Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Kronberg: "A Hispanic with charisma (and money) will transform Texas politics"

Last week I attended a town hall forum with the editor of Quorum Report, Harvey Kronberg, sponsored by my previous state representative and my current one. Truth to tell, I went mostly to see and hear them. I respect what Kronberg does, I just think there are a few of us New Media types -- such as Charles and Vince -- who do what he does better and without the annoying $300 subscription.

Let me first say that I left with a tremendously increased respect for Kronberg, who after 18 years of following the Lege is probably better connected than anyone. Better than Burka, better than Selby, better than Radcliffe. What I never really got from him before were the insights from all of that history. Most of you know I'm a history buff; "lessons/doomed to repeat" and all that.

In an evening filled with one cogent analysis after another -- at one point I saw even Rep. Cohen taking notes -- the one that kept my ears ringing a week later is the one in the headline. But I'll come back to it in a moment.

Kronberg doesn't get back to Houston all that often apparently, and speaks to the public even less frequently, but the Kaplan Theatre at the Jewish Community Center in Meyerland holds a special place for him. He grew up in Houston, went to Bellaire High School, and his first summer job was as a projectionist "up there", as he pointed to the booth over our heads. He also noted that he was perhaps the only journalist who is also a "practicing capitalist" -- as the owner of two flag and flagpole businesses, in Austin (where he lives) and Houston -- so he knows about the challenges of making payroll, meeting the onerous small business regulations, and so on. This appears to give him, in his media role, the philosophical ability to cross seamlessly from one side of the aisle to the other, keeping amiable acquaintance with both D's and R's while at the same time buffing his non-partisan credentials.

The first observation I noted was that redistricting marginalizes the general election voter. Every two years the voters get to choose their representative, and every ten years (or less) the representatives choose their voters. With the inherently polarizing nature of the redistricting/gerrymandering sausage-making, the end result is that a successful politician is compelled to accede to the wishes of his district's most active voters, i.e. his or her "base", also known as the Democratic and Republican primary voters. These people are not renowned to be moderate or centrist. In fact, quite the opposite. Because the districts have been specifically populated to elect and re-elect a Democrat or a Republican, then the real electoral challenge comes -- you guessed it -- in the primary. Thus, in November many contests between the parties are viewed as no contest.

What kind of politician does this produce? The kind viewed as "extreme" -- by both ends of the political spectrum.

The second observation Kronberg made was of the Republican Party at large, not just in Texas -- the social, libertarian, and economic wings of the GOP are splintering, and thus their dominance of government is coming to an end.

He's dead solid perfect in this analysis. Just look at how the xenophobic crackers, the base of the party for too long now, are abandoning Bush and the rest of the Republicans who are pushing for the compromise Senate legislation on immigration.

One of this coffin's final nails will be driven in 2008 by a neoconservative third-party presidential challenge from the likes of Tom Tancrazy or another of that ilk. And the popularity of Ron Paul's quixotic bid among a Kucinich-sized segment of Republicans points out how, *ahem*, "diverse" the GOP is suddenly becoming.

The announcement yesterday of Michael Bloomberg's resignation from the Republican Party -- meant to fuel his own political ambition -- is an example of the moderate conservatives getting out from under the GOP's tent. (I predict we will very shortly see a similar announcement from Joe Lieberman. The only difference is that he stopped being a Democrat years before Bloomberg did.)

Abortion, taxes, property taxes at the state level -- all issues that the social or libertarian or economic zealots feel strongly about, but their respective counterparts grimace in distaste over. That spells doom for the legislative coalition that Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed and Newt Gingrich cobbled together almost twenty years ago.

(Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say.)

The remaining observations I scribbled down were more Texas-centric but no less accurate: that members in both chambers pushed back successfully against their leadership. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst stepped into a big pile of his own dookie when his office released the letter that was hyper-critical of the Senate's efforts to throttle the voter ID bill. Kronberg noted something that he found to be one of the most profound developments in his tenure of covering the Lege, and that was the Senate's virtual unseating of its leader for a two-week period following the dustup.

Senators, Kronberg noted, operate almost as chief executives of their regions. They have, for example, a near-gubernatorial power to veto the governor's appointments of people -- judges, state commissions, etc. -- who happen to reside within their district's boundaries. Dewhurst, after all those years presiding over the Senate, simply forgot or perhaps ignored the fact that he serves as their leader at their pleasure. And they pointedly reminded him of that fact.

Speaker Craddick's self-inflicted troubles are already well-documented, of course.

One other politically astute thing Kronberg pointed out was the percentage of voters within a statehouse district who opposed Proposition 2 -- the one banning gay marriage, in 2005, which passed with 76% of the statewide vote -- might indicate a district that could be ready to flip from red to blue ... if that percentage was somewhat closer to 50%.

And finally, to the Q&A:

-- Kronberg anticipates a special legislative session over property taxes. And after that, perhaps one on Voter ID.

-- Harvey does not agree with me that Hillary Clinton is bad for Texas Democrats down the ballot in 2008. He says, and I quote as nearly verbatim as possible, that "there are already too many districts voting R at the top and D down-ballot" for this to be a problem.

-- And to the headline, as well as to both the voter ID and the immigration brouhaha, Kronberg noted that he was puzzled by the conservative hysteria over both issues. "Texas Latinos who are legal now and don't vote make up more than 50% of the state's population. The numbers are huge in west Texas." With that comment I suddenly flashed on my experience in Plainview -- hardly "west" Texas, between Lubbock and Amarillo -- as a Junior Achievement counselor at the high school there, and a remark made by one of the school's administrators: that over 50% of the children in grades K-12 were Hispanic. This was in 1988.

Texas, you may recall, became a majority-minority state in 2004.

The Hispanic vote, statewide and nationwide, is apparently waiting to be motivated by the right candidate -- probably irrespective of party affiliation. They will be an electoral tsunami, completely altering the political landscape, once the tide finally reaches the shore. Who will be the candidate that does this? Will it be Bill Richardson?

Or Rick Noriega, perhaps?

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