Who killed the Texas Democratic party?
AT LEAST DAN MORALES knew that the mere proclamation he was going to have a press conference was not likely to stop the world in its tracks. The night before and all that morning, some supporters, as well as the attorney general himself, were busy calling around to say that at the press conference Morales would announce the startling news that he would not run for reelection. The calls worked well enough. The room at the Capitol was overflowing well before Morales’ scheduled appearance at noon. The daily press was there, as well as others, such as myself, who had come just to be pres-ent at what could be a small, improbable, but still significant historic event. Morales entered the room suddenly, announced he would retire to private life at the end of his term, and made December 2, 1997, the day the Democratic party of Texas finally collapsed, not with a bang but a whimper.
Morales said he had decided not to run so he could spend more time with his new wife and her two children, who were standing beside him. The four presented such an appealing picture, it was reasonable to take him at his word. After all, he had never seemed to burn with political ambition. Even though he had won three terms as a state legislator and two as attorney general, he always seemed remote, even uncomfortable as a politician. He is not a party man in the classic mode, nor is he a bold, charismatic politician. Even so, he has never lost an election, he enjoys a 69 percent approval rating as attorney general, he is honest and free of scandal, he is a Hispanic with a Harvard law degree, and he is only 41 years old. The Democrats, who had never completely embraced him, suddenly realized with his leaving that they had lost the strongest candidate they had.
This fall the Democrats will have no incumbent seeking to retain his statewide office. Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock will not stand for reelection and has endorsed Republican governor George W. Bush. Comptroller John Sharp is leaving his office to run for lieutenant governor. Land commissioner Garry Mauro is running for governor. The treasurer’s office has been eliminated, and Morales is leaving as attorney general. But the carnage does not stop there. The state Senate already has a Republican majority. The House now has 82 Democrats and 68 Republicans. A shift of just eight seats leaves Republicans in control. Five Democratic representatives from rural East and West Texas are not running again, and their seats will almost certainly be won by Republicans. Both U.S. senators are Republican, and thirteen out of thirty members of Congress are Republican, almost a majority. In 1996, more people voted in the Republican primary than the Democratic.
It has been a truism for several years that contemporary Texas is more a Republican state than a Democratic one. That seemed a natural enough evolution. Conservative Democrats, who had ruled the Southern states since Reconstruction, were giving way to Republicans throughout the South, including Texas. But now the rout is so complete it’s not enough to say that the times have changed. The Democratic party is so weak that Morales’ exit, which just a few years ago would not have left a scratch, now appears to be a mortal wound. What happened?
It’s clear that the pinnacle of the party in Texas was the three 2-year terms of John Connally from 1963 to 1969. During most of that time, Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. On the whole, Connally was an effective and farsighted governor, sophisticated rather than provincial. Then came four years of Preston Smith and six years of Dolph Briscoe. They were neither effective, farsighted, or sophisticated, although they were provincial. They were nice enough fellows, and a quarter century later it’s easy to be amused by their idiosyncrasies. Smith liked to shoot pool in local halls and often answered his own phone. At least the call got answered. Briscoe’s office was a black hole that never got organized enough to answer mail routinely. Both governors were incapable of understanding the intricacies of power, and during Smith’s terms, corruption flourished. Nor could they recognize and attract people of ability and situate them to assume major roles when the time came. And what most needed to be done—to create and communicate new goals, ideas, programs, philosophies for the state party so that it stood for something—they were most incapable of doing.
Then came Billy Clayton and Gib Lewis. Clayton was Speaker of the House from 1975 to 1983 and Lewis was Speaker from 1983 until 1993, a total between the two of eighteen years in power. Those years included the most difficult economic period for Texas since the Depression. They saw the election and subsequent reelection of the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Instead of finding this a spur to action, they took their own long years in office as a sign that the basic politics of the state would never change. Nor would it ever need to change. For almost two decades they embraced and rewarded a system of wait your turn, go along to get along in the Legislature that stopped the ambitious and talented dead in their tracks. New blood could not get ahead by hard work and ability—that is, on merit—but only by being in line behind whoever had gotten there first. That created an ossified party rather than a dynamic one. One Democrat who was unable to find an outlet for his talent and was unwilling to wait is Rick Perry, the Republican agricultural commissioner who is running now for lieutenant governor. He came to the Legislature during those years as a Democrat. But he could make no headway as a Democrat, so he switched parties and quickly became a statewide political figure. Speaking privately about the switch, he said that the Democrats didn’t seem to want him, though the Republicans did.
Since John Connally there have been exactly four Texas Democrats of the first rank. Two, Bill Hobby and Lloyd Bentsen, were the sons of established families with histories of prominence in business and politics. The other two, Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards, were women without family wealth or con-nections who rose by their own abilities and personalities. As a group, they represent the party at its best—a solid traditional legacy of welcoming and encouraging the common citizen of any race or gender.
The first three spent most of their political life while the party was still strong. Ann Richards, elected governor in 1990 in what seemed a certain Republican year, was in a perfect position to reformulate the party by returning it to its roots. She talked the talk by proclaiming a New Texas. But it didn’t happen. As governor she had the opportunity to appoint a U.S. senator and a railroad commissioner. These appointees would then have the advantage of running for reelection as incumbents. These appointments were the perfect opportunity to catapult a rising star into prominence and strengthen the party in future elections. She chose Bob Krueger for senator and Lena Guerrero for railroad commissioner; both miserably failed to hold the office. Nor did state government in Austin see the arrival of fresh, new talent with fresh, new energy and ideas. Richards was a symbol, not a woman of ideas. As a symbol, she could attract people to herself but she could neither attract nor choose people with staying power in the Democratic party.
Referring to the Republican dominance of the state at his press conference, Dan Morales said, “I don’t think it’s good for the vast majority of elected officials in Texas to come from one party.” This is just what Republicans used to say not so long ago, when the Democrats controlled Texas completely. But any single party that controls Texas sleeps uneasily. Texas Democrats were one party in name only. The fights between the conservative and liberal wings were spectacular and bitter. Again and again the conservatives had to rally their troops to win in the primary only to have to placate the liberals and minorities enough to defeat the Republicans in the general election.
A similar division exists among the Republicans between the social and religious conservatives on the right and the moderates in the center. The Republicans will have to follow the same pattern of defeat and conciliation to win since, just as a liberal cannot win a statewide race in Texas, neither can a candidate of the far right. The Democrats might win a race or two next fall simply because the Republicans, who are new at this specialized political game, could lose their way in these often intricate maneuvers.
But the Democrats will never return to power by hoping for the Republicans to beat themselves. Now it’s the Republicans who seem to have the depth to produce promising candidates and a platform that appeals to Texas voters. During her time in office, Ann Richards said, speaking of democratic institutions, that Democrats need to “bring them into a new decade that requires new thinking and new resolutions. . . . There is a way to make it work, but we have not found it yet.” Unless they do, the Democrats could lose every statewide election, and it will be the end of one hundred years of Democratic domination in Texas. Republicans could control Texas as long as the Democrats did, and the Democrats will have nothing to do but learn, as the Republicans had to, just how long a century really is.