Blogs > Cliopatria > Box 13, part 2

May 1, 2004

Box 13, part 2

Lyndon Johnson earned the nickname “Landslide Lyndon” after his 87-vote triumph in the 1948 Democratic Senate primary against Coke Stevenson. Texas custom at the time would have both sides in political races hold back the count from a few reliable precincts, so tallies could be adjusted as necessary in close contests. Johnson’s decision to report his returns too early probably cost him the 1941 Senate race against Pappy O’Daniel.

As Robert Caro wonderfully recounts the story in Means of Ascent, in 1948, Johnson was trailing six days after the election, and seemed certain to lose, when a protégé of George Parr, the “Duke of Duval” and political boss of the heavily Hispanic counties in southern Texas, “discovered” 200 allegedly uncounted ballots in Box 13, Alice, Texas. These 200 “voters” cast their ballots 198 to 2 for Johnson, putting him over the top. The election, of course, was stolen: the added 200 names were written in a different colored ink, and Stevenson’s attorneys tracked down the final name on the original voter list, who affirmed that he had voted just as the polls were closing.

It seems as if the world of south Texas politics, however, hasn’t moved much past 1948, as seen in this year’s Democratic primary for the 28th congressional district, which runs from San Marcos to Laredo and of which Parr’s Duval County is at the heart. In the March 9 primary, the district’s incumbent, Ciro Rodriguez, narrowly defeated former Texas secretary of state Henry Cuellar. Cuellar had run for the House in 2002 in what was then Texas’ 23rd district, against Republican congressman Henry Bonilla. In that contest, Cuellar was ahead by over 20,000 votes nearly 24 hours after the polls closed, only to lose by 6 percentage points when late returns came in from Bonilla’s base in Bexar County (San Antonio), which Bonilla carried 74%-24%, for a margin of over 28,000 votes.

In 2002, Cuellar carried his home base of Webb County by a margin that would have made George Parr proud—32,471 to 5,933, or 84% to 15%. Webb County is at the center of the unusual events of this year’s race as well. On Election Night, Rodriguez, who had run a lackluster campaign, nonetheless squeaked through, edging Cuellar by 150 votes out of around 48,000 cast. Cuellar then asked for a recount, but Rodriguez seemed safe, since a 150-vote margin is very difficult to overcome in an election of less than 50,000 votes.

And yet Cuellar has managed to do just that. In Webb County and another Cuellar stronghold, Zapata County, 400 “uncounted” ballots were discovered—and, when counted, these ballots transformed a 150-vote lead for Rodriguez into a 203-vote victory for Cuellar. As expected, Rodriguez had filed a lawsuit over the results. Somewhere, the Duke of Duval is smiling.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/1/2004

"Landslide" Johnson had another nickname -- "Raider" Johnson. That story is just about as delicious as Landslide. I hope you'll write about it.