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The Partisans Are Coming for Your Cities and Schools

Democrats and Republicans are turning non-partisan elections partisan

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Illustration by Anna Donlan

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.

No more.

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?

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  • anonyfool

    um, the creationists you mentioned were the first partisans and the notorious book battles for Texas have made all of K-12 education in Texas political for a long time. Not to mention the pervasive perverse opinion in American History classes in Texas that the Civil War was not about slavery.

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    • SpiritofPearl

      Before I moved to Texas, Texas was famous nationwide for the SBOE battles over the teaching of evolution.

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    I remember a similar attempt to quietly run candidates for local offices as a party building tool back in the late 60s-early 70s in Galveston County . The local party had a hard driving new party chair originally from New York and he wanted to both season candidates and make it politically respectable to be a Republican in what was then a totally Democratic dominated area. I exposed the plan with a story in the Galveston Daily News. Just as now the local opposition was able to figure out something was under way and got the word out about just who was a GOPer. So this is nothing new….and certainly not unknown in Texas politics. The Mormons, for example, had a campaign some years ago to take over local school boards and PTAs as part of their effort to become more mainstream in the public eye..

  • N.M. Horwitz


    You’re usually dead-on, but this just isn’t true in regard to Houston. The reason 2015 felt so different is that it was the first attempt the GOP made on the mayoralty in a while. In the recent past, they’ve simply tried to shift one of the Democrats to the right on social issues. Sometimes they succeed in doing that (see: Ben Hall 2013). Sometimes they fail (see: Gene Locke 2009). But when the GOP makes a bona fide effort, it’s been this way, going all the way back to Kathy Whitmire in the 1980s.

    My first recollection of local politics was in 2001. Orlando Sanchez and Chris Bell both ran against Lee Brown, Sanchez from the right and Brown from the left. My dad backed Brown and my mom backed Bell. It was a rather contentious argument around the house.

    The runoff came between Brown and Sanchez. Polls showed it neck-and-neck, and Bell endorsed Brown (as opposed to 2015, in which he inexplicably endorsed the Republican). Being seven years old, and attached to my mother at the hip, I accompanied her to the local Lutheran church, our polling place, on election day.

    She explained she was voting for Brown, and I asked her why.

    “Because he’s a Democrat. He’s one of us.”

    That line has colored a lot of my familiarity with Houston municipal politics since. I told the crowd at the Turner campaign party in Nov. ’15 that the quote would be its salvation. And it was. Houston politics can often be about things like black-vs-white (and District C, the white yuppie district that was the only one to support HERO, supporting a white anti-HERO candidate over a black pro-HERO candidate exemplified this), but for the entirety of my lifetime, the most important distinction has been red-vs-blue.

    –N.M. Horwitz

    • R.G. Ratcliffe

      Sorry I didn’t get back sooner. Part of the key to me is in this sentence: “Sure, everyone knew whether a candidate for mayor had Republican or Democratic leanings, but the party line wasn’t part of the debate.” Previously, everyone knew whether a candidate was a Republican or a Democrat, but that last mayor’s race really was the first time that you really had major party organizing going on. For one, until about 1996, no one would have wanted to run as a Republican for any local non-partisan post. My concern is less with the big cities as with the hundreds of small cities and school boards. When it gets too partisan, suddenly every race turns into a fight over gay rights or creationism rather than roads and development.

  • Kozmo

    We don’t need more partisanship anywhere. What we need are sensible and pragmatic policymakers who work for the common public good, not what we already have too much of in the state legislature: partisan hacks and toadies who put party loyalty above all other considerations.

    We also need fewer divisions between rural and urban voters, not something that will only fuel knee-jerk divisions and rancor.

  • SeeItMyWay

    From local school boards, to trash bags, to zoning, to fracking, to local bond elections, Tim Dunn wants to inject his money to get what he wants. Instead of the citizens of Hog Jaw, TX having their say, Mr. Dunn wants to influence what is going on in your hometown from his home in Midland – and he has a whole host of acolytes in the form of state senators and reps around the state preaching his message because he promises that he will spend his money to help them get reelected. We all know who they are.

    What we get from all are half-truths, hypocrisy, and, more than anything else, trite, jingoistic expressions. “Picking winners and losers”, “free market capitalism”, “liberty”, “constitutional rights”, and “smaller government” are a few of their favorite words and phrases.

    When you ask about how Adam Smith, and his Birth of Nations – a bible of sorts to this crowd, they fail to want answer questions about one of his most pointed statements – that monopolies will destroy capitalism.

    Today, cabals and monopolistic businesses are destroying middle America. Do Dunn’s cheerleaders think that getting rid of laws, many of which are no longer enforced anyway, will make things better?

    Want to get rid of the USDA? How about the SEC? Dump antitrust laws?
    Think without government rules and oversight that agressive corporations would police themselves? Not take advantage and cheat?

    These are some of the questions I have for these get government out of our lives parrots. I have, in fact, asked several of them. I have yet to get a response.

    One of these days, maybe they will get backed into a corner and have to furnish answers. Thus far, their followers are satisfied with the trite expressions.

    • WUSRPH

      When they go really bananas is when you point out that Adam Smith was the first to propose an income tax. Of course, they have to know who he was for it to make any difference and less and less of them do…..The same goes with Edmund Burke……One or two of them have heard of John C. Calhoun, however.

      • SeeItMyWay

        Thank you for the information. The far right supporters, most of whom are Tim Dunn acolytes, like to quote Bastiat or Smith frequently, to support their red meat catch phrases. I don’t know enough to really debate them. Going to have to read up.

        • WUSRPH

          As Smith said in the Wealth of Nations:

          “The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.”

          • Jed

            Adam smith and Karl Marx (and Jesus) said a lot of similar things.

            Neither would be welcome in a chamber of commerce (or church) meeting today.

          • WUSRPH

            None of them were that welcome in those kinds of places when they were alive either. Jesus after all was criticized for being seen with sinners…….

    • Kozmo

      Uninformed citizens (which is most of them) don’t realize why these agencies, organizations, and laws came to be in the first place — to address the problems created by unregulated predatory capitalism that were a menace to the public good.

  • SpiritofPearl

    Viva la France!


    Anyone interested in why the bill they wanted to see passed will probably not (most House Bills will die this week, in fact)…may find this article from the Texas Tribune of interest. There are some more arcane ways to kill a bill than those described….but it does give you a good idea of what stands in the way of most proposals becoming law.


    • SeeItMyWay

      Thank you. Informative. Going to save the link. Missed this on TT.

      • WUSRPH

        What the article makes clear is that a member who has taken the time and effort to learn the rules and precedents—which only a few do—can have a lot more influence on what happens during a session…….Some years ago there was a member of the House who was so feared for his knowledge of the rules—and his use to them to kill bills–that other members would almost faint if eve he moved toward the microphone stand while they were presenting a bill. He soon gained the nickname of the “Snake” or, when he was particularly active in striking, “The Super Snake”. It was fun to watch him work…or he hint that he might.

        One of those more arcane methods of killing a bill–and one of my favorites—is “the Tag” a Senate rule which is something you will see happening more frequently as the time for hearing bills gets shorter. I described it like this in the (in)famous legislative training manual I used to produce for new staff members (and a few legislators too):

        The Tag

        The “tag” is another Senate procedure to delay the process of a bill through the Legislative maze. Like the filibuster, it is most useful late in a session when a few days’ delay can mean a bill cannot go through all the necessary steps before the 140‑day time limit arrives.

        The tag is established by a Senate rule that provides that any Senator can block a committee from acting on a bill for 48 hours by filing a letter with the Secretary of the Senate requesting 48 hours advance written notice of any committee hearing on the bill. This request effectively blocks any action on the bill for 48 hours until the Senator applying the tag receives that written notice. The Senator does not have to be a member of the considering committee to tag a bill.

        A tag cannot be used if

        * The Bill has been laid before the committee during the hearing.

        * Public notice or a committee hearing has been published at least 72 hours prior to the time of the hearing

        *The Secretary of the Senate has provided each Senator with a written notice of the hearing time at least 48 hours in advance of the hearing.

        A bill can normally be tagged only once. The system does not allow one Senator who opposes a bill to block action for 48 hours and then let another do the same. A second tag would be allowed only if the written notice of the hearing time was not delivered to the Senator who applied the first tag before he withdrew his tag.

        The Senator who has tagged a bill can remove his tag before the 48 hours have ex­pired, thereby allowing the committee to act on the bill. A Sena­tor who favors a bill can tag it to keep an opponent from do­ing so and then can remove the tag within a few hours. This is known as a
        “friendly tag.”

        • SeeItMyWay

          How does anything get passed? 🙂

          Was the House member you mention from Waco?

          • WUSRPH

            He predates Jim Dunnam, who was fairly good at it too…but not up to the level of the Snake……….It was the all time famous James “Jim” Nugent of Kerrville….later a member of the Texas Railroad Commission. Nugent never had to be a “member of the speaker’s team” to have power in the House. Speakers WANTED him on their teams because they knew how much damage he could do to their programs………

          • SeeItMyWay

            I remember him, but by name only. If we voted in term limits, what would happen? I dislike the tight relationships those with longevity develop, but wonder what having a bunch of mentally challenged newbies with money backing, and the salesmanship of a snake oil salesmen would bring. They would never have time to catch on. Maybe that would be a good thing.

          • WUSRPH

            I have not been closely to the house on a daily basis since 2005, but in the old days term limits would have been a wrong idea basically because it takes time for a member to learn both the things that were wrong that when he was elected he thought were correct and those that were correct that he thought were wrong. State government is a very complicated thing…..and most who come to the Legislature do not understand either its complexity or the scope of its responsibilities. This still happens, but I have a feeling that it may not be as significant today when many members seemed to be frightened of being “primaried” if they do not cast what they are told—in advance each morning—is a “good vote”. There seemed to be more independence thought and action by members in those days…..Perhaps one reason was that much of what they did was isolated from the public in the days before social media and “instant’ news….In the old days they did not have to fear an immediate barrage of threatening e-mails the same day they voted from people whose knowledge of the issues is limited to the distorted information they have told by the like of Texas Empower. “Transparency”—as word I hate—may, in fact, make it less likely that a member will be able to represent what he or she actually believes is in the best interests of constituents and the state. Too few members today even know who Edmund Burke much less understand what he meant when he said:

            “Certainly, Gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinions high respect; their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his /pleasure, his satisfactions, to theirs/, — and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure, — no, nor from the law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinions.”

          • SeeItMyWay

            Wow! Hear, hear, Mr. Burke!

            You seem to be a storehouse of knowledge.

            Thank you.


    Abbott has signed the Sanctuary Cities bill…..but we do not have to start carrying our passports until after Sept. 1 because the bill was not an “immediate effect” measure. To be that it would have had to have gotten 21 votes in the Senate and 100 in the House. It got 20 Ayes in the Senate—representing ALL the GOPer Senators but one short of the constitutional requirement–and 94–or six too few–in the House.
    I qualify for an Irish passport and have time to get one before Sept. 1st. I wonder what an officer would do if I flashed that one AND my US passport at him at the same time?

    • SpiritofPearl

      I have learned that Irish passports are hard to get because of the documentation required.

      • WUSRPH

        Three members of my family have them already…..so he documentation is already done….They travel in Europe a lot and using a EU passport—like Ireland’s–gets you in everywhere without having to go thru customs, etc.

        • Kozmo

          That’s a lucky thing to have! It’s very difficult for an American citizen without family connections or a LOT of money to obtain a long-term resident visa in Eire now. Or the UK or Canada or NZ for that matter. When people crab, “If you don’t like it, leave!” they are speaking from ignorance of the realities of emigration. Most other English-speaking nations are MUCH harder to get into for average folks than the USA is.

          • WUSRPH

            It definitely isn’t money in my case…But having a first cousin who was an original Senator in the Irish Free State Government who also, as a doctor, prepared the bodies of both Michael Collins and Arthur Griffin for burial helps a bit.

        • SpiritofPearl

          I need my Irish grandmother’s lomg form birth certificate You wouldn’t believe how many women in Ireland had/have her maiden name . . .


    A question for the lawyers (particularly ones that got a good grade in Con Law and who do not think that John C. Calhoun is worthy of respect):

    Now that Abbott has slunk away into the night after signing SB4 with NO fanfare (rather like he wanted to get it out of the way quickly) what are the SERIOUS possibilities that it will be struck down by the Courts? I have some concern about that since the SCOTUS appears to have let Arizona go ahead with its version of “show my your papers”?

    Despite the sorrow that this most un-American-like act brings, I must admit that that after Texas goes to all this effort to FORCE local officials to implement a FEDERAL LAW when the State usually fights such things…it would at least be a little amusing if (1) The federal courts continue to block Trump from imposing his own anti-sanctuary cities law because if violates the Federal Constitution and (2) the SCOTUS accepts the rulings by lower federal courts that the whole concept of a “detainer” for an undocumented alien violates the 4th Amendment.

    • Jed

      i’m no lawyer, but i did get an A in conlaw at UT Law, and i’ve taught the class to undergrads elsewhere.

      i won’t say anymore that chances of anything are 100%. but the law would clearly be unconstitutional according to prevailing understandings of the bill of rights.

      that said, like all the unconstitutional abortion restrictions being passed by states lately, they are doing this on purpose. they want these currently unconstitutional laws to be taken to SCOTUS where they hope the prevailing interpretation of the constitution, not the law, will be overturned.

      in other words, they are trying to change the constitution using the courts (presumably concomitantly taking a break from complaining about activist judges). what are the odds of THAT happening? i’d say pretty good, given the recent appointment to the court.


    P.S. Does anyone know how the races RG mentioned in his post turned out? Did the Democrats win any or where the evil ones rebuffed by God’s own party?

  • J D

    Sounds more like the circus is coming to town. Of course the writer failed to mention that in the 1970’s it was the Republicans who started their 24 years to rule Texas. Now 15 years later they are crashing because they have long forgotten why they were elected. Nothing remains the same forever. The GOP is whinning.


    From Ken Herman’s column it seems the LIFT was at least partially successful……while from other5 sources it appears that the Tim Dunn/TeaParty effort in North Texas was not…….Loved that quote from the TP leader about how hard it is for conservatives to win local elections…Seems when the issues are things like streets, schools and things that affect the voters on a daily personal level and the question is services or not, it is harder to sell the voters the lines that work so well in the GOP primary. I guess the only answer is to keep pushing the Leg. to take more and more power away from the locals…..Of course, there is precedent for the GOP doing just that….It was the main “sin” of the first Republican Governor Gov. Davis. He wound up having to climb out of the second story back window of the Capitol while a mob rushed the front door.