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Duel for the Heart of Texas

July-August 2004

Everything is bigger in the Lone Star State--including the political fights.

This extra is a sidebar to "The Battle for Illinois," July-August 2004.

Illinois isn't the nation's only setting for intense campaigning. Take Texas, where, as documentary-maker Paul Stekler, Ph.D. '83, demonstrates in a new film, even small races have big implications.

Last Man Standing: Politics Texas Style, part of PBS's P.O.V. series, takes a behind-the-scenes look at the state's 2002 elections, focusing on a hard-fought race for state representative in central Texas.

But the film goes beyond chronicling one grassroots slugfest. "I thought this particular election had something to tell us about the politics that George W. Bush came out of," says Stekler, a former political consultant who now heads the film program at the University of Texas at Austin. With more than 200 races that year, he thought Texas offered a reliable barometer of the nation's shifting political climate.

Last Man Standing is set in legislative District 45, a fast-growing area near Austin, the state capital. Like much of Texas, the district--which includes former President Lyndon B. Johnson's hometown, Johnson City--shifted from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican in a single generation. As Stekler notes in narrating the film, "Even LBJ might have trouble getting elected [there] today."

The film includes commentary from former Texas governor Ann Richards, GOP political strategist Karl Rove, and political columnist Molly Ivins, among others. But its real stars are the two ambitious, charismatic young candidates battling to represent District 45. In one corner: two-term Republican incumbent Rick Green, 31, a conservative Christian who cheerfully exhorts voters to remember that his name is "Green, like money!" In the other: Democratic challenger Patrick Rose, 24, a recent Princeton graduate who finds that his Ivy League diploma isn't always an asset in his hometown of Dripping Springs.

Film crews shadow the candidates for five months as they debate, trudge door to door, and shake hands at churches, rodeos, catfish dinners, a chili cook-off, and a watermelon festival. Both campaign on Green's record, the incumbent emphasizing his conservative values, the challenger hammering away at Green's questionable business activities, such as appearing in TV "infomercials" for a nutritional supplement. Both men run increasingly bitter campaigns right to the end; the camera captures Green calling Rose a liar and Rose calling Green a crook as both greet voters entering a polling station on Election Day.

Southern politics is a common subject in Stekler's documentaries, which have won Sundance, Peabody, duPont-Columbia, and Emmy Awards. The New Jersey native, whose previous films include George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire and Eyes on the Prize II, traces that interest to his doctoral work in the government department: he wrote his dissertation on "Black Politics in the New South" and during that process traveled extensively in the region.

Last Man Standing contains another Stekler hallmark: humanizing an otherwise abstract political issue with an engaging personal story. The District 45 race is literally a fight to the finish, when the last man standing--we won't spoil the ending by revealing who it is--prevails by fewer than 700 votes. Says Stekler, "They didn't know who was going to win until the last precinct was in."

~Anne Stuart