Roll up the newspaper, but don’t forget the 2-by-4

When I was a small child, I remember hearing a story from my grandfather. He was a retired blacksmith and was functionally illiterate, but he played a mean fiddle, and he loved to tell stories.

One story I remember — and only recently really understood — was his advice on how to train a mule.

Mules are notoriously stubborn and hard to work with. But he explained that if you rolled up a piece of newspaper and just tapped them on the nose, they would follow you anywhere.

I was incredulous and asked, ”Just a rolled up newspaper?”

“Yup,” he replied. “But first you gotta hit them across the ass with a 2-by-4 to get their attention.”

I took some other advice from my grandfather as well. He told me that when I went in to vote (in those days it was with a big machine with levers for each candidate and party) if I ever touched the Republican lever, it would burn my fingers.
Cut to today, and the Democratic Party — whose mascot is a donkey or, as I believe, a mule.

We Democrats are a stubborn bunch indeed, and, more often than not, we have a very short attention span. For years we have watched the Republicans tirelessly seat judges and officials from local to national offices, making seemingly incremental but not necessarily dramatic progress. Meanwhile, we pay attention to flashy national races and ignore the local and regional offices that actually make the country run.

We Democrats are always looking for a savior — a “perfect” candidate who checks all the boxes and says all the right things, one we are sure will fix everything if they are only elected. While the GOP has been making slow, steady, incremental progress, we Democrats have been infighting and debating and basically moving with fits and starts rather than a steady pace.

The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade was that 2-by-4 across the ass for the Democratic mule. Finally, we have perked up our ears and are paying attention. Now it’s time to start working with that rolled up newspaper — or, in this case, a rolled-up ballot sheet.

The mule needs to perk up and look at the strategy the GOP has been using all along. They are playing the “long game.”

They realized long ago if you want to gain control, you start by building a strong base of elected officials in small offices like school boards and state government offices.

The Texas Railroad Commissioner race doesn’t sound very sexy. In fact, that office no longer control railroads in Texas, but it does control the oil and natural gas industry, pipelines, the hazardous liquid pipeline industry, natural gas utilities, the LP-gas industry and coal and uranium surface mining operations.

All these are vital to not just our supplies of gas and oil, but our compliance with EPA and environmental regulations.
Sound sexy now?

By focusing on regional and state offices, that GOP agenda has actually moved forward and right under our noses, while we focus on whoever is the hot new candidate to higher office. Feel that tapping on the nose now?

Our state legislature races are often overlooked, yet this is the legislative body that has never removed the 1925 abortion ban or the Texas sodomy law from the books. Democrats ignored this because the Supreme Court decision made those laws unenforceable. Why repeal a law that is not enforceable? Besides gerrymandering has put our state firmly in the hands of rural voters, and Democrats almost never seriously campaign in rural Texas.

Here comes that 2-by-again: The Supreme Court was the long game that the GOP played when they held their noses and voted for Trump.

We Democrats have got to start playing the long game, too. We can’t ignore the national races, but we sure as hell cannot ignore the local ones. And we have to start learning to appeal to rural voters, not with a bold progressive agenda that benefits major metropolitan areas, but with specifics the folks in rural Texas can get behind.

For one, ask a rancher in West Texas how far the nearest hospital is. In some counties, they are almost non-existent.

Maybe we should push a rural health care initiative to locate clinics and hospitals in these areas. A public-private initiative that subsidizes these services would most likely be a big winner for starters.

These and other issues actually speak to that rural population and might help move the needle in our state elections.

This and other gentle taps on the nose might get the Democratic mule to begin to start playing the long game.

Additionally, we need to accept incremental gains where we can get them instead of insisting on all or nothing. So far in Texas, the all or nothing approach has gotten us mostly nothing.

It’s time we changed our tactics. Take notice of the GOP’s methods, at least the ones that are ethical.

When the GOP comes under attack, they circle the wagons. When Democrats come under attack, we form a circular firing squad.

And we need to remember what my grandfather said about elections, if you touch that Republican lever, it will burn your fingers. It has in the past and it will in the future.

Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and board chair for the Woodhull Freedom Alliance. His blog is at