One year ago, riding the anti-incumbent wave with support from gun-rights activists and fundamentalist Christians, Steve Stockman unseated veteran Democratic U.S. Rep. Jack Brooks of Beaumont.
It was one of the biggest upsets of a volatile election and national Democrats have placed a big target on Stockman's back going into the next election cycle. But the election of Stockman and other Republicans to local and state offices in Jefferson County, of which Beaumont is the seat, has shaken the confidence of Democrats in what formerly was a union bulwark in Southeast Texas.
Labor unions formed the backbone of a Democratic majority when his area was known as the Golden Triangle, but they have lost more than one-half their members during a decade-long reduction in industrial jobs in the region.
Anthony Guillory, the president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union local for the Mobil Oil plant in Beaumont, said that while Stockman effectively marshaled the fundamentalists and the gun-rights advocates in 1994, Brooks lost in part because, after 42 years in Congress, some Democrats believed they did not have to turn out to re-elect the only congressman many of them had ever known. Now, he said, the Republicans are prepared to ante up to keep the seat. And many of Guillory's fellow workers are swayed by Republican-inspired resentment against blacks and welfare recipients.
"I don't like it because it reminds me of the 1950s," Guillory said of the rhetoric and the resentment of white men over the limited gains of women and minorities. "The Democrats have made the white males of America mad because they say, 'We want diversity.' Well, I don't see where the white male numbers have gone down [in relation to minority workers], but I'm old enough to remember total segregation," he said. "But I guess the Democrats will have to quit talking about diversity."
Democrats need to pick up 17 seats to regain control of the House. The main target of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are the 73 Republican freshmen elected in 1994. Many of them won by narrow margins in traditionally Democratic districts and nearly all have voted in lockstep with Gingrich. Polls increasingly show dissatisfaction with the extremism of the Republican Congressional leaders, which encourage Democratic strategists.
But Democrats also have to defend challenges that are expected by Republicans in marginal Democratic districts. In 1994, 22 Democrats and 21 Republicans won House seats by margins of between 5 percent and 10 percent, while 22 Democrats and 20 Republicans won by 5 percent or less. About one in four congressional seats in the country are thought to be "in play" this cycle, with half on the Republican side and half on the Democratic side.
Democrats also are the largest minority in 40 years and they point out that the last time the nation had a Democratic President and a Republican Congress was 1947-48. In the 1948 election, Truman, who had been virtually written off throughout the campaign, was re-elected and Democrats picked up nine Senate seats and 75 House seats, regaining control of both chambers.
Tricia Primrose of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reports that recruiting is going well, with more than 400 candidates interested in running for Congress and strong challengers recruited in 30 of the top 35 Republican targets; despite Republican threats toward lobbyists who contribute to Democratic candidates, fund-raising, at $5.12 million, is ahead of the pace of the last two election cycles, with 50,000 more individual donors on file; and incumbent Democrats are sticking around in greater numbers than some had predicted.
Democrats see some opportunities in the Upper Midwest: Iowa has four Democrat-leaning districts, all of which voted for Clinton and Dukakis in 1992 and 1988, and all of which are represented by Republicans. They include the 1st, which elected moderate Republican Jim Leach of Davenport with 60 percent of the vote in 1994; the 2nd in northeast Iowa, which Jim Nussle won with 56 percent; the 3rd District in southern Iowa, which Jim Ross Lightfoot won with 58 percent; and the 4th, in south central Iowa, which Greg Ganske won with 53 percent. The Republican-leaning 5th District in northwest Iowa (which still voted 51 percent for Dukakis in 1988) elected Tom Latham with 61 percent of the vote, but as the Contract starts to bite, he, too, could become vulnerable.
Illinois Democrats believe they can take out Michael Flanagan, who beat the politically crippled Dan Rostenkowski in an otherwise strongly Democratic north Chicago district in 1994. Another potentially vulnerable freshman Republican is Jerry Weller in the south Chicago suburbs.
Vulnerable Wisconsin congressional Republicans include Neumann in the 1st District and Scott Klug in the 2nd, as well as the open 3rd, which leans Democratic.
Democrats are not giving up on the South. Among the vulnerable seats are Stockman in Texas, Edward Whitfield in Kentucky, Tom Coburn in Oklahoma, Van Hilleary in Tennessee and Jay Dickey in Arkansas. In Kentucky, in mid-March almost as many adults said they felt a closer affinity to the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. By mid-May, the Bluegrass State Poll showed Democrats with an 11-point advantage, 47-36.
Mark McKinnon, an Austin political consultant who is withdrawing from election campaigns, believes progressive Democratic challengers will have plenty of opportunities next year.
"The political landscape nowadays shifts more quickly than it ever has before and there are major issues coming down the pike that could turn things around by next year," he said. "The poll numbers are changing dramatically on how people perceive the Republicans in Congress and the outlook is going to look much better for Democrats next year, when the Republicans will be in the position of having to defend some of the rather extreme legislation they have been passing.... I think progressives should relax, sit back and wait for the time to strike."
McKinnon's colleague is Paul Begala, who worked on Bill Clinton's election campaign and later worked for the President before moving back to Austin earlier this year. Begala also believes the Republicans are setting themselves up for a big fall.
"The Republicans over-read the results of the last election," Begala said. "You did have a massive partisan shift in '94, but was it a shift in ideology? No, it was a sense that government was not working for people and that their wages were stuck and the government was not doing anything about that.
"But as a friend who was originally from Muleshoe (Texas) said, 'Everybody voted to balance the budget but nobody voted to beat up on little girls and steal their lunch money. ... The Republicans got a mandate to fight waste, fraud and abuse, not to kick grandma out of the old folks' home. And they certainly did not vote to raise congressional pay and pensions and perks," but one of new House Speaker Newt Gingrich's first acts was to double his office budget.
"Voters want government to do more but they want less government. They don't hate and loathe government. Their wages have been stuck for 20 years and at least they can take a little pressure off by voting for somebody who will promise to reduce their taxes." But voters still want good, free public education, student loans, job training and retraining and other programs that help working people get ahead.
Begala noted that Gingrich's negative rating in recent polls are worse than Richard Nixon's negatives when he was forced to resign the Presidency for his role in the Watergate scandal. Gingrich is less popular than Jesse Jackson and Ross Perot (although still better than Louis Farrakhan), while Clinton's "positives" recently have broken into the 50s and 60s in some areas.
Many congressional Democrats still are wary of embracing the President, but Begala said they are making a mistake.
"The Democrats ought to be rallying around the President and they're not. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and a vicious circle. If you want people to quit trashing him, you ought to stand up and fight for him," he said, even if they do not agree with him on all positions. "Nobody's 100 percent," Begala said.
Even the improvement in poll numbers for the Democrats is mixed. In a nationwide Harris Poll conducted between Sept. 28 and Oct. 1, President Clinton's job rating, at 47 percent positive, was up from 43 percent a month earlier. Clinton's rating was higher than Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's 38 percent positive and significantly better than House Speaker Newt Gingrich's 31 percent positive and 62 percent negative.
Compared with other polls since last November's elections that showed Democrats significantly--sometimes substantially--more unpopular than the Republicans, the recent Harris Poll found that the percentage of adults who are positive toward the Democrats has increased to 35 percent, pulling approximately even with the GOP.
Carl Parker, a longtime liberal Democratic state senator from Port Arthur, Texas, also was unseated in the turnout that beat Brooks. Parker said one of the reasons Democrats are doing better is because people found out that Republicans considered Medicare to be wasteful government spending, but he said progressive Democrats need to unite and stop paying lip service to "Democrats of convenience."
"We need to test every Democrat's credentials before we vote for them, whether it's for school board, city council or county commissioner," he said, rejecting the dodge that local offices should be non-partisan. "If you believe the Republicans don't use those local offices for partisan political purposes, I've got some marshland in Jefferson County that I'd like to sell you," he said.
On the other end of the 9th Congressional District, in Texas City, on Galveston Bay, local union leader Orbie Harris said he will work to unseat Stockman, although he questions whether putting a Democrat back in will make a difference. "I can't see a whit of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Both are parties of property, both are controlled by corporate America and both are on the take," said Harris, workers' representative at the Iron Workers union.
"Obviously, I'm going to do what I can to take back the 9th Congressional District. But I wouldn't be bragging too much about the Democrats being in power 40 years. What did it get us? Those who say they're Democrats, I'm not sure if they even know what the word means.
"What I'm seeing in my union right now is total apathy. Every two or four years we get a slate card from the AFL-CIO, and frankly some of my members say, 'Isn't this really the evil of two lessers?' When you really boil 'em down and render them away, is there any difference?"
He noted that President George Bush couldn't pass the North American Free Trade Agreement it had negotiated--but the Democratic administration embraced it and passed it.
"All the top Democrats--state and national--are predicated by their ability to raise money. It doesn't matter what he or she stands for--it's how much he or she can raise. Naturally, the first place they go is to the bosses ..."
Harris cited Bill Greider's book, Who Will Tell the People, which declared that both the Democrats and the Republicans are parties of property, and working people recognize that.
"When Bill Clinton says 'let's take a balanced look,' I think that's a key phrase," Harris said.
Harris believes the long-term answer is a labor party. "If labor, women and minorities don't get together and start aggressively organizing a labor party, we're lost."
Labor Party Advocates, an independent organization supported by several international unions, including OCAW, the electronic workers, the Longshoremen and Warehousemen and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, as well as some West Coast building trades unions, will hold its organizing convention June 6-9 in Cleveland. It is concentrating on organizing a mass base that will define an agenda.
"We have to start aggressively organizing a grassroots labor party that embraces populist progressive groups," Harris said. We need a small platform that our Labor party would embrace: There should be more redistribution of wealth and hard environmental laws. We need child care -- if a mother is forced to work, we should help pay for child care. It has to be a community effort. All successful political movements have started from the bottom up. Nothing that's come from the top down has ever been good for workers. We have to educate from the ground up.
"We may not be able to field candidates, but we could educate potential candidates. I think we ought to get a platform and cultivate candidates and run them locally for school boards, city councils and county commissioners. If a candidate doesn't go along with the program, simply change candidates."
In the meantime, Harris said many working people are gravitating toward the Republican Party, attracted by the participation of fundamentalist Christians, opposition to gun control and the race baiting and welfare bashing. "I see a separation of races and classes; we could very well evolve into a class warfare structure," he said. "Frankly, everyone feels disenfranchised with the hate and the horrible cuts they are talking about."
The only answer, he said, is to organize and educate the disenfranchised.
-- Jim Cullen, Editor, The Progressive Populist
Ray Thornton, Ark., (C55, B36 P8)
Pete Peterson, Fla., (C42, B38 P19)
Jim Chapman, Texas, Senate bid, (C39 B 38 P 23)
Sonny Montgomery, Miss., (B 58, C 34 P 8)
Harry Johnston, Fla., (C 54 B 30 P 16)
Mel Reynolds, Ill., forced out, (C 80, B 13, P 7)
Norman Mineta, Calif., quit (C 46, B 30, P 23)
Richard Durbin, Ill., Senate bid, (C 46, B 34, P 20).
Glen Browder, Ala., Senate bid, (B 47, C 41, P 11)
Tim Johnson, S.D., Senate bid. (B 41, C 37, P 22)
Jack Reed, R.I., Senate bid, (C 46, B 30, P 23).
Steve Gunderson, Minn., (C 43, B 33, P 24)
Mel Hancock, Mo., (B 45, C 36, P 18)
Carlos Moorhead, Calif., (C 44, B 36 P 19)
Dick Zimmer, N.J., Senate bid, (B 43, C 40 P 17)
Wayne Allard, Colo., Senate bid, (B 38 C 37 P 25)
Paul Simon, Ill., (C 49, B 34 P 17)
Bennett Johnston, La., (C 46 B 41 P 12)
Jim Exon, Neb., (B 47, C 29, P 24)
Howell Heflin, Ala., (B 48, C 41, P 11)
David Pryor, Ark., (C 53, B 35, P 10)
Bill Bradley, N.J., (C 43, B 41 P 16)
Claiborne Pell, R.I., (C 47 B 29 P 23)
Sam Nunn, Ga., (C 43 B 43 P 13)
Max Baucus, Mont., (C 38, B 35, P26)
Joe Biden, Del., (C44, B35, P 20)
Tom Harkin, Iowa, (C 43, B 37, P 19)
John Kerry, Mass., (C48, B 29, P 22)
Carl Levin, Mich. (C 44, B 36, P 19)
Jay Rockefeller, W.V. (C 48, B 35, P 16)
Paul Wellstone, Minn. (C 44, B 32, P 24)
Hank Brown, Colo, retiring, (C 40 B 36 P 23)
Bob Packwood, Ore., forced from office, (C43 B 33 P 24)
Thad Cochran, Miss., (B50, C 41, P 9
Bill Cohen, Maine, (C39, B30, P30)
Larry Craig, Idaho (B42, C28, P27)
Pete Domenici, N.M. (C46, B37, P16)
Phil Gramm, Texas, (B41, C37, P22)
Mark Hatfield, Ore., C43, B33, P24)
Jesse Helms, N.C., (B43, C43, P14)
Jim Inhofe, Okla., (B43, C34, P23)
Nancy Kassebaum, Kan., (B39, C34, P27)
Mitch McConnell, Ky., (C45, B41, P14)
Larry Pressler, S.D. (B41, C37, P22)
Alan Simpson, Wyo., (B40, C34, P26)
Bob Smith, N.H., (C39, B38, P23)
Ted Stevens, Alaska, (B40, C30, P 28)
Fred Thompson, Tenn., (C47, B42, P10)
Strom Thurmond, S.C., (B48, C40 P12)
John Warner, Va., (B45, C41, P14)
CA-22 Seastrand 1563 votes
CA-49 Bilbray 4686 votes
GA-7 Barr 5287 votes
KY-1 Whitfield 2502 votes
NE-2 Christensen 1766 votes
NV-1 Ensign 1436 votes
NJ-8 Martini 1833 votes
NC-4 Heineman 1215 votes
OH-6 Cremeans 3422 votes
PA-21 English 4643 votes
WA-5 Nethercutt 3983 votes
WA-9 Tate 5382 votes
WI-1 Neumann 1120 votes
Total Difference 38,838
If 19,500 Voters had voted Democratic rather than Republican in 1994, Newt Gingrich would not be Speaker of the House.
(IN DISTRICTS CLINTON AND DUKAKIS CARRIED)
Representative District '94 vote %
Jim Bunn Oregon 5 50
Phil English Penn 21 50
Mark Neumann Wisc. 1 50
Peter Torkildsen Mass 6 51
Tom Coburn Okla 2 52
Steve Stockman Texas 9 52
Linda Smith Wash. 3 52
Frank Riggs Calif. 1 53
Greg Ganske Iowa 4 53
Jack Metcalf Wash. 2 54
Peter Blute Mass. 3 55
Source: Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
Others: 1994 Presidential
Edward Whitfield Ky 01 C48, B39, P13
Van Hillearay Tenn. 4 C48, B40, P11
Jay Dickey Ark. 4 C57, B31 P10
Henry Bonilla Texas 23 C42, B41, P17
THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST