Thursday, June 29, 2006

RIP: Doyle Willis, Fighting Democrat


Due to deaths in my own sprawling, extended family (including one in Fort Worth, oddly enough), I missed this obituary for one Doyle Willis

I am ashamed to say I never heard of the man.  I'm old enough that I should have.  Along the way, I discovered an interesting voice in Texas politics, one Bud Kennedy at the "Startlegram." 

'For all the working-class people of Texas, Doyle was our guy'


In My Opinion


FORT WORTH - Taps sounded Monday for the all-time champion of Texas veterans, a former state senator buried at 98 in a custom pine box.

When Doyle Willis was born in a Kaufman County log cabin, cars were still new and the Texas Capitol had been open less than 20 years.

He served there off and on for half a century, arguing and scrapping if necessary for the needs of police officers, firefighters, schoolteachers, children, older adults and most of all, Fort Worth.

Back then, a Democrat would fight. Willis brought four years of World War II combat experience and a Bronze Star medal to Austin, and never abandoned his fellow American veterans or their families whenever they needed help from Austin.

Whoa, there!  I can take that one of two ways, "a Democrat would fight," and one way makes those fighting words. 

As I read on, I understood that Bud Kennedy was not making the mistake that Democrats largely aren't veterans or won't fight (you hear that a lot these days ... from people who never served).  No, instead the author was talking about Willis' mission as a public servant, so I put my hackles back in their box and chided myself for being too quick to raise them. 

The people and issues Doyle Willis fought for are our priorities, or rather when they are our priorities, Democrats win

As an honor guard stood ready to fire a salute, former Texas labor leader Gary Horton of Galveston listed more Texans who counted on Willis.

“He was the friend of the carpenters, the plumbers, the pipefitters, the autoworkers,” said Horton, a former AFL-CIO official. “For all the working-class people of Texas, Doyle was our guy.”

Men in shirtsleeves and women in print dresses mingled with former state lawmakers and leaders at his funeral, a simple service that drew mostly old friends from his home neighborhoods of Oakhurst and Riverside to the First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth.

The attendees of Doyle Willis' funeral are very much the beneficiaries of his public service.  Let it be said, the guy was a mensch.  He also abided by Boadicea's second criterion of leadership:  he prepared his successors. 

Former House Speaker Gib Lewis of Fort Worth and I shared a row of honorary pallbearers, along with Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders. Willis wrote us both letters on a 1927 Royal typewriter, but Lewis said we definitely weren’t the only targets of Willis’ advice.

“Doyle took a lot of people under his wing,” Lewis said with a grin, remembering a 1976 election when a young Lewis staffer named Mike Millsap won a Texas House seat.

At 6 o’clock on the morning after Millsap won, his home phone rang.

“Mike, this is Doyle Willis,” a voice growled on the other end.

“Congratulations. Now here’s what you need to do in Austin,” and Willis delivered a 30-minute early-morning lecture on the inner workings of the Texas Legislature.

By then, Willis had already served off and on for 30 years, chairing four special commissions that helped write Texas laws on child abuse. He also wrote the Texas civil service laws that protect police officers, firefighters and other government workers from arbitrary or political firings.

OK, so seeing as how Gib Lewis was the future then and is the past now, what about the future of Texas Republicans?  Well, while I was trying to figure out if Bud Kennedy's dig about Democrats who would fight was a goad or a gloat, I found this story from Mr. Kennedy about the recent Democrats' convention up in Fort Worth: 

Even the party's ticket is younger than usual. Bell, who spoke Friday night, is 46. Today, the convention will hear from lieutenant governor nominee Maria Luisa Alvarado of San Antonio and U.S. Senate nominee Barbara Ann Radnofsky of Houston, both not yet 50.

"The difference between this year and when we came here six years ago is like the difference between night and day," said David Van Os, an Austin labor lawyer who is running against Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican.

"Six years ago, the party leaders had a defeatist attitude. They were afraid to speak out. ... Now, there's a lot of enthusiasm."

This is still the Democratic Party that seems more like a gathering of microparties, from the Motorcycle Rights Caucus and the Environmental Caucus to the Progressive Populist Caucus and the Stem Cell Research Caucus. The exhibit hall has not one but two booths devoted to changing marijuana laws.

But six years ago, I don't remember a Pro-Life Democrats booth.

And I don't remember anything called a Christian Democratic Network, or the Network of Spiritual Progressives Caucus, which calls for restoring "religion and spirituality" to political leadership.

Emphasis mine. 

Look, you could say something about dirty politics in any age, but the challenge of ours is the necessity of overcoming the influence of Big Money in elections.  Now that we have plural generations raised to think that being a sociopath is virtuous, this is a toxic combination for our democracy.  Candidates are bought, law is sold.  This isn't a matter of left versus right, or even liberal versus conservative (and even Republicans are now switching to Democrat).  The challenge is to build a middle-class party that can fight for the interests of most Americans while defending America and its principles from enemies foreign and domestic.  In the simplest terms, this means rediscovering the party of Doyle Willis. 

Concretely, that means building a progressive Democratic party that can beat the GOP and the DLC, the corporate party whose appearance of bi-partisanship is really just bi-parasiteship

Before I leave you, let me show you a recent Bud Kennedy piece on the state of the Republicans.  It gives you a notion of the problems the Republican party is having, now that their little game of exploiting the incurious by braying about boogeymen is starting to unravel.  Compare: 

One of the top-selling Republican keepsakes at the state convention this weekend is a T-shirt with an unmistakable message of border bigotry: "Keep America Beautiful! Put Up the Wall!"

Three blocks from the Alamo and an earlier failed wall, Texas Republicans are building all sorts of barriers, dividing not only nations but also fellow Republicans.

The same souvenir stand is selling a button with a wishful thought: "Wouldn't It Be Great ... McCain-Perry 2008."

A Houston-area delegate wrinkled her nose.

"I think that stinks," Betty Callaway said.

"Both of them."

At their first state convention in 14 years without a George W. Bush to elect or re-elect, some Texas Republicans have returned to their feuding ways.

"McCain lacks character," Callaway said, adding that Gov. Rick Perry should not have signed off on a new business tax system.

"I don't have any use for him," she said, unfolding a campaign handout giving Perry credit for Texas congressional redistricting and saying that he "led the way to develop a new, fair map."

"When Tom DeLay was investigated over this, Perry didn't lift one finger to help," she said. "Now, he 'led the way?'"

If DeLay seemed like old news in a convention more worried about Laredo than Washington, Bush seemed almost like an opponent for his wall-free, worker-friendly immigration reform plan.

The "Keep America Beautiful" T-shirts were selling at a rate of about one per minute, according to vendor Jim Lewis of Blue Sky Advertising in Austin.

"People are buying three or four at a time," he said. "They want anything about the border."

On the other hand, the McCain-Perry button was a flop. Lewis brought 200 but had sold only a few.

"They don't like McCain's position on the border," he said. He made the button after reading McCain-Perry speculation on the Web, he said. "I thought people would like it. They don't."

Meanwhile, at the other end of the vendors' aisle in the convention center, three Houston Republicans sat almost shunned.

While delegates lined up at U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's booth -- where T-shirts called for protecting America's borders, language and "culture" -- almost nobody stopped to talk with representatives from the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.

In about 10 minutes, I saw only one person stop to talk with delegates from the largest organization for Hispanic Republicans. Some delegates walked around the stand in an obviously wide curve as if the booth featured live alligators.

"I've been cussed out a couple of times already," said Jerry Bustamante of Houston, secretary of the state RNHA.

Yeah, "they want anything about the border."  Kinda like these guys

Two parties headed in opposite directions.