Among all the election news from yesterday's primary results, the most depressing, and potentially most devastating, is the loss of 18-year incumbent State Representative Lon Burnam from Fort Worth.
It's a terrible blow not because Lon provided the margin of victory on close environmental votes in Austin. There haven't been any of those in the Texas House of Representatives in over a decade. It's not because he occupied positions of power. Representing an intensely urban area, for years he was exiled by the House leadership – both Democratic and Republican – to outposts like the House Agriculture Committee as punishment for his progressive views.
No, the pain from this loss will last because Lon Burnam was one of us, an activist, an organizer. Maybe the last one of us to serve in the Texas House for quite a while.
Lon grew up in Cowtown with middle-class parents who were dedicated environmentalists and community activists themselves – right into their 90's. He spent his boyhood camping with his family and watching his mother and father both participate heavily in the civic life of his hometown. He absorbed their examples fast. He was a political progeny.
Lon worked in campaigns for candidates for elected office from before he could vote. Even though he was very young, every leading liberal Democrat, not just in Tarrant County but throughout the state, knew about his contributions and sought his energy for their own cause.
Not long after graduating from UTA with an Urban Planning (not law) degree, Lon and two other Fort Worth natives founded the first anti-nuclear group in Texas in 1977 to try and stop the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant. Like so many fights Lon would take up, it was a good one, one worth fighting for years to come, but one with the odds stacked heavily against him.
He was an organizer for Clean Water Action in the mid-1990's, helping Downwinders fight against the burning of hazardous waste in the Midlothian cement plants and working on anti-smog issues. For years he was the Director of the Dallas Peace Center. How many people even know that JR's hometown has a Peace Center? Much less understand what it took to run it on either side of 9/11? But his real ambition was to be a legislator. Despite his peers forsaking office-holding for community organizing or other kinds of advocacy, Lon held the quaint view that public service should actually be that, and was its own best kind of advocacy work. He ran twice and lost before finally winning a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in 1996.
Once elected, his views didn't change. It was still all about fighting the good fight, no matter the odds. Whether it was same-sex marriage, immigration, nuclear waste, insurance reform, fracking, or anything remotely progressive, Lon was the elected official you could count on to take up for your cause and fight for it. Not for nothing is there a framed picture on his office wall showing him casting the lone vote against a House resolution supporting the Iraq war in 2003.
That was the official support he gave. But as important was the unofficial support he and his office offered to "constituents" who lived outside his district, but served his district's cause. If you were a clean air activist who needed a place to use as base camp while you were in Austin, you were always welcomed at Lon's. He made his staff available for work in the field with you, as well as in the office for you. Instead of trying to wrestle a state agency to the ground for months to get some documents, Lon would write an official request and get them for you in weeks. When you couldn't get an official to return a call, Lon would get the drawbridge lowered. He knew that his title could get him through doors the rest of us had trouble opening – because you see, he had been one of us and those doors had been closed to him at one point as well.
Lon's office in Austin provided one of the few oasises in a place that's increasingly hostile to regular folks. He used his staff to promote not only legislation but the issues driving the legislation. He used his position as a Bully Pulpit to draw attention to issues that otherwise wouldn't have received any. In other words, he did everything a community organizer would do if they held elected office. Even among our other Austin allies, this is what made Lon different, special, and beloved. And impossible to replace.
He lost yesterday to an opponent who's the logical end product of 21st Century Texas political cynicism. Beginning with Tom Delay's plan of a decade ago, Republicans have gerrymandered districts so severely in Texas cities that the only "safe" Democratic districts are also drawn as "minority" districts. The GOP wants only black and brown faces to represent the Democratic Party. In Lon's case, his district kept getting redrawn as a Hispanic district, with a higher and higher percentage of Hispanic vs Anglo or Black voters. And indeed, the challenger who won Tuesday's Democratic primary has a Hispanic surname. And that's it. He holds no progressive views on anything, has never fought hard for anything, doesn't really believe in anything but his own ambition.
It's one thing to be beaten by a legitimate progressive Hispanic candidate, quite another to be beaten by a cipher with a vowel on the end of his last name. It's this ethnically appropriate empty-suit aspect to the defeat that makes it so sour.
Although his last election was close, Lon has served so long and become such a fixture that many of us took it for granted he would squeeze by this time as well. This hard lesson must not be forgotten by any of us doing this kind of work. Especially for the next 5 to 10 years, as things get a lot worse before they get any better. Next January, things won't be much different if Greg Abbott is sitting at the Governor's desk in the Capitol. But it'll make a big difference to a lot of good folks that they can't stop by Lon Burnam's office.
If you get a chance, please call or e-mail Lon's office and tell him how much you appreciate what he's done and tried to do, and how much he'll be missed:
(512) 463-0740 (Austin office)
(817) 924-1997 (Ft. Worth office)