Politics & Government

Will 2014 bring Democratic strides in Texas?

In an instant Monday, the Texas Democratic Party’s long absence from statewide office was erased.

When Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Larry Meyers turned in paperwork to seek a seat on the state Supreme Court next year — as a Democrat rather than a Republican, as he’s been classified longer than some voters have been alive — he changed his party affiliation and likely his political future.

Whether that’s for better or worse remains to be seen.

Republicans contend that the longtime judge from Fort Worth, now the sole Democratic statewide officeholder, made a 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.

At the same time, Democrats say they are ready for a revolution and believe that state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, can help lead the charge with her quest to become governor. And Meyers’ party switch could add fuel to the fire, making him a key leader if he succeeds.

“There’s a strong message here,” said Steve Maxwell, an attorney and former Tarrant County Democratic Party chairman who has known Meyers for years. “Larry has been a Republican officeholder [since the 1980s]. For him to now say he’s more comfortable in the Democratic Party … he’s expressing a feeling a lot of other Republicans are having.

“The takeover of the Republican Party by the far-right wing has alienated a lot of people,” Maxwell said. “This isn’t the same party that existed when Larry Meyers was elected years ago.”

Some local Republicans said they are still scratching their heads over the move. And they believe Meyers is setting himself up for failure.

“He won’t win as a Democrat, and if he tries to run for his seat, he won’t win that, either,” said Steve Hollern, a former Tarrant County Republican Party chairman who has known Meyers for years. “It’s kind of puzzling. He sometimes walks off the beaten path.

“I don’t understand Larry,” he said. “I don’t think this is the year … when the Democrats are going to be able to win races like this.”

Meyers didn’t return calls from the Star-Telegram seeking comment.

Democratic shift?

Demographers maintain that Texas, a solidly Republican state, will shift back to the left in the coming years.

They say Democrats will re-emerge, gradually reclaiming statewide posts they haven’t held in years — since Ann Richards was in the Governor’s Mansion, Bob Bullock was lieutenant governor and Pete Laney was House speaker.

But whether that movement starts in 2014 or later is the question of the hour.

For the first time in years, a handful of local Democratic races in next year’s primaries are expected to be just as interesting as the GOP ones.

Besides Davis’ bid for governor, other races include:

State Senate District 10: Both sides of this race should be interesting, as eight candidates have jumped in for what’s expected to be one of the most watched and most expensive races in the state. They seek to replace Davis, who held the post for five years after ousting Republican Sen. Kim Brimer of Arlington.

Three Democrats are in the race: George Boll, an attorney and former member of the Colleyville City Council; Mike Martinez, a local energy executive; and Libby Willis, a longtime neighborhood leader. The Republicans are Konni Burton of Colleyville, Arlington school Trustee Tony Pompa, Colleyville chiropractor Jon Schweitzer, former state Rep. Mark Shelton of Fort Worth and Mark Skinner of Colleyville.

33rd Congressional District: U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, was expected to possibly draw a challenge from former rival Domingo Garcia, who put up a valiant fight last year for the newly created district, geared to give local minority populations a voice in Congress. Garcia, a former state representative, announced at the last minute that he would not run. But Colleyville’s Thomas Carl Sanchez, a patents and licensing attorney in the wireless field, joined the race.

Political observers say they aren’t sure what to expect in the race between Veasey, a well-liked freshman, and Sanchez.

State Board of Education, District 13: When incumbent Mavis Knight chose not to file for re-election to the district, which stretches from eastern Tarrant County to southern Dallas County, it suddenly created a race for a much-coveted open seat. Three Democrats filed: Erika Beltran, Andrea Hilburn and A. Denise Russell.

State House District 90: Longtime state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, drew a primary challenge from Ramon Romero Jr., who unsuccessfully ran against Fort Worth Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray last year. Romero has served on the Fort Worth Zoning Commission, the Planning Commission and the city’s Air Quality Study Committee.

“This may be a beginning of the turning of the tide,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “This may be the beginning of Democrats being competitive in statewide elections.”

A strategic move?

Meyers’ campaign battle won’t happen in the March 4 primary but in the Nov. 4 general election.

He filed to seek Place 6 on the Supreme Court, pitting him against incumbent Republican Jeff Brown.

The Fort Worth man was described in a past list of Star-Telegram recommendations as “a thoughtful, moderate judge who speaks and writes so that everyone understands his opinions.”

First elected to the state’s top criminal court in 1992, Meyers has drawn extensive media attention in recent years.

In 2012, an Austin municipal judge issued an arrest warrant for Meyers over his failure to pay a 2008 speeding ticket.

Meyers, who had hoped to appeal the ticket, ultimately paid the fine, and the warrant was dropped.

He also drew attention a few years ago when he announced that he would challenge Sharon Keller for the position of presiding judge. But he decided not to challenge Keller, who has drawn attention of her own, including receiving a public warning for mishandling an attempt by the defense to file an after-hours appeal for a Death Row inmate.

The switching of parties may have been a strategic move for Meyers, said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“Occasionally, persons will switch parties not so much out of ideas or ideology, but purely practical reasons believing they will have a better chance in the general election than getting through the primary,” he said.

‘Coming back to life’

Maxwell said that he and Meyers talked about a party switch a few years ago but that Meyers wasn’t ready to make a move.

“The Democratic Party is coming back to life after a hiatus of many years,” Maxwell said. “If he wins, he’s at the forefront of the Democratic Party’s takeover of state offices … an undisputed leader as the Democratic Party takes the state back.

“If he loses, he’s made his statement, gotten up there and made a lot of noise,” he said. “I don’t think Larry will have any regrets that he made this statement either way.”

Others say they don’t share the optimism that Meyers’ switch will make a difference.

“Statewide judicial races are generally very low-information elections, with most voters casting their ballot based on the candidate’s party affiliation, not their personal characteristics or policy stances,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

“I would hazard that an overwhelming majority of the Texans who helped re-elect Meyers to the Texas Court of Appeals in 2010 did so almost exclusively on the basis of his Republican partisan affiliation.”