The eyes of the nation were upon Texas on March 2 as Republican voters turned out in record numbers to send gubernatorial candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison back to Washington with a bumper sticker on her backside that read “Don’t mess with Rick.”
Hutchison, the first woman U.S. senator in Texas history, was soundly walloped by sitting-guv Rick Perry in her bid to run on the GOP ticket for Texas’ mostly ceremonial governorship. Dubbed “Governor Good Hair” by the late Texas wit Molly Ivins because of his mane of thick, black, pompadoured hair (which Ivins thought covered a mostly empty head), Perry led by 51 percent to Hutchison’s 30 percent and Tea Party candidate Debra Medina’s 20 percent. (In November, Perry will face the popular former Houston mayor Bill White.)
While most outside the Lone Star State see Perry’s victory as a continuing sign that the state is a nutty conglomerate of Republic of Texas gun-totin’ secessionists–and why shouldn’t they, given the mainstream media and the 24-7 cable news networks obsessive coverage of the state’s most bizarre wing-nuts–Texas is far more complex than that. Indeed, in some of its most populous parts, it is more progressive than many of the country’s well-known liberal enclaves.
Where, for example, would you expect to find a Democratic Latina lesbian wearing the badge of sheriff in one of the country’s largest counties? San Francisco, maybe?
Lupe Valdez, 61, who picked beans as a child with her migrant-worker parents, was elected sheriff of the 2.4 million-population Dallas County on the Democratic ticket in 2004 and reelected in 2008. She is the only woman sheriff in the state, but her election was no fluke. She has been in law enforcement for more than 30 years. Before that, she served in the U. S. Army as a tank commander. She came, as they say, with “bona fides.”
Dallas—once known as a Republican stronghold and hotbed of right-wing reactionaries, home to the John Birch Society, the White Citizens Council and Lee Harvey Oswald—not only elected Valdez twice for the sheriff’s job, the county’s voters in 2006 dumped every Republican running for a contested county office in favor of a Democrat.
At least two of those seats were won by openly gay candidates: Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons and County Judge John Foster. Over in neighboring Fort Worth, Joel Burns, an openly gay man, was easily elected to the city council two years later.
And in December, Houston, with a population of 2.2 million, elected Annise Parker, a Democrat who also happens to be a lesbian, as its mayor in a special election called to replace Bill White, who had held the post for six years (see the current issue of Ms. for a story on Parker).
In the 2006 Democratic takeover in Dallas, Craig Watkins was elected district attorney, the first African-American to hold that job. Watkins has made a name for himself and his administration by joining forces with the Innocence Project. His investigations of past convictions by the DA’s office have resulted so far in 19 wrongly convicted men being freed after DNA evidence showed that they did not commit the crimes of which they were accused.
To date, Texas, a state that has put more people to death over the past several decades than any other, has freed 40 wrongly-convicted men statewide, thanks mostly to the leadership of Watkins and his staff.
In the last presidential election, Texas predictably went with John McCain, but the trending “towards blue” was evident as the state’s most populous counties, Dallas, Harris (Houston), Travis (Austin), Bexar (San Antonio) and El Paso, along with 14 smaller counties gave Barack Obama their vote.
Bottom line: Texans cannot be easily categorized. As witnessed by election results in its largest counties over the past several years, the state still has its share of progressives, feminists, pro-choice liberals and just plain fair-minded folks who vote their conscience. Granted, the wackos are out there. But they must not define this big, diverse, often generous, sometimes meaner’n a snake, and always politically messy, place I call home—unless we allow them to.
Read more Ms. coverage on women in politics here.