HOUSTON — Dave Wilson chuckles as he talks about his unorthodox political campaign.
“I’d always said it was a long shot,” Wilson says. “No, I didn’t expect to win.”
Still, he figured he’d have fun running, because he was fed up with what he called “all the shenanigans” at the Houston Community College System. As a conservative white Republican running in a district whose voters are overwhelmingly black Democrats, the odds seemed overwhelmingly against him.
Then he came up with an idea, an advertising strategy that his opponent found “disgusting.” If a white guy didn’t have a chance in a mostly African-American district, Wilson would lead voters to think he’s black.
And it apparently worked. In one of the biggest political upsets in Houston politics this election season, Wilson — an anti-gay activist and former fringe candidate for mayor — emerged as the surprise winner over 24-year incumbent Bruce Austin. His razor thin margin of victory, only 26 votes, was almost certainly influenced by his racially tinged campaign.
“Every time a politician talks, he’s out there deceiving voters,” he says.
Wilson, a gleeful political troublemaker, printed direct mail pieces strongly implying that he’s black. His fliers were decorated with photographs of smiling African-American faces — which he readily admits he just lifted off websites — and captioned with the words “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson.”
One of his mailers said he was “Endorsed by Ron Wilson,” which longtime Houston voters might easily interpret as a statement of support from a former state representative of the same name who’s also African-American. Fine print beneath the headline says “Ron Wilson and Dave Wilson are cousins,” a reference to one of Wilson’s relatives living in Iowa.
“He’s a nice cousin,” Wilson says, suppressing a laugh. “We played baseball in high school together. And he’s endorsed me.”
Austin tried to answer the mailer with his own fliers showing Wilson’s face, calling him a “right-wing hate monger” and saying he “advocated bringing back chain gangs to clean highways.” But the campaign clearly caught him off guard.
“I don’t think it’s good,” he said. “I don’t think it’s good for both democracy and the whole concept of fair play. But that was not his intent, apparently.”
Just how much a role Wilson’s mailers played in the campaign is unclear. Other incumbents running for re-election were forced into runoffs, perhaps because the community college system has come under intense criticism for insider business deals and spending money on overseas initiatives. And after 24 years in office, Austin’s name should have been somewhat familiar to his constituents.
“I suspect it’s more than just race,” says Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst. “The Houston Community College was under some criticism for bad performance. And others on the board also had very serious challenges.”
Austin has said he plans to ask for a recount. But in an era of electronic voting, political analysts said Wilson’s victory will probably hold and send him into office for a six-year term.