With Dallas Republicans in Pain, One Local Leader Believes He Has the Cure
Just an hour remains before the polls close on Election Day, but Dallas County Republican Party chair Jonathan Neerman seems remarkably calm. Maybe exhaustion has finally set in after working 13 hours straight, then making last-minute preparations for the Republican Election Night Watch Party at the Radisson Hotel on Central Expressway. This evening represents the culmination of a year's worth of hard work and the committed efforts of thousands of volunteers, donors and candidates attempting to yank the emergency brake on a runaway trend: The county that launched the political fortunes of George W. Bush—one-time Republican-rich Dallas County—was turning dark blue.
Wearing a pinstriped suit, white shirt and red tie and looking every bit the big firm lawyer that he is, Neerman strolls through the hotel ballroom, where guests have yet to arrive. He seems resigned to whatever fate the evening has in store and tends to the few remaining details still under his control, one of which is making certain the Blue Ribbon Band has everything it needs as its members prepare for their sound check. He manages a peek at one of the small TVs set up throughout the large room—each one tuned to the conservative Fox News channel—and looks surprised at an early vote tally showing Barack Obama leading John McCain by 66-33 percent. But when he learns the total is from Maine where only three votes have been counted, he breathes an uncharacteristic sigh of relief before engaging local TV reporters in some pre-game banter.
Being the local GOP's head cheerleader, Neerman exudes confidence, as if he's expecting a Republican sweep instead of hoping to grab a few scraps from another countywide Democratic ass-kicking. His optimism is tempered by his awareness that Obama poses a serious threat to any GOP plan to regain power after the Dems routed the Republicans in 2006, when they won all 42 judicial courthouse races and highly prized contests for district attorney and county judge. But this election cycle, his party has "pounded the hell" out of his grassroots plan, he says, which he's banking on to neutralize the expected surge in Obama voters. "We haven't sat back playing defense."
People slowly trickle into the ballroom, grabbing plates of assorted fruit, cheese and crackers, or a beer before finding a spot near a TV and planting themselves there. It's still early, but attendees have little time to enjoy themselves, as the presidential results pour in from across the country, and Obama takes a solid lead.
Neerman sips on a glass of water and keeps his eyes fixed on his BlackBerry, waiting for word of early voting returns. He figures it's a foregone conclusion that Obama will take Dallas County, but his concerns are more with local races, which will be the measure of his success, or failure.
The county GOP has focused its efforts on reclaiming the sheriff's office from Democratic incumbent Lupe Valdez, an openly gay Hispanic woman whose record of four failed jail inspections makes her vulnerable to the strong contender the Republicans have put up—Lowell Cannaday, a former Irving police chief with 38 years of law enforcement experience. Also crucial is winning state house races in District 102, where Republican incumbent Tony Goolsby is facing a challenge from Richardson School Board member Carol Kent, and District 107, where Bill Keffer is attempting to take back his old seat from Democrat Allen Vaught.
No matter the early numbers, Neerman won't panic. He thinks his local candidates will still run well as long as Obama doesn't have an insurmountable lead in Dallas County.
It's just after 7 p.m. when the early votes are posted on the projection screen in the back of the room. Bad news: Obama has a 20-point lead. But Neerman keeps cool, focusing on incumbent Dan Branch's sizable lead in the race for Texas House District 108, the tight contest between Keffer and Vaught, and room for Goolsby to come back against Kent. Neerman also is comfortable with Cannaday's 13-point deficit, convinced that Republicans will out-vote Democrats on Election Day and offset any early voting disadvantage. The numbers don't look promising, but Neerman is hopeful things will turn his way by the end of the night.
To get the crowd's mind off these toxic returns, he does some damage control, taking the stage with a small group of local Republicans—U.S. Representatives Sam Johnson and Jeb Hensarling, Texas Representative Jim Jackson and Dallas County Commissioner Maurine Dickey, whose victories are assured, considering three of them are running with no Democratic opposition. Dickey turns to the county chair and says, "Let's hear it for Jonathan Neerman." She also calls him a "sweetheart" and awkwardly notes that he is handsome. At 9 p.m., Neerman trots out another group of winners—among them U.S. Representative Pete Sessions, state representatives Branch and Will Hartnet and legislative newcomer Angie Chen Button—but that ends the victory parade.
Democrats not only beat the Republicans in Dallas County in early votes by 100,000, they also outvoted them on Election Day. Cannaday lost to Valdez by 10 percentage points, making a concession speech to a thinned-out crowd and a tearful wife right before McCain offered his to a global audience. Goolsby and Keffer were also defeated along with most local Republican candidates.
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.
Sessions did not return phone calls from the Observer, and Neerman denies he discussed the position with Sessions. He says he shifted his focus to George's job because "I thought about the direction that I wanted the Republican Party to go nationally, but the way to start it was locally, right here in Dallas."
Neerman met with several local Republican leaders and quickly earned their endorsements. His only opponent was Alan Tompkins, vice president and general counsel for three entities owned by the family of Lamar Hunt. Tompkins, however, removed his name from consideration, and Neerman was named vice chair of the party in January, officially taking the helm in May.
"It's just kinda funny to think about, especially after going through the loss we went though [in 2006], why anybody would want to be county chairman, because it is a thankless task," he says. "You have 30 different masters, and if you lose, the Monday morning quarterbacking starts. I guarantee you it started at 6:30 Tuesday night, and it won't stop until 2010."
Neerman places his BlackBerry—which he uses to represent Dallas County—in the middle of the table to illustrate his get-out-the-vote strategy during the 2008 election cycle. The screen is the Southern sector of the county, he says, and then he proceeds to point to suburban cities such as Cedar Hill, Coppell, Garland, Rowlett, Sachse and Sunnyvale. He says after its poor showing in 2006, the party targeted these outer-rim, high-density Republican areas to increase turnout.
But even if the GOP had been able to turn out its base vote from 2004, Neerman says a massive grassroots effort would have been needed to find approximately 50,000 new Republican voters to counter the Obama momentum. And no one was willing to fund that kind of drive, which Neerman compares to the effort poured into the mayoral campaign by Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, who raised more than $2 million in his successful 2007 campaign. And in this election cycle, there was no candidate attractive enough to raise that kind of money.
Although the party had only $5,000 in the bank at the beginning of the year, Neerman managed to raise $500,000 more. Money was spent mostly on creating a new GOP Web site, paying for employees and overhead at county headquarters, and covering the costs of phone banks, push cards, door hangers and a letter reminding people to vote straight-ticket Republican.
Some funds were also spent on McCain-Palin yard signs because they weren't provided by the national campaign. Although done on a smaller scale than 2006, funds were also spent on micro-targeting, a method which uses, among other things, consumer histories to help determine the party affiliation of voters who didn't vote in a primary.
"If anyone says we lost this election because of who we were targeting...that's just complete bullshit," Neerman says. "We lost because we didn't get enough voters out to overcome the Obama wave."
Although Neerman offers no apologies, he knows that frustration within the party is at an all-time high, and people are searching for someone to blame. Rather than hide in his cushy downtown office while the GOP faithful grab their pitchforks, Neerman has decided instead to schedule an open-mic night and confront his detractors face to face.
Nearly 100 people take up Neerman on his gripe session on November 20, overflowing the meeting room at GOP headquarters near Walnut Hill Lane on Central Expressway. He decided not to allow any press coverage so those in attendance would speak freely. But he has no problem reconstructing the meeting, which included approximately 40 precinct chairs, a handful of elected officials and at least 25 people he had never seen before.
The goal of the meeting, he says, was to "take the spears and herd the cats." To his surprise, no one blamed him, but there were plenty who called for revamping the party message after yet another dismal drubbing at the polls. While opinions varied on exactly what the party's new strategy should be, the consensus was the GOP desperately needed to broaden its base.
Neerman says most attendees agreed the party must reach out to minorities, gays and lesbians, but only a small faction seemed willing to speak about changing the party's conservative social agenda in order to incorporate more diverse points of view. "You've got a conundrum because you've got to broaden the party, but there are going to be segments who don't want to do the things necessary to achieve that type of outreach," he says.
There was a frank, sometimes heated discussion about the role of government. While all conservatives support limited government, Neerman says social conservatives, who typically interject religion into their arguments, want government to step in and regulate when it serves their agenda, particularly hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
For Neerman, the highlight of the night was when a young mother stood up and gave a testimonial about finding the Dallas County Republican Party on Facebook, a social networking Web site. "She's the first person I'll call tomorrow," he says, realizing the importance the Internet plays in connecting candidates with young voters—which is why he wants the woman to begin blogging on the party Web site.
While no one at the meeting was willing to criticize Neerman, others haven't been as kind. Cathie Adams, president of the conservative, pro-family organization Texas Eagle Forum, strongly disagrees with Neerman's plan to broaden the party's base at the expense of compromising on social issues. Adams, who served on the Republican National Platform Committee, points out that it took a social conservative like Sarah Palin to energize the base of the party.
"When you think that you've got to appeal to the moderates by setting aside the moral issues, you're denying the cost of tearing away the fabric of the morality of our community," Adams says. "You're also denying the fact that Sarah Palin brought not only excitement, but the coffers people poured into in the form of not only money but hours of volunteer time."
Adams describes Neerman as a bright person with proven dedication, lots of energy and someone who tirelessly pushes candidates to work harder. But he is listening to a small faction of people, she says, "who think they're more powerful than they are" and are willing to reach out to Log Cabin Republicans, pro-choice Republicans and "environmental wackos."
She offers cautious confidence in Neerman's ability to lead the party. "I think Jonathan can do it, but I think he needs a good team of people around him to balance out those views."
Neerman remains unconcerned about alienating conservatives like Adams. "We may disagree on the social issues, but that's OK. Let's focus on what unites us," he says. "The party has to continue to grow, and if there are certain elements of the party who are forcing us to contract for whatever reason, they need to understand that by doing that, they are turning off new people."
Tom Pauken, chair of the Texas Workforce Commission and former chair of the Texas Republican Party, seems more skeptical about Neerman's leadership abilities. "Jonathan's not a bad guy, but we need some warriors that want to win and want to do it the right way and are committed to taking on the liberals in an effective fashion," he says. "He did a reasonable job under the circumstances...but there needs to be a whole new cadre of leaders to come in who are principled conservatives and are committed to turning this thing around."
Neerman says he wishes Pauken would have called him with his concerns before the election and stresses that while the party hoped for victory this year, rebuilding from 2006 was always envisioned as a multiyear endeavor. "I'm not suggesting that I'm the perfect person for this job, and there may be somebody better. I've never claimed that I am."
Mari Woodlief, president of Allyn & Company, served as a political consultant for several Republican candidates, including Goolsby and State Representative Linda Harper-Brown. She says Neerman had a difficult job, but the party has an identity crisis that must be resolved. "We have no image. We can't even agree internally what we want to be, so how can we reach out and attract new voters if we can't tell them what we're asking them to be a part of?"
Another Republican political consultant, not speaking for attribution, says he has yet to find an elected official that was pleased with Neerman's election strategy. The consultant claims that Neerman refused to offer assistance to key statehouse races, practically snubbing Goolsby and Harper-Brown when they asked for his help. Harper-Brown, after a final vote count, maintained a 20-vote margin over former Irving City Council member Bob Romano. But a federal voting rights lawsuit filed by Democrats primarily seeks a recount that emphasizes straight-ticket voting, and alternatively requests that a new election be ordered. No ruling has been rendered as of press time, but an outcome favoring Harper-Brown would allow the GOP to maintain a one-seat majority in the Texas House and increase the odds that Republican Tom Craddick of Midland will be re-elected speaker.
"[Republican state representative candidates] worked hard, but they were literally treated like second-class citizens by the county party, and Neerman didn't help them out at all," says the consultant.
Neerman says he doesn't see his job as helping out the state reps, who run their own campaigns, stressing that the party's job is "to help the candidates who can't otherwise help themselves" and provide services such as ballot security during the election. Those candidates probably should have started their programs earlier, he says, because they underestimated the high early-voting turnout.
Harper-Brown did not return phone calls to the Observer, and Goolsby says he had plenty of funds to run his own campaign. He refused to answer if he had asked Neerman for help and refused to comment on whether Neerman was the right person to lead the party forward. "I'll leave that to others to decide."
Goolsby, who spent 20 years in the Texas House, attributes his loss to straight-ticket voting, and adds the Republican Party must stop talking about being the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan and start being more inclusive.
"Our party needs to change," he says. "We're doing the same thing we did 20 years ago when we took over. We didn't learn that the competition changed and we didn't."
Ed Valentine, a Dallas-based political analyst, says there's an easy explanation for yet another Republican pasting at the polls: "Two words: Barack Obama." However, he doesn't believe the numbers should have been as bad as they were and says both Mike Anderson, the former mayor of Mesquite who lost a tight race for District 101, and Goolsby should have won their state house races.
"I really think a line should have been drawn in the sand in Tony's house district because Tony fought off the tide two years ago, and everybody should have been on deck to fight that battle," he says.
Valentine also says Lowell Cannaday was the wrong horse in the sheriff's race, calling him a microcosm of what the party offered nationally: "yet another old white guy."
Had he been running Cannaday's campaign, Valentine says he would have used comments from Hispanic leader and attorney Adelfa Callejo to split the ticket. In February, Callejo told KTVT-Channel 11: "Obama simply has a problem that he happens to be black." She also indicated that Obama wouldn't do anything to help the Hispanic community.
"I would have dangled those comments in front of every stinking Democrat that would listen, and I would have tried to find division there because we've got a Hispanic sheriff and we've got the matriarch of the Hispanic Democrats ripping on this very popular presidential candidate," Valentine explains.
Neerman says he's not a proponent of race-bait politics. He also claims it was difficult to make the sheriff's contest sexy, which raises the question: Could it have had more sex appeal if the Republicans had recruited a minority candidate or a younger one?
"I don't think it would have made a difference in the sheriff's race. I think that Cannaday's big selling point was all of his experience," he says. "If you took that away, there's not that much to talk about."
But when describing his ideal candidate for races beyond sheriff, he says that would be a person "who is younger" and projects the future of the party. "And obviously we want to do outreach into the minority communities," he says. "We're always looking for those kinds of candidates."
But for Cannaday or any of the Republican candidates, the sexiness factor wasn't the real problem. The phenomenal spike in straight-ticket voting was too much for anyone to overcome. As Neerman says, "If we would have had Elvis Presley on the ticket, I'm not sure it would have really mattered."
A look back at the previous four election cycles reveals that Dallas County Democrats have slowly, consistently increased their winning margins in straight-ticket voting, but nothing could have prepared Republicans for the remarkable 14-point gap between the two parties this year.
Despite favorite son George W. Bush being at the top of the ticket in 2000, local Democrats held a 2,000 straight-ticket edge, with both parties grabbing approximately 30 percent of the vote. Two years later, the difference was about 4,000 votes, and this was followed in 2004 by a 33-31 advantage, and a 30-26 margin two years ago. When the dust cleared this year, 39 percent of the 743,930 ballots cast were straight-ticket Democrat compared to just 25 percent Republican.
Neerman says he tried to target straight-ticket voting, but there was very little enthusiasm in the county for John McCain. The Sarah Palin pick generated a shot of local excitement, he says, with donors stepping up and people asking for Palin (not McCain) yard signs. But there just weren't enough people willing to vote for McCain.
"There's just no way to sugarcoat it," Neerman says. "We were Obama-ed. I'm using that as a verb now."
Darlene Ewing, chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party, says she doesn't discount the Obama attraction, but stresses it didn't account for all of the Dems' straight-ticket success.
"Two years ago, they said it was a fluke. Now they're saying it's just Obama. I don't think they get it," she says. "The voters in this county are tired of what we've had for the last 25 years, and that's the Republicans."
Ewing says educating people about the benefits of straight-ticket voting was a key part of her strategy, and her efforts paid off. The message was simple: "Don't stop at the top."
Rather than compete in another straight-ticket ballot war in 2010, Neerman supports a bill that would eliminate straight-ticket voting in Texas. In the last legislative session, Republican State Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio sponsored a bill that would have killed the practice. Texas is one of only 17 states where straight-ticket voting is permissible. But the bill received little support, though Wentworth is expected to introduce it again in the 2009 session.
"It will do two things," Neerman says. "One, it will force the electorate to become more educated about the candidates. And, two, which is the better position, it will force the candidates to clearly define what their message is and what they intend on doing."
Neerman also wants to see judicial races changed to nonpartisan elections. The fashion in Dallas County has been for incumbent judges to change parties depending on the prevailing political winds. The electorate seems to accept their argument that being a good judge has little to do with party affiliation. Criminal District Judge John Creuzot was originally appointed to the bench as a Democrat, became a Republican in the mid-1980s during the Reagan revolution, and then flipped back to being a Democrat for this election cycle. Six of the 12 Republican trial judges up for election in 2010 have already announced their intentions to become Democrats, including Judge Kristin Wade, who agrees judicial races should be nonpartisan.
"I've always considered myself pretty much an independent, but due to the nature of judicial races being partisan, you're forced to make a choice," she says. "I want to keep my job, and I'm a good public servant, so now I'm running as a Democrat."
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Neerman is to find ways of enticing young and minority voters and candidates. One of the few GOP wins in November was in House District 112 where Angie Chen Button, who was born in Taiwan, defeated Democrat Sandra Phuong VuLe, who is Vietnamese. The win was important because it placed a minority Republican in office; more than that, it also demonstrated that the GOP could win a minority face-off against the Democrats.
Neerman compares the two parties to the Apple advertising campaign, where the Apple computers are depicted as young, hip and cool, and PCs are shown as old, geeky and out of touch.
"If we're losing 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds right off the bat, it's because they see us as the party that is against the environment, discriminates against gay people, [proselytizes] on whatever moral grounds there are, and they see us as this very narrow-minded, anti-Hispanic party," he says. "We spend way too much time worrying about shit that just doesn't matter."
For the local GOP, the clock already is ticking. In 2010, the governor's race will lead the ballot, and even if U.S. Senator and Dallasite Kay Bailey Hutchison runs and emerges from the Republican primary, Houston Mayor Bill White could be a dangerous Democrat, if he decides to play. The stakes are high for Neerman, who has little time to retool his party or its message before facing high-profile contests against popular Democratic district attorney Craig Watkins and unpopular Democratic County Judge Jim Foster.
Yet Neerman remains optimistic that without Obama topping the ticket, 2010 will be a good year for Republicans. "I went to sleep seeing that guy in my dreams," he says. "I thought I'd get some peace and quiet watching some football, but he was running commercials during the damned Cowboys game. I nearly dropped my beer, saying, 'Good God, go away!'"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.