Royce West was not on the ballot in 2006, the year Democrats swept Dallas County and wrested a GOP stronghold into Democrats’ firm grip. But the longtime state senator still earned a spot onstage at the Adam’s Mark Hotel for the victory party, memorably mimicking a Johnny Carson golf swing and serving as hype man for the members of his party who joined him that night in elected office.
“All these Democrats,” he told winning candidates late that night, as favorable returns poured in, “they are fired up.”
And when a reporter turned to him, he summed it up nicely.
“Democrats have long been on the outside looking in,” West told The Dallas Morning News. “We now have the leadership of this county.”
Thirteen years ago, West was a pivotal player in a campaign to flip Dallas County the same way his party now hopes to flip Texas. This year, West aims to be on the ballot himself if the big swing comes, competing against Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who is expected to easily win his own primary. But first, West, the elder statesman in a crowded field with no clear front-runner, has to make it through the March 3 primary.
In 2006, West helped engineer a turnout machine that capitalized on demographic changes to the county, propelling Democrats to victory with the support of black and Hispanic voters. That strategy became a model for flipping other Texas districts and will undergird the Democratic approach in 2020. As he sprints toward this year’s primary, with early voting starting Feb. 18, the 27-year state senator said he’s looking back to 2006 for “the formula that it takes in order to get it done.”
“Look at Dallas County, and Harris County, which just turned blue. You’ve gotta be able to put together coalitions,” he said. “That’s the lesson that I’ve learned.”
The first clues that Dallas County might be ripe for a turnover came in 2004.
George W. Bush beat John Kerry there by nearly 10,000 votes, and Republican candidates for Railroad Commission and Texas Supreme Court won the county. But on the same election night, Dallas Democrat Lupe Valdez shocked the nation by becoming the first openly gay Hispanic woman elected sheriff in the United States. And more Democrats than Republicans pulled the straight-party lever to vote for every candidate on the party’s slate.
A small group of Democrats gathered at West’s law office and began to sketch plans, recalled Domingo Garcia, a former state representative from the area who is now the national president of League of United Latin American Citizens. (LULAC is neutral in the race.) Demographic shifts were benefitting Democrats as white people moved out of the county and black and Hispanic families moved in. The Democratic vote in the county had increased 2 points every election cycle since 1998, the party’s statisticians reported. If Democrats in 2006 could turn out unprecedented numbers of voters of color and build coalitions with white Democrats, they could seize control of the county.
According to interviews with five of the operation’s key players, West was a critical leader of the coordinated campaign, a “trusted messenger” to African American communities both inside and outside his South Dallas district, and a major credibility booster to donors who might otherwise have been skeptical of the effort’s viability. He went on the radio, appeared in television ads, attended church with the Democratic nominee for governor and sponsored fish fries.
“Royce had been an elected official in the area for a long time,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic operative who worked on the campaign. “He did enough work on television, got on the radio enough, that his voice had influence on African American voters beyond the boundaries of his district.”
After 5 p.m., West’s law office and others’ offices turned into phone banks. Volunteers stayed on the lines until 9 p.m., as Garcia recalled. They dialed up “people who had never been called before,” Garcia said — part of an effort to expand the Democratic base. Dozens of judicial candidates pooled resources to fund the campaign.
It was West’s idea, Garcia said, to bus voters straight from church to the polls — an effort that shot up turnout in African American and Hispanic communities on an early voting “Super Sunday.”
West spent thousands of his own campaign funds on a race he was not competing in. When donors were skeptical — could Dallas County ever go blue? — he vouched for the effort, securing crucial dollars.
And West, allies said, was determined to get out the vote in his own district — critical work that many politicians are unwilling to take on when their own seats are not at stake.
“If Royce West’s district did not turn out, we would not have gotten over the line. That’s a fact,” said Jane Hamilton, a Democratic consultant who led the effort.
The result: A Democrat, Jim Foster, won the county’s chief executive job; Dallas elected its first black district attorney, Democrat Craig Watkins, who wept before he took the stage on election night. Dozens of Democrats won benches from Republican judges. And West gained credibility as a political leader.
“He became the power broker of Dallas County,” Garcia said. “Everybody who was running statewide or countywide knew that they had to make a stop at Sen. West’s office. And his support could make you or break you in a countywide race.”
Now the North Texas kingmaker is leaning on those relationships and that record as he competes in his most difficult political fight in decades, battling 11 opponents for a chance to take on Cornyn. West’s team hopes name recognition and support in the Dallas area will get him to the May 26 runoff election, when the top two vote-getters from March’s primary will compete for the party’s nomination.
Coalition building defined West’s long political career. He has the endorsement of all but one of his Democratic Senate colleagues, as well as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who backed West as the “best choice not just for Houston, but for Texas” over a Houston City Council member and a former Houston congressman.
“My path is to make sure, No. 1, I unify African American and Latino voters in the state of Texas,” West said, harkening back to the approach that won his county in 2006. He cited an endorsement from the Texas Tejano Democrats and his top vote-getter status in a recent statewide poll conducted by the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats as evidence that he’s done that.
At the Texas Capitol, West muscled through funding for a new University of North Texas campus in South Dallas, the first public university in the area. He takes pride in a 2009 law that offers stipends to family members who take in children who would otherwise grow up in foster care and a measure establishing dash camera requirements for police officers.
All, he said, required building bipartisan coalitions in a GOP-dominated Legislature where Democrats’ priorities tend to flounder.
West’s challenge will be communicating those legislative achievements to the many voters who pay little attention to the Legislature. West, 67, is a moderate consensus builder at a time when some Texas Democrats want flame-throwers, and an elder statesman when many in his party are eager for new blood. He does not support a Green New Deal or mandatory gun buyback programs.
West said he is “not that person” who “throws bombs and hand grenades 24/7.”
“I’m more focused on getting things done,” he said. “No Democrat can win in Texas without being center-left.”
Polls show West toward the front of a still-shifting pack, though many primary voters remain undecided. He finished the most recent campaign finance reporting period with $526,000 cash on hand. That put him behind just one candidate, combat veteran MJ Hegar, who has positioned herself as the candidate to beat with a high-profile endorsement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
West has often faced scrutiny for his business dealings. As an attorney in Dallas, West has made millions in legal fees representing public entities, including the school districts of Houston, Dallas and Crowley and the cities of Houston and Fort Worth, The Texas Tribune reported in September. In the Texas Senate, he is a leading Democrat on the education committee.
West insisted that his stature as a state senator does not make it easier to secure lucrative clients and said there are no conflicts of interest between his public office and private business.
For now, West is busy crisscrossing the state, including stops in rural areas that rarely hear from Democrats. If he is to win in November, the independent and moderate Republican voters he seeks to bring out will form an important part of his coalition.
But first, he needs to secure Democratic support broad and deep enough to propel him to victory statewide for the first time.
Garcia said the senator’s chances are good.
“If he gets to the runoff, I think he’s the nominee,” Garcia said. “If he’s able to consolidate his North Texas base and expand into other urban areas like Houston, Austin and San Antonio, then I think he will lock it up.”
Disclosure: The University of North Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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