State of Confusion

State of Confusion

The caucus was raucous and the rancor will continue for weeks. But if you’re a Democrat in the Lone Star State, these are good times, baby.


Gosh, who could have seen this coming?

America’s brush with Texas politics has once again spawned confusion, resentment and calls for legal action. But why did anyone ever count on wringing clarity from this sprawling place where people are allowed to vote twice in one day, where Democrats have been living in seclusion for decades and where the state’s unspoken political motto is “There Will Be Blood”?

Statewide, newspaper articles and political blog posts on our rampaging primary and raucous caucus read like a series of police accident reports.

In one crowded Dallas caucus, a former city councilwoman and Clinton supporter allegedly unhappy with the heavy Obama turnout, is accused of turning hundreds of people away at the door. “We had people fainting, people crying,” she explained. “It was just totally chaotic and dangerous.” She then apparently tried to make off with all the sign-in sheets, which she told the crowd she planned to “correct” at home. A mob ended up chasing her to a local police station at 1 am, where the cops confiscated the caucus pack and sent everyone home.

In another Dallas get-together, an Obama organizer took charge and conveniently lost all the sign in sheets supporting Clinton.

You simply cannot make this stuff up.

There are repeated accounts of out-of-state campaign advisors accusing their opponents of “lying and intimidation,” or as the practice is known in Texas, “campaigning.”

There are tales of overflow crowds, fire code violations, near fist-fights, broken hearts and mishandled ballots.

Now it is all over except the shouting. But then down here, the shouting is never over. So for weeks, the drama will rage on as delegates are counted, reporters are spun, lawyers are briefed and hangovers are nursed and reborn.

But if you are a Democrat in the Lone Star State, these are good times, baby. Good times.

This week, state Democrats, literally by the millions, finally came out into the light. And if they didn’t decide the presidential primary, they shook up the process in a way that ought to make Texas Republicans awfully blue.

The most prominent Democratic target down here is Senator John Cornyn, a Bush sycophant of the first order. Cornyn’s drab tenure in the US Senate has primarily been distinguished by an incident in which he enraged John McCain, to the point that the Arizona Senator screamed “F— you!” at him, a sentiment seconded by about half of Texas.

Cornyn will face Rick Noriega, a five-term member of the State House with a masters degree in public administration from Harvard. Noriega also has a distinguished 27-year National Guard record that includes time in Afghanistan. Voters can even examine his service assignments, officer evaluations and the rest of his record through a link on his website.

Imagine running for high political office and doing something crazy like that with your military record. I mean, shouldn’t those records be hidden and withheld, cleansed by cronies and then squeezed out piece by tattered piece, denied, dismissed and littered with long unexplained absences where the records supposedly just couldn’t be found? What’s with this guy?

Another triumph for highly evolved voters here in the state is the primary rejection of a Fort Worth candidate for the Texas Education Board, a man who was running on a pro-creationism platform. Another dinosaur hits the dust in Texas.

Mike Huckabee, on the other hand, did pretty well here, considering his campaign was on life support. Ironically, it was Texans who convinced the pro-life candidate to pull the plug after he got only 37 percent of the vote. I’m afraid Huckabee has left a lot of steamed home-schoolers and enraged religious-righters in Texas who had hoped (and believed) they could pray him into the presidency.

In Dallas, one of the big stories was the primary victory of Lupe Valdez, the female Hispanic openly gay sheriff who broke a long Democratic drought here with her surprise election in 2004. She will face an elderly Anglo, openly heterosexual Republican man in the fall whose exact identity will be determined in a run-off.

Valdez had a number of challengers, even within her own party, because being sheriff in Dallas County is just plain awful. The chronically overcrowded jail system has been so bad for so long that one of her predecessors was rumored to have avoided legal action by loading scores of inmates into vans and having them circle the building whenever jail inspectors came to count heads.

In Texas, where public service nickels are thrown around like manhole covers, there is just too little money, too many inmates, and too little public interest to get things done. Valdez has been able to improve some of the basics and promises to do more. We’ll see.

But on an admittedly shallow personal note, as a woman who has been subjected to nearly twenty years worth of local parades dominated by Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleaders and beauty contest winners perched daintily on the back of convertibles, Valdez is a godsend. It is a thrill to watch her at big events, when she appears in full Western law enforcement regalia, with a gun on her hip, and a smile on her face, confidently charging past on horseback, leading the sheriff’s posse.

Lupe Valdez, like every other Democratic candidate here, was profoundly helped in the primary by the awakening of the Hispanic vote, Texas’s slumbering giant. These voters very simply hold the future of the state in their hands.

And somewhere, looking down on this spectacle, the late President Lyndon B. Johnson is smiling.

Not only did Democrats here get to practice the kind of “vote early, vote often” politics he loved, but the big turnout and the people at the top of the ticket have given him a chance to win one last campaign.

Johnson’s presidency was star-crossed–a brief and troubled reign, born in tragedy, ending in despair.

He was savaged by his critics as a hick and a hack and reviled by a generation that lost its youth to his stubborn Vietnam policies. He was mocked relentlessly by reporters for his twang and his temper.

But long after his death, with decades gone by and the country trying to recover from the leadership of another Texan–oops, I mean, wannabe Texan–the imperfect old Johnson looks pretty damned prescient.

No other American president paved the way for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton quite the way Johnson did. When Obama was just four years old, a gangly little boy living in Hawaii and when Hillary Clinton was a young Goldwater girl in a Chicago suburb, there was an old man in Washington fighting to give them a chance to one day sit at his desk.

The Civil Rights Act, proposed by John F. Kennedy a few months before his murder, was designed to sweep away racial discrimination in public venues from theaters to swimming pools, restaurants to schools.

Johnson was generally supportive of the idea, but he was a flawed civil rights warrior, a man who had voted against previous attempts at racial reconciliation, a person who had used the N-word in private, a Texan who had exploited the support and neediness of the state’s Mexican Americans.

Yet just five days after Kennedy’s death, in a tangle of despair and hope, Johnson went to Congress and declared that the Civil Rights ACT would be passed in the late president’s honor.

Then he went about getting it done.

With an arsenal of arm-twisting and back-bending, high decibel threats and tearful pleas, hardball politics and personal intimidation, invoking the prospect of race riots and the promise of true moral triumph, Johnson pushed the provocative legislation through a reluctant Congress.

An attempt to kill the bill led one southern Senator to add the hysterical idea of gender discrimination to the list of no longer approved prejudices. The bill passed anyway. And that incidental victory helped pave the way for women to rise to power in business and politics, academics and law.

Only a Southerner could have shoved the bill through; only a man who grew up in segregation, only a politician who understood race and the risks of avoiding or addressing the subject. Only Lyndon Johnson understood with complete clarity that taking on civil rights would cost his party dearly.

He told fellow Democrats that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which he also championed and won, would deny his party the South for a generation. He was wrong about that. It has actually taken the Democrats longer to regain their footing down here.

But he was right about the morality, right about taking the risk and right about the outcome.

In Austin last week, an old friend of LBJ’s told me that the late president would have been heartbreakingly proud to see a black man and a white woman duking it out for the votes of Texas Democrats.

He said Lyndon would have loved all the excitement, that he would have thrived on the twangy chaos of the caucuses, the messy passions of Texas primary voters and the ferocity of the fight, that he would have been thrilled at the power of the ground game each candidate fielded and the arguments the would-be presidents unleashed.

“My fellow Americans,” as Johnson used to drawl in his speeches..l

What the hell took us so long?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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