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Neutral political parties, detached elected leaders led to rise of Lauren Davis, Sandra Crenshaw

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

Republican and Democratic leaders unwilling to crusade against candidates they fear would hurt party’s image.

Lauren Davis and Edwin Flores
Dallas County Council of Republican Women hosted a debate between county judge candidates Lauren Davis and Edwin Flores at Studio Movie Grill of I-75 in Dallas, Texas on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. (Lawrence Jenkins/Special Contributor) (Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)

By Gromer Jeffers Jr.

The March 1 Texas primaries revealed the inability of Republicans and Democrats to control their nomination process in order to slate their “strongest” candidates and avoid extremism that could lead to political disaster.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Dallas County.

In the GOP race for county judge, Lauren Davis stunned Dallas ISD trustee Edwin Flores to win the Republican nomination against incumbent Democrat Clay Jenkins. And in the Texas House District 100 race, Democrats gave former Dallas council member Sandra Crenshaw, now a perennial candidate involved in several controversies, a first-place finish and a spot in the May 24 runoff against little-known Democrat Venton Jones.

The situations showcase the weakness of the Texas political party apparatus and the elected officials who are supposed to be guardians of their party’s image. There was a time when nominees from both parties were argued over in smoke-filled rooms and picked in a mostly closed convention process. Now the selection of party nominees mimics general elections, since voters are encouraged to participate in the process and party leaders often stay neutral.

That means political parties are often rolling the dice on choosing standard bearers for their parties.

Kudos to Davis and Crenshaw. They have proved to be savvy politicians who don’t care what their party’s leadership thinks of them. Good or bad, that’s democracy.

But primary elections are already plagued by low voter participation and by extremists from both sides forcing political discourse and policy to move far from the middle. If political parties and elected leaders can’t develop a slate of candidates they truly like, the general election becomes a farce.

Lauren Davis and Edwin Flores
Dallas County Council of Republican Women hosted a debate between county judge candidates Lauren Davis and Edwin Flores at Studio Movie Grill of I-75 in Dallas, Texas on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. (Lawrence Jenkins/Special Contributor) (Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)

In the county judge race, many local Republican leaders believe that Davis is too extreme to beat Jenkins in the November general election. She’s against mandates for masks and vaccinations that supporters say were necessary to combat the coronavirus pandemic. She believes that “mandates are a violation of our individual rights,” and that she’d leave it to individuals to decide what’s best for them.

But Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch, who is fighting for political survival after a Democratic Party-controlled redistricting plan made his seat more favorable for a Democratic candidate, expressed concern about Davis before the election. He raised the issue of her voting record and residency, although Davis and her lawyer maintained that she is eligible to run for the office.

All this comes as some Dallas County Republicans want to shed the notion that their candidates are too close to the fringe and move closer to the center, where most Dallas County voters reside.

“We need to grow our activism to be more well-rounded,” said Dallas County Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Stoddard-Hajdu. “We simply are not going to win races from the far right. I don’t care what your brand of conservatism is. That’s just the truth, so unless or until we can work together and understand that, we’re gonna keep losing.”

Stoddard-Hajdu conceded that she wanted GOP candidates who are not extreme, but she said she wouldn’t use her leadership role to get involved in primary contests. Typically, Republican and Democratic Party leaders are neutral in such situations.

“I’m taking the advice of the Republican Party of Texas and I’m staying out of it,” she said of not publicly supporting Flores or any primary candidate. “There are people within the party who have urged me to do things, but I just don’t feel like it’s right. The voters need to make their own decision.”

Stoddard-Hadju said if she had taken a position against Davis, it would have “poured kerosene on the fire.”

“I’m afraid that that would have pushed the party further apart, rather than trying to bring it back together,” she said.

The problem for Republicans is that few others took a stand, especially in a county where they are trying to woo conservatives in communities of color. But where was the united front of elected leaders pushing hard for Flores in Dallas County?

Give Davis credit. She’s a gifted campaigner with a clear message that appealed to Dallas County Republicans. As some Republicans want to moderate for a Dallas County audience, Davis is defiantly on the hard right with the majority of Republican voters.

National themes have overtaken local flavor, so Stoddard-Hadju and her Democratic Party counterparts have to push more discerning voters into primary elections.

Democrats also have problems, though they are comfortably in control of Dallas County politics.

Almost no elected Democrat wants to see Crenshaw in the Texas House. But very few of them spoke out during the March 1 primary, including Dallas County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kristy Noble. Like the local GOP, Democratic Party leaders remain neutral during primaries.

“We as the Democratic Party support all Democrats and we know that there is a runoff coming up in that race, and we encourage everyone to get out and support their candidate in any way that they can, volunteering or financially,” Noble said.

Sandra Crenshaw
Sandra Crenshaw speaks in the public hearing forum at the Dallas Landmark Commission, before they voted to remove the Confederate War Memorial that currently stands in front of the downtown convention center on Monday, March 4, 2019 at Dallas City Hall. Images of the memorial are displayed behind Carter. (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)

That’s certainly the company line, but many Democrats are scared that Crenshaw will prevail in the runoff.

Crenshaw has run for public office numerous times. She’s active in her community and has a grasp of politics. She’s guaranteed a certain amount of votes in an election, and it’s up to her opponents to overcome her name recognition and guile.

She’s talked about her bouts with mental illness and has had two strokes, so it’s admirable that she’s still in the game.

Crenshaw has a history of controversy, including a 2008 incident at a precinct convention for the presidential primary, where she fled with caucus materials and was chased to a public safety building by supporters of Barack Obama, who went on to be president.

Still, Crenshaw remains formidable. She spent virtually nothing on her campaign, while Jones raised $20,000, which is indicative of how fellow Democrats and donors took Crenshaw for granted in a seat once held by Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson and currently in the grasp of Jasmine Crockett, who is running to replace Eddie Bernice Johnson in Congressional District 30.

No current Texas lawmaker backed Jones’ candidacy. And Marquis Hawkins, also in the contest, didn’t list any state representative or Senate endorsements, either. Another District 100 primary candidate, Daniel Clayton, was backed by state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie and state Rep. Terry Meza of Irving.

In areas with bolder leadership from elected officials, fringe candidates wouldn’t have a chance.

In Texas they do.

In 2000 Gene Kelly, a former military lawyer, was the 2000 Democratic nominee for Senate against incumbent Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. His success was due largely to voters confusing him with the famous dancer and screen idol of the same name.

Gene Kelly
A drenched Gene Kelly twirls around a lamppost as he performs a song-and-dance number in the 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain.” The grey wool suit Kelly wore in the famous scene is expected to fetch more than $20,000 in a memorabilia auction Friday at Heritage Auctions in Dallas.

In 2006 Kelly was back again, forcing Democrat and eventual nominee Barbara Ann Radnofsky of Houston into a runoff for the Senate nomination against Hutchison. The runoff prompted Radnofsky to send out mailers and fundraising appeals stating “the dancer is dead.” She dubbed her rival Gene “can’t dance.”

There are folks who don’t like political parties acting like political machines, but sometimes it’s necessary.

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