Last October, voters in Houston’s largely black and Democratic second district began receiving campaign mailers from candidate Dave Wilson for a position on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees. The words, “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson” were captioned under a row of cheerful black faces, and some of them included a written endorsement from Ron Wilson, the name of a longtime black state representative. His campaign site, similarly filled with images of black community members, promised that “only one candidate ‘Dave Wilson’ is committed to keeping ‘our’ money for ‘our’ children.” Wilson won the election by only 26 votes over 24-year incumbent Bruce Austin and planned to use his seat on the board to root out corruption and overspending from the troubled HCC system.
The problem? Wilson is a white Republican. Described by KHOU 11 News as “a gleeful political troublemaker,” Wilson has run for local office for years, often on a bigoted platform. He ran an unsuccessful anti-gay campaign against incumbent mayor Annise Parker in 2011, accusing her of using her sexual orientation to get elected. Though legally infeasible to press a case against Wilson for voter deception, there’s no question he knew exactly what he was doing. He readily admitted to lifting the mailers’ and site’s smiling faces off the Internet, and knew using Ron Wilson’s name — in reality, his cousin from Iowa, not the state representative — would do the trick. “He’s a nice cousin,” Wilson later told KHOU. “We played baseball in high school together. And he’s endorsed me.”
Despite the seeming legality of Wilson’s shady campaign tactics, his opponents haven’t given up the fight to bar him from office. After doubts arose about his residence in District Two, city officials inspected the warehouse apartment that Wilson called home. Finding no shower or kitchen, the city declared that he couldn’t possibly be living there, as he’s claimed he has for the past two years, and pursued a temporary restraining order keeping him from the position. The Houston Chronicle describes “a kind of catch-me-if-you-can situation where Wilson evaded attempts to serve him with court documents,” culminating in Wilson swearing himself into office after claiming he was never served notice.
A residency trial against Wilson was recently expedited to April 15 after county officials dropped legal efforts to keep him from office, given that a second request for a temporary restraining order was not granted. Wilson told KHOU he was looking forward to the trial and “getting [his] name cleared.” His lawyer claims that the county attorney’s office is unfairly targeting his client, as the office usually doesn’t go to nearly the same lengths to confirm candidate eligibility. However, in the case of Wilson’s slippery activities, such action seems justified. Wilson also (ironically) accused HCC officials of keeping him off the board due to the corruption he’d expose, and that by barring him from his position they were “wanting to overturn the will of the people.” Given that the will of the people was only narrowly obtained through misrepresenting his race, Wilson seems to be standing on shaky ground.
The real problem with Wilson’s campaign isn’t his residency. It isn’t that he fooled voters by pretending to be black, either. Instead, the problem is just how easily he was able to get away with winning the election. Countless studies have proved that turnout for local elections is typically under half of turnout for national elections. With such low turnout and a lack of mainstream news coverage, it’s perhaps inevitable that local voters won’t be fully informed on the issues, which virtually guarantees that they will be susceptible to tactics like Wilson’s. Wilson’s victory is made more ridiculous by the fact that this happened in the age of information — a quick Google search, even before the story broke, shows clearly that Wilson is white. Moreover, Wilson still should have been fresh on voters’ minds, given his highly publicized failed campaign for mayor just two years earlier. The lack of interest and education evidenced in this case points to systemic problems in local elections that are even more disconcerting than the egregious implications of Wilson’s racial misrepresentation.
Even if Wilson is removed from office after the April trial, there doesn’t seem to be anything stopping candidates in other cities from misrepresenting themselves to the same degree other than their own integrity. Voters are the only ones who can keep politicians accountable. And if voters continue to be apathetic about local elections, the real tragedy won’t be another Texas-sized scandal. Instead, a perpetually apathetic electorate will elect a similarly abysmal public official. When this electorate comprises many different voting districts, together, this will add up to one massive problem. If voters don’t care about a gross misrepresentation of a candidate’s identity, it seems that there will be little else about which they will care. This portends certain disaster for local politics, whether in Houston or elsewhere around the nation.