just breathtaking," says Leland Beatty, a Democratic analyst and an expert in voter-targeting.

He said an analysis of early voting trends in Dallas County, for example, disclosed that 55 percent had never voted in a Democratic primary. Nearly 10 percent of early voters were newly registered since 2004, meaning "this is their first primary election."

Voters like Deby Bell, 56, a retired University of Texas employee, voted for George W. Bush in the last two presidential elections and doesn't usually pay too much attention to politics. But this year, she has watched all the debates and is voting for Obama. "I believe in him," she says. "I'm voting for his judgment over her (Hillary's) experience. I also like his health care plan: he's against mandates and wants to cover all children right away."

But such issues as health care, global warming and higher taxes on the wealthy seldom get a serious hearing in Texas.

The state leads the country in adults without health insurance. It similarly lags in spending on education and social services. The result is low teacher pay, poor SAT scores and the lowest percentage of US adults with high school diplomas. Similarly, Texas ranks high in such ecological and social pathologies as air pollution, worker safety, teenage pregnancy and incarceration rates. Worshipful of businesses and the wealthy - there is no state income or corporate profits tax - politicians typically outdo themselves in promising low business taxes and a light regulatory burden on oil and chemical companies as well as the banking, insurance and real estate industries.

"Texans tend to accept as natural state programs that help business," notes one University of Texas analysis of the state's political culture. At the same time, the Legislature approved the governor's $390 corporate welfare program (known as Texas Enterprise Fund) in 2003, it slashed $200 million from the Children's Health Insurance Program.

But a Democratic tide in November could transform the agenda. A gain of only five seats in the Texas House of Representatives could mean a Democratic majority and eviction of the iron-fisted Speaker Tom Craddick.

Incremental change could come to the state's judiciary. Linda Yanez, a state court of appeals judge who was appointed by Texas's last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, and is running for the Texas Supreme Court, says, "The nine people on the court may have some variety of experience, but they all have the same judicial philosophy."

She cited one study of litigation involving Wal-Mart by a UT law professor. In lawsuits heard in 49 other state courts, the giant retailer prevailed 46 percent of the time. But in Texas, Wal-Mart won 100 percent of the time. "I can't see how the Supreme Court could go farther to the right," she says.

The race for the US Senate, in which state Rep. Richard Noriega, a veteran of the Iraqi war, is expected to prevail in Tuesday's Democratic primary, could also be in play this year. He faces incumbent Sen. John Cornyn, a hyper-conservative Republican and close Bush ally. A Democratic victory "would be a big breakthrough," says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston.

But, Murray says, winning the governorship is the best way to do party building. "Voters think of it as a big job," he says, "and if you do well, you can really help your political party. That's the way Democrats can get back in the game."

Texas will next choose a governor in 2010.


Paul Sweeney, of Austin, Texas, is a veteran journalist who has worked at daily newspapers in Corpus Christi and El Paso. He has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Business Week and The Texas Observer.

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