Running for the Waters seat
BY MORRIS EDELSON
Trivia question: Who held the Ron Waters
state legislature seat (District 79) before
Answer: No one.
It came to pass in 1970 that Uncle
Sam counted noses in Harris County and
decreed that the area be given single
member representation in the state legislature. Solons in Austin stretched out
their hands and maps and scissored out
districts which would send new lawmakers forth. Clipping through downtown Houston, they created District 79,
a monkey-wrench shaped voting area
which included a slice of the Heights, a
touch of the Spanish northside, a sliver of
the old Fifth Ward, downtown and near
town, all of the Fourth Ward and Montrose, and even some of the Rice University neighborhood.
The district, one of the most diverse in
the state, houses the political likes of Lt.
Governor Bill Hobby, former mayor Fred
Hofheinz, feminist leaders Gertrude Barnstone and Nikki Van Hightower, and
more recently, Congressman Mickey
Leland. It is the seat of power for the
Gay Political Caucus, and in it reside a
healthy portion of the membership rolls
of both the Harris County Women's Political Caucus and the Harris County Democrats. "There are more people in 79
who know what is going on in politics
than anywhere else," says political analyst Dr. Richard Murray.
An hour's walk up one of its main
arteries, Washington Street, leads past a
murky sub-city of police and fire trucks,
stolen-property garages, and 24-hour
bailbond emporia and pawnshops, past
hives of law offices, sky-blue and yellow-
trimmed Mexican cottages and solid
black Baptist churches, past more muscle
merchants than anywhere else in the city.
Any night of the week on the street
where Debra Dan burg and Peter Armato
have their campaign headquarters, you
can smell rice being milled, bread being
baked, and hear traffic, sirens and jazz.
In 1980, with the new census, the
single most important issue in the area is
survival. The district could be obliterated
in Austin, by a new mapping of legislative
districts, just as it could be wiped out in
Houston by encroaching parking lots,
new freeways and urban renewal.
Peter Armato at his campaign headquarters.
Says Murray: "District 79 could be
changed tremendously if it is shifted
about a little after the census. To every
side of it are more conservative areas. It
will probably not be done away with
entirely, since population has grown there
as elsewhere, but new districts are going
to be created in Austin, and the bargaining over their shapes will be crucial. The
winner in the election here could shape
the district and what happens in it for the
next decade. The bargaining that is going
to go on after the census is finished will
demand a lot of the state representative."
The field of candidates trying to become that representative and take the
place of Ron Waters, who has been one of
the most liberal voices in the legislature
for the past eight years, is only slightly
smaller than the Houston Marathon. The
ghosts of campaigns past still live as Republican challengers Bob Sheikh, the son
of a former Saudi Arabian ambassador,
and Hap May, an accountant, stress law
and order and a firm clutch on the purse
strings. Democrats Don McCrorey, Ray
Schmid, and Richard L. Petrone/la are
getting their feet wet in politics for the
first time, stressing the preservation of
the physical neighborhood and the quality of fife being challenged by crime, city
planlessness, and jumping taxes. The two
candidates who have gained virtually all
the endorsements are Debra Danburg, for
the past five years the legislative assistant
to Ron Waters, and Peter Armato, formerly an aide to Mickey Leland. The
two agree on many of the issues—the
question that must be answered in a
choice between them is which has the
more relevant experience and the ability
for the negotiations that will lie ahead.
Most observers predict a close race between Danburg and Armato and expect
the real winner to be chosen only after a
run-off between them.
The Breakthrough story is based on
interviews with Danburg and Armato,
their supporters and neutral observers.
"There are five liberals running in this
race," says Debra Danburg, candidate
for State Representative, District 79,
"but I'm the only one of them who
knows Austin." Phrases such as "confident of victory," "groomed for the
race," "front-runner" echo from every
corner of her office in an old furniture
warehouse on Washington. Danburg applies the phrases to herself.
She has reason for confidence. She
grew up not far from where she sits
today. Her parents had a popular variety store in the Heights. She was vice-
president of the student government
at the University of Houston. For the
past five years, through three legislatures she served as aide to out-going
representative Ron Waters.
Waters and Danburg set up the first
legislative district office ever in Harris
County, a free-form complaint station for
residents of Montrose and the Heights.
"People came into the office with
police complaints, problems in getting
welfare, trash pickup, etc., etc., and
Debra Danburg in front of her campaign headquarters.
etc.," she recalls. "Sometimes the
problem was not really in Ron's baliwick,
but we never turned anyone away. We
didn't do it and we won't do it."
Repeatedly, Danburg stresses experience and knowledge of the neighborhood: "I know some people wanted to
run against me, but they knew or found
out that they could not possibly win as
long as I was in the race. For example,
the chair of the Gay Political Caucus,
Steve Shifflet. He and I would have split
the race in the Montrose, and I would
have carried the black, Spanish and
Heights areas. He wanted to run anyway.
He tried to get me to back out of the race,
but I think it is only fair to the district
to have it represented by someone who
has been to the black churches, to the
Latin festivals, to the civic clubs, someone from the neighborhood."
Danburg came to the Democratic
Party from the civil rights and anti-war
movements in the 60s and then played
an active role in the Harris County Democrats organization. She chaired the HCD
Issues Committee, which hammered out
positions on ERA, women's rights, nuclear power, lobbying and education.
Many of the allies she made then are now
listed as members of her steering committee.
In the election, she says, she is calling
the tune: "People are upset about crime,
the quality of life, gay rights and education. I know that, we all know it, but I
am the only one who knows what can
be done about it. I usually come out at
one of these candidates forums and give
my spiel, then everyone else says, Me
Too! Me Too!"
Danburg elaborates on why she cannot
be beat in this race. "Just look at these
endorsements—Gay Political Caucus,
Harris County Council of Organizations
and the Harris County Womens' Political
Caucus, Kathy Whitmire, ex-mayor Fred
Hofheinz, Nikki Van Hightower and
Eleanor Tinsley . . ."
Why not Ron Waters? Why not the
Harris County Democrats, the interviewer
ungraciously interjects. She is not rattled
at all: "I think my close working relationship with Ron is clear. We decided together that his endorsement of me would
not help me in the race. People know he
favors me, but his public endorsement
would hurt me in the Heights, where
there is an anti-liberal, anti-Ron Waters
bloc, people who will vote against his
name in anything. We've always been
The Harris County Democrats
endorsed Peter Armato in this race. "It
doesn't matter," says Danburg: "I have
the endorsements of the leadership,
two-thirds of the precinct judges, the
people who have done the work in that
organization. Besides, there are two
things that made the vote a little unfair: it was taken on Passover night,
when all of my Jewish supporters were
at home, and Peter Armato packed the
meeting with his supporters from PASO
(Political Assocation of Spanish-speaking
Organizations) so that the meeting was
"No one from our legislative district
could even speak," Danburg grimly recalls. "People I had worked with for the
past eight years were standing at the front
at that meeting, yelling, and no one
would recognize them. It's been done
before by PASO, too. Since that meeting
almost 50 percent of the HCD has called
me and affirmed their support. People
like Anne Wharton, Billie Carr, Chris and
Katie Dixie are with me."
Six blocks up Washington from Danburg, Peter Armato chuckles when the
subject of endorsements comes up. He
has a list of them as long as Danburg's.
He is a few years younger than she, but
has led a busy life. While she burned
the midnight oil to get her law degree
while working full time, Armato was
dropping out of Rice University and his
studies in computer science for the more
immediate problem of dividing up
Houston into single member districts,
He helped win votes for Mickey Leland
and became his aide and liaison to the
gay community. His winning the Gay
Political Caucus endorsement was almost
a foregone conclusion, until it went to
Danburg; but his winning the HCD vote
was a coup for him.
Armato recalls the Gay Political Caucus and Harris County Democrat fights.
"You always try to get as many of your
supporters into a meeting as possible.
Debra's mother and sister and some of
her friends joined the Gay Political
Caucus the night of their vote—she did
it at the GPC, I did it at the HCD. But
there is a difference. You couldn't just
walk into the HCD meeting, you had to
have already been a member, at least for
He returns to a discussion of the GPC
endorsement, which he offers as another
example of roughshod Danburg actions:
"She wanted to win the GPC vote-that
was all—she didn't care about the feelings
of people or the organization, she
thought the one vote would get her over
the hump. Her supporters kept creating
a tense atmosphere, challenging the chair,
demanding Shifflet step down. She won
the battle but may have lost the war."
The current chair of the GPC replies
that, in her opinion, the divisive mood
the night of the GPC fight had been
established, not by Danburg supporters,
but by Shifflet: "The place was crowded
and poorly lit; the chair was making lecturing comments. I think he used the
word 'sabotage.' He resigned the following week. They said that Danburg had
packed the meeting, but there were about
60 women there, and many men have
always supported Debra.
Armato's individual supporters include
city council members Ben Reyes, Dale
Gorczynski, and Ernest McGowan; Rev.
R. L. Washington, the chair of the Fourth
Ward Neighborhood Association, and
Steve Shiflett, the past president of the
Gay Political Caucus. Shiflett molded
the GPC into an important political force
in the district and had contemplated a
campaign himself. He says that Danburg's
"highhandedness" was an issue in the race
and Armato agrees with him.
Shifflet says the trouble began with
Waters' sudden decision to run for the
state senate and not seek re-election. No
one was given the chance to prepare a
race, and Waters—and Danburg—filed 15
minutes before the deadline. "It was a
slap in the face to the Gay Political Caucus that put Waters in office three times,"
Danburg maintains that the filing
confusion which has embittered the
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