Texans brace against new power grab

HOUSTON — Texans who value democracy are preparing for yet another major challenge from George W. Bush’s party. Three Republican candidates for state representative who were beaten in the Nov. 2 ballot count have appealed to the state Legislature to have their election defeats overturned. Astonishingly, legislators will have three legal options when they convene in January: to reject the appeal, to call a new election, or to throw out the elected representatives and seat their Republican opponents.

Longtime GOP leader Talmadge Heflin, who lost narrowly to labor-supported Houston businessman Hubert Vo, was the first to call for the legislative coup. Observers believe that the other two election losers filed in order to give the Legislature’s Republican majority an opportunity to appear “unbiased” by rejecting both of them and simultaneously ruling to throw out Hubert Vo.

The second recount of votes in the Vo-Heflin race was completed Dec. 1. Vo increased his tiny lead by one. Vo’s attorney said, “This election is over. This recount and the recount of the recount confirms that the majority elected Hubert Vo.”

A great deal is at stake. Vo’s victory represents a historic swing in the fortunes of labor-supported candidates in Texas. It is the first time since 1972 that labor’s candidates had a net gain in the Texas House.

During that period, almost all of the old-school, racist “Dixiecrats” in the Texas Democratic Party left office. Some of them, most notably reactionary U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm and dozens of minor officeholders, switched to the Republicans. With tactics whose legality is still in question, Republicans took power all over the state in 2002.

Democrats fled to Oklahoma and New Mexico to avoid a major Republican power play during the last session. Several Democrats refused to stand by their party in that crisis, and at least five of them were defeated, with the insistence of organized labor, during the Democratic primaries. The minority Texas Democrats of today are much more accommodating to Texas’ working people than the “Dixiecrats” of old.

Talmadge Heflin had held the district in Houston for 20 years, and he had risen to major power as the House appropriations chair. From that commanding height, he played a role in one of the most infamous of all the dirty deeds performed by the last Legislature — cutting more than 150,000 children off their health insurance. More recently, Heflin made an arrogant effort to take a child away from his African immigrant housekeeper. The ensuing scandal may have been one of the reasons that Heflin lost, but it does not explain how political neophyte Vo won.

Vo’s secret weapon was the Houston AFL-CIO. A federation spokesperson said that they organized a “labor neighbor” outreach program, which contacted all union members in the district. Sheet metal workers played a prominent role. “Labor neighbor” is a tactic developed on the West Coast in areas with high union concentration. It has seen little use in Texas, where union members are few and particularly far apart. It isn’t just a door-knocking program. It is a method of organizing neighborhoods around key union members. In Travis County (Austin), which actually went Democratic by a good majority, and Harris County (Houston), unionists have been using it. The Vo victory may convince other central labor councils to try the program.

Even without analyzing Texas history or heralding labor’s key role, Vietnamese-American Hubert Vo’s victory stands out as a victory against racism in the Lone Star State. Texans intend to stand behind it.

The authors can be reached at pww@pww.org.