In 1892, a Black landowner named Nathan Haller was elected to the Texas Legislature by the voters of rural Brazoria and Matagorda counties, south of Houston. Born into slavery in South Carolina and brought to Texas by his white owner, Haller was elected a commissioner of Walker County before moving to Brazoria County and serving two terms in the Texas House of Representatives, sitting on the Roads, Bridges and Ferries, Labor, and Penitentiaries committees and introducing a bill to establish a branch of the University of Texas for Black students. At the time of his election, Black residents outnumbered white ones in Brazoria County by 8,219 to 3,642—a legacy of the enormous cotton and sugar plantations on which thousands had toiled before Emancipation. 

Despite making up nearly 70 percent of the population, Black residents of Brazoria County soon lost all political power. The Texas Legislature passed voter suppression measures including poll taxes and whites-only primaries, which were enforced by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups. As Black residents migrated to Houston or farther north in search of better opportunities, whites achieved a demographic majority and a political monopoly: no Black person has represented Brazoria County on the state or federal level since Haller left Austin in 1897. The county’s state representatives and officials elected countywide are all white. 

That may be about to change. Like other Texas counties affected by urban expansion, Brazoria is once again majority-minority, with whites representing just 45 percent of the population. When the Texas Legislature drew up new congressional maps last year, it expanded the boundaries of the Ninth Congressional District, which sprawls across portions of Harris and Fort Bend counties, to include a slice of Pearland, in northwest Brazoria County, the county’s largest and most diverse city. The district has been represented since 2005 by Al Green, a progressive Black Democrat who was one of the first in Congress to call for the impeachment of former president Donald Trump. Green, who is running unopposed in the March 1 primary, is widely expected to win reelection in his heavily Democratic district, which would have given Joe Biden 76 percent of its vote had its new lines been in place  in 2020. 

The prospect of a Democrat representing any part of Brazoria County has set off alarms for local Republicans. No Democrat has been elected to Congress from the county since 1994. In recent decades it was represented for long stretches by Ron Paul and Tom DeLay, who were two of the most right-wing members of Congress. At a November meeting of the Brazoria County Republican Party, state representative Cody Vasut explained that he and fellow representative Ed Thompson had tried to block the new congressional map during last year’s legislative session. “We thought Brazoria County should stay entirely red,” Vasut told the audience of about a hundred GOP officials and activists. Not everyone was mollified. “This is not good for our county,” one local Republican said. “It’s not good for our party.” 

For years, local Republicans have watched anxiously as the county’s demographic center of gravity has shifted north, toward fast-growing Pearland. Since 1990 the city’s population has swelled from 19,000 residents to nearly 126,000, a boom facilitated by the widening of Texas Highway 288, which links Pearland to downtown Houston. As Houston continues its centrifugal expansion, Pearland has become a popular bedroom community. “You have a lot of people who are simply moving in from Harris County, and basically just sleep in Pearland,” said longtime Democratic activist Robert Williams, the cofounder and organizing director for the civil rights group Push Democracy Forward. “Most of them don’t even know they’re in Brazoria County.” 

Thanks to the influx of Houstonians, Pearland is the most diverse and most Democratic part of Brazoria County. Non-Hispanic whites make up just 42 percent of the population, followed by Hispanics (23 percent), Blacks (18 percent), and Asians (14 percent). (Brazoria County writ large is 45 percent white, 32 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Black, and 7 percent Asian.) So far, the local GOP has managed to blunt Pearland’s growing political strength. The latest commissioner precinct map drawn up by the all-Republican commissioners’ court, the county’s executive body, carves Pearland into three districts in an apparent effort to dilute its vote. 

“You’re facing a more diverse population in the northern part of the county, and that’s one of the reasons why you see the commissioners’ court districts essentially run north-south,” said Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones. “You could probably get a Democratic commissioner if you concentrated all the Pearland voters in one district.” 

Brazoria County may be growing more diverse, but that doesn’t mean it’s about to turn blue. “Most of the growth is among Latinos, and Latinos in Texas, particularly those that live in the exurban areas, are close to a fifty-fifty split between Republican and Democrats,” Jones said. “So diverse doesn’t mean Democrat. Now, it does provide Democrats a small edge, because Latinos are less reliable Republican voters than the Anglos they’re replacing, but it still isn’t a lock.” 

While Pearland is growing, political power is centered in the largely rural, largely white southern part of the county. Williams, the Democratic activist, has lived in southern Brazoria County for three decades. He told me that the area remains a bastion of white supremacy. “I live in the Deep South, where the Confederate flags fly free,” he said. “There are descendants of slave owners who are here, and they still hold on to that mentality. It wasn’t a million years ago when this stuff happened.”

Civil rights activists saw vestiges of that legacy in a recent jury tampering scandal. In August, Brazoria County district clerk Rhonda Barchak abruptly resigned amid revelations that she had been dividing prospective jurors by race (white and nonwhite) and geographical region (Pearland and non-Pearland) before assigning them to trial panels. Barchak’s lawyer told me the unusual method was intended to increase diversity, but activists alleged that Barchak was suppressing the number of minorities on juries. Darrell Adell Jr., a biracial Dow Chemical supervisor who last year was convicted of murder by a nearly all-white jury, believes that Barchak’s system violated his constitutional rights and is petitioning for a new trial. A Brazoria County jury declined to indict Barchak; local activists have formally requested a U.S. Department of Justice investigation. 

The March 1 GOP primary will, in part, be a referendum on the former district clerk’s actions. Barchak’s deputy chief, Cayla Meyers, who was fired shortly after Barchak resigned, is now running to replace her old boss. Her two opponents are Cassandra Tigner, who works in the county clerk’s office, and Dana Read, a former Dow Chemical manager. Read’s husband, Tracy Read, is the whistleblower who reported Barchak’s jury selection system to a local judge. Meyers believes that Read reported Barchak to benefit his wife’s election chances—an accusation Read denies.

Tracy Read is also running for office in the GOP primary, as a justice of the peace candidate, in which role he would preside over cases involving misdemeanors and small civil disputes such as eviction orders. At a January fundraiser in Clute, he told a crowd of approximately fifty supporters that he was motivated to run by the corruption and nepotism he saw in the local Republican party. (The incumbent justice of the peace, Robin Rape, is the stepfather of Cayla Meyers.) “We’ve got to clean up our county,” Read said. “Did I want to be the guy for that? No. But for whatever reason, that’s where we are.” 

Dana Read told me she and her husband are challenging the “good ol’ boys system” that she says runs Brazoria County. “When people are not doing things by the law, not following the law and the Constitution, then they do things that are not right,” she said. “There are people in prison who shouldn’t be.” 

For now, the only challenge to that good ol’ boys system appears to come from within the Brazoria County GOP. Although the county is no longer deep red, it still delivered 58 percent of its vote to Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Democrats have been locked out of power for decades, and sometimes struggle to field a full slate of candidates. There is only a single Democrat running for each of the seven county offices this year. (Kris McGarvey, the county’s Democratic party chair, did not respond to an interview request.) 

“For a long time we were simply maintaining a presence here,” said Williams, a former vice chair of the Brazoria Democrats. “I do feel that over the past ten years or so, instead of just maintaining a presence, we are making some type of progress, even if it’s just in the [demographic] numbers. But those numbers have not turned into victories yet.” 

The party’s first such victory might come, paradoxically enough, from the recent Republican-controlled redistricting. Green, the Democratic congressman whose district was redrawn to include part of Brazoria County, recently told me he looks forward to serving his new constituents. He knows the local Republican party sees him as a threat to its long stranglehold on on political power. “We’ve always had some resistance to change, but change is coming,” Green said. “I’m confident that, notwithstanding some of the resistance, people want to live together.”