Fort Worth judge a standout for Texas Democrats

06/25/2014 2:20 PM

06/25/2014 2:22 PM

Lawrence “Larry” Meyers did something last year that no other politician in Texas has done in nearly two decades: He became a statewide Democratic officeholder.

As Democrats gather in Dallas this week for their state convention, Meyers — a Court of Criminal Appeals Judge who left the GOP to run for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court as a Democrat this year — may be a name frequently mentioned.

“It was an unusual move,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said of Meyers’ party switching.

“He’s either a maverick, reacting based upon his personal assessments and personal beliefs, or he sees a long-term political trend, a change in Texas politics coming.”

Meyers, who remains mum to the media about his party switch, has been known to make unexpected moves — and get unexpected results.

He was, after all, the first Republican elected to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1992.

Now he hopes to be the first Democrat to win a statewide race since 1994, in his bid for Texas Supreme Court, Place 6, against Republican Jeff Brown, who was appointed to the post.

Republicans maintain Meyers made a big mistake and won’t win his bid for the Supreme Court or re-election to his own seat on the state’s highest criminal court when his term expires in January 2017.

“I don’t know what motivated Judge Meyers to switch parties,” said Beth Cubriel, executive director for the Republican Party of Texas. “He’s always been a little bit unpredictable.

“But I’m confident Justice Brown will be on the bench next year,” she said. “And I’m confident Democrats will have no (new) statewide officials come January.”

Democrats say they are pleased to finally have a statewide officeholder — and Meyers’ switch encouraged many members.

“It’s an interesting case because he goes against the grain,” said Mike Hailey, editor and publisher of Capitol Inside, an online publication that covers state government and politics. “For every one Republican who becomes a Democrat, you probably have several hundred going in the other direction.

“People who switch parties tend to get labeled as opportunists, but you can’t say that about him because he was swimming in the opposite direction.”

‘Surge of optimism’

As many as 8,000 delegates and alternates will descend this week on the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas for their state convention.

There, party leaders and candidates at the top of the ballot — including state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth in her gubernatorial bid and state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio in her bid to become Texas’ next lieutenant governor — will rally Democrats, encouraging them to lead the way in November.

Meyers may be part of the story.

“There’s a huge upsurge of optimism ... that this state has the potential of becoming at least a purple state in the next few elections,” said Steve Maxwell, a former Tarrant County Democratic Party chairman. “Larry making this move encouraged that optimism.”

Before being elected to the state’s highest criminal court, Meyers served as an assistant district attorney in Kansas and practiced law, and served as a substitute municipal judge, in Fort Worth.

Maxwell praised Meyers for his courage in making the switch.

“Larry knows he is the only democratic statewide officeholder in what is still a very Republican state,” Maxwell said. “He made the decision to switch parties mostly from a sense of conviction because he didn’t like what was going on in the Republican party.

“He made as loud a statement as he could by switching parties,” he said. “My guess is he knows he made his election bid harder. But he went into this with his eyes open.”

Trending Democratic?

Demographers predict that Texas, now solidly Republican, will shift back to the left at some point.

As that occurs, they foresee that Democrats will slowly begin reclaiming posts they haven’t held in years — since John Sharp was comptroller, Dan Morales was attorney general, Bob Bullock was lieutenant governor, Pete Laney was House Speaker and Ann Richards was governor.

The question is when that will happen.

If Meyers made the right decision, and switched to the Democratic Party as it readies for a revolution, he could ride the wave and be considered a leader in the party.

But his switch alone doesn’t signify that the Democratic revolution is near.

“Democrats are going to have to win statewide before they can say they’ve turned that tide,” Hailey said. “They haven’t done that yet.”

So did Meyers make the right political move?

“The vast majority of voters don’t have a clue who the candidates for the courts are,” Hailey said, adding that down-ballot races generally “will be decided by straight ticket voting.”

Riddlesperger was more optimistic.

“Only time will tell,” he said.

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