MAYBE IT IS A BLESSING THAT Billie Carr did not live to see this Election Day. Had she not died in September at the age of 74, the Godmother of Texas liberals, as she described herself, would have hit the boiling point over the current campaign. Democratic statewide candidates, running hard to the right, are liberals only in the minds and TV commercials of their Republican opponents. Carr would have tagged them all with her pet political defamation aimed at those who are all too quick to back down on principle: “alligators,” an allusion to their reptilian habit of chewing on their own tails.
Today, the term “liberal” has almost disappeared from the Texas lexicon. Those on the left of the political spectrum take refuge in less-tainted labels like “progressive” or “populist.” Those on the right employ it as the election-year epithet of choice (never mind the accuracy of the charges). But Carr’s death is a reminder that this was not always so, even in conservative Texas. Although most of her work as an activist in Houston for half a century was behind the scenes on committees and at precinct meetings and at party conventions, she was an important figure nonetheless. She was one of the first liberals—and one of the last.
You couldn’t miss her at a political gathering. She was tall, tough, and loud. Her preferred wardrobe consisted of T-shirts emblazoned with political slogans. Woe to the politico who fell short of her expectations; she would cuss out anyone. According to an anecdote related by Molly Ivins in the Texas Observer, she faced down Bill Clinton in a White House receiving line during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and lectured him: “You dumb son of a bitch.” She was an idealist who once said of her political philosophy that it means “always to be out in front of everybody else. When what you’re saying starts getting popular and everyone agrees with you, then you’re not a liberal anymore.” But she also had the hard-edged realism that is a genetic necessity for the successful political operative. I interviewed her only once, about a Democratic primary race between a liberal and a conservative, and I observed that she had failed to mention the possible impact of the Hispanic vote. She must have been particularly disgusted about the long tradition of low turnout from that community in Houston, for her answer was “If you work ‘em real hard, you get fifty-four percent [of the Hispanic vote]. If you don’t work ‘em at all, you get forty-six percent, and fifty-four percent of nothin’