The Magazine

The Bush Democrats

They're not quite everywhere, but there are more of them than you think

Aug 21, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 46 • By MATTHEW REES
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WHEN AL GORE sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1988, three leading members of his Texas steering committee were Ken Armbrister, Hugo Berlanga, and Mark Stiles. All Democratic state legislators, they helped spread Gore's name across Texas, and served as surrogate speakers for him at local candidate forums. Now that Gore is finally the Democratic nominee, however, they're enthusiastically backing his opponent, George W. Bush.

Call them Bush Democrats -- and they're not alone. A recent national Gallup poll found that 14 percent of Democratic voters say they'll be voting for Bush (Gore, by contrast, got just 3 percent of Republicans). This has Bush aides giddy. They're now in the midst of a quiet effort to recruit more high-profile Democrats and independents to publicly back the Republican nominee this fall.

In Texas, Carlos Ramirez, the mayor of El Paso, is campaigning for Bush, and so is Rob Junell, who chairs the state's House appropriations committee. Bush also has the support of Ralph Hall, a Democratic congressman from Texas. In Florida, Bush has enlisted a number of top Democrats: Wayne Mixson, a former lieutenant governor; Dick Greco, the mayor of Tampa; Bob Crawford, the state agriculture commissioner; Jim Naugle, the mayor of Fort Lauderdale; and Steve Uhlfelder, a top aide to Bob Graham when Graham was governor. From California, Bush has signed up Matthew Martinez, a Democratic congressman for the past 18 years. Defeated in his March primary, he was so bitter at how his party treated him he became a Republican late last month.

Bush has also won over some top Democratic party figures. Mark McKinnon and Matthew Dowd have worked for revered Texas politicians like Lloyd Bentsen and the late Bob Bullock, but now they're handling media and polling for Bush. Sandy Kress, a former chairman of the Dallas County Democrats and an early organizer of the Democratic Leadership Council, is one of Bush's education advisers. And Brian Lunde, a former executive director of the DNC who managed Paul Simon's 1988 presidential campaign, will be organizing Bush's Democratic and independent supporters. "Bush has the perfect combination of good character and great competence," says Lunde.

The outreach to Democrats and independents is one piece of Bush's effort to show that as president he would put policy before party. According to his Democratic supporters in the legislature, this is precisely the approach he's taken in Texas. How else, they ask, could Bush have been endorsed for reelection in 1998 by Bullock, the Democratic lieutenant governor and godfather of one of the children of Bush's Democratic opponent, Garry Mauro? (Bush touted this relationship at the Republican convention, where Bullock's widow, Jan, was given a high-profile speaking role.)

Armbrister, who campaigned for Ann Richards in 1994, recalls that shortly after Bush defeated Richards that year he was invited to a one-on-one meeting in the governor's mansion. During their 45-minute chat, Bush asked about Armbrister's interests, while deferring to his years of experience, saying, "I've been around this business but I've never really done it. I hope I can call on you."

Having been on the receiving end of similar pleas from Richards and other governors, Armbrister appreciated the gesture but made little of it -- until Bush personally called him two weeks later, seeking his input on a contentious natural resources bill. "That set the tone," says Armbrister, who lauds Bush as someone who's continued to be "very inclusive" and more interested in the policy part of his job than the politics. "He's the best governor of the four I've worked with during my 17 years in the legislature." (Bush's outreach is a striking contrast to Gore's. Armbrister never heard from Gore after the 1988 campaign, and hasn't forgotten that his work went completely unacknowledged.)

Bush's success in cherry-picking Democrats and organizing them to speak out on his behalf is a small but potent indication of Gore's failure to lock down Democrats, much less win over Republicans. If Gore reverts to type and tries to revive his fortunes by attacking Bush, the Bush Democrats will be more than happy to respond.

As Gore has zinged Bush for Texas's supposedly Third World living conditions, Hugo Berlanga has delivered a pointed response: "I'm not going to allow Vice President Gore to bash Texas, because if he's going to, then he might as well bash the Democrats who have controlled Texas for the last 100 years."

Similarly, Gore tried last month to portray Bush as fiscally irresponsible by pointing to a supposed $ 610 million shortfall in the Texas budget. "Dead wrong," replied Junell. But he didn't stop there. He was angry enough about Gore's charge that he responded in a conference call with national political reporters and then held a media briefing. Gore, said Junell, had "manipulated" the budget figures "for political advantage," while Bush was doing "a great job and we're blessed to have him in Texas."

More generally, the Bush Democrats can share stories of Bush's character. Kress, for example, recounts how Bush wrote a letter endorsing him in a school board race even though he was well known as a Democrat. Or how Bush, in 1993, invited him over to discuss education reform, questioned him for more than an hour, took copious notes, and then asked for the names of a dozen people also knowledgeable about education in Texas (and interviewed them too).

It's a measure of Bush's acceptability that not only are Democrats breaking ranks to support him, they're feeling little heat for doing so. Armbrister says he's received only a couple of angry calls and letters. Similarly, Sandy Kress, who's a partner in the powerhouse Democratic law firm of Akin Gump, has yet to hear any grumbling from his colleagues.

The exception is Carlos Ramirez, the El Paso mayor, who has campaigned with Bush in California and New Hampshire and introduced him at an Austin rally after he'd clinched the nomination. For these heretical acts, the county Democratic organization approved a resolution excommunicating Ramirez from the party. Not that he cared much. The resolution has no practical meaning, and Ramirez still spoke at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

Dowd, who directs the campaign's polling and media planning operations, has a particularly interesting story of how he came to Bush. A former aide to Lloyd Bentsen, Dowd managed the senator's joint bid in 1988 for the vice presidency and the Senate. In 1989, he opened a consulting business, Public Strategies, and stayed active in politics by managing two successful lieutenant governor campaigns for Bullock. Through Bullock, who died of cancer last year, he came to know Bush, and was impressed with his almost nonpartisan approach to governing and his refusal, as Dowd puts it, to "pigeonhole" people on the basis of party affiliation.

Dowd had no intention of joining Bush's presidential campaign -- he was planning a one-year sabbatical from work -- but his Public Strategies colleague McKinnon persuaded him to come aboard. He was deeply involved in devising an advertising strategy for the Republican primaries, but his current mandate is one for which he's especially qualified: boosting Bush's appeal among independents, swing voters, and . . . Democrats.

Matthew Rees is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.