It was Craig Murphy's idea, really. The Oak Cliff Democratic precinct chairman was tired of listening to the party faithful moaning about how local Democrats had no decent candidates running for countywide races. "We were mostly putting up sacrificial lambs," he says, "people who would go on the ballot just so we would have a name -- people with no prospect of winning."
But what Democrat in his right mind would dare take on that bastion of Republicanism known as the Dallas County Courthouse? Before 1980, the Democratic Party owned Dallas County. Came the Reagan Revolution, and all that changed.
Local Democrats haven't won a contested judicial race since 1992. In 1994, the Republicans whipped them silly, winning with or without a fight in 59 of 59 judgeships countywide. Incumbent Democratic judges abandoned the party in droves, seduced by a heavily Republican electorate, big-ticket Republican check writers, and a Republican political machine that knew how to take care of its own. Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Bob Driegert got downright cocky about it. "If the Democrats want to put time and money into a hopeless cause, they can go ahead and do that," he told The Dallas Morning News in 1996.
In 1998, that hopeless cause was criminal defense attorney R.D. Rucker, the sole Democrat that year to run for county judge against a Republican. It didn't help matters that Rucker fashioned himself as something of an author, whose sexist and racist writings made him one of the wackiest judicial candidates to date. Not surprisingly, Rucker lost to Henry Wade Jr. With the retirement of Fifth District Court of Appeals Justice Ron Chapman, also in 1998, not a single Democratic judge was left standing.
Yet Craig Murphy sensed a pendulum swing once again. The signs were there: Dallas County demographics were tilting toward the Democrats, though just how far was still uncertain. White flight wasn't just about moving to the suburbs anymore. Republican types were now crossing county lines, heading for Collin, Denton, Rockwall, and Ellis counties, and leaving Dallas County to minorities and urbanites -- 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.
There had to be some way to harness these shifting demographics; a way to encourage competent Democratic candidates to enter the fray by the January 3 filing deadline; a way to eventually reclaim the courthouse for the Democrats. So Murphy did what most politicos do when they hope to get something accomplished: He called a meeting.
In January 1999, a group of 15 or so Democrats met in the law offices of Ken Molberg, the former chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Party. Among them were a handful of former Democratic judges, including Kevin Wiggins, Ron Chapman, and Charles McGarry.
Amazingly, there was no organizational structure that promoted and funded countywide Democratic candidates. Campaign contributions went directly to either the candidate or the party, and the party just wasn't interested in financing low-level races. "The Democratic Party is focused on keeping what it's got, mostly in Congress and with the Legislature," Molberg says. "We decided to develop an organization that would fill a local need."
What came of the meeting was a political action committee that would be optimistically called "Dallas County Democratic Victory Fund." To be a voting member required a $1,000 contribution, Murphy says. "But we accept anything green or plastic."
Charles McGarry, former chief justice of the Fifth District Court of Appeals, who had been defeated twice in Republican landslides, agreed to be treasurer and candidate-recruitment chairman. Neither job would be easy. "To date we have raised about $15,000," McGarry says. "But we have a lot more money pledged after the candidates come forward and file."
Yet few prospects seemed interested, cowed by the strength of the Republicans at the courthouse and at the possibility of George W. Bush at the top of the ticket. "My loyal Democratic friends have a hard time hearing this," Molberg says, "but the Bush factor has been a deterrent to recruitment."
McGarry and his PAC would pay the $2,000 filing fee for judicial candidates, and there was the prospect of future campaign dollars and party support. "I know a lot of people from my time on the bench," McGarry says. "I would tell them, if you know of anyone that's interested, have them call me." He received maybe half a dozen phone calls.
Although the PAC fielded candidates to run for sheriff and tax assessor, only one Democratic judicial candidate could be coaxed into filing. Mary Ann Huey, a solo practitioner who offices with Molberg, will be running for the 162nd District Court, a seat currently held by Judge Bill Rhea. McGarry recruited Huey less than a week before the filing deadline. "For me, it was my party calling," Huey says. "But I'm not just running to run, I'm running to win."
The GOP's Driegert isn't worried. "A little Democratic PAC doesn't scare me," he says. "When I go to these judicial fund-raisers, it's often the Democratic lawyers who are putting the most money into Republican judicial races." Driegert anticipates that more than a million dollars will be spent on two hotly contested Republican primary races: Judges John Marshall and Sally Montgomery are both facing stiff challenges within their own party. "Now, how much did that PAC raise -- $15,000?" Driegert says, and laughs.
Even if Bush doesn't win the Republican presidential nomination, the Democrats, after losing every contested statewide office in 1998, have no candidates capable of shortening Republican coattails. It doesn't help that incumbent Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is running virtually unopposed. The Democrats couldn't field a formidable candidate against her, instead relying on a handful of political unknowns. "For anyone interested in running on the Democratic ticket," claims Driegert, "this is the worst possible time to pick."
Murphy, Molberg, and McGarry don't see it that way. Rebuilding a local political base may require the sacrifice of "a few brave souls," but they figure that if any of their candidates wins, then come the 2002 election, 10 more Democrats will run.
"I have been telling people the tide is going to turn," McGarry says. "I've just been waiting 18 years for it to happen."
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