In a movie season where Michael Moore's incendiary Fahrenheit 9/11 has questioned the Republican Party at the presidential level, former Tulane professor Paul Stekler's documentary Last Man Standing provides a look at Republican campaigning at the level of state representative. Fascinating in its detail, suspenseful in the tradition of a great mystery novel, the picture suggests that a singular electoral contest out on the dusty Texas plains was either the beginning of the end or, contrarily, ended as a beginning.
A professional political scientist who has chosen to "publish" his research by making films rather than exclusively writing articles for academic journals, Stekler (now at the University of Texas) has earlier made documentaries about George Wallace and the good-old-boy political system in Louisiana. He was also one of the producers of the award-winning Eyes on the Prize TV series about the American civil rights movement. Last Man Standing is Stekler's account of the 2002 race between two-term incumbent Republican Rick Green and Democratic challenger Patrick Rose for the Texas State House of Representatives seat from the Luling/Johnson City area that was once represented by future Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson.
A part of the so-called "Solid South" that voted for Democratic politicians for a hundred years after the Civil War, Texas has now become one of the staunchest of the Republican "Red" states. As recently as the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Gov. Ann Richards was able to mock fellow Texan George H.W. Bush, but his son would soon capture her job and then move on to the White House. Today, Republicans control Texas state government, holding majorities in both houses of the legislature as well as occupying the governor's mansion. And a recent Congressional redistricting plan spearheaded by Republican Congressman Tom DeLay threatens to shift seven U.S. House seats from Democratic to Republican. To fight DeLay's plan, Texas Democrats tried repeatedly to deny legislative quorums, but they were eventually defeated.
In the 2002 election, Texas Democrats tried to win back executive state control by nominating wealthy Hispanic businessman Tony Sanchez for governor. To supplement his campaign war chest, Sanchez had personal resources normally associated with Republican candidates. For lieutenant governor, the Democrats nominated Ron Kirk, the African-American former mayor of Dallas. The Democrats thought they had put together a dream ticket that would appeal to a historic Democratic base while reaching into the middle and professional classes that Sanchez and Kirk also represented. But with strong backing from President Bush, incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry carried the day, and the Republicans swept the election for every statewide position. The question Stekler asks is if the Democrats can win an election anywhere in a state they used to dominate. Hence his look at Green vs. Rose in what once was LBJ Country and now was Bush Central.
At the time of their race, incumbent Green was a 31-year-old unabashed right-winger ending his second term as state representative. He appealed to religious fundamentalists, bragged about being from the Rush Limbaugh generation and ran on his record as one the state's most conservative legislators. As he campaigned, he urged voters to remember to vote "Green like money." Early on, Stekler points his camera at picnickers, parade goers and people on the street, people in cowboy gear, professional attire and people in the rough clothes of the working class. Most all of them declare an inclination to vote Republican.
But Green found a worthy and determined opponent in Rose, a 24-year-old Princeton-educated law student at the time of the election living with his parents and working in his family business. Rose believed that Green was out of step with the true interests of his constituency, many of whom were Hispanics who had moved into service positions in the area. He was so determined to get his message across that he worked extraordinarily hard, going door to door and into malls and shops and other public places where he could interact with voters. Rose was so persistent a campaigner that Green began to complain that Rose had an advantage because he "had time" to campaign so relentlessly. Pretty soon, Rose had mounted a genuine challenge, and when Green was hurt by several ethics violations, including accepting significant financial support from a convicted felon guilty of running a Ponzi scheme in the electoral district, the race became a dead heat. The opening and closing of the film show the two candidates trying to connect with voters as they approach the polls, Rose talking about honest governmental leadership and Green accusing his opponent of lying about Green's record. I shall not reveal the climax, since Stekler has obviously endeavored mightily to sustain the tension to the very end. Your reaction to the news of the winner will presumably rest on your own politics. Stekler would have it that the outcome of this race is a harbinger of what is to come. We will get at least an inkling of whether he's right on Nov. 2.
- Director Paul Stekler shows how the state House of Representatives race between Republican Rick Green and Democrat Patrick Rose is instructive of Texas politics in the documentary, Last Man Standing.