For decades in Texas, cities and school boards were the final bastion of party free elections. Candidates ran without labels, and the issues tended to lean toward where services were provided or whether to set a bond election to build a new school. Sure, everyone knew whether a candidate for mayor had Republican or Democratic leanings, but the party line wasn’t part of the debate.
At a time when many people want to tone down partisanship, the Texas state Democratic Party and some Republicans are trying to make elections in the Lone Star State even more partisan—especially with the upcoming May 6 elections for city councils and school boards. Even if city charters and school district laws call for non-partisan elections, the parties want to erase that line.
The dead canary in our non-partisan election coal mine may very well have been the November 2015 mayor’s race in Houston between winner Sylvester Turner and Bill King. Although the issues of city pensions and infrastructure remained paramount in the debate, both the Republicans and Democrats organized get-out-the-vote efforts for Turner and King. As the Houston Chronicle reported:
The result is a race without overt party identification, but with all of the trappings of a partisan battlefield.
“We’ve seen across the country the intensity of the partisan division grow,” University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said. “It’s not that the overall population has become more partisan and polarized, but people who vote, particularly in a low-turnout election like a Houston mayor runoff, tend to be partisans.”
Also in 2015, the Texas Democratic Party declared it was going to rebuild its bench by running candidates in local non-partisan elections. Ever since the disastrous 2010 election when the party lost every statewide election as well as more than 200 partisan county judge and commissioner posts, the Democrats have been lacking in the infrastructure of up-and-coming politicians at the local level. Gains were made in Harris and Dallas counties, but not much of anywhere else.
So the state party in 2015 formed Project LIFT—Local Investment in the Future of Texas. “A stronger, blue Texas—our goal and core mission—requires a sustained effort across the state to recruit and train excellent Texas Democratic candidates for both partisan and nonpartisan offices,” party Executive Director Crystal Kay Perkins declared in a memo. According to Perkins’s memo, the program had won the mayor’s office in the City of Converse and put two Democrats on the Wimberley school board. “While there were roughly 87 cities and school districts with elections in November 2015, there will be over 1,000 jurisdictions with elections happening in May of 2016,” she wrote. “In the next iteration of the local support effort, the Project LIFT team is aggressively recruiting allied organizations to join the effort to build up a durable infrastructure of local political talent across the state.”
In announcing LIFT-endorsed candidates this spring, Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa declared: “Texas Democrats shocked the country, narrowing the presidential gap to single digits for the first time in twenty years. Since the election, millions of Texans have marched, spoken out, and stepped up. Trump Republicans are already wreaking havoc in Washington D.C. and Austin. Now, we have to build on our success, and that starts with winning locally this May.”
So both of the state’s major political parties are now, for better or worse, are engaged in bringing partisan politics to local governance.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy recently noted that locally “for the first time, both Democrats and Republicans are trying to put party labels on the nonpartisan May elections.” Kennedy noted that push cards—lists of candidates to support or oppose—put out by the parties got the party affiliation of several candidates wrong. The new county GOP chairman, Kennedy said, had gotten elected last year with a promise to bring more partisanship to local races, “We are concerned about too many liberals—too many tax-and-spenders getting seats on our school boards and city councils. This is one way we can address that.” Over on the Democratic side, Kennedy reported that school board candidates Ashley Paz and Pilar Candia are both Democratic primary voters but the party push card only identified Candia as a Democrat. “At what point did it become acceptable to call someone a ‘Republican’ or a ‘Democrat’ as an attack on their character? This is why party politics have gotten out of control, and this is why we appear to be drifting farther in each direction. If you only see a person through the lens of their voting history, then I feel sorry for you because you are missing out on some great people,” Paz wrote on a Facebook account quoted by Kennedy.
So it is not really startling when the Kingwood Tea Party on Friday put out a push card in the Humble school board race warning its supporters that two candidates were recruited by Project LIFT, including one who was a former fund raiser for Planned Parenthood. “The Next Step in the Texas Democratic Party’s Systematic Plan to Take Over Harris County is the Humble ISD School Board,” the Kingwood flier said. “Kingwood TEA Party is determined to stop them.”
It is worth noting that one of the most controversial partisan issues of the current legislature, the bathroom bill, began as a local issue. Social conservatives used the issue of transgender women to pass a 2015 referendum overturning Houston’s anti-discrimination ordinance by declaring that there should be no men in women’s restrooms. The issue was further boosted by President Obama’s order that school districts should accommodate transgender students in the use of restrooms and changing facilities, which became a controversy in Fort Worth when the school district agreed to comply. Although President Trump rescinded the Obama order, the issue has carried forward into a debate that has mostly divided the legislature on partisan grounds.
Although the foray into partisan politics is recent, school boards have long been the battlegrounds for socially divisive issues. The 1925 Scopes Monkey trial was a fight over whether schools could teach Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the 1990 and 1992 elections, Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed recruited “stealth” candidates to run for local offices while hiding their social conservative credentials on issues like abortion or creationism. Reed’s candidates largely operated in non-partisan city and school board races, but he also promised to take over the Republican Party from the bottom up. Reed in 2009 founded the Faith and Freedom Coalition that, while nonpartisan, often acts like an auxiliary of the Republican Party.
Only about 20 percent of the nation’s cities have partisan elections, New York City being the largest. According to the National League of Cities, the argument for non-partisan elections is that it makes party politics irrelevant and increases the odds that council and board members from opposite parties will work together. The downside is that the absence of party labels makes it more difficult for voters to know the philosophical leanings of candidates and that non-partisan elections tend to favor candidates from or supported by a community’s upper income elites.
There’s no doubt that for many years that white elites were the power structure of some of Texas’ largest cities, whether it was the Dallas Citizens Council or the Good Government League of San Antonio. Texas state affairs in the 1950s often were decided by the “card-playing millionaires who convened in Herman Brown’s suite at the Lama Hotel in Houston, the 8-F Crowd,” wrote historian George Norris Green. Passage of the Voting Rights Act and federal court lawsuits empowered Mexican-Americans and blacks and broke the back of the old power structure. But the politics still played out in non-partisan elections.
Whether the city council and school board elections of Texas should or shouldn’t become partisan really isn’t the question. That’s happening whether we like it or not. The question is whether partisan elections will turn our local governments into Washington-style gridlock. Will issues be chosen for the scorecard of the next election? Or will school boards be deciding whether a new school is built or the roof is repaired on an old one so that children are not forced to learn while rainwater splashed into the bucket next to their desk?