The outcomes in a couple of key state House districts argue more for a widening divide between people whose views are basically centripetal — that is, tending toward a reasonable pragmatic center — and those whose views are basically centrifugal, by which I mean people competing to see who can move the farthest and the fastest toward the nutsoid, oops-I-broke-my-tether-to-the-space-station-and-now-I’m-lost-in-space uber-outer political fringe.
Good news for Democrats: In spite of having a lousy local party organization and a lot of factional fighting between Hillaronians and Bernietistas, Democrats seem to be moving toward smarter, younger leaders rooted in the real world.
Very bad news for Republicans: They have been invaded and infiltrated by a race of seed-pod people from the planet Lunatuna, who are devouring the party’s brains.
My examples are the Democratic primary in Texas House District 104, which runs from Grand Prairie to North Oak Cliff and West Dallas, and the Republican primary in District 114, entirely contained within affluent North Dallas. Both are one-party districts, one blue, one red.
I should start with 104, because that is where a smart young candidate defeated an old party hack, and talking about it would be refreshing. But, sorry. I have to start with 114, because it’s just too scary.
For six years, 114 has been represented by Jason Villalba, a lawyer with Gardere Wynne Sewell who is actually what we all used to call a conservative. He’s a Reagan Republican with a strong belief in policies that encourage self-reliance, but he also leans toward ideas favored by what used to be the pro-business center of the Republican Party.
“He called me and said, `Mom, I’m home.’ Three minutes later my phone rang, and he called me, hysterical. He had been robbed by three black thugs.”— Lisa Luby Ryan
As such, for example, Villalba opposed the so-called “bathroom bill,” which was essentially defeated in the last session of the Legislature. The business community hated the bathroom bill. They saw the Legislature wasting its time on weird sexual obsessions and making Texas look stupid instead of taking care of business on things like tax reform.
Villalba’s hands-on pragmatism did Dallas a big solid in that session when he helped craft a workable solution to our local police and fire pension catastrophe. He’s a person who gets things done.
In his solid red district where the primary is really the general, Villalba was defeated by first-time candidate Lisa Luby Ryan, a Park Cities clubwoman and very successful interior decorator. And what else is she?
The Dallas Morning News candidate questionnaire asked legislative candidates if the Legislature should take up the bathroom bill again in its next session. She said, “I don’t support teenage boys and girls showering together.”
You know what? I don’t support even talking about teenage boys and girls showering together. I don’t even think it’s healthy for older people to spend a lot of time thinking about teenage boys and girls showering together. I think older people who are unable to stop thinking about teenage boys and girls showering together should take up intensive weight-lifting and music therapy. And I definitely do not see teenage boys and girls showering together as an appropriate topic for legislative debate.
But guess what? I’m wrong. At least in Texas House District 114 I am. In this week’s primary, the good people of 114 tossed out Villalba and voted for Ryan by 6,387 votes to 5,644.
Oh, and while we’re on Ryan, I would be remiss not to mention another highlight in her campaign — the black thugs moment. After the Sutherland Springs massacre, Villalba called on the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker to establish a commission on gun violence. Asked about it at a candidate forum, Ryan said this, as reported by The Austin American-Statesman:
“My younger son that I told you about, who’s autistic, 29-years-old, who lives on his own, didn’t live in the best part of Dallas because he couldn’t afford to. He came home four weeks ago Saturday at 9 p.m.
“He called me and said, `Mom, I’m home.’ He had been out with some friends. He called me at home, and I said, ‘Great.’ Three minutes later my phone rang, and he called me, hysterical. He had been robbed by three black thugs with 9mm guns to his head, asking for his money.”
Somewhere in there, Ryan, who was seated at a table next to Villalba, made a gun with her left hand and pointed it at Villalba’s right temple. Continuing to point her hand-gun at Villalba’s head, she went on:
“And do you think, Mr. Villalba, that special regulations and regulations on guns would protect my son? Guns don’t kill. People do. And I will fight all day long against gun regulation, and stand pro-Second Amendment to my last breath.”
I’m still trying to parse that one. Was Ryan arguing that young white autistic adults need guns to protect themselves from black thugs? I don’t want to sound unkind or insensitive, but that idea makes me almost as uncomfortable as sitting around all day thinking about teenage boys showering with teenage girls.
Therefore, let’s talk about something happier. In District 104, the solidly blue West Dallas/Oak Cliff/Grand Prairie district, Democrats cast ballots overwhelmingly ousting a longtime, do-nothing, mendacious, old-style barnacle on the party, Roberto Alonzo, in favor of a bright young attorney, Jessica Gonzalez. She beat Alonzo, a 20-year incumbent, by 62.52 percent to 37.48.
On the one hand, it’s not easy to compare the policy positions of the two District 104 candidates based on their formal statements. In response to a question about juvenile justice reform on the Morning News questionnaire, Gonzalez provided a 398-word essay addressing everything from the school-to-prison pipeline to cooperation between academics and agency professionals.
Alonzo’s response was “answer not available.” Actually, that also was Alonzo’s response for his address. He did take a different approach on several other questions. His answer on those was, “no answer provided.” And to be fair, “answer not available” and “no answer provided” are both fairly accurate reflections of his legislative record. In the entire history of public service, few have done so little for so many.
My favorite Alonzo chapter — one that Gonzalez hammered on successfully in her campaign — was the brazen tag-team betrayal of West Dallas that Alonzo carried out with his sister Monica Alonzo, before West Dallas tossed her off the Dallas City Council in favor of first-time candidate Omar Narvaez. Team Alonzo, he in the House and she on the council, did their best to stab their own West Dallas constituents in the back in favor of gentrifying developers.
But let’s look closely at that. The issue in West Dallas was never an old-style, ex-post-‘60s, people’s crusade against the evil rich. State Rep. Eric Johnson, who represents West and South Dallas and who, by the way, just won his own primary by 71 to 29 percent, proposed last year some common-sense tax reforms to turn redevelopment from foe to friend for poor areas. He grew up in West Dallas and is a product of Harvard, University of Pennsylvania Law School and Princeton. He believes so-called gentrification, framed properly, can be a good thing for poor areas if it is managed in a way that enables stable diversity.
And to be fair, “answer not available” and “no answer provided” are both fairly accurate reflections of Roberto Alonzo's legislative record.
That’s what I mean by centripetal — building the center. The new energy in the Democratic Party is all about creating successful communities based on mutual respect and a sense of social justice and shared responsibility.
But then you have the Alonzos. That wing of the party, the old wing, couldn’t wait to sell its constituents down the river. They never saw a rapacious son of a bitch with a checkbook they didn’t love. That’s what I mean by centrifugal.
The rise of people like Johnson and Gonzalez in the Democratic Party, replacing the hacks who were there before, couldn’t happen if there were not some significant shift happening out in the constituency. That shift seems to be toward people who see inclusiveness, diversity, justice and respect not as war cries but as building blocks, as ways to put the center back together again.
Meanwhile up in District 114 we’ve got Lisa Luby Ryan pointing a make-believe gun at her opponent’s head, going on about black thugs, obsessing about that shower thing, ugh, and she’s the one the Republican voters chose over a moderate, pro-business, Reagan centrist.
Maybe you think I’m making too much out of two House races, but I swear I see it repeated over and over again, on the City Council, on the school board, everywhere. The community builders are holding, but the zombies keep coming.
Given what’s going on in Washington, it’s too easy to see only the zombies. Lisa Luby Ryan based a lot of her campaign on an accusation that Villalba wasn’t loyal enough to Trump, which is basically like standing in a graveyard at midnight blowing on a whistle. The soil begins to split, and up they come. And, yes, she won. Up there.
But in the long run the centripetal energy in West Dallas is the force to bet on. That’s the one that includes everybody, and everybody is bigger than just zombies alone. People building a new better center have got to have a better shot at long-range success than people sitting around obsessing about young people in the shower. We just have to believe that. Really. We just do.