Houston's Ethnic Diversity Shapes Race For Delegates

As the Obama and Clinton camps dug in last week to prepare for the March 4th Texas showdown, the kickoffs of their respective Houston headquarters underscored the differences in their supporters in the second most diverse city in America. And with delegates allocated by congressional apportionment, these racial and ethnic lines could well be an indicator of who will emerge from the Lone Star state with the most delegates.

The Obama grassroots is working out of a dilapidated cinder block structure in the Houston third ward, next to an iron-gated salon and the Green Chalice Culture Center and across the street from a mortuary. There are signs of life, however--in the Subway about to open in a new strip mall, in the restoration of a few of the beautiful old early last century brick homes in the surrounding neighborhood. But merely walking through the door of the volunteer office conjures thoughts of the city wiring codes.

For the Kickoff, the tiny room was packed with at least 150 Obama supporters listening to a local rapper and state reps. Another couple hundred enthusiasts--the room could not hold another limb--spilled onto the sidewalk and into the street. This was a more blue-collar crowd, evenly divided between black and white, than would show for the Clinton Kickoff next day. There were few Hispanics and none (that I could see) of the various other Houston ethnicities that make the Clinton coalition in Houston remarkable. Barack Obama has some work to do in reaching out to the Asian communities, the communities from the Indian sub-continent, and the various Spanish-speaking peoples in Houston. Therefore, planting an Obama flag in Houston's third ward only would be a poor tactical decision. (Indeed a week later the official Houston Obama HQ opened on the edge of downtown, in an ever-so-slowly gentrifying and culturally neutral district.) Obama should sweep state senate district 13, which encompasses the third ward--no matter what. This primary district, along with its sister district in Dallas, also overwhelmingly African-American, also delegate-rich, are where Obama will be able to deny Clinton a large victory in Texas. Because African-Americans turned out in large numbers to vote in 2004 and 2006 here in Texas, these two districts alone will deliver more delegates than the six Mexican-American districts (Hispanic voter turnout has been low) Clinton might carry.

Hillary Clinton's appeal to all ethnicities, not just Anglo and Latino, is her strength in Texas. Last November at a Houston fundraiser for Clinton, I was struck by the demographics of the turnout. Here was something I had never seen before: a room of five hundred women (and a few men) just about evenly divided among white, black, Asian, Hispanic and Indian, all of whom had paid a few hundred dollars and dressed up (I was lost in a sea of saris) to have afternoon tea with Hillary. When her plane from Iowa was late, I talked with a group of Hindi women. The conversation came around to the other candidates in the race. "Barack Obama is good, too," one woman, the wife of a Rice professor, said. Her friends and relatives tentatively assented, although a few looked uncertain. "But I don't think the country is quite ready for him. I think it's ready for her." Inasmuch as she meant Houston the woman is right. Except for African-Americans and younger Hispanics, ethnic Houston is not quite ready for Obama, and there isn't enough time for the various communities here to get to know him before March 4th.

Not that the local Obama supporters don't have their strengths. In chatting with two African-American women at the Kickoff, before the room grew too noisy, I asked them first about Sheila Jackson Lee, the African-American Congresswoman who is both a local powerbroker and a supporter of Clinton. "She's not going to matter as much as most people think," Camilla Jackson said. We were sitting in the heart of Lee's congressional district. In fact, Obama volunteers are already working "The Heights," a predominantly Latino neighborhood that is also part of Lee's district. Camilla and her friend Alfreda Henry, like the speakers at the Clinton Kickoff, exemplify an important way the Texas primary is different from those that have gone before. At the Clinton Kickoff, each of the speakers (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Mexican-American) mentioned "change." Several spoke of "hope." So many Democrats, for both candidates, have by now internalized Obama--whether they know it or not. Effortlessly and feelingly, Camilla zeroed in on three elements of the Obama message. "We have to be willing to sacrifice and help this country," she said. "We have an individual responsibility, and we have to know that change doesn't come overnight

Whatever their different strengths, both Texas campaigns are already spending big on TV, in both English and Spanish. Last night in the key 6-7 PM slot, Clinton and Obama each ran four ads. That was eight commercials, first from one, then the other, as if they were a tag team, in just one hour of local news.