From blue to red: Victoria becomes home for Republican leaders

Melissa Crowe By Melissa Crowe

March 16, 2013 at 4:05 p.m.
Updated March 16, 2013 at 10:17 p.m.

16 x 9 blue to red

16 x 9 blue to red

Victoria County voters have put their Yellow Dog Democrat days to sleep.

Once dominated by the Democratic Party, Victoria County has made an almost complete shift to Republican leadership over three decades, to the point where area poll watchers say candidates need an "R" behind their names to win an office.

The county's Democratic leadership is down to seven of 25 offices with the recent announcement of County Treasurer Sean Kennedy switching to the Republican Party.

Don Truman, a former Victoria County Republican Party chairman, said Democratic candidates wake up the day after the election and realize they almost lost because of straight-party Republican voting.

"In your own best interest, you'll run as a Republican," he said.

Democratic County Judge Don Pozzi was re-elected to a fourth term by a tight margin in 2010 - 53 percent to 47 percent - to Matt Ocker, a newcomer on the Republican ballot.

Another Democrat, Tax Assessor/Collector Rena Scherer, won re-election to a sixth term in 2012, 53 percent to 46 percent, against Republican newcomer Donna Rodriguez.

Other than as a strategy for election, party affiliations have little relevance on the area level, political observers said.

"The way things used to be, - even though people openly acknowledged that they were Republican - they had to run as a Democrat at the local level because that's the way people voted," Truman said.

The change is not from evolving area politics, he said. Victoria County was - and is - conservative.

"The only thing that has changed is the label," Truman said. "How things are done, whether they're liberal or conservative, none of that has changed nor will it change. It's all based upon who's in charge."

Kelli Gill, the Victoria County Democratic Party chairwoman, said the change in the county's party affiliation is expected.

"Obviously we want lots of officials with 'D' behind their names, but we have to be realistic and practical and help boost the state," Gill said.

Where party affiliations play a key role is on the state and national level, Gill said.

"It's ... a blow to the number of elected officials who have 'D' behind their names, but ultimately, the party will continue moving forward," Gill said. "Victoria County is going to at least help Texas turn back into a swing state."

She plans to step down as the Democratic Party leader but will remain active, supporting education and women's health issues through the party.

Historically, Southern states voted Democratic in opposition of the congressional Reconstruction Acts that came out of the Civil War.

The legislation was viewed as a means to contain the South and prevent segregation. Even years after Reconstruction, "Republican" was a hated word in the South.

The Civil War generation in Texas established a precedent of electing Democrats that lasted from 1880 to Dwight Eisenhower's election in 1950.

A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that the current proportion of independents, not Republicans or Democrats, is higher than at any point in the past 70 years in the U.S.

The percentage of self-described Democrats fell from 36 percent four years ago to 32 percent.

However, Republican identification has remained largely stable, the report found. Self-described Republicans are at 24 percent today. They were at 25 percent in 2008, according to that report.

Kennedy, the county treasurer, said that before running for office he identified as an independent.

"My job as treasurer is one that I've never really seen as being Democratic or Republican but one that serves all the people of Victoria County," Kennedy said.

As the Democratic national platform changed, Kennedy said, he could not continue supporting it. He said he has not received any criticism for his decision.

That platform - stances on family, education and gun ownership - caused many once-diehard Democrats to change parties, Truman said.

"Thirty years ago, they (Victoria County voters) were all Democrats," he said.

In 1986, Jerry Nobles, now 74, became the first Republican officeholder in Victoria County, opening the gate to more Republican leadership.

He was initially elected to the commissioners court in 1982, running unopposed on the Democratic ticket for Precinct 2. Soon after, he switched.

"I had no inclination to run as a Democrat and then automatically switch over to the Republican Party," Nobles said. "I think I made the right decision at the right time."

As late as 1978, only 150,000 Texans voted in the Republican primary, compared with 1.8 million who voted in the Democratic primary, according to The Handbook of Texas Online.

But in the 1980s, the Republican Party started gearing up, and more members started running and winning. The state had just elected its first Republican governor since Reconstruction, William Clements, who promised to reduce taxes and cut the size of the state government, according to The Handbook of Texas Online.

Truman said the change in Victoria is not a party issue but a sociological one.

"Society puts pressure on people to conform to its standards," he said. "Those standards were that you had to be a Democrat; now it's that you have to be a Republican. It has no real effect on what people think politically."

Truman said he won't be surprised if more Democratic county officials change party lines before the next election.

He pointed to the former county clerk, Val Huvar, who held office for 55 years until he lost in the Democratic Primary against Robert Cortez in 2010.

"I teased him for over 20 years to run as a Republican," Truman said.

Nobles, the former commissioner, admitted he received some complaints about his decision, but his election history tells another story.

He served five subsequent terms on the Republican ticket until his retirement in 2006.

Republican Kevin Janak now leads that precinct.

Since Nobles' election, commissioners in precincts 3 and 4 have taken on Republican leadership, and there are Republicans in four district courtrooms and two county courts-at-law. Two justices of the peace, the county criminal district attorney, sheriff and three constables are all GOP members.

Janak said it boils down to the quality and integrity of the candidate, not the "D" or the "R" behind his or her name.

"It's the American way," he said. "It's up to the voters to decide if that person's views represent the majority of their beliefs."

A lifelong Victoria resident, Janak said he did not notice whether Nobles' 1986 decision was the gateway to the county turning red. Despite the majority change from Democrat to Republican, Janak said Victoria voters' beliefs have not changed.

"I represent everybody in Victoria County," Janak said. "Everyone - because that is my job. That's it."

Thirty years from now, the Hispanic vote will be "the deciding factor" for whether Victoria County or Texas sees another party shift, said Gill, the Democratic Party chairwoman.

"The focus has always been: How do we get the Hispanics out to vote?" Gill said. "Even in The Valley, they have difficulty getting Hispanics to vote."

Hispanic voters turned out in near record-setting numbers in November 2012 to support the re-election of President Barack Obama over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Pew Research Hispanic Center found 71 percent of Hispanic voters supported Obama.

According to the U.S. Census, Hispanics make up nearly half - 44.5 percent - of Victoria County's total population. Nationwide, the Hispanic population is projected to more than double by 2050, according to U.S. Census projections.

Although the census does not have specific projections for Victoria County, the Texas Education Agency reported Hispanic students made up 61 percent of the Victoria school district in the 2011-12 year, indicating that Victoria County's Hispanic population is positioned for growth.

Michael Cloud, chairman of the Victoria County Republican Party, said the GOP is looking with interest at the growing Hispanic population.

"We are not just looking for voters but for candidates and for leaders," he said, adding that Texas has a significant number of Hispanics involved and interested in elected office.

"If we Republicans can educate the population about our core values ... those values that brought our country to prominence ... I think there won't be any problem in attracting voters from any demographic."



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