Letter from Washington — From the March 2017 issue

Texas is the Future

Can Democrats reconquer the Lone Star State?

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Ask anyone who was present at Hillary Clinton’s presumptive victory celebration on November 8 and they will tell you of the stunned silence, broken only by sobs, that settled across the vast glass enclosure of the Javits Center in Manhattan. Upstairs, in the suite where the candidate was closeted with her family and associates, the trauma was even more intense. As one attendee later reported to me, it featured the “full range of human emotions: screams, shock, fainting. Bill moved immediately to blame.” The former president, I was told, singled out campaign manager Robby Mook: “ ‘We should have fired that asshole months ago!’ It was awful.”

This funereal atmosphere was replicated wherever Democrats were gathered across the nation — with one instructive exception. In the Heights neighborhood of Houston, hundreds of revelers thronged bars along Studewood Street late into the night. “Any Houston Democrat who was anybody was there,” Doug Miller, a local reporter, told me later. “I looked up at the TV screens on the walls, I could see the whole country turning red, but everyone there seemed happy!”

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Illustrations by John Ritter

The reason was simple. Unlike the rest of the country, Houston Democrats had a full-scale Republican rout to celebrate. The party had swept the polls in Harris County, the vast region encompassing Houston, arguably the nation’s most diverse city (as locals never tire of repeating). With 4.5 million inhabitants, the county is more populous than half the states in America. Now Harris voters had elected a Democratic district attorney — a very powerful post in Texas law enforcement — for the first time in thirty-six years. The Democrats had also captured almost every other slot on the ballot, including the tax assessor’s office, which oversees voter registration: a crucial win in an age of Republican voter suppression.

Furthermore, these local victories carried over to the top of the ticket. Though it probably did little to lighten the mood in the Javits Center, Hillary Clinton trounced Donald Trump by more than 160,000 votes in a county that Barack Obama had carried by fewer than a thousand in 2012. While others in the defeated party were subsiding into melancholy, hand-wringing, and consolatory tales of Russian hackers, the county’s newly elected sheriff, former Houston police sergeant Ed Gonzalez, was assuring supporters that he would defy any orders to round up undocumented immigrants. Across the street, the new D.A., Kim Ogg, promised her exuberant audience a progressive agenda: “We’re going to have a system that doesn’t oppress the poor.”

Voter endorsement of such progressive positions, well to the left of anything Clinton promoted during her message-lite campaign, was all the more dramatic in this reddest of red states. The prospect of life under an administration populated with avaricious plutocrats, xenophobes, and religious fanatics may chill the blood of countless Americans, but Texans have been living in such conditions for decades. Pertinent examples abound, not least the unremitting legislative assaults on Texan women, the latest being a proposed rule requiring that fetal tissue from abortions or miscarriages be expensively interred or cremated. Add to that cash-starved public schools, cuts in services for disabled children, record-breaking numbers of uninsured, lack of compensation for injured workers, the wholesale gutting of environmental regulations, soaring inequality, hostility to immigrants, and multiple restrictions on voting rights. Texas may therefore serve as an example of what could be in store for the rest of us. “The Texas Republicans have done a good job on voter suppression,” Craig Varoga, a Democratic political consultant and veteran of many election battles across the state, told me gloomily. “Now you’re going to see the same thing happening nationally, with the blessing of the Department of Justice.”

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