POV: Why did you want to tell a story about Texas local politics?
Paul Stekler: I’m not from Texas but I got there as quickly as I could, seven and a half years ago. I’ve been doing films about American politics for twenty years, and I was really curious about a state that Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party dominated for so many years which is now completely Republican: Republican governor, Republican legislature, and their own Republican president. But there’s an exploding Mexican-American population in Texas, and I was interested in where this was going to lead us. Would the state continue to be Republican, or would this growing minority population reinvigorate the Democratic party? You see this kind of dynamic across the United States. To a certain extent, the real battleground in the races we covered, where the swing voters lived, was the suburban districts. These are the kind of places that might determine who wins not only in 2004 but also in the foreseeable future. Finally, I’m interested in the environment that produced Karl Rove and George W. Bush, who may be the blueprint for the future of American politics. Texas has a really big impact on American politics. Three out of the last eight American presidents are from Texas! This is just part and parcel of the way Texans think of themselves: larger than life. When I grew up in New Jersey there were no songs about the greater glory of New Jersey. Texans think of themselves as something different.
POV: What is crucial to understanding Texas politics?
Stekler: There are three things that are crucial to understanding Texas politics today. The first is the massive shift that came about because of the civil rights movement, which allowed conservatives in Texas to cut their ties to the Democratic Party and become Republicans. The Democratic Party in the South dominated because it was founded on the disenfranchisement of blacks. Once the civil rights movement took off in 1964, there was no reason for white conservatives to remain Democrats, and they began switching to the Republican Party. This shift happened quickly over the next three decades because Republicans ran good candidates, they had good strategists, and they were savvy about money. And then eventually they had George W. Bush, who was a fabulous candidate who could bring over those conservatives who were still voting Democratic.
Now at the same time, you have another dynamic in Texas politics: a large minority population that is increasingly voting and electing Mexican-Americans to political office, so that south Texas today is dominated by a Democratic party run by Mexican-Americans. Three of the largest cities in the United States — San Antonio, Dallas and Houston — are in Texas and will be majority Mexican-American in the future. And if Mexican-Americans remain predominately Democratic, the tide may change again in Texas politics. Or will they shift to the Republican Party? Also there’s this explosion in the suburbs and the exurbs: people are moving out of the city. Will they be Democratic, will they be Republican?
Third is the quality of the candidates. Texas candidates are effective because in American politics we have a candidate-oriented electoral system. So if you are a talented candidate, it almost doesn’t make any difference what you stand for, because if people like you, they’ll tend to associate you with the issues they believe in. Southerners, and especially Texans, are more vociferous, and they’re less shy in front of cameras than candidates might be in Minnesota or in South Dakota or Connecticut. People have big personalities. Lyndon Johnson was a larger-than-life president. George W. Bush is a larger-than-life president. If you want to understand national political culture, you have to look at grassroots politics in Texas today. In the Rose-Green race, we had two talented candidates. The people who voted for Rose chose him because of his charisma and they identified with him. That was the main problem with the Texas Democratic Ticket in 2002: the man at the top of their ticket — Tony Sanchez — was not such a good candidate. It was an interesting strategy on paper to nominate a Mexican-American, but it didn’t work because you need a talented candidate. But just in the way that Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964 eventually energized a more conservative electorate in the United States, Democrats in Texas today are hoping that the Sanchez-Kirk candidacies of 2002 will pay off down the line, with immigrants’ kids, who are really Americans as opposed to Mexican-Americans. It’ll pay off at least in terms of American politics in the future.
POV: How did you pick the Green-Rose race to focus on?
Stekler: We were going all across Texas looking for good state races, the kind of races that would be metaphors for this “balance of power” struggle between Republicans and Democrats. I was aware of Rick Green, mostly because of the controversy over his business transactions. He also represented a very important string of American politics that I think is interesting and important to understand. Then I met Patrick Rose. He came over for a cup of coffee and I thought: this guy’s really young but he’s very, very talented. So we had two fabulous candidates close to Austin, and we had pretty much total access to them. What could be better than that?
POV: Can you say more about what dynamic in Texas politics Rick Green represented?
Stekler: The rise of the Republican Party, especially in the South, has been driven by religious activists like Rick Green. Church activists have made the connection between electing Republicans and electing legislation, especially social legislation to be able to enact their goals. To a great extent, church activism has fueled the rise of the Republican Party in Texas and many other states. Rick Green is not an anomaly, he’s an example of what I think is the mainstream of a large part of the Republican Party. If you take a look at the rise of George W. Bush’s career, he’s very talented politically, he comes from a very famous political family, and he had very, very close relationships with church activists. As church activists became more important to the Republican Party, George W. Bush’s career also took off. The church is a very important, if not crucial factor, to understanding the rise of the Republican Party in Texas, in the south, and in the nation.
POV: Was Patrick surprised that he won?
Stekler: I don’t think so. There is the political type, the kind of person that really wants it, who will work for it, whose ambitions are on fire. That tends to be the kind of political character we admire, very much like Bill Clinton. You like him, you dislike him — it’s hard to get away from him. That’s the kind of candidate Patrick was. He was dedicated to winning this race, shook as many hands as he possibly could, gave as many speeches as he could, and you could see, in meeting him, that this is the kind of guy who will be a success for a long time.
POV: What do you want audiences to get out of this film?
Stekler: I want audiences to see that this came down to the very last ballot box, and if you vote, it matters. This race was not decided by fierce partisans or people with strong ideological positions. What more evidence do you need that your vote actually makes a difference?
“Last Man Standing” can help demystify how politics really works. What does it take to run a campaign? This is how commercials are made. This is how money is raised. What are candidates actually like as human beings, as opposed to the spin characters that we see on cable television or on the front pages of newspapers? What does it take to win? I hope that our film makes it clear why politics are important, but I also hope it’s entertaining and compelling, as I find politics to be, so that people become more interested in the political process.
POV: What impact did making the film have on you?
Stekler: I think making this film reinforced why I love politics. The Green-Rose race was really fun to cover. You’ve got these two young guys, they’re so ambitious, they’re so talented, they want this so much, and when I connect that to my own feelings about how important these elections are, it just rejuvenated me.
American politics operates on a couple of levels for me. The first thing is the issues. But, quite frankly, it’s also kind of like sports. Who is going to win, who’s going to lose? It’s about betting but it’s also about strategy.
People talk about the importance of the ends, but you know something? If you don’t have the means to win, you don’t have any power. That’s just the way our politics works. It’s a politics of winners. I’m fascinated with how you produce winners, and just what those people that win in American politics are like. And it’s important — if you don’t understand your opponents, then how are you ever going to be able to fight effectively against them?
POV: Are you optimistic about the political process?
Stekler: No matter what happens in this election or the next election, there is always another election two years down the line. The cycles of American politics sometimes take a long time to flower. So if you don’t like what’s going on statewide or nationally right now, you never know, there may be somebody in one of those little bitty state representative races with a lot of talent, someone who is young and just getting started, and what they do now in winning an election may pay off in a really big way, ten, twenty years down the line.