Some political ‘species’ on way out
AUSTIN — White Democrats are an increasingly vanishing species in the Texas Legislature, where there will be only 10 when the new legislative session starts in early January.
The face of the Legislature has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past 25 years, and the state’s rapidly changing demographics are expected to guarantee even more profound changes over the next quarter century.
Twenty years ago, the Legislature included 83 white Democrats. Today, the white Democratic lawmaker is a rarity in the 181-member Legislature.
Vanishing rural, white Democrats account for most of the changes. There were 56 rural, white Democrats sitting in the 1987-88 Texas Legislature. Today, Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, (Zavala County) is the only rural white Democrat remaining. He did not return phone calls for comment.
‘Way of the Whigs’
“Times change. Complexions change. But so do political views,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the only white Democrat left in the Harris County legislative delegation. He was among a dozen Houston white Democrats serving in the Legislature 25 years ago.
“I served in the Legislature with people who went home and farmed all weekend, literally. Part of our problem is that Texas has become an urban state, but Texas government is still geared for an agrarian state,” said Whitmire, first elected in 1972. “As we get more urban and have more minority representation, it’s going to change state policies.”
Still, Texas remains a conservative state, with rural folks more closely aligned with the social values of the national Republican Party. Many rural Texans, who in the past called themselves Democrats, are now Republicans — including Gov. Rick Perry, whose political career began as a rural Democrat.
GOP strategist Eric Bearse, who was formerly a senior Perry aide, sees two options for Republicans as he contemplates what the Texas Legislature might look like in 25 years.
“Change happens so fast in politics we don’t notice it. Twenty-five years ago, no one would have predicted the disappearance of white Democrats in elected office in Texas,” Bearse said. “Twenty-five years from now, the Republican Party will be a majority minority party, or it will go the way of the Whigs.”
Urban, Latino state
Whitmire points to recent election trends that reflect the changing demographics and a look into the state’s future. Of Texas’ six largest counties, five supported President Barack Obama’s re-election, ranging from a small .1 point in Harris County to much larger margins in Bexar/San Antonio (5 points), Dallas (15 points), Travis/Austin (24 points) and El Paso (33 points). The largest urban Texas county Obama failed to win was Tarrant (Fort Worth).
The 2010 census showed that Texas is becoming increasingly urban and Latino. In the greater Houston area, Latinos accounted for 35.3 percent of the total population of nearly 6 million while the percentage of Anglos dropped to 39.7 percent. By 2050, Texas will be home for 12 million non-Hispanic whites and 31 million Hispanics, demographer Steve Murdock testified recently during a school finance trial.
Simple math reveals Texas’ future. Hispanic children make up a majority of the state’s K-12 public school enrollment, with the percentage of white children, now at 30 percent, continuing to drop until it stabilizes at about 16 percent, Murdock said.
3 GOP Hispanics
For years, Republicans made a high priority of targeting white Democrats for defeat, via election when they could win, or redistricting when they couldn’t, contended former Texas Democratic Party executive director Harold Cook.
“The irony is that in their efforts to limit Democrats to minority real estate through redistricting, they also separated themselves from the fastest growing demography. In 20 years they may well see that they wrote their own political obituary,” Cook said.
Obama carried the His-panic vote by 44 points, according to exit polls. Republicans will continue to have problems appealing to more Hispanics as long as they continue to push policies that Latinos perceive to be “mean-spirited,” Whitmire said, citing examples such as sanctuary cities, voter ID, family deportation and education cuts.
Hispanic Republican lawmakers are another scarce commodity in Austin. There are only three GOP Hispanics in the 181-member Legislature.
Two possible paths
One of the few Republican Hispanics sees Texas’ solid red status declining “if something doesn’t change quickly within the Republican Party’s legislative agenda and public policy priorities.”
Republicans must elect Hispanics “and then use them to deliver the message,” state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock said. “It won’t be easy. There are people who take a very hard line on these subjects of race and ethnicity, but the message has to be delivered.”
The GOP should take two paths, said Gonzales, with one being a more passive approach allowing Hispanics to offer their life experiences as a model for conservatism, including family, business, church and community involvement. The other path requires a “head-on” obligation for Republicans to promote public education, comprehensive immigration reform and a business environment that stimulates job creation, growth and opportunity, he said. firstname.lastname@example.org