Monday, January 22, 2007

The candidate left out in the cold

There have already been several lively conversations regarding the focus of the Texas Democratic Party’s 2006 election strategy, its perceived success or failure, who’s responsible and how to fix it and so on. If you need the backstory, begin there and return here.

David Van Os has made his feelings well-known about the missing support of statewide Democratic candidates from the state party’s apparatus. As anyone who read here occasionally over the past year was aware, I served briefly as the Van Os for Attorney General campaign director for a couple of months in the spring of 2005, and after that in a reduced capacity as statewide coordinator due to my illness (diabetes mellitus with neuropathy in both feet) and my going business concern (annuities brokerage). Here’s a few more places you can go to catch up on DVO's POV if you need to.

But this posting isn’t about that campaign or even that candidate; this is the story of Janette Padilla-Sexton, the woman who ran as the Democratic nominee for HD-144 in southeast Harris County against longtime Republican incumbent Robert Talton.

Here’s the briefest of biographical data: strong progressive (early Dean presidential campaign supporter, among many activist roles), technical writer for the United Space Alliance, single-income homeowner. A citizen-activist for Democrats and progressive causes, she had no prior elective experience and no visible means of campaign support, but her early announcement for the primary might have scared off attorney Rick Molina, who instead challenged -- and lost to -- Ana Hernandez in neighboring HD-143.

Padilla-Sexton also suffered during the campaign season from a variety of physical ailments which ultimately precluded her from active campaigning: meniscus tears in both knees, a misdiagnosis of osteoarthritis resulting in additional and unnecessary doctor’s visits, hospital stays, incorrectly prescribed medication and so on. She did suffer from arthritis as it turned out but not in that particular knee; she also developed high blood pressure, obstructive sleep apnea and some pre-diabetic conditions.

But that wasn’t all she suffered from: several Houston-area Democratic legislators made promises of help of all kinds, but when she called to take up those offers, her calls went unanswered and unreturned. There were some people who leveled with Padilla-Sexton: state representative Garnet Coleman told her that he and his colleagues had discussed her race and come to the conclusion that they could not assist her because “they had to work with Bob Talton on regional issues”. (I contacted Phillip Martin, Coleman’s chief of staff, for a response but my queries went unanswered.) Mostly she got the cold shoulder: Rep. Jessica Farrar was effusive in her initial offers of assistance, but declined to return phone messages when the time came to help. Padilla-Sexton also reached out to Harris County commissioner Sylvia Garcia (mentoring), Sen. Rodney Ellis (about an air quality question), Rep. Scott Hochberg (regarding state education funding), Sen. Mario Gallegos (for adding credibility to her campaign) and Rep. Rick Noriega (for general help and direction), but none of those people returned her calls, either.

So she soldiered on, spending a total of just $8,000 $13,000* -- virtually all of it her own money $8,000 of her own money* -- on her race, and finished with 40.5 per cent of the vote on November 7th. Talton spent about ten times that. Here’s how she performed in comparison to other statehouse Democratic political novices:

Ellen Cohen: 54.70%

Sherrie Matula: 42.29%

Kristi Thibaut: 41.76%

Janette Sexton: 40.55%

Diane Trautman: 39.87%

Mark McDavid: 38.73%

Chad Khan: 32.61%

Dot Nelson-Turnier: 29.93%

Scott Brann: 29.1%

Pat Poland: 25.00%

Sammie Miller: 22.8%

It’s worth noting that Cohen raised $500,000 for her campaign, with the assistance of many of the previously named legislators, an army of volunteers and the wherewithal to take a ten-month leave of absence from her position as the director of the Houston Area Women’s Center. Thibaut, an adroit fundraiser, collected $150,000 and also a core of vigorous volunteer support. Matula, who ran in neighboring HD-129, benefited from the teachers PAC and strong efforts from the Bay Area New Democrats, Area 5 Democrats and Battleground Democrats -- all clubs that could have chipped in volunteer assistance to Padilla-Sexton as well -- enabling her (Matula, that is) to have extensive blockwalking and phonebanking. BAND, to their credit, provided robocalls to Janette’s campaign. John Cobarruvias, the president of the club, admitted that BAND’s efforts were stretched too thin over the Bell, Lampson and Matula campaigns to provide much in the way of anything extra. So with virtually no help and no resources – no money, no volunteers, consequently no direct mail, blockwalking or phonebanking, not even any campaign literature – Padilla-Sexton performed fourth of eleven political novices. Trautman, McDavid, and Khan all had greater resources and performed less well in their districts.

I believe the overall conclusion is that HD-144 was ripe to flip, but none of the power brokers believed it, and consequently none of them decided to try to make it happen. Privately, I was told disparaging things about Padilla-Sexton that I won't bother rehashing here. So could it also have been her fault, as a candidate with initial shortcomings made worse by her health issues? Possibly. Her experience nevertheless adds evidence to the opinion that there are many Texas Democrats who are just too timid to challenge a variety of status quo beliefs: taking on an entrenched Republican no matter how extreme (perhaps in order to avoid the same sort of challenge in their own districts); a state party structure managed by a couple of inside players controlling the selection and momentum of their perceived “winners”; a governing body (SDEC) which has abdicated its responsibility to hold accountable the unelected decision-makers; and finally the perception that Texas Democrats simply aren’t committed to make a winning effort across the board, no matter the odds.

That’s a defeatist state of mind. It’s a loser’s mentality, or in the words of Chris Bell, a strain of battered-wife syndrome. It flies in the face of Howard Dean’s rather successful 50-state strategy, and ultimately provided very limited Texas results in a year of watershed electoral change across the rest of the United States.

So maybe it was a 49-state strategy, come to think of it (without blaming Dean for leaving Texas out).

I’m sure it’s just coincidence: Matt Angle, the political consultant taking the most credit for the narrowly targeted 2006 legislative strategy, served as chief of staff to former US Rep. Martin Frost -- ejected from Congress in Tom DeLay’s 2004 redistricting gambit -- who was also defeated by Howard Dean in the race for DNC chair.

Bob Schrum would be so proud.

Update (1/24): Easter Lemming provides the verification and the financial corrections, noted by asterisk above. (He worked on Janette's campaign, so it's not quite accurate to say she had "no" volunteers, either). And Stace throws in his dos centavos as well.

No comments: