Accidental Victors

If you think the local Democratic Party achieved its victory in Dallas County last week through good luck and timing, the rise of Jim Foster won't change your mind. Now the county judge-elect, Foster hadn't even decided to run until an hour before the filing deadline. On January 2, the 62-year-old small-business owner from Oak Cliff waited inside the scruffy party headquarters outside Fair Park to see if someone with a more impressive bio would take on incumbent Republican Margaret Keliher. When no one came forward, Foster belatedly chose to jump in the race, a Hail Mary moment that turned "hell, you never know" into a viable campaign strategy.

"I was hoping we could find another person," Foster says about what he was thinking as the deadline approached. "I thought it was a crime to leave that office uncontested."

Last Tuesday, local Democrats, some of whom barely raised enough cash to buy a plasma TV, beat Republicans in every contested countywide race, as a rather lazy electorate lumped civil judges and obscure administrators with an unpopular war and president. Just four years ago, the Dallas County Republican Party had a stranglehold on the judiciary, the commissioners court and the District Attorney's Office. But the Democratic Party, channeling voter fury at President George W. Bush, gained power years before any of them predicted. Their triumph hardly seems deserved, as the Democratic candidates didn't labor to differentiate themselves from the Republican stiffs they toppled. But they were in the right place at the right time, and besides, it's not like the county was thriving under conservative leadership.

"The ones that did nothing did just as well as the ones that did a lot," says former Democratic candidate for district attorney Peter Lesser on his party's county candidates. "In this perfect storm of a year, the tsunami was high enough that it swept everyone in power."

That includes Foster, who might be the face of the new county Democratic Party. Considered such a lackluster candidate that the lone Democrat on the commissioners court, John Wiley Price, endorsed Keliher, the mild-mannered Foster eked out his tiny victory on the backs of more than 100,000 straight-ticket voters who may not have so much as read his name on the ballot. Now viewed as the excuse-me victor, people are questioning his competency more in the days after his election than they ever did before, with Republicans particularly claiming that he and his fellow Democrats aren't up to the job.

"He doesn't have the background, nor the aptitude, nor the ability to be the leader of Dallas County," says Clayton P. Henry, who served as Keliher's campaign manager. "These are complex times with complex issues, and you need people to lead Dallas County into the future; you don't need not-ready-for-prime-time players."

Henry may not have mustered the same outrage over the qualifications of our last two GOP governors, but nevertheless he has a point. Democracy isn't necessarily a battle of résumés, but it's hard to imagine any managerial job where Foster would beat out Keliher other than one decided by straight-ticket voters. Keliher is a graduate of the University of Virginia and worked as a certified public accountant before graduating from the SMU School of Law. Foster had a stint at Tarrant County Junior College. Keliher labored as a prosecutor, a corporate litigator and a criminal court judge before winning election as county judge in 2002. Foster worked as a plant manager for Johnson & Johnson and now runs an alarm company from a nondescript office in Oak Cliff. On two other occasions, Foster has run for office, losing in elections for constable and sheriff.

The campaign itself didn't exactly bring out Foster's inner Churchill. Keliher has made cleaning up Dallas' dangerously noxious air a top priority while butting heads with her fellow Republican, Governor Rick Perry, on clean-air issues. Garnering the respect of environmentalists from across the state, who aren't exactly known for applauding Republicans, Keliher helped convince the operators of Ellis County cement kilns to adopt cleaner technology. In contrast, when Foster was asked at a League of Women Voters political forum how he planned to tackle Dallas County's air problems, he argued that local traffic lights should be synchronized. Since then, he hasn't exactly boned up on his environmental studies.

"I'm probably not in a position to analyze that right now," he replied when asked about his approach toward tackling some of the root causes of air pollution in North Texas. "We will be meeting and we will be dealing with a transition team on these issues."

Keliher hasn't been particularly gracious in defeat, refusing thus far to congratulate Foster. In what amounts to a rather cruel and convoluted irony, Keliher battled with her Republican colleagues on the commissioners court in part by staking out positions Democrats are supposed to care about, only to be criticized by the Democratic candidate for not getting along with her colleagues. Then she lost a race after an angry faction of local voters decided to vote Democrat across the board because of their fury at a Republican president thousands of miles away.

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Matt Pulle
Contact: Matt Pulle