By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
For the second straight election cycle, Dallas County voters rendered the GOP virtually irrelevant. On a national scale, the party was feeling the pain of the Obama victory, and Democrats widened their majorities in the House and Senate. Statewide, the GOP lost three seats to the Democrats in the Texas House, and possibly its majority, depending on the outcome of one Dallas County race that has been the subject of litigation. And the Republican majority in the Texas Senate shrank as well.
Even before the results were final, both locally and nationally, the question for Republicans became: How can we save our party?
Two distinct game plans emerged: The Sarah Palin strategy casts the McCain running mate and Alaska governor as party savior, someone who can energize the religious right by stoking the traditional message of social conservatism: yes to God, guns and the pro-life agenda; no to gay marriage, evolution and stem cell research.
The second strategy is embodied, at least locally, by Neerman, who cares less about social issues and placating the religious right than broadening the GOP by going beyond its traditional constituency and appealing to Hispanics, blacks, gays—young and old alike. He wants to pare down the party's message to a few core issues that resonate with fiscal conservatives: lower taxes, limited government, strong national defense and supporting judges who don't legislate from the bench.
But with Texas continuing to break red and trend blue, particularly in urban counties such as Dallas and Harris, fracturing the traditional Republican coalition of fiscal and social conservatives—the coalition that Reagan built and George W. Bush honed—may be a risky venture, both for the local party and its designated driver.
Neerman has already accumulated his share of critics, those who don't agree with his direction for the party, those who find his leadership wanting, those who feel that he blew the election through some sort of benign neglect.
And yet, a week after the votes were tallied, when Neerman is asked how much criticism he's received, he shrugs and says, "You mean, 'burn in hell, Neerman'? Believe it or not, I have not received, directly or indirectly, a single piece of negative feedback. But it's still early."
Several days after the election, Neerman makes himself available for a late-afternoon cup of coffee before heading into a conference room on the 37th floor of Fountain Place, a 60-story skyscraper accenting Dallas' skyline. Known for its pointed prism design, the reflective glass tower houses the Dallas office of Hunton & Williams, the white-shoe law firm where Neerman practices securities litigation. The view of downtown is stunning, but he closes the blinds as the sun blasts into the room.
Neerman is hardly the prototypical Republican. He's 34, Jewish, a quarter Chinese, a quarter Indian and all Aggie—with the class ring to prove it. "I'm a radical departure from the perception of the Republican Party, which is old, white and Protestant," he says. "And we get criticized for that all the time."
Neerman graduated from North Mesquite High School before attending Texas A&M where he majored in political science. In the summer of 1994, he worked as a file clerk at the personal injury law firm Baron & Budd, whose founders, Fred Baron and Russell Budd have been major Democratic fund-raisers and donors. At the time, members of the firm were helping Ann Richards in her bid for governor, while Neerman says he quietly supported George W. Bush. Despite these political differences, he was impressed enough with the lawyers in the firm that he decided to go to law school.
But first he was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C., and upon graduating from A&M served as a CIA imagery analyst. He later interned for the general counsel of the CIA while attending George Washington University Law School. After graduating from law school in 2002, he moved to Dallas and joined Jenkens & Gilchrist, which would fold in 2007 after the firm unraveled as a result of a tax shelter scandal originating in its Chicago offices. Many of Jenkens' local attorneys, including Neerman, joined the Dallas office of Hunton & Williams.
Neerman became involved in local politics, working at the grassroots level by making yard signs for Gary Griffith's successful Dallas City Council campaign in 2003, block walking for Republican Pete Sessions' congressional campaign and assisting in fund-raising efforts for Bush's second presidential bid in 2004.
His efforts paid off when he became president of the Dallas County Young Republicans in 2006. That same year, then-state Representative Bill Keffer was defeated for re-election, and Neerman seriously considered running for Keffer's former house seat in 2008. He discussed his intention to run in a meeting with Sessions held in the congressman's Washington office, but Neerman left without Sessions' endorsement. Ultimately, he decided against running when Keffer announced he was.
"Bill and I are friends," he says. "There was no sense in us running in the primary against each other."
Two Republican consultants, not speaking for attribution, claim it wasn't friendship that dissuaded Neerman, it was Sessions, who, during that same trip to Washington, asked Neerman to run for county chair. Kenn George had decided not to seek another term and "Sessions wanted someone as chair that he could control," says one of the consultants.