HOUSTON, Texas (WOMENSENEWS)–In Texas, where politics rarely suffers a dull moment, the November election might be one of the liveliest in state history.
Female candidates will be competing in three of the season’s top races, including the closely watched wild-card governor’s race. In an election with five candidates, incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry currently has the lead. But independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the state comptroller who unsuccessfully petitioned to be called “Grandma” on the ballot, may pose his greatest challenge.
In the Senate race, female frontrunner Kay Bailey Hutchison enjoys the overwhelming firepower of the state Republican Party. A poised Dallas attorney who’s held office since 1993, she faces first-time Democratic candidate Barbara Radnofsky. Yet Hutchison also enjoys support from some outside her party. As the fourth highest-ranked Republican in the Senate, she rarely discusses her specific stance on reproductive choice and tends to vote for anti-choice legislation. Yet her stated support for Roe v. Wade, combined with her seniority and defense of funding for children’s health insurance, earns respect from many Texas women.
“Both of these candidates are very friendly to women and children’s issues,” says Barbara Best, executive director of the Houston Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group. But Hutchison, she says, “has so much seniority that it certainly benefits Texas.”
In the race for State House District 134, Houston incumbent Martha Wong faces a serious struggle with Democrat Ellen Cohen. In a Republican district in a red state, Wong’s small-government, pro-business, socially conservative record might seem to guarantee a victory. But Cohen, the well-funded former CEO of the Houston Women’s Center, is a serious contender.
Encompassing Houston’s vast Medical Center–the world’s biggest hospital complex–District 134 is fiscally conservative but socially moderate. Many residents are vexed by Wong’s 15-percent rating on a women’s health legislative scorecard from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Texas. “Texas has terrible teen pregnancy rates, terrible infant mortality and immunization rates,” says Rebecca White, political director for the group’s Houston political action committee. “Ellen Cohen will be a champion on our issues.”
Bold Female Candidates
At all governmental levels, Texan women are underrepresented. Hutchison is Texas’ first elected female senator, there are three female representatives in the House out of a delegation of 32, and only 19 percent of state legislators are women. Even so, Texans often like bold female candidates, says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Depression-era Governor Ma Ferguson and dove-hunting, motorcycle-riding former governor Ann Richards are archetypes.
“During a campaign, Texas has politics of personality more than issues,” Jillson says. “Those issues that are present are social, rather than public policy in the broader sense. Keeping taxes low is a simple issue to communicate. But how do you deal with child health care or high quality education? The in-depth discussions of those issues tend to be thin.”
So the flamboyant gubernatorial candidate like Strayhorn, whose longtime slogan is “One Tough Grandma,” often works well. Folksy and boisterous, Strayhorn is also a dead-serious political veteran. Her recent, unsuccessful petition to be designated “Grandma” on the ballot, for instance, was an attempt to boost public recognition after several marriage-related name changes over the years.
Elected the first female mayor of Austin in 1977, Strayhorn originally was a Democrat. She became a Republican in 1986, was the first woman elected to be railroad commissioner, and in 1998 became the first woman comptroller, a powerful state post which includes certifying that revenues match expected expenditures. She has criticized Gov. Rick Perry relentlessly, warning recently that funds he’s identified for school finance reform will fall short by more than $6 billion in five years.
Strayhorn Avoided Primary
Though she still calls herself a Republican, Strayhorn declared as an independent to avoid a primary race where the most socially conservative GOP voters hold sway. She started the year flush with cash, reporting $8.1 million compared to Perry’s $9.4 million.
“Strayhorn is a fiscal conservative, more than a social conservative,” Jillson says. “But though she remains popular, 60 percent of Democrats and Republicans in Texas vote a straight ticket. The question is, can she translate her popularity into encouraging people to stop voting the straight ticket?”
Perry first reached his post from the lieutenant governorship after President George W. Bush went to Washington six years ago. Perry then won a full term, largely backed by fiscal and social conservatives. Republicans have dominated state politics since 1994, winning every statewide election and strong majorities in the Legislature.
After four years of dispute over redistricting and court-ordered school finance reform, Perry’s popularity has slumped. Even so, he’s still cherished by social and fiscal conservatives, a huge advantage in Texas. A June 26 poll showed Perry with 35 percent of the vote, followed by Democratic nominee Chris Bell with 20 percent and Strayhorn with 19.
But Perry faces a unique challenge: a group of rivals that could splinter the vote in any number of ways. In a race where the winner just needs a plurality, he has to contend not only with Strayhorn but Bell, a former congressman who gained national attention after filing an ethics complaint against fellow Texan, Rep. Tom DeLay. Bell started the year with $98,700, a pittance compared to Perry and Strayhorn. He stresses improving schools and higher education access, strengthening government ethics and the need for adequate women’s and children’s health care.
Wild Cards in Governor’s Race
All three candidates are running against Kinky Friedman, another independent entry in the race, and James Werner, a Libertarian who is expected to trail in the tally. Friedman, a satirist and singer who grew up in central Texas, courts independents, music fans and the “apathetic” 71 percent of Texans who didn’t vote last time. His campaign, with its agenda of school reform, teacher empowerment and alternative energy development, has been surprisingly durable.
Strayhorn, meanwhile, contends that independent, moderate Republicans and Democrats will move her way. She advocates for schools and teachers and called unsuccessfully for a large teacher pay raise. But she is circumspect on other issues. On illegal immigration, she has both sympathized with foreigners needing work and savaged Perry for signing a law letting some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates.
And Strayhorn is largely silent on reproductive health and education, intensely fought battles in her state. Recent Legislatures have diverted funds from family planning clinics, which led to dismantling of women’s health care networks, and required clinics to offer medically inaccurate texts linking abortion to breast cancer. In a recent Dallas Morning News candidate survey, Strayhorn wouldn’t comment directly on questions such as whether sex education should teach more than abstinence, or if Roe v. Wade should be overturned.
“I haven’t seen a whole lot of real strong statements from Carole Strayhorn” about reproductive health, said Heather Paffe, political director for the state’s association of Planned Parenthood affiliates. “I can tell you anything would be better than what we have now.”
Claudia Kolker is an editorial writer for the Houston Chronicle.
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