Election 2020

Texas Democrats’ Dilemma: If Not Mr. Leather, Then Whom?

The Texas Capitol through the south gate in Austin. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

WASHINGTON — Democrat Jeffrey Payne, a successful Dallas businessman, promises to invest at least $2.5 million in a 2018 campaign for governor of Texas, but the state Democratic Party isn’t sure it wants him.

Payne was born in Maine and orphaned at the age of 3. He spent the next 12 years of his life in an orphanage before being bumped into the state’s foster care system.

His story is a classic Katrina to riches tale. Payne survived the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans and left him with only the clothes on his back, two dogs and $2,000 in the bank.

For the past 12 years, he’s built a fortune in Dallas. Payne owns several businesses: a court reporting firm, a land holding company, a retail clothing outlet, and a property management company.

Payne is a self-made millionaire, who is married, and espouses the Democratic Party platform and is ready to invest his own money in his campaign.

Why wouldn’t the Democrats be falling all over themselves to embrace Jeffrey Payne?

Well, Payne does own one more business: the Dallas Eagle, a gay leather bar. He’s married to a guy named Sergio, and Jeffery won the title of Mr. Texas Leather and International Mr. Leather in 2009.

The Democratic Party’s official response to Payne’s campaign announcement was less than enthusiastic.

“The Texas Democratic Party is talking to a number of great leaders who are considering a run for governor, and we look forward to their announcements,” communications director Tariq Thowfeek told the Washington Free Beacon. “Mr. Payne is one of those people.”

If not Payne, then who?

Texas Democrats haven’t been able to elect one of their own as governor since the 1990 election of Ann Richards. And a Democrat hasn’t won statewide office since 1994, the worst electoral losing streak in the nation.

PBS reported in August the possibility that the party wouldn’t even be able to find a “serious” candidate to run against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and his twin brother congressman Joaquin Castro said last summer they weren’t interested in a 2018 gubernatorial bid. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) decided to go up against Sen. Ted Cruz (R) rather than run against Abbott.

Arthur Schechter, a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser, said he tried and failed to recruit a “well-known businessman” who was economically conservative but progressive on social issues.

Let’s repeat the question. If not Jeffrey Payne, then whom?

Tom Wakely from San Antonio, who is now the minister of a Unitarian Universalist Church in Wisconsin and the owner of a jazz club in Manzanillo, Mexico, describes himself as a “Berniecrat” and announced his candidacy in February.

“My campaign for Governor is about advocating for a progressive change in the Texas Democratic party and to removing Abbott, Patrick, and their tea party brethren from power,” Wakely wrote on his website.

”It’s not a very high bar; we don’t have even a C-list Democrat who’s announced they’re going to run for governor,” Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, told the Free Beacon. “But Jeffery Payne is head and shoulders above the rest.”

But it probably won’t make much difference who runs as a Democrat. More than a dozen political scientists and consultants told the Houston Chronicle there’s almost no chance a Democrat will be able to defeat Gov. Abbott in 2018.

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, pointed out Texas Democrats are without a well-known candidate, don’t have enough money to run a gubernatorial campaign, and are saddled with volunteers who have no campaign experience.

“There isn’t any way Democrats can win statewide office in Texas, short of some astounding collapse of the Republicans in Washington or Austin,” said Jillson. “Winning is a habit, and so is losing.”

Even the so-called “Trump Factor,” and the president’s plummeting approval ratings, won’t be enough to save the Texas Democrats, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

The Chronicle reported a poll of Texas voters showing Trump’s approval rating had slipped from 54 percent to nearly 50 percent.

But Rottinghaus said Trump’s polling numbers would have to drop into the teens before the numbers affected any Texas Republican candidate, especially Abbott.

That’s how Lee Reed, a rancher, sees it, too.

“There’s almost no way Republicans can lose to Democrats next year, in a state as red as Texas,” Reed told the Chronicle, “even if Buffy the Clown was running for governor.”

But what if the world flips on its political axis again? Payne may not have ridden down a gold escalator when he launched his campaign, but who knows what will happen in November 2018.

If he does win, Payne promises his days as Mr. Leather are over.

“I looked a lot better then,” Payne admitted.

And even though he still likes to wear leather, Payne said, ”I don’t plan to wear leather at the Capitol.”