As it turns out, one of the biggest losers on Election Night wasn’t a Democrat. It was Waco.
A year ago, the Waco area had, in Rep. Chet Edwards, a Democratic member of Congress with juicy assignments on the House Appropriations and Budget committees. It had its own state senator in Kip Averitt, a Republican, and his portfolio was full, too, with the chairmanship of Natural Resources and membership on other key panels, including Finance and Education. And it had, in Jim Dunnam, the Texas version of (you have to squint for this one) Nancy Pelosi. Like her, he was the leader of the Democrats in the lower chamber, distinguished for years as the sharpest and most persistent thorn in the conservative paw. “Dunnam” is an epithet Texas Republicans use in their fundraising letters.
Or it was. After a special election earlier this year and the general election earlier this month, the congressional seat belongs to Bryan, halfway to Houston; the Senate seat is 86 miles away in Granbury; and the House seat has moved three counties east, to Centerville. Averitt stepped down, and Edwards and Dunnam were vanquished — casualties of the Republican bloodbath — and Waco got a taste of what’s in store for small cities losing political power.
Edwards, who served as a state senator from Duncanville, moved to Waco after winning the spot in Congress in 1990. The job had belonged to Marvin Leath, a Democrat from Marlin, in Falls County. Edwards has been the most powerful Democrat in the Texas congressional delegation and was on the short list of vice presidential candidates when Barack Obama was on the hunt before the 2008 election (which probably didn’t help this year).
His defeat came at the hands of Bill Flores, a businessman from Bryan, in Brazos County. That’s a smaller dot on the map than Waco, but the district also reaches north to Johnson County, an exurban neighbor to Dallas-Fort Worth. Edwards won in Robertson County, but lost his home county, McLennan, and 10 others, including Johnson and Brazos. Overall, he mustered just 36.6 percent of the vote.
Dunnam’s fall also came at the hands of a political newcomer, a retiree from Centerville who cruised the district in a yellow-and-black Mini Cooper and appeared in at least one parade riding on a Segway (this is rural and semi-rural Texas, remember). But Marva Beck had solid financing — see persistent thorn, above — and the ability to tie Dunnam to every Democratic thing on the plate. He won in his home county, McLennan, while she clobbered him everywhere else.
Averitt resigned this year, hoping he would be replaced by David Sibley, his predecessor and former boss. Sibley, a former Waco mayor and McLennan County district attorney, won the seat in 1991 and helped draw the maps that have kept it in the county since then. Averitt lived in McGregor, just down the road but inside the county lines. But their latest succession plan fell to politics and geography. Brian Birdwell, a political novice and a decorated Army veteran who was injured in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, campaigned as a more conservative alternative (noting Sibley’s recent work as a lobbyist) and capitalized on high growth in and around his home in Granbury, in Hood County.
In June’s special election for the state Senate, Birdwell beat Sibley easily, with 57.9 percent. Sibley won, not surprisingly, in McLennan, where he beat the new guy by more than 3,000 votes. But Birdwell clobbered him in Ellis, Hood and Johnson counties — fast-growing areas that abut the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. McLennan is still the biggest single county in the district, with 28 percent of the voters, but it’s no longer the electoral center of gravity. That’s moved north to the exurbs.
That shift will be institutionalized in the redistricting maps lawmakers will draw next year. Rural Texas is losing political power to the big population magnets of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. More to the point, the populations are growing in their suburbs and exurbs. Ten years ago, it was hard to imagine a senator from Granbury. Now it’s the small cities that aren’t near big cities — former powerhouses themselves — that are losing political clout: places like Amarillo, Wichita Falls, San Angelo and Nacogdoches.
Waco was just the first.
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.