Endangered at the Lege: White Democratic Women

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin and state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin and state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.

After an election cycle in which the Republicans picked up nearly two-dozen additional seats in the Texas Legislature, a new endangered political species has been identified at the Capitol: the white Democratic woman.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, is the lone remaining Anglo female Democrat in the Texas House, having watched four of her kind be defeated on Nov. 2: Valinda Bolton of Austin, Carol Kent of Dallas and Kristi Thibaut and Ellen Cohen, both of Houston. In the Senate — where men hold 25 of 31 seats — state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is, like Howard, the single white female.

“It’s extremely disappointing to me, of course,” says Howard, who eked out a 16-vote victory over Dan Neil, a former University of Texas football player who barely spent any money during his campaign. “It’s taken awhile for us to gain momentum, and we’ve taken some steps backward in terms of having a voice.”

By comparison, two perennially underrepresented groups in the Legislature — Hispanic and black Republicans — saw their numbers grow on Election Day. Republicans in the House will have five Hispanic members and two black members during the 82nd legislative session, which gavels in on Jan. 11. In the previous session, there were no Hispanic or black Republican lawmakers.

Howard’s newfound lone-wolf status is actually an unwelcome blast from the recent past: She was the sole Democratic woman in the lower chamber four years ago when she was first elected. Her takeaway from the drubbing her party took on Nov. 2? “It does appear there is some effort to marginalize the Democratic Party so that it is urban minority only,” she says.

Davis, who was elected to her first four-year term in 2008, is not so sure that voters singled out white Democratic women. “It was a groundswell of people voting for people with an 'R' next to the name on the ballot,” she says.

The near-extinction of white Southern Democrats — a broader consequence of Nov. 2  — is the latest success of a Republican strategy to take over the region that was hatched after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1964, says Paul Stekler, a documentary filmmaker whose credits include George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire.

“There was an alliance between minorities and Republicans to concentrate folks into districts with supermajorities of minorities,” Stekler said. “So you created a situation where conservative whites were drawn in to Republican districts, leaving white Democrats out. Combine that with the wave elections of ’94 and ’10, where you have an electorate that’s predisposed to re-electing the most conservative candidates anyway, and you have a perfect storm.”

Howard says she worried that such a situation left the Democratic Party, which has long identified itself as ideologically and ethnically diverse, without a non-minority voice. “That’s to our detriment as Democrats but also to the detriment of having good, sound policy made to benefit Texas,” she says.

But Robert Jones, the political director of Annie’s List, a Texas political action committee that helped recruit Democratic women to run and then propel them to office in recent years, including Howard and Davis, says the Democratic Party will return in 2012 with plenty of policy issues to run on. Cuts to education and social services programs, in response to a budget shortfall that could be as big as $25 billion, are expected to hit close to home.

“There will be real political impact in the form of Democrats making a comeback,” Jones says. “It will be clear for them what their choice is in 2012, and we will have Democratic women running for office waiting to win their vote.”

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.