Meatball Politics

Mary Ann Huey may be the Democrats' sacrificial lamb, but at least she's cheery about it

The platter of Swedish meatballs told the whole story. Each ball was chewy and just the right size to pop into your mouth at a political function and still be able to work the room with no fear of spillage. Yet these balls were too abundant, a mountain of meat unseen by the many who had neglected to come to the party. In fact, neglect is too kind a word. Indifference doesn't quite cut it either. Democratic judicial candidate Mary Ann Huey had sent 8,000 invitations for a fundraiser to Dallas lawyers, and 7,960 of them flat out refused to come. Two days before her July 24 campaign kick-off, only 10 had even bothered to RSVP. The Gypsy Tea Room at happy hour had seldom looked so, well, unhappy.

But attorney Huey, chain-smoking her nervousness away, remained steadfast in her belief that more legal-types would arrive once the band began to play. Huey, pleasant and chatty and far too Pollyanna for the venom of a political campaign, said there was nothing symbolic in the band's name: The Rattlesnakes. At least the all-girl group had the decency to show up.

"That's why the party is three hours long," Huey explained. "So people can come late if they want."

When her party called looking for judicial candidates, Mary Ann Huey answered. Now few return her calls.
When her party called looking for judicial candidates, Mary Ann Huey answered. Now few return her calls.
Republican Judge Bill Rhea says he was surprised and humbled to face an election opponent.
Republican Judge Bill Rhea says he was surprised and humbled to face an election opponent.

But Huey had set herself up for disappointment. In the cold world of Dallas County politics, don't expect the legal establishment to support a challenge to an incumbent Republican judge unless he does something stupid like release a murderer from jail. But Huey had chosen instead to run against civil District Judge Bill Rhea, a conservative who was popular with downtown law firms; his 90 percent approval rating in the Dallas Bar Poll bore witness. Yes, he had made some enemies among plaintiff's lawyers, but if he was vulnerable politically, it hadn't risen to the level of public spectacle.

That didn't stop Huey from filing against Rhea in January after being fielded by a gaggle of Democratic activists who had formed a political action committee to break the Republican stranglehold on the courthouse. It didn't matter that Republicans held all 59 county benches or that a local Democrat hadn't won a contested judicial race since 1992. Nor did it matter that George W. Bush might be at the top of the Republican ticket, while the longest Democratic coattails hung from the suit of perennial candidate Gene Kelly, whose ability to get votes in his Senate race depended on the name he shared with a dead dancer. What mattered to Huey was that her party was calling. That she was the lone Democrat to answer that call had as much to do with her own relentless optimism as it did the relentless butt-kicking most Democrats feared they would get in this election cycle. She never considered that she might be a sacrificial lamb used by her party to ward off the appearance of unconditional surrender.

"I didn't get that far in my thinking," she says. "It all happened so fast. I was asked to run only a few days before the January filing deadline, and I saw it as an opportunity."

So what if she was naïve, had taken on a seemingly invincible judge and had no name recognition, organization, or money to speak of? She was in this to win.

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To look at Mary Ann Huey's law office on the eastern edge of downtown, you might think she had just completed a Norman Vincent Peale workshop on the power of positive thinking. The screen saver on her computer scrolls: It's All Good. On a conference chair sits a black pillow embroidered with the words: Embrace Life. Posted on her bulletin board are affirmations such as: Attitude is a Little Thing That Makes a Big Difference.

At 47, Huey bears more than a passing resemblance to Kay Bailey Hutchison and wears the trademark bright red suit of another famous Republican woman. "I plan on campaigning in Nancy Reagan red a lot this year," she says, but that's where her bipartisanship stops.

She is a devout Democrat who fell in love with her ex-husband because she liked his political humor (told Reagan jokes). Fresh out of law school in 1979, she worked in a legal aid office and represented every underdog who couldn't bark for themselves. She never thought she would have the chance to run for judge. "My friends always told me I would be a good judge because I am a good listener," she says.

She moved to Dallas in 1989, re-starting her life and her law practice after her divorce. Eventually she shared office space with Democrat Charles McGarry, a former chief justice of the Fifth District Court of Appeals who himself had been defeated twice in Republican landslides. In 1999, McGarry became the candidate-recruitment chair of a judicial political action committee optimistically called the Dallas County Democratic Victory Fund. The PAC initially raised $15,000 in the hopes of seducing Democratic candidates to run in low-level elections. But as McGarry soon realized, the fear of Bush was greater than the allure of money. Only a handful of Democrats seemed even mildly interested in what McGarry had to say, and a week before the January 2 filing deadline, only one attorney had the chutzpah to commit.

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