It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that Texas’s role in national politics today is as big as the Lone Star state. Only a generation ago the heart of Texas was “Johnson Country” — solidly Democratic. Today it is solidly Republican. Not a single statewide office is currently held by a Democrat. The state’s former governor, George W. Bush, is the third Texan — after his father and Lyndon Johnson — to serve as President since 1963. And the Texas brand of Republicanism he brought to Washington has come to dominate the national stage.
So a challenge to an incumbent Republican Texas legislator by an upstart 24-year-old Democrat with a Princeton education should have resulted in a predictable defeat. But as dramatically captured in Last Man Standing: Politics — Texas Style, Patrick Rose’s challenge of Rick Green was proof that nothing stands still for long in American politics. Some of Texas’s leading political lights, whose very names demonstrate the pull of the state’s politics on the nation — Bush strategist Karl Rove, former Governor Ann Richards, Clinton appointees Henry Cisneros and Paul Begala, and writer Molly Ivins — help decode the state’s electoral dynamics, illuminating national politics in the process.
Patrick Rose (left) and Rick Green (right), vying for the Texas House of Representatives.
In 2002, Rick Green epitomized the Republican ascendancy in Texas. A charismatic Christian conservative, Green was young — just 31 years old — and a proven politician and gifted campaigner. To top off the picture of Republican dominance, the district he represented in the State House of Representatives included Lyndon Johnson’s old hometown. So Green is more than a little confident — and more than a little contemptuous — when Patrick Rose comes home from Princeton and declares against him as a Democrat. It isn’t difficult for the youthful Rose to get the Democratic nomination. No one is lining up for what seems a sure sacrifice in a “safe” GOP district.
But Last Man Standing meticulously delves beneath the surface — the filmmakers shot 200 hours of footage over five months — and stereotypes of Texas politics fall by the wayside. For one thing, Texas itself is on the cusp of a sweeping demographic change that threatens to unsettle the state and nation’s political landscape. The political force of Texas’s exploding Mexican-American population — much more likely to be Democratic — rises to the top when the Democrats nominate oilman and banker Tony Sanchez for governor, the first Latino to run for governor on a major party ticket. They also make Dallas’s first African-American mayor, Ron Kirk, the state’s first major-party black candidate for Senate.
Last Man Standing shows that in 2002, the political divide, as in much of the nation, was between a more multi-cultural and urban Texas of the future, represented by Sanchez and Kirk (the Democrats’ “dream team”) and the ascendant Republicans based in the growing Texas suburbs and in politically active churches (the heirs of Karl Rove and President Bush). Green hoped to ride the president’s popularity. Rose hoped to benefit from an energized Democratic Party and the top ticket’s coattails.
But there are some pesky ethical charges hanging over Green. The candidate, it seems, has a penchant for questionable commercial and financial deals; among other activities, Green films infomercials from his state office.
And if Green is vulnerable, Rose’s most potent weapon turns out to be Rose himself. From the first, Rose is intense, determined to win, and spurns political collegiality. For Green, belabored to explain his extracurricular deals, Rose quickly goes from nuisance to lethal enemy.
That’s when the race gets personal, local, and bitter. Green grows increasingly angry as his popular conservative politics fail to shield him from Rose’s insistent attacks. But one twist isn’t enough in this Texas tale. Rose soon has troubles of his own; for one, the “dream team” turns out to be the “big dud.” Green and Rose are left to slug it out in a grassroots election showdown that says a lot about the candidates, Texas, and the nation.
“We felt that 2002 would be a turning point in Texas politics, that it represented a struggle between two competing futures of American politics,” says director and producer Paul Stekler. “In the Green-Rose race, within the context of a multi-cultural Democratic ticket battling the Republican Party built by Karl Rove and President Bush, we knew we’d found a dramatic way to tell a story about where we are in politics today and what it takes to win.”