White male Democrats in Texas Legislature are nearly extinct


White male Democrats once dominated Texas politics. But next year’s elections could leave five or fewer of them in the House.

As Democrats put their emphasis on turning out more women and Hispanic voters and Republicans try to maintain advantages in the state’s small towns and rural areas, the trend, decades in the making, is expected to continue.

And it mirrors the national political dynamic, where Democrats are in a party dominated by minorities and Republicans by white men. Conservative Democrats in Congress like former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and former U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm of Abilene have all but vanished from the scene.

The polarization of the parties along racial and ideological lines makes it harder to reach compromise on economic issues and other matters. White male Democrats used to serve as a bridge between liberal and conservative elements of the party, but the conservative wing of the Democratic Party has been obliterated.

“The psychology of trying to figure out what happened will lead you to different variables,” said former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney, a conservative Democrat from Hale Center. “The Republicans successfully targeted rural Texas and the small towns. Maybe the Democrats forgot about those areas.”

Republican political consultant Craig Murphy said that as Republicans built their Texas majority, the GOP stepped up its outreach to rural voters and sought to purge Democrats from those areas.

“We targeted them,” Murphy said. “They were trying to have it both ways, voting with liberals and then trying to go back to their districts and be conservatives. We went district by district and knocked them out.”

And then there were 5

Democrats started the 2013 legislative session with seven white male members. At least two plan to retire.

Rep. Mark Strama is leaving the Legislature to lobby for a technology company, and his seat is expected to be filled by another Democrat. Craig Eiland, considered a moderate to conservative Democrat, could flip to the GOP.

Of the remaining white male lawmakers, only Rep. Tracy King of Batesville hails from a rural area. Just two white male Democrats serve in the Senate.

Democrats concede they have a problem. But they say Republicans have the opposite concern, on the wrong side of the booming minority population in Texas and nationwide.

“They have too many white men, and we don’t have enough,” Strama said.

Depending who you ask, the causes of the near extinction of the white male Democrat are Republican aggression, changing political appetites and Democratic neglect.

Rep. Chris Turner of Arlington, one of the last standing white male members, says his party lost white men because of Republican gerrymandering during redistricting, a process that occurs every decade.

“It’s hurt the chances of Democrats to be elected in rural areas,” Turner said.

But the process has been going on for years, even when Democrats controlled redistricting.

In 1983, 73 of the 114 House Democrats were white men. Ten years later, that number shrank to 45, though Democrats still controlled the House.

In 2003, when Republicans took control of the Legislature for the first time in more than a century, 19 white male Democrats remained.

“It’s striking,” said Bruce Buchanan, a longtime political scientist at the University of Texas. “A lot of white male Democrats segued to the other side.”

Buchanan said the rise of conservatism and popular Republican figures such as Ronald Reagan helped exacerbate the exodus locally and nationally.

“The emergence of the star power on the conservative side of the Republican Party was a factor, even though white Democrats in Texas were generally conservative,” Buchanan said. “The Republican Party is where they saw the wave of the future.”

After Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, he famously said Democrats would lose the South for a generation.

Maybe inevitable

But Texas Democrats held on for years, with a fragile coalition of urban liberals and small-town conservatives under one tent. East Texas, for instance, was blue dog Democrat country. Cities like Houston and Dallas produced moderate and liberal members of the House. They were united by common interests.

“Garnet Coleman in Houston had some of the same problems we had in the rural areas,” Laney said, referring to a black lawmaker who is still in the House. “The city minorities helped us in the country. We all helped each other. It all worked out.”

But the switch may have been inevitable. Charles Elliott, a political scientist at Texas A&M-Commerce, says racism contributed to white flight from the Democratic Party.

“After the civil rights movement of the 1960s and into the 1970s, a whole lot of Democrats became Republicans,” Elliott said. “I don’t know that we’re seeing anything that we shouldn’t expect.”

President Barack Obama, in some ways, has helped keep white men in the GOP ranks.

In the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton won the popular vote against Obama by merging Hispanics, whites and women, many from rural and small town areas, into a winning coalition against her rival’s urban support.

His continued unpopularity in Texas makes in difficult for Democrats to recruit outside the state’s urban centers.

“The national Democratic Party moved sharply to the left,” said Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Wade Emmert. “That doesn’t translate in Texas.”

Democrats are confident that Texas’ burgeoning Hispanic population will lead the party to an eventual majority. But some say to help that happen, the party has to reach out to rural voters it has lost.

“We’re going to have to rebuild that coalition and at the same time rebuild some cultural bridges,” said former Land Commissioner Garry Mauro. “You think rural voters don’t want to spend money on education? They do. And they want jobs, highways and a strong economy. That was our coalition in a nutshell.”

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