The state that gave the planet George W. Bush is poised to play a historic role in the selection of the Democratic presidential candidate. Oh irony of ironies. We always manage to stumble into destiny's crossroads and force detours. March 4th, a date that wasn't supposed to mean much in the Democratic primary process, may give Texas further undue influence over this nation's democracy.
Before I indulge in further analytical posturing, I need to point out that I was not born here and therefore I am not a true Texan. You have to have entered the world over this sacred soil to be considered a Texan. I was not, but I have been writing and reporting on politics in Texas since 1975 and I was here when Jimmy Carter tried out his non-Tex-Mex Spanish in the Rio Grande Valley and I was here when the Bushes wrongly decided they were fit to lead. Hell, I even bought a cowboy hat to wear in a jacket cover photo for Bush's Brain, a complete marketing ploy to sell cowboy politics.
Even though I am not a Texan, except by choice, I know something about how things both work and fail under the Lone Star skies. And they often fail. We are historically 49th in categories like Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, and any kind of social service. An estimated 5 million people, almost a quarter of the population, are without health insurance. Our unofficial state motto is "Thank God for Mississippi."
So fate gives us political power again in the Democratic primary? Perfectly understandable, eh? Let me make one of my consistently inaccurate predictions on the outcome.
First, Senator Clinton can be expected to overwhelmingly win the Mexican-American vote. The Clintons have been coming to Texas almost from the outset of their political rise and have frequently visited the border regions where the population is well over 90 percent Hispanic. In fact, Mrs. Clinton is tentatively scheduled to speak Wednesday night at Pan American University in Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley. McAllen businessman Alonzo Cantu has raised large amounts of money for her and her husband through the years. Senator Obama has a great challenge to make meaningful inroads into that support.
But it isn't that simple.
There is a historical antipathy between African-American and Mexican American voters in Texas. And it will not be easily overcome. A friend, who is an African-American legislator from Houston, explained it to me by suggesting that "blacks and browns have spent too damned many years fighting each other over the crumbs left by the white folks in this state."
Gross oversimplifications often contain a germ of truth.
For most of its existence, the Texas legislature has been dominated by rural influences. White men were elected and controlled the powerful committees. Even in the cow counties and along the border where the Hispanic population often outnumbered the Anglo, white candidates won by intimidation and other less than democratic tactics. When the state began its transition from being a part of the South to becoming a centerpiece of the Sunbelt, growth boomed in the urban areas and they took control of the legislative and political processes. African-Americans in Dallas and Houston appeared to Mexican-Americans, who were concentrated more in South Texas, to have a disproportionate political influence. Many Hispanic voters felt disconnected from the processes and once more marginalized.
In spite of the heroic efforts of the Southwest Voter Registration Project to increase the numbers of Mexican-Americans in the polling places on Election Day, they have tended to not turn out in anticipated numbers. Even when a Laredo businessman with a Hispanic surname became the first to run for governor, vote totals for Mexican-Americans remained at historically standard levels. Expect Mrs. Clinton to win their vote by a big margin but whether she inspires Mexican-American numbers to go beyond normal primary turnout levels is likely to determine whether she will win.
Senator Obama's candidacy, however, will dramatically increase the turnout of African-American voters in Texas, mostly in the cities and East Texas. His success is likely to hinge on the large black population in the piney woods of East Texas. Obama will handily carry the vote of urban black voters in Dallas and Houston and their turnout levels will be well beyond the historical norms. If he can do the same thing in East Texas, he has a chance of overwhelming Mrs. Clinton's overwhelming Hispanic support. (Conservative white male Democrats are not good prospects to vote for Mrs. Clinton in Texas and those who go to the polls will probably pick Obama.)
East Texas, a region that spans a distance from Dallas to Houston and up through Tyler and over to Beaumont-Port Arthur, has been a profound political influence in Texas and has decided many statewide elections. The electorate there has been overwhelmingly conservative and any East Texas Democrat caught north of the Red River was easily mistaken for a conservative Republican. In fact, during the 80s Ronald Reagan identified them precisely that way and courted their vote by calling them "Reagan Democrats." Eventually, they became Republicans and stopped identifying themselves with the Democratic Party of Texas. The African-American vote in East Texas, however, stayed with the Democrats and, sufficiently inspired, can help Obama to victory in Texas.
The open primary in Texas will also complicate the dynamics of the vote. John McCain will either be the presumptive or declared nominee on the date of the Texas primary and Republicans may not be that interested in casting meaningless votes. Those that think Hillary would be easy to beat in the general election might go help her March 4th by casting ballots in the Democratic Texas primary, though it is hard to believe these numbers will be significant enough to alter the outcome of final totals.
The truth is, however, this is still Texas and we elected George W. Bush governor, twice, and we voted by a 2-1 margin to make sure gay people don't get married and our current governor has just published a book that is largely a polemic about the threat gays pose to the Boy Scouts of America. We are still trying to figure out how to create a constitutional funding method for our schools even though the lawsuit that prompted the debate was won by the poor schools in 1968. Our property taxes are among the highest in the country because the legislature will never tax income on corporations or individuals and more and more people are unable to get into homes because of tax burdens...
Aw hell...you get the picture.
There are some forward-thinking, progressive people in Texas...lots of them, and they are excited about this election and both candidates but the progressive thinkers are not in control. The Democratic Party is presently trying to reconcile the interests of progressives and conservatives within its ranks. While there is optimism here about a viable Democratic presidential candidate, neither Clinton nor Obama is a choice many conservative Democrats want to make.
And the winner may be the candidate that conservative Democrats dislike the least.