By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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."
Republican political consultant Clayton P. Henry doesn't believe too much should be made of one judicial race because "Bill Rhea didn't put on a full-press political campaign." Still, he cautions Republican judges. "No one gets a free ride anymore. You have to present yourself and your qualifications to the public. Huey was a wake-up call for all judicial candidates."
Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Bob Driegert also feels the 2000 election results are misleading because the "Bush campaign allocated no money to Dallas, and he didn't campaign here. Our phone banks in Dallas were used to call Arkansas."
Political analyst and Democrat Dan Weiser believes otherwise. "When a homeboy runs for president, it's expected that he is going to get anywhere from 3 to 7 percentage points more just from being a homeboy. It was a big surprise when Bush didn't do as well as expected." Shifting demographics might have made the difference.
On the other hand, the Republicans might have gotten fat and happy because they had no competition for statewide races in 2000. At the top of the Democratic ticket for U.S. Senate was a perennial candidate whose vote-getting ability depended on the name he shared with deceased dancer Gene Kelly. This election cycle, however, Democrats should run a full slate of candidates with name recognition, political experience or money. If Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez receives the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, party loyalists anticipate he will invigorate the Hispanic electorate, which has a traditionally low turnout.
"Rest assured, we are not complacent," Driegert counters. "The Republican campaign effort in this county for Rick Perry and Phil Graham will be tremendous in 2002, which will mean more money will be spent on all the down ballot races."
Money, of course, will be a factor for those candidates who decide to run. In the two hotly contested judicial races last year, each candidate spent more than $200,000, and that was just in the Republican primary. "To mount a minimal campaign in the general election, it could take as much as $100,000," Driegert claims. "Better count on $200,000 if you want to do any kind of meaningful direct-mail campaign."
If the money doesn't stop them, Democratic candidates still will have to overcome the power of incumbency as well as the power of the press: The Dallas Morning News generally endorses most incumbents, particularly if they have received high ratings in the Dallas Bar Association poll and haven't humiliated themselves in office. At least three Republican judges are considered vulnerable even in their own party because of allegations of misconduct that have been lodged against them; another three have announced they intend to resign; and at least two more are being considered for appointments to state appellate or federal district court. "It's like musical benches out there right now," says Republican consultant Henry. "We won't know who is going to wind up where until the music stops."
Of course, the Democrats don't intend to wait. They have recruited at least 20 lawyers who plan on throwing their vests into the ring after Labor Day. "They say you keep running until somebody elects you," says Larry Mitchell. "If you are a Democrat, you have to believe that change is inexorable, if not in this election cycle then the next. So I might as well start now."