April 07, 2002
Why your vote counts, part 691

Two articles in today's Chron which serve to remind us why we bother to vote. The first is about the runoff in the Democratic primary for Senate between Ron Kirk and Victor Morales. Both candidates are out trying to get supporters to the polls and to woo Anglo voters.

"White voters decide this race," said University of Houston political science professor Richard Murray. "And this time, I think they will go with Kirk."

Murray and other analysts are quick to add a caveat: Anglo voters will decide the race only if enough of them go to the polls.

"If whites don't go to the polls Tuesday, that could change everything," Murray said.

Kirk, who has Ken Bentsen's endorsement, may benefit from a runoff in Congressional District 25, Bentsen's old seat. Morales may benefit from a few hotly contested races in primarily Hispanic counties. Given that the turnout in runoffs always sucks - I won't be surprised if it's in the 10% range - every last vote is going to help.

The other article concerns the State Board of Education and how religious conservatives have caused infighting among the state GOP, in part due to their willingness to challenge GOP incumbents whom they consider to be insufficiently conservative. In this context, that means "occasionally votes with Democrats", a sin which leads to the label "liberal" and some nasty politics. Compromise is not in these folks' vocabulary.

So in this climate where, as Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff says "not one person in 100,000 can tell who their board member is", ideologues with a dedicated voting bloc behind them can thrive. Religious conservative Board members have caused such a ruckus that the state Legislature has restricted their powers more than once.

Until the mid-1980s, social conservatives led by textbook critics Mel and Norma Gabler largely confined themselves to monitoring state textbooks and keeping out references to evolution. Their influence was checked when the Legislature abolished the elected board and appointed moderates to a new one.

But after four years, voters chose to return to an elected board, which in 1990 voted for the first time to adopt textbooks that taught evolution.

The social conservatives' efforts to regain control of the school board date from 1992, with the election of Miller and former board member Bob Offutt, R-San Antonio.

The far right won four more seats in 1994 and began opposing the education plans of then-Gov. George W. Bush.

They said the plans were insufficiently conservative, and two of them campaigned against Bush when he ran for president.

They also resumed their inspection of textbooks, objecting to such things as a photograph of a woman carrying a briefcase. They argued that women in the workplace undermined family values.

The objections caused many publishers to stop offering textbooks to Texas.

The Legislature in 1995 moved to end squabbling on the board by reducing its power, including its power over textbooks. The board could reject a textbook only for factual error, physical defects or failure to follow state policy.

This last move by the Lege did not deter the conservative members, who now claim that points of ideological difference are actually factual errors.

I attended a lecture that the Gablers gave back when I was in college. The scary thing about them, next to their fanatical devotion to their cause, which is plenty scary, is that they come across as reasonable people with a measured grievance. Well, that's the initial impression, but eventually it's pretty clear that they're not quite from the same plane of reality as the rest of us. Still, their fame and longevity are a testament to how much can be accomplished by singleminded people in pursuit of an obscure cause.

It's easy to blow off low-profile elections. I'm as guilty as anyone - I have no idea off the top of my head who my district Board member is. I'm glad for the reminder of what happens when I'm not paying attention.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 07, 2002 to Election 2002