Yellow-dog Democrats on the run

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The Independent Online
Bob Dylan blew through town last weekend, reminding us that the times they still are a-changing. Nowhere is this more evident than in local politics, where Republicans have begun to make an impact on the state legislature and at county government level, many years after the party broke the solid Democratic South on a national and state basis.

Texans are thoroughly acquainted with the widening political spectrum, given that both United States senators and the governor are Republicans. But never before has the Grand Old Party reached quite so deep. Political discussion leading up to the 5 November election deals with what only a few years ago would have been unthinkable: whether the upper house of the state legislature might go Republican and how many county seats the Democrats might lose.

Two county races for sheriff illustrate the changing times and the growing multicultural nature of the state's politics. Whoever wins will make history because never has a female or a black won here in Travis County, and never has a Republican or a Latino won in Bastrop County. Keep in mind that by and large, Texas sheriffs still are white, male, yellow-dog Democrats - meaning someone who would vote even for a yellow dog if it were running as a Democrat. Of course, the candidates do not stress party, gender or ethnicity. The issue for a modern Texas sheriff is who can best run the jails.

In Bastrop County, a dormitory community south-east of Austin that is absorbing an influx of white conservatives, either a white male Republican or a Latino male Democrat will break the mould this year. Out will go the Hoskins dynasty of yellow-dog Democrat sheriffs, after the most recent Hoskins decided not to run. "Used to be, nobody even knew where the Republican polling place was," one resident said.

"Given the size of the jails, the number of employees and the technology, you now have to be a professional," said Ray Cilek, the Republican running in Bastrop County who stresses cracking down on juvenile crime and drugs. Mr Cilek, dressed haphazardly in a short-sleeved western shirt, grey polyester trousers and brown loafers, a pack of cigarettes tucked into the top of one of his white athletic socks and two large gold and diamond rings adorning his nicotine-stained fingers, looks like an air-conditioned version of the frontier sheriff who used to chase outlaws on horseback. Last Saturday he was presiding over a sparsely attended "taco fest", meant to get out the vote.

A taco fest would have been more appropriate for his opponent, Richard Hernandez, a career policeman who hopes that other Latino names higher on the ballot will help him. "A lot of people still believe in seeing the sheriff at functions," said Mr Hernandez, who wears a white cowboy hat and describes himself as "laid back". He would spend most of his work day living up to the "here come de sheriff" image, as he calls it.

In Travis County, where the Austin Police Department is responsible for a huge chunk of the county's population, the sheriff's department is the biggest player, administering a $48m (pounds 32m) budget and 700 uniformed men and women.

Margo Frasier, a Democrat candidate who worked in the county jail before attending law school, sees the sheriff's role as "a policy-maker, a chief executive officer who knows how to run a large corporation".

Her opponent, Alvin Shaw, a black Republican with 22 years in law enforcement, says the election is "not about gender or ethnicity, but qualifications". Chief deputy of the sheriff's department, he got himself in the news last weekend with a well-timed crack cocaine bust.

Both Ms Frasier and Mr Shaw spoke at a rally last Saturday sponsored by the Coalition for African-American Voters. Speakers stressed the importance of voting and the sacrifice of blacks who not many decades ago had "died hanging from trees" for the privilege. The trouble was, only a few non- candidates or non-organisers attended. If that rally and the poorly attended Taco Fest are any measure, apathy may mean a low turnout on 5 November. The answer undoubtedly is blowing in the wind.