The Texas Observer on women in the legislature

Posted in Around The State, Commentary, Good Stuff, HD-52, Williamson County at 3:44 pm by wcnews

The Texas Observer has an article, Bye-Bye, Boys’ Club, in it’s current issue about how “How Annie’s List Is Revolutionizing Texas Politics”. Much of the focus of the article is on Diana Maldonado’s win in 2008, and Valinda Bolton’s win in 2006. There were some interesting similarities between those two races. Both ran in a district vacated by a retiring male Republican, and the huge sums of money were given to both the GOP challengers by Tom Craddick in the last month an attempt to hold onto both seats. Which he wasn’t able to accomplish.

Here’s an excerpt about Maldonado’s campaign starting back in the spring of 2007.

In the spring of 2007, Diana Maldonado figured she was ready to take her next leap. A former teen mom who’d grown up poor in the border town of Eagle Pass, she’d already made a lifelong habit of exceeding expectations. “Eagle Pass was really a wonderful place to grow up,” she says. “But in that community, you weren’t expected to go to college. Nobody knew how to give kids a blueprint for that. But from the third grade on, I just knew. Somehow I would.”

Somehow she did. While raising two young children, Maldonado worked her way through St. Edward’s University in Austin, graduating magna cum laude. She became an award-winning efficiency expert during 23 years in the state comptroller’s office in Austin and won election in 2003 to the school board in traditionally conservative Round Rock, ultimately becoming the first Latina president of that board. Along the way, she demonstrated that underneath her ebullient personality—Maldonado seems to break into a broad grin every few minutes, and lets loose with a merry, trilling laugh almost as often—was a force to be reckoned with, possessed of “an old-fashioned ‘can-do’ work ethic, personal grit, and an ability to reach across traditional political barriers to build alliances and get practical things done,” as the local Williamson County Sun has effused.

Even though the Round Rock schools had transformed into a statewide model for educational improvements during her tenure, Maldonado couldn’t stomach the thought of a third term. “After countless school board meetings, staying up late, trying to find solutions that at bottom were problems stemming from the state level—poor policies and a lack of funding—I was ready for something else,” she says. “When I’d go to the [Texas] school board conferences, you’d have over 1,000 school districts, and whether they were large or small, rich or poor, there was this common thread that everyone was struggling. That got me started thinking: Maybe I could make more of a difference in the Legislature.”

But how to get there? Williamson County had long been a Republican stronghold, strong enough for its state representative, Mike Krusee, to have won eight terms stretching back to 1993. But Maldonado saw signs that his district was ready to elect a Democrat. Thanks to high-tech employers like Dell and thousands of Austin refugees who had come looking for affordable housing, “the demographics have been changing, and with that change came more Democratic voters and more independents as well,” she says.

Even so, in a year when Democrats were threatening to reverse the Republican majority in the state House, Maldonado’s GOP opponent was sure to rake in plenty of money to fend off a challenge. It would take more than a candidate as gritty and talented as Maldonado; it would take a kind of Democratic campaign that Williamson County had never seen. Which is exactly what unfolded, as soon as Annie’s List got wind of Maldonado’s interest.


This past November, despite an infusion of almost $600,000 into her opponent’s campaign by Republican and big-business groups in the final six weeks, Maldonado became one of four new women legislators to “flip” Republican districts across the state. Over the past three election cycles, Annie’s List candidates have taken eight Republican seats and sent 13 new lawmakers to Austin, setting records for women’s representation in each of the last two sessions. Those women, in turn, are threatening to turn the most powerful boys’ club in Texas into a very different, less dysfunctional place.

There is also an informative history of Annie’s List, and how it was founded because of the change in make up of the Texas Legislature as a result of new districts that were drawn after the last round of redistricting.

For most of the state’s history, the few women who made it to Austin were greeted on their first days with bouquets and corsages—and then expected to sit back and keep quiet. In a 2007 Observer profile, groundbreaking politician Sissy Farenthold recalled to contributing writer Robert Leleux that a few months after her election to the House in 1968, “I read in the newspaper that the governor [Preston Smith] had told a group of Democratic women from Michigan, ‘I feel that I can say in all confidence that within 10 years, a woman will be elected to the Texas Legislature.’ And I was in the Texas Legislature,” along with Barbara Jordan, the future congresswoman from Houston. “So the next morning, I marched right into the governor’s office so that I could introduce myself.” Smith’s reaction is unrecorded. But the message was clear. Farenthold recalled it as “one of the moments when I really got it, really got a glimpse of what women were up against. … Because even if you were nominated, even if you got elected, you still weren’t there.”

Ann Richards’ breakthrough to the governor’s office in 1990 and Kay Bailey Hutchison’s subsequent election to the U.S. Senate changed perceptions a little but did not exactly result in a wave of women being sent to Austin. By fits and starts, the number of women in the Lege did slowly creep upward—until the infamous redistricting spearheaded earlier this decade by U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay. In 2002, five women lost their seats after their districts were turned into Republican redoubts. “Suddenly,” says Rep. Valinda Bolton, whom Annie’s List helped elect in 2006, “there was not a single urban or suburban Anglo Democratic woman in the Legislature.”


The effectiveness of the Annie’s list legislators will not be hurt, this session, by the fact that all of them were among the 64 Democrats who signed a pledge not to support the re-election of Republican Speaker Tom Craddick, crippling his effort to win back the gavel. In December, they were all among the 85 House members who committed to support Joe Straus, the new, less ideological Republican speaker.

At the Lege, the women say they are no longer treated as an exotic or invisible species. In Farenthold’s terms, everybody knows they’re there. Of course, during campaigns, they still run up against the occasional stereotype, like the time last fall when Maldonado was asked if her hairdo was modeled after Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s (the sophisticated, down-sweeping version, not the beehive). “I’ve been wearing it longer and better than Sarah,” she responded. And moved on.

At times, though, it’s appears that running as a woman brings decided advantages in the current climate of “change.” Kent will never forget one day on the trail last summer. “It’s mid-July, and hot hot hot. I’ve been walking the Garland area, knocking on doors, for far more hours than I probably should have been. I come to one more door and knock, knock, knock. I hear some rustling behind the door. You can always tell when someone’s peeked out and decided not to answer.

“So I leave behind some literature, head out and turn down the sidewalk again. I hear the door creaking open back there, and suddenly this man is running after me, calling out, ‘Wait! Wait!’ He says, ‘I want you to know that I’m supporting you.’ I thought, ‘Hmmm—I didn’t even have a chance to tell you what I’m standing for.’ But he says, ‘I’m supporting every woman who runs this time. Men have run everything for so long, I’m supporting the women!’

“And you know, I was about to pack it in for the day. But after that, I couldn’t help wanting to go and knock on 20 more doors.”

Just another one of those unintended consequences of the Craddick/DeLay style of governing that continues to pay dividends for the Democrats.

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