Once upon a time, liberals like the late Billie Carr changed Texas politics for the better. Now you can't even find a liberalexcept in a Republican TV ad.
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’ is nothin’.” (Take heed, Tony Sanchez.)
Carr started out in politics in the early fifties, when Texas was part of the Democratic Solid South, the bloc of states that had seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy. Winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election; in 1950, for example, Governor Allan Shivers outpolled his Republican opponent by 355,000 to 39,000. But within the Democratic party was a division far more bitter than the one that exists today between the major parties—between liberal and conservative Democrats over the rise of organized labor, support for New Deal programs, the continuation of racial segregation, the political clout of oil, and loyalty to the national Democratic party (Shivers endorsed Republican Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1952, and Ike had carried Texas).
It is hard to believe, from the distance of half a century, how vicious these fights were. In the 1954 convention in Mineral Wells, the controlling conservative faction did not provide hotel rooms for liberal delegates, who had to stay up to a hundred miles away. The liberals who made it to the convention heard themselves called communists by the keynote speaker. They were seated in the back of the hall, with one chair for every two delegates and no standing allowed; they rotated in and out of the convention every hour, sitting outside in the summer sun while waiting their turn. Their microphones were cut off, and they were not allowed to make motions or speak from the floor. When they tried to organize a protest in a park, law officers waded in with billy clubs and threatened to arrest them for meeting without a permit. After the convention was over, many of them found that their cars had been impounded, and they had to pay to get them back.
In such circumstances, it wasn’t hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. This was long before the litany of social issues, from school busing to abortion, that convulsed America in the last third of the twentieth century and led to the resurgence of the Republican party. The liberals stood for fair play and basic rights: the right of the opposition to participate in politics, the right of unions to organize, the right of black people to vote and be free of legal impediments to equality. Liberal standard-bearer Ralph Yarborough came close to defeating Shivers in the year of the Mineral Wells convention and won a U.S. Senate seat in 1957.
The turning point came in 1961, when Lyndon Johnson became vice president and a special election was held to fill his Senate seat. The liberals revolted against the conservative Democratic candidate and helped elect an obscure Republican college professor named John Tower. The conservative Democrats—an amalgam of big business, big media, and rural Texas—could no longer afford to ignore the liberals, and the animosity between the factions began to wane as the liberals’ old enemies moved toward the center.
Carr focused her attention on the national Democratic party after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which is still remembered for the police beatings of protesters outside the convention. “Out of the horrors of Chicago and the defeat of Hubert Humphrey,” Carr reminisced in the Observer in 1975, “came the realization that the Democratic party had to become truly democratic, truly open, truly of the people. Out of the debris came . . . a representative group of Democrats at the  Miami convention. . . . This time our candidate won the nomination, with no bloodshed, no lockouts, no riots.” But their victory would prove to be somewhat Pyrrhic. The Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, suffered an overwhelming defeat by Richard Nixon.
In Texas the conservative Democrats gave up the fight in 1976 and the liberals took over the state party. But their belief that conservatives would continue their long-established habit of voting for Democrats proved to be a miscalculation. I remember a conservative telling me at the time, “The liberals have been fighting all these years to take over the party, and when they get a hold of it, they’re going to find out it isn’t worth anything without us.”
What happened to the Democratic left? The party base became dominated by a collection of caucuses—women, blacks, Hispanics, and gays—alienating not only conservatives but also the rank and file of labor, which had always been conservative on social issues (such as gun control) but liberal on economic issues. It is clear now that Republicans are following the same course of becoming a party dominated by activists whose real loyalty is to causes rather than party (see “Mr. Right”) and that this trend is in part the result of the ever-weakening grip of the two major political parties.
The disappearance of liberals in Texas is more the result of changing times than changing rules. Foremost is the decline of industrial America and with it organized labor, the liberals’ base in their heyday of the fifties and sixties. (Carr herself was married to a union organizer.) Today, plaintiffs attorneys have replaced labor as the most important Democratic interest group, but they provide money, not votes. Another major change is the 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act, which effectively required that legislative and congressional districts be drawn to maximize minority representation. The new law left many white liberal politicians without a constituency; they were often replaced by ethnic minorities who had their own sets of issues—or by Republicans. Racial bias undoubtedly played a role too; as minorities gained power in the Democratic party, some white voters fled to the Republican party. No less an authority than LBJ believed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opening public accommodations to all races, would hand the South to the Republicans for a long time. It’s been almost forty years, and the clock is still running.
Finally, the liberals suffered from their successes. Because of people like Billie Carr, politics and society are fairer today than they have ever been. The old agenda is part of society now. But you rarely hear a statewide Democratic candidate espouse new social-justice programs or higher taxes, even for education and highways. Instead, the party has become California-ized, putting quality of life for middle- and upper-middle-class voters first, with emphasis on soccer-mom issues like the environment, children’s health, and more tobacco regulation.
In the end, what makes Billie Carr worthy of a place in the mythical Texas Politics Hall of Fame is that she offers us an important lesson for our time: Politics matters. We live in a cynical age, when participation is low and passions are lower still. At a time when most of the people who are involved in political combat are money-grubbing hired guns who are as cynical as the voters, she stands as someone who cared deeply about politics and stood to gain nothing—except to remake the world, committee by committee, precinct by precinct, and convention by convention.