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By Paul Hill and Jim Lane
HOUSTON - In the November elections, Texas Democrats and their allies in organized labor saw a historical reversal in the makeup of the Texas House of Representatives. It was the first time since 1972 that they gained strength! Businessman Hubert Vo of Houston defeated uber-Republican Talmadge Heflin by only 32 votes, but it was significant for our working class in a number of ways.
Heflin had held the district for 20 years, and he had risen to major power as the House Appropriations Chair. From that commanding height, he played a role in one of the most infamous of all the dirty work performed by the last legislature -- cutting more than 150,000 children off their health insurance. More recently, Mr Heflin made an arrogant effort to take a child away from his African immigrant housekeeper! The ensuing scandal may have been one of the reasons that Heflin lost, but it does not explain how political neophyte Vo won.
Vo's secret weapon was the Houston AFL-CIO. A spokesperson there said that they held a "Labor Neighbor" outreach program which contacted all union members in the district door-to-door. Sheetmetal workers played a prominent role. Texas unionists are celebrating the victory, and they fully expect Vo to vote with working people on the critical issues of the coming session.
"Labor Neighbor" is a tactic developed on the West Coast in areas with high union concentration. It has not seen a lot of use in Texas, where union members are few and particularly far apart. It isn't just a door-knocking program, everybody does that. It is a method of organizing neighborhoods around key union members. Travis County, which actually went Democratic by a good majority, and Harris County unionists have been using it. The Vo victory may convince other Central Labor Councils to run the program.
Vo's victory can be seen as a victory against racism. There have been very few Asian Americans, if any, in the history of the state legislature. Dig deeper into history, though, and the Vo victory is appreciated far more. It is no secret that the entire South, including Texas, was "Solid South" for the Democrats from before the Civil War until Reagan was elected. Today, they are seen on all political maps as "Solid Red Republican" states.
The great historical change after the WWII economy began to determine our lives occurred around 1972, when the United States recognized that they no longer dominated world manufacturing. The forces that eventually drafted Ronald Reagan as spokesperson put together a political coalition based on great transnational corporations that wanted to continue dominating the world economy. They already had die-hard radical rightists for a political constituency, and they were able to add significant voting strength from the fanatical fringes of Christianity. What they didn't have, until Reagan made the program clear, was the racist vote from the old "Solid South."
Here in Texas in 1972, there were a tiny few progressives in the Democratic Party. Columnist Molly Ivins was their mirthful spokesperson and Billie Carr of Houston was their best organizer. Most other Texas Democrats came from the old school, and were barely more progressive on civil rights issues than Democrats had been before the Civil War.
A gigantic shift took place as the racist vote left the Democrats and went to Reagan's Republican Party. Virtually all North Texas Democratic judges switched parties at a single press conference! A United States Senator switched parties and re-won the office as a Republican! Republican Texans took every statewide office, then proceeded to lock in their power through methods fair and foul.
Progressive, anti-racist Democrats found themselves in the majority in their party. In an absolutely stunning development, they selected Reverend Jesse Jackson as their Presidential candidate in 2000!
The more progressive wing of the (still capitalist) Texas Democratic Party found themselves left in charge of their party after the racists, religious fanatics, and big transnational corporations began abandoning them. With the Texas voters left, they had very tough sledding in every election from around 1972 to the present.
Hubert Vo still has to face whatever dirty tricks Talmadge Heflin and the GOP may come up with, and their disregard for ethics, truth, legality, and fairness is getting pretty scary. Working Texans may have to mount a campaign to save Vo from whatever maneuvers are applied, but the significance of the victory will remain no matter the final outcome.
In 2004, Democrat, Vietnamese, labor-supported Hubert Vo beat Talmadge Heflin
by 32 votes and increased the Democratic Party's strength in the Texas House.
Think about that.