Clinton Assembles Troops For Lone Star Showdown

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Bill Clinton has certainly got his problems, but that's no reason not to vote for the senator," Sheila Jackson Lee says to the young woman expressing some reservations about the senator's husband. At the Harris County, Texas Democratic Party Rally in Houston Saturday, Ms. Lee has just delivered some eloquent oratory -- the kind she's been providing, as a national co-chair of the Clinton Campaign, on the stump around the country. Now, however, in her role as congresswoman, she's mingling with her Houston constituents. This particular constituent --originally from either Russia or Ukraine by her accent -- is an inquirer and thinks that Obama is an impressive candidate, too; she can't make up her mind. Neither can the husband at her side. The couple has just heard the Ms. Lee speak in passing about her endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Now they want to know the reasons for her support. But Congresswoman Lee can't let go of the spouse issue. He's had his "disappointments," he's had his "troubles," she says, in mitigation of Bill Clinton's behavior. What exactly does she mean? This is unclear, for Ms. Lee, perhaps channeling a nineteenth-century novelist, is characterizing more of a mad spouse from Bronte than a politician from Trollope.

Distancing the campaign from certain campaigners (the old Bill Clinton, Patti Solis Doyle) is the most recent way the Hillary Clinton Campaign has re-invented itself, once again--this time as the presidential contenders move vanguard troops into the Lone Star State. But it's not all about looking forward. There's still some mopping up. Sheila Jackson Lee singles out Lyndon Johnson in her eloquent oratory for the benefit of the Harris County Dems, who, from their expressions, are wondering why their Congresswoman is taking them back more than half a century to find a Democrat "who came out of the soil of Texas." For some, the reason becomes clear. "He [LBJ] called Ron Paul, and he called Al Gore's Daddy, to vote for the Civil Rights Act," Lee reminds her audience. Less than twenty-four hours later, the Congresswoman is again defending LBJ's record on civil rights--this time at the Clinton Campaign Kick-Off in Houston. It would seem that some in the HRC Campaign, stung by the reaction to Hillary's remarks on LBJ a month ago, are still looking back.

Another issue sub rosa as the Democrats launch in Texas is unity. All three of the major speakers to the Harris County Dems talk about the need to rally round the party nominee. Tom Vilsack (former governor of Iowa and a Clinton supporter) admonishes in his keynote address, "We don't want to have family members pitted against family members." Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green (Houston's other Represenative to the House, also African-American, who came out early for Obama) echo Vilsack's exhortation that "we must support whoever the nominee is"--but each stops short of declaring such willingness. And an absence of concurrence from the local Dems is marked. After all, the race hasn't even begun in Texas--Obama has just opened an office in Houston that morning and Clinton has yet to open hers--and already party leaders are talking about concession.

"All eyes are on Texas," Vilsack says. Lee says. Green says. Maybe. But sometimes all politics is indeed local. And the major goal for Houston/Harris County Dems for 2008 is taking back the local judiciary from two decades of Republican control. Houston's rival city Dallas has already done so. In Houston, the District Attorney (Republican) has exposed himself to scandal and possible indictment on perjury charges. Local litigators, Democrats and Republicans alike, are increasingly willing to speak out about prejudiced rulings from the bench. Power for the Republicans in Houston has fostered not only corruption but also a sense of entitlement that local lawyers and law enforcement are eager to break. Harris County Dems have been out-of-power and dispirited for so long (a holdover of those times the sparse turn-out for the event). But now in 2008 they sense their chance.

So the number one priority for Houston Democrats is lifting the weight of the local elephant from their backs. Washington, DC is far away and always has been for Texas. After all, at one time Texas was briefly a sovereign nation, and people here are proud of that. Even as Texans like to see themselves as patriotic Americans they prefer that the American government keep its distance. This is a don't tread on me, don't fence me in kind of a place. Not that Houston isn't anticipating March 4th. All of Texas is pleased "to be back in the saddle again," as Sheila Jackson Lee says. (Locals argue whether the last significant Texas primary was 1976, Reagan v. Ford, or 1988, the Dukakis, Gore, Gephardt, Jesse Jackson shoot-out.) In 2008, Greater Houston has up for grabs 34 delegates--more than a quarter of the Texas total. So Houston revs up. But there doesn't seem to be the fierce partisanship among voters here that exists elsewhere in the country. "We'll be happy with either of 'em," Houstonian Democrats say. Volunteers are another story.

Tomorrow: the Clinton and Obama Campaigns Kick Off in Houston.