Home-town heroes bring the politics closer

TEXAS TALES: Elaine Davenport charts her state's progress during the run-up to the US elections
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The Independent Online
When I vote on 5 November in the small gymnasium of the local elementary school in my neighbourhood in Austin, Texas, my ballot will start with a choice between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole for United States president. That race - for the top position in the most powerful country in the world - will get most of the headlines here and abroad and is, I admit, relatively important.

But no matter what happens during the next eight weeks in the presidential race, all politics are essentially local and by far the juiciest fights will have taken place much further down the ballot. The winners of the other contests will be making decisions that affect my life, and the lives of the nearly 1 million of us living in the Austin area.

Ballots in Travis County will have contested races for three Texas Supreme Court positions, three Court of Criminal Appeals places and three seats in the state legislature. Also up for grabs are sheriff, district attorney, district judge, tax assessor-collector, a seat on the state Railroad Commission and one on the Board of Education.

So far the Texas race that has captured the most attention is for US senator. Both our current senators are Republicans. The term of Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former university cheerleader turned conservative politician, is not up this year. But Phil Gramm, who ran for the Republican nomination for president earlier this year and pulled out when most voters around the country chose Mr Dole, is fending off a storybook challenge from Victor Morales.

Mr Morales is not a politician but a government high school teacher from Crandall in south Texas. He won the Democratic nomination by driving all over Texas in his pick-up truck, shaking hands and listening to people. The technique is reminiscent of Texas's best-known politician, Lyndon B Johnson, also a Democrat, who became president when John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Farmers in the hill country where LBJ was born and first campaigned remember him driving full tilt along country roads, leaping out of his vehicle and striding across their fields to shake hands and talk a spell.

The technique must still work, for Mr Morales upset two incumbent Democratic congressmen for the November ballot spot. His candidacy is inspiring unusual passions. One Austinite I know who is best described as a proper little old lady did volunteer work for Mr Morales and claims to have got drunk and danced all night when he won the primary. Her friends were astounded; she says she liked Mr Morales' smile.

His ancestry appeals to the state's Mexican Americans who will be in the majority in less than a generation and who are still under-represented politically. His pick-up truck appeals to the rural, conservative, white male voter. His underdog candidacy appeals to voters who are tired of life-long politicians. His lack of funds - he began on $8,000 (pounds 5,300) of his $10,000 life savings - is in dramatic disproportion to Mr Gramm's $83.5m. Mr Gramm is well known for accepting special interest money; Mr Morales is famous for accepting $15 at a time to fill his petrol tank and get him to his next stop.

Not so long ago Austin would have been solid Morales country. The state capital and home of the University of Texas was rightly considered by the rest of the state to be a bastion of liberalism. But that is changing, as massive population growth in the area brings in more middle-class, white conservative voters. Today the odds are about even that a Republican will win.

Yet voters in Austin - or anywhere in the US - are looking for candidates who seem to think like they do on local questions such as clean water and air, bus services, how Texas will interpret new federal immigration and welfare reform rules, whether to allow convicted sex offenders, who have served their time, back into the community, affirmative action, whether to endorse English as the official language or how to deal with increasing rate of juvenile crime.

The passion that local issues can evoke is seen in the race for district attorney. The Democratic incumbent, Ronnie Earle, has incensed some of the African-American community by obtaining the conviction of a 12-year- old poor black girl for "injury to a child" in the death of a two-year- old who was in her care. Mr Earle is accused of playing politics with the case. Help with the girl's appeal is being organised.

The Democratic lesbian lawyer running for Travis county sheriff is also unlikely to go unnoticed. No doubt we will hear more about her and others in the coming weeks.