By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
They came because they were curious, because they were committed. They came because they were fed up. On August 15, more than 30 lawyers, Democrats all, gathered in the Oak Cliff courtroom of Justice of the Peace Luis Sepulveda to talk politics and decide just how serious each of them was about running for judge in 2002.
To begin the evening, one lawyer after another stood to announce his or her judicial intentions: Some were undecided, others were seriously exploring the possibility, still others were eager to declare their candidacy for one of the 52 countywide benches that would be up for grabs next year. Each of these men and women had shied away from tangling with the Republicans in the last election cycle; for many, George W. Bush at the top of the GOP ticket was too intimidating a factor to reckon with. As a result, all 57 Dallas County judgeships remained wrapped in Republican robes, and the courthouse continued to be a party of one.
Among these "bench hunters," as one political consultant calls them, was a palpable buzz of anticipation, a shared excitement that something was changing--time, circumstance, a force of nature that restores balance to the universe. It fell upon Ken Molberg, former Dallas County Democratic Party chairman, to give voice to these feelings and convince the assembled that the time to take on the Republicans was now.
"Several things are in play here," he told the audience, listing them in no certain order: changing Dallas County demographics, Bush's poor showing locally in his presidential bid, anger over the Florida post-election debacle that was energizing rank and file Democrats.
And a woman named Mary Ann Huey.
In 2000, Huey was the only Democrat with enough chutzpah to run against the Republican judiciary. With no money, no political experience and no support from the legal community, she ran a sweat-equity campaign that brought her within 4,100 votes of unseating popular civil district Judge Bill Rhea. After the election, Huey had difficulty restarting her law practice and decided to move home to Florida to be with her aging parents. She would not be running again. But to attorney Lena Levario, who is considering a run for the criminal bench she lost to Republican Mark Nancarrow in 1994, Huey was a "motivator," someone who had sacrificed herself so that others could follow.
But were these Democratic lawyers inspired enough to put their legal careers on hold, to jeopardize their standing with powerful judges, raise lots of money, awareness and name recognition all for what still would be an uphill battle? Democrats had been pitching changing demographics as their savior in the last several elections, but they still hadn't won a contested race since 1992. In an arena where the only thing more crucial than perception is timing, these lawyers were told they needed to decide by Labor Day: Were they in or out?
The Reagan Revolution and its residue had decimated the all-Democratic courthouse, vaulting Republican unknowns into office against well-heeled incumbents and causing the remaining Democrats not to remain Democrats. Luring a judge into switching parties became almost sport for many Republican activists. Democrats began putting up no-name candidates just to fill a spot on the ballot--hopeless, sometimes embarrassing candidates with no organization behind them. With the retirement of 5th District Court of Appeals Justice Ron Chapman in 1998, not a single Democratic judge was left sitting.
By January 1999, some Democrats said enough is enough. They met in the law offices of Ken Molberg and organized a political action committee called the Dallas County Democratic Victory Fund, which would recruit, promote and to a limited extent fund Democratic candidates running for countywide office. Certainly they could convince a few good judicial candidates to file, or so they believed. The signs of shifting demographics were already there: White flight wasn't just about moving to the suburbs anymore. Republicans were now crossing county lines, heading for Collin, Denton and Rockwall counties. Left in Dallas County were African-Americans, white urbanites and a burgeoning Hispanic community--those more traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton came within 5,000 votes of winning Dallas County against Bob Dole in 1996; and in 1998, Democrat Paul Hobby actually carried the county but lost statewide to Republican Carole Keeton Rylander for comptroller.
The PAC agreed to pay the filing fee of any judicial candidate who agreed to run, but only Huey came by to pick up her check. The sentiment of others even remotely interested seemed to be: To hell with demographics, what about George W.? Comes "Decision 2000," and favorite son Bush barely nets 52 percent of the Dallas County vote. Lone wolf Huey, on the other hand, nearly defeated Bill Rhea, losing by only a fraction of a percentage point out of the half a million votes cast. Activists on both sides of the ballot began to speculate: Was this a harbinger of a tilt toward the Democrats or an anomalous blip indicative of nothing?
"The thought was that Dallas wouldn't be a Democratic county until 2006 or 2008," says attorney Larry Mitchell, who considers himself a likely Democratic candidate for a criminal district bench. "But Mary Ann made everyone think it was happening a lot quicker."