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Meatball Politics

When her party called looking for judicial candidates, Mary Ann Huey answered. Now few return her calls.

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."

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.


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.  

Mary Ann Huey was a political innocent who had no idea who to run against until the PAC told her she had a choice between the two judges it had targeted. One was Judge Sally Montgomery, who was so unpopular with the legal establishment that it fielded a primary candidate against her. Huey didn't want to run against a woman, so that left Rhea, who had been accused by some members of the plaintiff's bar as being Mr. Insurance Company, a tort reformer biased against those seeking compensation for personal injuries.

Former Democratic state senator and Mesquite attorney Ted Lyon led the charge against Rhea after the judge dismissed a personal injury case that Lyon thought he was winning in front of a jury. Lyon was so outraged by Rhea's actions, he wrote a letter to the Dallas Trial Lawyers Association relating the experience and asking other lawyers to share similar Rhea "horror stories."

"I received about a dozen phone calls and several letters all saying the same thing," Lyon says. "Rhea almost always rules for the insurance companies and takes cases away from juries because he doesn't believe poor people have the right to sue." Although Lyon says he didn't actively field a candidate to run against Rhea, he willingly shared with the Democratic PAC and Huey the ammunition he had accumulated.

Rhea definitely has his ardent supporters. "He is smart, hardworking, and very fair to all the lawyers who appear before him," says attorney Don Templin, a partner with the Dallas firm of Haynes & Boone. "He is certainly one of the better judges that we have in the courthouse."

In his 10 years on the bench, Rhea has never had an opponent; he cowers at the prospect of having to press flesh to get re-elected. He is a deeply religious man ("It is fairly well-known in the community that I am a Christian," he says), and he seems to be leaving the outcome of the election as much to divine providence as to the voters. To avoid the appearance of impropriety, he says, he is refusing to take campaign contributions from the lawyers who practice before him. He has formed a committee of lawyers (his close friends) who will raise money independently of him. "I am making a commitment to remain ignorant of those who contribute to me," he claims. Although he will neither plan nor attend any fundraiser thrown on his behalf, he says he is taking the Huey candidacy seriously.

That she even filed against him "rattled me at first," though he now says the process has humbled him. Rhea admits that some in the plaintiff's bar perceive him as being unfair, which he attributes to his habit of motivating the parties toward settlement even after a jury has been picked. "The judge is in the catbird seat," he says. "It's valuable for the parties to know the judge's view of the trial." He intends to change the perception that he has bullied some plaintiffs into settling, causing some to think he is taking sides. "I may have been a bit too harsh, but I will come out of this election a lot better judge."

Huey is not trying to make Rhea a better judge; she's trying to make him a former judge. But even her optimism might not be enough to stem a Republican victory. While Rhea is treating all campaign contributions as if they came from unclean hands, Huey can hardly get a handout from anyone. "I didn't understand how hard it would be to raise money, because I thought the PAC would raise it all for me," she says. "Apparently the Democratic Party doesn't have any money to give either." With lawyers so reluctant to return her fundraising calls (or eat her meatballs, for that matter), she relies on her own passion and the enthusiasm of party regulars--union workers, precinct chairs, Democratic clubs--to sustain her.

"I am getting unqualified hallelujahs from the people I talk to," she says. "Just not a lot of money."

And what if Dallas County is, in fact, trending Democratic--if not in this election cycle then the next, or the one after that? For those who believe that a two-party system deserves a two-party courthouse, Mary Ann Huey will be a martyr, and her sacrifice this year won't go unnoticed.  

"Does she win this time? Maybe yes, maybe no," Ted Lyon says. "But politics isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. And she is certainly learning a lot about running the race."


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