Harris County Democratic Party: A Brief History By Blake Ellis, Ph.D.
The Harris County Democratic Party (HCDP) first became active in 1836 as part of the larger organization of the Texas Democratic Party. In newly independent Texas, the Democratic Party was the only viable political party in the state. African Americans, women, and many Latinos were excluded from participation in the party, and the organization was frequently allied with the state’s conservative establishment.
Although its founding was rooted in racism, the HCDP ultimately transformed into one of the country’s foremost laboratories of progressive change. By the 1950s, national Democrats had begun to embrace progressive economic reform and were slowly moving in the direction of embracing civil rights for racial minorities and full equality for women. Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency (1933-1945) had inspired rank-and-file Democrats in Harris County almost as much as it had frustrated the conservative party establishment. Because HCDP remained firmly entrenched in the conservative wing of the party, activists from the “loyalist-liberal” wing of the party began to apply pressure from the outside. In 1953, Frankie Randolph and Billie Carr founded the Harris County Democrats to organize loyalist Democrats across the county. They campaigned for Ralph Yarborough’s three bids for governor, gaining more votes in each race. They remained loyal to Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, even as the HCDP supported Governor Alan Shivers and his “Democrats for Eisenhower” campaign. With Ralph Yarborough’s election to the US Senate in 1957, Harris County Democrats gained an ally in Washington and began to make inroads in the local party structure.
By the 1960s, progressive Democrats were becoming more entrenched in the leadership of the Harris County Democratic Party. Frankie Randolph, leader of the party’s loyalist wing, had been replaced as National Committeewoman because she refused to support Lyndon Johnson’s 1960 presidential campaign. Yet her movement to take back the HCDP from conservatives was gaining steam. In 1966, Barbara Jordan became Texas’s first African American state senator since Reconstruction, and her election symbolized the growing influence of black Democrats in Harris County. Supporters of labor unions held increasing influence, particularly through their strong presence in groups such as the Area 5 Democrats. Although the Anglo establishment still dominated the county, Tejano Democrats were beginning to organize, especially in support of Henry B. Gonzalez’s 1958 run for governor (he finished second in the primary to incumbent Price Daniel).
In 1972, Democratic women broke through in Houston and at the state level. Running as a Democrat, Barbara Jordan became the first African American woman from the South elected to the United States House of Representatives. At the state level, Corpus Christi legislator Sissy Farenthold made it to the runoff for governor, where she lost narrowly. In the process, she unseated the sitting governor and lieutenant governor, both establishment conservatives. In Houston, she drew strong support from Harris County Democrats and reached out to new grassroots groups like the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. By the 1980s, the party’s liberal wing had largely integrated into the activities of the HCDP, though fierce debate was a mainstay of party activities. Harris County provided a solid margin of victory for the successful Democratic ticket in the 1982 statewide campaign. That year witnessed the election of such Democratic notables as Ann Richards (Treasurer), Lloyd Bentsen (US Senator), Mark White (Governor), Bob Bullock (Lieutenant Governor), Jim Mattox (Attorney General), Jim Hightower (Agriculture Commissioner), and Gary Mauro (Land Commissioner).
By the 1990s, Harris County had moved from a Democratic to a Republican county as conservatives gravitated towards the GOP. Taking the reins in 1998, Sue Schechter began to lay the groundwork for the party’s rebuilding. During her tenure, she focused on registering new voters, creating a user-friendly party office, upgrading technology, and engaging the party’s diverse constituencies. Building on that foundation, Gerry Birnberg led the party from 2003 to 2012. During his tenure, the party focused on building strong countywide tickets, growing closer to parity with Republicans. In 2006, Democrats won the majority of straight ticket ballots, and political analysts began to see Harris County as a national battleground.
In 2008, Democrats finally broke through, running a strong slate of judicial candidates and winning most of the countywide offices. Since that time, the county has vacillated between solid Democratic showings in presidential years and strong Republican victories in mid-term elections. In 2017, precinct chairs selected Lillie Schechter to lead the party. Her focus is on running strong candidates in every race, ensuring that the party is fully staffed, securing the party’s financial future, and continually engaging grassroots constituencies. Lane Lewis led the party from 2012 through early 2017. During his tenure the party placed more emphasis on running a strong mail ballot program and the democratic clubs throughout the county grew in size and activity. As the 2018 election approaches, party activists are leading the resistance to President Trump’s devastating policies and organizing to win the 2018 mid-term elections. The Harris County Democratic Party is at the forefront of national politics. If the country’s third-largest county turns reliably blue, the progressive possibilities are endless.