By Chris Hoenig
How does a conservative, white Republican win an election in a district overwhelmingly made up of Black Democrats? He pretends he’s one of them.
Dave Wilson did just that to win a six-year term on the Houston Community College System’s board, misleading voters into believing that he is Black. “I’d always said it was a long shot,” Wilson tells KHOU-TV. “No, I didn’t expect to win.” But he did, and he went to great lengths to do it.
Wilson sent out fliers that featured almost exclusively Black people, all of them smiling. On it, he added the call to action: “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson.” Only the faces are not Wilson’s friends or neighbors, but rather just pictures that he stole off of various websites.
Another flier proudly announced his endorsement by Ron Wilson, suggesting a Black former state legislator who is well known in the area. Beneath the endorsement announcement, a disclaimer is printed: “Ron Wilson and Dave Wilson are cousins,” it reads. Except the Ron Wilson that Dave Wilson is talking about is not that Ron Wilson, who suffered a stroke in 2009 that left him barely able to speak and may never have heard of Dave Wilson.
Dave Wilson does indeed have a cousin named Ron Wilson, and this Ron Wilson did endorse Dave Wilson’s campaign … from Iowa, where he lives. “He’s a nice cousin,” Wilson says, suppressing a laugh. “We played baseball in high school together. And he’s endorsed me.”
The plan worked and Wilson beat 24-year incumbent Bruce Austin, who is Black, by just 26 votes. “I don’t think it’s good,” Austin said, adding that the campaign caught him off guard. “I don’t think it’s good for both democracy and the whole concept of fair play. But that was not his intent, apparently.” Austin said he did counter with his own mailers that included Wilson’s face and warned voters that he was a “right-wing hatemonger” who “advocated bringing back chain gangs to clean highways.” He plans to ask for a recount, though there is little chance that the results will change.
Wilson says his lies were really no different than any other lawmaker’s lies. “Every time a politician talks, he’s out there deceiving voters,” Wilson admits. And some analysts say Austin was done in because of insider business deals and expensive overseas expenditures, which forced other incumbents into runoffs. “I suspect it’s more than just race,” says Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst. “The Houston Community College was under some criticism for bad performance. And others on the board also had very serious challenges.”