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Texas 'Dream Team' Carries Democrats' Hopes

October 19, 2002|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- There's nothing glamorous about the "Victory Room" that local Democrats have built at their headquarters inside a Carpenters' Union hall here.

Computers and phones sit on long tables. Charts listing the names of volunteers fill every square foot of wall space. The light is dim and the floor could use some polish.

But the work in this room, and those like it around the state, may determine the fate of one of this year's boldest political gambles.

Texas Democrats, after years of steady political retreat, are trying to engineer a comeback in the nation's second-most populous state behind a racially diverse "dream team" composed of Tony Sanchez, the state's first Latino nominee for governor; Ron Kirk, who would become the state's first African American U.S. senator; and John Sharp, the state's leading white Democrat, who is running for lieutenant governor.

With this Rainbow Coalition of a ticket, Democrats are aiming to generate enough minority turnout to overcome the lopsided support among white voters that has lifted Republicans to political dominance in the state.

As election day nears, the dream team strategy already can claim at least partial success: The candidates are running more competitive races than the party has mustered in recent years. But polls suggest that Sanchez and Kirk, and possibly even Sharp, will still fall short unless Democrats can increase minority turnout to unprecedented levels.

That's where the Victory Room comes in. Even in a campaign season that has seen Sanchez outspend any Texas candidate ever, mostly to inundate the state with television ads, the last best hope for the ticket may be that volunteers dialing phones can prod enough African Americans and Latinos to the polls.

"TV commercials, debates, all that stuff doesn't make a difference if you don't go vote," said Giovanni Garibay, a Sanchez aide.

The Democrats have been pushed toward the dream team strategy by the two long-term trends shaping Texas politics. The first is the Democrats' declining support among white Texans. The second is the rising share in the state population of Latinos, who mostly back Democrats.

The first arc has provided Republicans a decisive advantage; the second could make Democrats competitive again. The question is whether these two arcs will intersect this fall, or only in years to come.

Like most of the South, Texas politics was long dominated by white Democrats. But over the past generation, the state has moved sharply toward the GOP.

The last Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Ann Richards, in 1990, was the last Democrat elected governor. Riding George W. Bush's more than 2-1 gubernatorial reelection victory in 1998, Republicans swept all seven other statewide offices.

In the last three presidential elections, neither Bill Clinton nor Al Gore won more than 31% of white votes in Texas, and the GOP carried the state each time. In Senate and governor races from 1994 through 2000, the only Democrat to win even a third of the white vote was Richards in her 1994 loss to Bush, according to exit polls.

"With no disrespect to the Democrats, they are outnumbered," said Michael Baselice, a GOP pollster working for Republican Gov. Rick Perry, whom Sanchez is trying to unseat.

Faced with this, leading Democrats decided this year to bet on the second major trend remaking the state's political landscape: its increasing racial and ethnic diversity, particularly the rising presence of Latinos, who now constitute about one-third of the population, up from one-fourth in 1990.

The driving force in the new strategy was Sharp, who lost the lieutenant governor's race in 1998 to Perry; Perry then acceded to the governorship when Bush was elected president.

Sharp helped recruit Sanchez, a centrist Laredo banker who had never sought office, into the governor's race, and Kirk, a moderate serving his second term as Dallas mayor, into the Senate contest. (Kirk resigned as mayor in November.) The theory was that Sanchez would boost Latino turnout, Kirk would boost African American turnout and that Sanchez's money would give Democrats the resources to mount a comprehensive get-out-the-vote effort.

On the campaign trail, the experiment has proved a mixed success. Local Democrats no longer describe the ticket with the "dream team" label, worrying that the phrase implies either back-room machinations or racial quotas.

"I don't see any coordination between the three like people thought," said retiring Democratic state Rep. Paul Sadler.

Though both centrists, Sanchez and Kirk have each detonated racial and ethnic land mines. Many Democratic strategists believe Sanchez alienated some white voters during his gubernatorial primary against Dan Morales, a conservative Latino.

In that race, Sanchez aggressively defended affirmative action and insisted on a Spanish-language debate, over Morales' objections.

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