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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

Jaworski One to Watch

When writing an article, it is always useful to determine what its subject will be before you begin. I did not follow this rule when I began writing a story about Senate District 11 several weeks ago, and thus I cast about for most of the time I was writing it. Written on one page of notes, top corner: "What's my angle?" Written in the middle of a text file: "WHAT IS THIS ABOUT?" As luck would have it, shortly before my deadline, I determined the problem to be one of delineation rather than definition. My problem wasn't that I was trying to profile Democratic candidate Joe Jaworski while at the same time writing The Big Story of the Impending Senate District 11 Race. Rather, my problem was that I was trying to tell those stories as two separate things, when Joe Jaworski is The Big Story of the Impending Senate District 11 Race.

A Democratic Candidate
People are rife with opinions about Joe Jaworski. The Lone Star Project's Matt Angle says Jaworski is " of the best young candidates that I've met in quite a while." Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Gerry Birnberg says that Joe " a tireless campaigner; he looks and sounds like he comes out of central casting." Longtime area Democratic activist Carl Whitmarsh described him as "...he of the famous last name," as the Jaworski name carries historic weight in American politics: Joe's grandfather, Leon Jaworski, worked for Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson before going on to be appointed Special Prosecutor during Watergate, waging a constitutional battle over executive privilege with Richard Nixon that reverberates with relevance in today's subpoena-filled climate.

Since we're in the business now of telling The Jaworski Story, let me be frank and engage in full disclosure: I like Joe Jaworski. I spoke with him several times in preparing this work, and each time I got the impression that he isn't the average Texas politician. Upbeat and without a hint of cynicism, Jaworski sounds like he's excited to talk to you, excited to be running, excited to be a part of it all; he answers questions about his family, his campaign, and his politics with equal aplomb. If I didn't know any better, I would think that Jaworski actually believes he can win his race against incumbent Republican State Senator Mike Jackson, a race he's already been running for roughly a year.

In no uncertain terms, Jaworski will tell you that he can win, and he sounds like he means it. "I admit [SD 11] is a Republican district," says Jaworski. "But we knew that going in, and we looked at it very hard before making this decision to run. And we didn't look at it in a happy-go-lucky kind of way; we had a very long look at the district, we were honest about what we saw, and we convinced ourselves that it is doable."

Jaworski is not alone in that assessment. Other Democrats from the area and across Texas have similar feelings about the race — a cautious optimism, peppered with caveats geared towards admitting the district has an obvious tilt to the right. It is an optimism nonetheless, inspired by Jaworski's campaign mettle and fundraising prowess.

State Representative Craig Eiland's District 23 is partially within Senate District 11, and he has observed Jaworski's early campaigning with interest. "It certainly appears that Jaworski has been running hard for several months now," says Eiland. "He's raised significant money and that shows that it is going to be a real race."

"His initial fundraising report... if anybody didn't read that and understand that this is a serious contender, then they don't understand Texas politics or the realities of that race," says Birnberg. If you're unfamiliar with Jaworski's July 15th semi-annual financial report to the Texas Ethics Commission, you can see the whole thing here. The short version won't show you the legion of donors contained therein, but it will show you that from January through June of this year, Jaworski raised almost a quarter of a million dollars. He also raised some spirits among Democratic Party activists and got the attention of many people — the amount was a relatively staggering figure and a surprise to many.

The funds come both from within the district and without. Jaworski cites his work on the city council in Galveston as a source of bipartisan support within his district, although that isn't the sole motivating factor as to why his potential constituents would choose him over Senator Jackson. "Local doctors are unhappy about the way the University of Texas medical branch in Galveston has been treated in the legislature. Due to budget cuts, employment is down 10–15%, down to 12,000 from 14,000, and that was a huge source of employment for many people. All of this happened in Mike Jackson's district and he just let the budget stuff go."

The desire for change is an impetus for the support he enjoys outside of SD 11. "We've attracted support from all over the state from people that are interested in more balance in state government," says Jaworski. "We have support from die-hard, Yellow Dog Democrats who believe in what we're doing here, but we also hear from people all over the state that are interested in more balanced government — not one-party rule. I think [Senator] Gallegos' illness probably inspired some of that."

And much was made of Senator Gallegos' battle during the session to stay on the floor in order to foil Republican plans to for voter ID legislation, new stringent laws requiring voters to bring more forms of identification to the polls. Many Democrats and Republicans, Senator Gallegos included, railed against the idea, calling it a poll tax, or voter suppression. In the Senate, 11 votes can prevent any legislation from being brought to the floor. Without Gallegos 11th vote (and doctor's-orders-defying heroics), voter ID might well have become law. The media coverage generated by both the Republicans flailing attempt at the legislation and Gallegos' stand against it have broadcast the idea across Texas that a little more equity in the Legislature might be in order.

So here now is Joe Jaworski, mounting a campaign for the state senate, not expecting a primary challenger, and doing very well as far as finances are concerned. The other main concerns for him are his incumbent opponent, and the district as an opponent unto itself.

Senator Jackson As Incumbent
It is not surprising that Democrats in SD 11 aren't crazy about the incumbent Republican Senator, and in some cases that displeasure spreads across the aisle. Lloyd Criss, State Democratic Executive Committeeman for the district, Galveston County Democratic Party Chair, and a former State Representative, developed his opinion of Jackson over time. "The other guy isn't around much, and we don't know him. I served in the legislature with Mike Jackson years ago in the state house, and he didn't do much then, and he doesn't do much now."

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie also has plenty to say about Jackson's record, as well as a few choice tidbits about Texas Republicans in general, as is to be expected. “After eight years in the Texas Senate, all Mike Jackson has to show is a disappointing record of ineffective leadership. As a member of the corrupt Republican regime in Texas, Jackson’s special interest contributors are always at the top of his priority list, while middle-class Texans are left behind," said Richie. "In 2006, voters called for a change from the failed agenda of Texas Republicans, and I am confident that our Democratic nominee will bring a new direction and real representation to the people of that district. Voters in SD 11 deserve a Senator who will stand up for them in Austin, rather than a political backbencher like Mike Jackson.”

"Ineffective" is a common descriptor for Jackson among his detractors, Democrats, and supporters of Jaworski's candidacy. While a Best and Worst list isn't precisely a scientific measurement, Birnberg points to Texas Monthly's commentary on Senator Jackson as evidence. "Texas Monthly included him in their 'Furniture' category. What has he accomplished in the legislature? I can't point to anything that Jackson has accomplished for the voters of that district or the citizens of the state of Texas. He's just kind of been there."

To be fair, Jackson did actually write and sponsor some bills this session; their quality and service to his constituents and district is for others to determine. Jackson's direct opposition to Houston Mayor Bill White's clean air initiatives got some press, and earned Jackson the enmity of environmental activists all over the state, even though Jackson's SB 1317 ended up passing the Senate. Republicans liked that piece of pro-business legislation, but some Republicans determined that comments by Jackson last year were worthy of sharp criticism and a possible primary challenge.

On August 1, the Quorum Report carried a statement by former State Republican Executive Committeeman and Texas Medical Board member Tim Turner about why he was exploring the possibility of getting into the race:

The Clear Lake business consultant said that he was approached by a group of party leaders last year who made it clear that they want change. Jackson’s defense of the new business margins tax was what most rankled him, Turner said.

He referenced a June 29, 2006, article in the Pearland Journal where Jackson was quoted at a luncheon as saying, “Most people are OK with higher taxes. It’s the Realtor businesses and big smoke stack industries that get upset.”

“I don’t know what world he’s living in,” Turner said. “Most people are not OK with higher taxes. I most certainly am not.”

When you're an incumbent state senator in a mostly Republican district and your own party starts searching in earnest for a primary challenger, that usually means one of two things: either the party does not feel as if you're toeing the line with sufficient enthusiasm, or they think you are vulnerable and thus an electoral liability. Dissatisfaction with Jackson's performance among party heavyweights combined with a legitimate challenge from Jaworski could create an electoral environment which is decidedly less pleasant than the Senator had been anticipating.

Senator Jackson did not reply to several requests for comment made to his office, although his staff was certainly polite.

The District
With these assessments of Jackson's performance in hand, let's return to the initial idea that SD 11 is in fact a Republican district. My first thought when I looked at SD 11 was that it was not the worst place for a Democrat to run; my own Senate District 30 is much harder ground for Democrats. Certainly, I've seen better and more promising districts, but it did not appear to be rock-bottom-impossible. Others have been heartened by some specific results from last cycle.

"It is a district which certainly has voted Republican in the past when there were a whole lot of different dynamics at play," says Birnberg. "For example, in 2006 [candidate for Texas First Court of Appeals] Jim Sharp spent almost no money and got 46 or 47% of the vote in [SD 11]. And he focused his attention on the bigger vote-getting places like in Harris County. That's during a gubernatorial election when Democrats have less turnout than in presidential years. He didn't have in the entire ten counties one tenth of the money that Jaworski has raised for the one [Senate] district."

The presidential election may shake things out for good or ill relative to Jaworski. Certainly, Democratic turnout is increased during presidential years, but so too is Republican turnout. In 2004, Kerry pulled 34.5%, and many of the other races resembled that split. 2006 was better; along with the Sharp race cited above, Bill Moody got 43.3%, and Hank Gilbert got to 40%.

Eiland thinks the presidential turnout bump represents an opportunity. "I think SD 11 is still a Republican district, but there's a lot of Democrats not voting in certain segments of the district. It looks to me like turning out Democrats is going to be one area that Jaworski will have to capitalize on. That may be easier to do in presidential years than in non-presidential years."

Other action may also make a difference. State Representative Robert Talton is vacating his seat in District 144, the lion's share of which is in SD 11. The Texas GOP would be loathe to lose that seat so resources will be made available there. The race in CD 22 to compete against Congressman Nick Lampson has drawn Talton, Shelley Sekula Gibbs, and will possibly include Sugar Land mayor Dean Hrbacek and 24-year-old Alan Steinberg. All of those campaign workers and volunteers are going to need something to do when the primary is over. The grassroots mobilization may create a Republican ground force that Jackson could take advantage of, assuming he wins against potential primary challenger Taylor and is not so out of favor with local Republican leaders who once sought to replace him that they starve him for grassroots support.

Democrats are not without some logistical advantages. The demographic shift in SD 11 is on, just as it is in other parts of Texas. The population growth in Houston's suburbs and across Galveston County are demonstrable and enormous, with Galveston County growing at a rate sufficient to make it ascendant population-wise within the District, if not dominant. Additionally, Galveston County has long been solidly Democratic. Pearland is getting large, as is League City. All three counties within SD 11 have very active grassroots and progressive organizations, and Brazoria County's Commissioners gained another Democrat in the last election, to move to a 2-2 partisan parity.

Putting It All Together
Birnberg assured me the numbers have been weighed carefully. "I've known Joe for 15 years, and I've never known him to do anything quixotic," he says. "He's taking a long look at it, and while he knows it isn't a done deal, he feels as if it is a doable race. It's a challenging district for a Democrat, but not an impossible district, in my view, by any stretch of the imagination."

Again, there's that cautious optimism, heavy on the optimism. Matt Angle says, "It's a tough district but there's going to be some surprises this year, and he might be one of them." Lloyd Criss goes a step further: "Joe Jaworski's going to be our next senator. He's been working hard, and he'll have a million and half by campaign time. He works tirelessly, he made a good councilman and he'll make a good senator."

The sum total of what we can extrapolate about this race and Jaworski's chances is this: if candidates matter, Jaworski fundamentally alters the playing field because of who he is and what he brings to the table as the Democratic candidate. The areas in which he will have to run are exurban, and in areas all across the country, exurban districts are proving to be elastic and candidate-sensitive, which could be highly beneficial for a candidate like Jaworski. The goal for Jaworski can't be turning the district blue, because that task exceeds our current reach, barring any sort of cataclysmic event. The goal, instead, must be to advance the candidate, and prove to the voters that a strong, representative Democrat that works hard for his constituency is better than a stand-and-salute — or, in Jackson's case, sit-and-be-furniture — Republican.

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