Deep in Heart of Texas, Voters Sour on Hard-Liners

Until recently, few people in Houston would have called Martha Wong conservative. She was the first Asian American elected to the city council in this blue-collar town and was a champion of immigrant workers; once in office, she fought for hiring more Chinese-speaking police officers, funding low-income housing, and preserving the bus system. Urban voters sent the Republican to the state Legislature in 2002, believing she was a political moderate. But they were in for a surprise: The next year, Wong voted to ax $1 billion in health funding for the poor -- booting 180,000 low-income children off the state's health insurance rolls -- and for a law requiring abortion providers to tell women that the procedure could cause breast cancer, a claim that has been found to have no basis in science. Now, voters' disappointment is making for one of the hardest-fought election campaigns in Texas -- and a potential bellwether for the nation.

Running the best-funded House challenge in the state, Democrat Ellen Cohen has won the backing of former GOP activists and groups such as the Houston Police Officers Union that had previously endorsed Wong. "Like the Spanish Civil War, this may be the race that people look at to see if Democrats can break through" in Texas, says Rice University political science professor Bob Stein. "At the rate Cohen is going, I think she has much better than a chance of winning." Although initial polls put Cohen neck-and-neck with Wong, earlier this month they showed Cohen pulling away with a 6 to 7 percent lead.

Wong's district, like many in Texas, clearly leans to the right -- but less as a matter of disposition than of design. Wong represents professors from two major universities, doctors from one of the nation's most important medical centers, and one of the largest Jewish and gay populations in the state. Even so, in 2001 Republicans managed to fashion a conservative majority via redistricting; 53 percent of voters in a redrawn District 134 supported Wong in the 2002 election. Republicans that year won the Texas Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, and quickly set about implementing a hardcore conservative agenda: parental consent laws on abortion, a ban on gay marriage, a one-third cut in property taxes (which the state comptroller predicted would eventually "leave a huge hole in state revenues"). Moderate Republicans who resisted the push were ousted; those, like Wong, who went with the program were rewarded with committee posts.

As Wong climbed the rungs of power at the state Capitol, however, she seemed to cast aside many groups that define her district. For example, environmentalists have been drawing attention to extraordinarily high ozone levels in the part of Houston that Wong represents, yet Wong voted against five separate clean air measures. Schools are a big issue in the highly educated district, yet Wong, a former elementary school principal, opposed a bipartisan proposal to raise teacher salaries. Wong acknowledges that voters in her district are independent-minded yet in an interview couldn't cite a single instance in which she'd voted against her party. The closest she came was on a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage: She supported defining marriage as a union "between a man and a woman" but opposed a ban on civil unions. "Since voting either for or against the bill would have put me in conflict with my beliefs," she wrote in a statement, "I abstained."

"We might as well have a mannequin in the chair," says Jeffrey Dorrell, a precinct chair in Wong's district for more than a decade. Dorrell supported Wong over a more conservative Republican in the 2002 primary and then watched with chagrin as she scrambled once in office to demonstrate GOP bona fides. Dorrell, who is gay, is so angry about Wong's stance on the marriage amendment -- which was opposed by nearly 60 percent of District 134 voters -- that he has resigned his post with the party and is organizing "Republicans for Cohen."

Stein, the Rice professor, sees Wong's predicament as a sign of backlash against the GOP's approach to governing. "In many ways it was Tom DeLay's legacy," he says. (DeLay's hometown, Sugar Land, is not far from District 134.) "He brought a very hard ideological discipline to the party -- to get the redistricting, to get the congressional seats. It's masterful; you kind of have to sit back and admire it. Not since the days of [turn-of-the-century U.S. House Speaker] Joe Cannon has a congressional leader really shown so much influence all the way down to the local level, but the legacy of it is a lack of comity, of getting along. The sense of loyalty to some core issues has just made life really hard, and the Republicans are finding out now it's just hard to govern. Martha is just the tip of the iceberg on this." Indeed, Wong has worked hard to reposition herself as the kind of moderate voters thought they had elected: One of her campaign spots claimed that she "helped the truly needy gain access to government healthcare programs like Medicaid, Medicare and the Children's Health Insurance Program." Never mind that, as the Houston Chronicle pointed out, the ad in fact "touted programs she voted to cut."

If the GOP maintains pressure on its moderates, Stein and other consultants believe Republican-leaning legislative districts in Houston and the Dallas area -- where middle-class voters see the GOP focus on cutting taxes as a drain on basic services such as schools -- could become vulnerable to Democrats in 2008. Indeed, Democrats say the main obstacle to taking on the races is psychological. "The biggest challenge that I think Democrats have is that there are too many people in too many places who don't realize that it is altogether possible for a Democrat to win," says Gerry Birnberg, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party.

Democrats will also ride a major demographic wave in coming years. In 2004 Texas joined Democratic-controlled Hawaii, New Mexico, and California as one of the few U.S. states in which minorities outnumber whites. The state's Hispanic population typically votes Democratic 3-to-1, and the Asian population is also becoming a political force. In 2004 the House's second-ranking Republican, Appropriations Committee Chair Talmadge Heflin, was ousted from a suburban district he had controlled for 22 years; it had been transformed from a haven of white flight into a neighborhood of taquerias and noodle houses -- friendly ground for Democratic challenger Hubert Vo, a Vietnamese real estate developer who, like Cohen, ran on a platform of better schools and health care and moderation on social issues. The Vos and Cohens of Texas are crucial to national Democrats: A state House controlled by the party could some day undo Tom DeLay's controversial electoral map and maybe boot the six Republicans he helped send in 2004 to the U.S. Congress.

To be sure, it's an uphill battle. Cohen, for one, makes no mention of her party affiliation in her signs or bumper stickers; canvassing recently in an affluent precinct, the candidate rarely mentioned up-front that she was a Democrat. But that's the kind of caution Texas Democrats have long found necessary. What's remarkable is seeing GOP candidates doing the same. On several of Wong's campaign banners, the word "Republican" was recently covered up with red tape.

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