For Both Parties, Race in East Texas is Vital

Outcome Could Shape Congressional Politics
By Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman (Texas)

Polk County in rural East Texas is a place where hosannas electrify the airwaves, churches anchor the main town at a rate of six per square mile and the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt once reigned almost as supreme as God.

It is also a key battleground in a race that gives the Democrats a chance to reclaim a 17-county state Senate district — lost in 1994 to Drew Nixon, the GOP incumbent tainted by his arrest in an Austin prostitution sting.

The outcome of the race could alter the shape of Texas and even U.S. congressional politics for the next decade. The party that controls the state Senate, where Republicans now have a one-seat edge, will also control the drawing of electoral boundaries early next year, based on the Census Bureau’s account of the state’s growth.

Not convinced of the near cosmic scale of the race for partisan maneuvering? Just look at the campaign finance reports of the two contenders — Silsbee lawyer David Fisher, the Democrat, and state Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, a rancher and businessman. It reads like a who’s who list of Texas politics, past and present: Contributors to the two campaigns include Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, former Gov. Ann Richards and a slew of state legislators.

Each candidate reports raising more than $1 million since last fall, a record amount for a state Senate race. In the first half of this year, Staples collected $484,248.70, and Fisher raised $648,111.30.

Campaign coffers aside, the contest promises to be a hard-fought one. Changes in the past decade have made this meandering stretch of Bible Belt near the Louisiana border less of a stronghold for the Yellow Dog Democrat — a party loyalist who would vote for any Democrat, even a yellow dog, over a Republican.

Polk County, a bellwether for the district where both candidates stumped last week, once might have been an easy victory for the Democrats, but today the picture is more complicated.

Outsiders — mainly Yankee retirees, drawn by a forested landscape fringed by lakes, and mainly Republicans — have moved in, causing the county to grow 41 percent since 1990. And the inheritors of the land, the descendants of Depression-era farmers saved from ruin by Roosevelt’s New Deal, are also less and less inheritors of their forefathers’ politics.

Muddling matters even more, the race pits two people who consider every voter game, to the point of blurring party lines. Staples, who in 1995 was the first Republican elected from his House district , reaches for the mantle of the working man’s candidate. And while Fisher probably would not match his rival’s 100 percent imprimatur from the Christian Coalition, he is socially conservative.

Hopes to be first

No Republican has held a local office in Polk County since Reconstruction, but Bob Willis, a former Democratic tax collector who joined the GOP in January to run for county commissioner, hopes to be the first.

“I didn’t feel like I was leaving the Democratic Party,” he said, using words long associated with Ronald Reagan. “I felt like it had already left me.”

The defection would have been unimaginable in the time of his great-grandfather, the county’s first district clerk who also ran the post office and dry goods store in Livingston, the government seat. Or in the era of his grandad, when Roosevelt brought electricity to outlying farms, subsidized the price of cotton and timber and built roads so those crops could be taken to market.

Until the mid-1980s, the Democratic Party “was the only bus ride there was,” as Willis puts it. “We had no organized Republican Party, period. No precinct elections. No precinct conventions.”

How did this corner of rural Texas — 12 percent African American and 5 percent Hispanic, mainly blue collar, with a median rent of $218 a month — begin to move from Roosevelt to Reagan, or in some cases from Roosevelt to Goldwater?

“The Republican Party now seems to represent the working class better from the East Texas perspective than the Democratic Party does,” Willis said. “The party’s values closer fit mine.”

He echoes a feeling of alienation voiced by some East Texans, based on their passion for small government, their devout Christianity and their distrust of policies they say favor minorities.

Lloyd Stephens, the son of working-class Democrats, a gospel musician and a barber in Livingston, associates the party of his parents with special interest groups, such as advocates of multiculturalism. That — and the Democrats’ stance on school prayer — has driven him away.

“My ancestors came to this country and became Americans,” he said. “We ought not to have all these ethnic clans. That’s what’s happening in Europe.”

He and his colleague Becky Miller, the daughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico who comes from a long line of Southern Baptist preachers, don’t talk politics in the barbershop for fear of losing customers. Polk County is still, in their eyes, Yellow Dog Democrat country as much as it is God’s country.

“It’s been ordained, sanctified and anointed that way, and that’s the way it is,” Miller said.

But she added that high taxes for social welfare programs could push Democratic loyalists over the edge.

“If it keeps going the way it’s going, if they keep giving everything away. . . . The working people are sick and tired of paying for the lazies. We’ve become beasts of burden.”

Julie Bergman, a 40-year-old businesswoman who runs nine communication towers in Polk County, has also strayed from her family’s Democratic roots, primarily because she is against abortion rights. But like many other Texas voters, Bergman splits her vote between parties, depending on the candidate. “I’m not going to vote straight down the ticket,” she said. “I want to know the person.”

That independence springs from a war within the soul of the Yellow Dog Democrat that is decades old, says Charles Elliott, a former East Texas State University political scientist who is running for state representative as a Democrat in a nearby district.

“Since the Civil Rights Act of 1965, some Democrats in the South have migrated en masse to the Republican Party,” through a populism based on race and religion, he said. “That same pattern has penetrated pretty deeply in East Texas.”

Club of retirees

But the decline of the Yellow Dog Democrat might have less of an impact locally than the rise of another group: the Escapees Inc., a national club of retirees who travel the country by trailer.

An RV camp that now serves as home base for about 9,000 of them sprouted near Lake Livingston in 1984. It accounts for more than 90 percent of the growth in Polk County, where the population ballooned from 30,687 in 1990 to 43,295 in 1999, according to the Texas State Data Center. And it is local Republican Chairman Benny Fogelman’s Shangri-La.

“All around the lake, there are lots of retired folks, and they vote conservatively,” he said.

Fogelman estimates that 70 percent of the escapees are Republicans.

They have become such an electoral force that last year local officials, arguing that most of the retirees call the county home for a scant few months of the year, petitioned the secretary of state’s office to disqualify their votes. Not only did it fail, but it might even have organized the retirees politically.

John Bracken, 73, a retired trucking company vice president from Ohio, became an accidental activist to fight the attempt. He compiled an e-mail list of sympathetic Republicans, a list that still exists. He became connected to the local Republican Party. The ties remain, so much so that he hand-delivered the red-and-white “Bob Willis for Commissioner” signs that have cropped up on lawns throughout the RV park.

“The local boys tried to take our voting power away from us,” he said. “They had the ballgame all to themselves. Up until the escapees, they had no opposition.”

Another outcrop of Republican support sprawls out from Houston, amid the cul-de-sacs of Montgomery County — the only county in the district with a growth rate, 52 percent, that outstrips the Livingston area’s. Many of its 87,000 newcomers are upper-income fiscal conservatives. Many live in the north, the half of the county that belongs to the district. And many helped elect Drew Nixon in 1996, although he lost in 15 counties.

But Democrats have not written off the retirees, the suburbanites or anyone else in the district.

“Losses in the past really woke (us) up,” said Livingston chiropractor Dennis Teal, a state party committeeman. “It was a message the people of East Texas sent to the Democratic Party, and it was heard by the Democratic Party. They wanted us to get back to addressing core issues in their lives, pocketbook issues” such as Social Security and pay raises for teachers and corrections officers.

Among retirees, the Democrats plan to highlight a Republican proposal to privatize Social Security and the need to protect the natural environment that first lured them to the area. “It’s amazing how fast they become environmentalists once they move here,” he said.

The numbers, party officials say, also show that Democrats still have a slight edge in East Texas, at least below Gov. George W. Bush’s coattails. In March, 8,000 more people in the district — 1,200 of them in Polk County — voted in the Democratic rather than in the GOP primary for state Senate.

Also — in the words of Gary Hanlon, who writes the “Sideline Observer” political column for The Tyler County Booster — “There’s a thin line between a conservative Democrat and a Republican, and (Fisher) straddles that thin line.”

A church deacon, Fisher opposes abortion, belongs to the National Rifle Association and favors school prayer, stances at odds with the image of a “Hillary Clinton-like carpetbagger” that the Staples campaign paints of him. “He wants to reflects the values found in the district, rather than the values that might be established by the party platform,” said Shaun Davis, the campaign’s political director.

© Austin American-Statesman (Texas). All rights reserved.