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Interview with: Ms. Deborah Leonard
Interviewed by: Louis J. Marchiafava
Dates: August 13, 1975
Archive Number: OH 101.1
LM: (00:13) I’d like to begin the interview by getting some background information on you. Are you a native Houstonian?
DL: No, I’m not. I don’t consider myself a native of any place in the United States, although I did grow up in New York City and haven’t lived there for some time.
LM: When did you first come to Houston?
DL: We moved here in 1970, five years ago.
LM: Were you a member of the Socialist Workers Party then?
DL: Yes, I was. I had been a member at that time for some five or six years.
LM: Was moving to Houston part of your participation in the Socialist Workers Party?
DL: No, not really. We had lived in Seattle and had lived there very happily for about five years before we moved to Houston and one of the main motivations for moving here was the fact that the economy bottomed out in Seattle and my husband was out of work for about eight months and jobs were very scarce. We had nothing really holding us to Seattle and we kind of wanted to see the rest of the country and we, as I said, were having some economic problems and we knew some people in this area. We knew that we could both get jobs and prosper here, and it was a political challenge, but I don’t think that was our main motivation in moving here.
LM: What is your position in the Party at this time—official position?
DL: I don’t have any official position; I’m just a member of the Socialist Workers Party.
LM: It might be useful to go into some detail about the organization of the Party. Who composes the leadership?
DL: (01:56) Well, people like myself. Their leadership is elected by the membership of the Party every couple of years at a national convention. There are people in the leadership that have had longstanding ties with the Revolutionary Movement, with the Trotskyist Movement, with the Socialist Workers Party, and there are a number of young people in the leadership. They’re elected according to their capabilities and because the membership has a great deal of confidence in their ability to play the kind of leadership role in coordinating the activities and giving some political direction to what the Party does, but I wouldn’t say there are any big heroes or individuals who are particular people in that sense.
LM: Is there some sort of orientation program for new members?
DL: Well, the Socialist Workers Party is concerned about education of all members and particularly of new members, and we have a lot of classes and discussion sessions. We have public forums. We have a number of public meetings. Our campaign activities are educational and we’re concerned that people examine as closely as possible all of the history of the Revolutionary Movement and the history and the very real objective situation of the United States and the world today. And in that sense, yes, we have an orientation, although I would say it’s just part of our ongoing activity more than any particular program.
LM: You have regular meetings?
DL: Yes, right.
LM: Approximately how many members are there? Like in the Houston area?
DL: I’m not sure exactly how many members there are. They are somewhere between fifty and a hundred members and a lot more sympathizers and campaign supporters.
LM: Is there much cooperation between—and efforts between the local group here and the other national groups?
DL: Well, there are all kinds of national activities, such as a national election campaign this year. The Socialist Workers Party is running William A. Reid and Peter Camejo for Vice President and President, and a lot of activities are centered around their national campaign. We have a national newspaper—The Militant—national magazines and national publications, which we circulate in Houston, and we have participation in all kinds of activities that many groups are involved in nationally, such as the attempt to desegregate the schools in Boston, activities around unemployment and inflation which we work with many other groups on--but which are national projects and we participate in them from Houston.
LM: Is the membership generally young, or do you have middle-aged people in it?
DL: (05:00) Oh, the people are of all ages, although I would certainly say that the majority are young because there has been a lot of radicalization among young people in the last ten years or so. That’s how I got into the Party and young people are beginning to think and question a great deal what the United States represents nationally and internationally and are beginning to challenge the concepts of capitalism and the concepts of the two-party system that they see today and are joining the Revolutionary Movement and are joining the Socialist Workers Party in greater numbers than say, the period of the ’50 when there was a much tighter clamp on ideas and much greater conservatization of general thinking and particularly of people that might otherwise have played a more active role.
LM: What is the general education level of the members?
DL: Oh, I would say that in the past few years—the past ten years, say—that many of the people that have joined the Socialist Workers Party, who are The Young Socialist Alliance, which is a youth group that although it’s independent of the Socialist Workers Party, it does support the program of the Socialist Workers Party. Many of these people have been college students, and so many of the members of the Socialist Workers Party now have some college education or a college degree. We see that beginning to change now because we see that a lot of people are beginning to radicalize who are young workers and who are young blacks and Chicanos and not all of them do have college degrees. But I would say that the majority of the people that joined the Radical Movement as a whole in the past ten years came from the campuses, and so many of them have a partial or complete college education.
LM: Were you introduced to the Party through a campus? Were you a college student?
DL: Yes, as a matter of fact, I joined The Young Socialist Alliance first at the University of Wisconsin when I was a student there, and that was back in 1963 and was very active in this youth group and became convinced because of what I experienced and what I’d learned that I wanted to be a revolutionary and that that would be the major factor in my life and joined the Socialist Workers Party some two years later.
LM: When you say “a revolutionary,” what do you really mean? There are so many definitions that I’ve heard, that-?
DL: Right. I think that I am fundamentally committed to making this society a society that realizes the demands and the aspirations of the overwhelming majority of people. I would say that capitalism, that the United States, the imperialism that is represented internationally—represents only the interests of a very, very small number of very privileged people. That in fact, for example, it’s less than two percent of the population in the United States that owns and controls over eighty percent of the wealth in this country, and the same two percent of the population owns and controls about fifty percent of the wealth in the entire world. These are the people that basically determine the policies nationally and internationally that affect all of our lives in the United States.
(08:36) I think that I started out in the direction of revolutionary politics when I began to look at my own situation as a woman, when I grew up in a city like New York, which was unable to solve the problems of the vast numbers of people there, when I identified with the Puerto Ricans and the blacks in New York and saw what they were going through. I began to realize that although you can make tremendous gains--and very important gains for women and for minorities in the United States today and that those are worth fighting for--that you cannot eliminate sexism or racism under capitalism because capitalism depends on the profit that they make from sexism and racism. By the same token, I think that wars like the one in Vietnam are built into the Capitalist or the imperialist system. And when I say being “a revolutionary,” what I am fighting for is socialism, and what I mean by “socialism” is basically the control of the basic means of production by the people who produce the wealth in this country--by the workers--as opposed to producing this just for profit and in the interest of profit. And you’re talking, I think, about a whole new concept in terms of how to run economics and how to run society than you can conceive of under capitalism. And as I say, I became convinced that it would be necessary to eliminate capitalism, which I think requires a conscious decision on the part of the majority of people. I don’t think it can be done by a coup or by a teeny group. I think it’s a long process right now but an increasingly rewarding one to talk to people about the kind of changes that are needed and to come head-on, really, and to confrontation with the economic and political and social system in this country, which, as I say, penalizes most of us in the interest of the very few of us. I think in this period with increasing unemployment, with the fantastic inflation rate, and with a depression—basically a depression economy—that more and more people are beginning to see our interests run up head-on against the interests of the administration and of the rulers of this country.
LM: When you speak of the state of socialism existing here, do you have in mind something along the order of the welfare state in Sweden or more along the order of the Soviet Union?
DL: Well, really neither one. I think that Marx said that in order to have socialism, you had to have a higher economy, greater wealth than you can have under capitalism, and neither Sweden nor the Soviet Union meet that criteria. I think that Sweden and Great Britain and a lot of the examples that are brought up are not socialism. There are certain things about those economies that I think that are progressive, such as socialized medicine and many reforms in terms of welfare, but they are still Capitalist economies. The Soviet Union I would call a worker’s state, and I would say that the revolution there was very healthy, but for a whole number of historical reasons which the Socialist Workers Party has analyzed in great details—is Trotskyists and supports of a left opposition in the Soviet Union—that that revolution which was a very healthy one and which is one that we fundamentally support—it degenerated, it deteriorated, and that what we are fighting for is yes, some of the economic advantages of the Soviet Union. Let me say that for example, if you look at the last fifty years and consider where the Soviet Union and consider for that matter where China have come economically and in terms of the welfare of the overwhelming majority of people, you can see the tremendous potential of a planned economy, which I think that both the Soviet Union and China have—not Sweden and not Great Britain. But both the Soviet Union and China have planned economies. You can see that they have gotten from a situation where there were constant famines, where there was a great deal of poverty, where there was a great deal of want--to a situation of virtually no unemployment, no one is starving, no one is tremendously in need. (13:11) I still don’t think that they represent the goal that we are striving for. I think that in the United States, it would be possible to have a Socialist revolution where you would have true democracy, which I think is lacking in the Soviet Union and it’s lacking in China and there are historical reasons for this; mainly the fact that these revolutions occurred in very backward countries and there was not enough wealth to go around. Things had to be divided and a bureaucracy—a little caste of people--developed at the top of these revolutions, at the top of these states, and they do not represent the interest of the majority of people in the Soviet Union or in China any more, say, than George Meany represents the majority of interest of the working people in this country. And that’s the kind of comparisons that I would make. No, I don’t think that you can have socialism without democracy, and I don’t think that you have socialism in Sweden—certainly not—nor in China, nor in the Soviet Union. I would say in China and the Soviet Union, you have deformed or degenerative workers states but you do not have socialism.
LM: (14:26) (tape paused, resumed) Well, will liberal leadership in the state that you envision be Democratic in the sense that we know it?
DL: Well, that’s a tricky question because what we know as democracy in the United States--much of which is worth defending—is really democracy in the interest of this view. I think the electoral process which I participated in illustrates that very, very well. It is a fact that you have to either be a millionaire or next to it or supported by millionaires in order to win any substantial election in this country today. There is only, really, I think, a choice between two sides of the same coin, between as Malcolm X used to say, the fox and the wolf, and that for a third party candidate or an independent candidates--although I think it is very important that we do have the right to have our names on the ballot--there is no real democracy in the sense that we are not afforded equal opportunity to present our programs and our ideas, that we are not given the kind of media time which we cannot afford to buy because we are not supported by the corporations and by the big businesses. No, I think democracy under socialism would be democracy for every human being. It would be a democracy for the majority. In other words, it would not—in this country right now and under capitalism, it’s very important what economic situation you were born in, what color you are, what sex you are, and all of these factors very, very heavily determine your Democratic right. (16:08) What we are talking about is each individual’s ability to recognize and realize their fullest achievements and their fullest potential. That’s one side of it. The other side of it is that you’re talking about democracy from below instead of democracy from above. For example, in terms of this government structure, you would be talking about electing people from the workplace or the neighborhood--the community--to represent you and having them represent you in councils and having these councils elect other people to represent you and so forth, instead of electing a President and electing a senator and so forth, who you really have no control over or no choice in determining in the first place and having them come from the top and impose their will upon you.
(16:59) I think democracy has fantastic potential and I say it’s a double-edged question because I think that the Democratic rights that we do have in the United States are very important and we spend a lot of time fighting for them. We’re very active, for example, in trying to expose the whole Watergate business and the role of the CIA and the FBI, and we have a number of suits right now pointing out how the Socialist Workers Party and our members have been victimized and have been harassed and our Democratic rights have been violated. We fight very hard to maintain these Democratic rights and it is only because you have this kind of a structure that you can carry on this fight in the first place, so we think that’s important, but we don’t think it’s real democracy. What I would say is that it’s a difference between bourgeois democracy, which is what we have in this country, and worker’s democracy, which would represent the majority of people.
LM: Critics of socialism as you’re describing now would say that you would end up with a power elite, using as an example a participation of workers in labor unions. There’s a very low participation rate. Would we not end up with the same sort of situation as perhaps in the Soviet Union?
DL: (18:21) I don’t think you’d have that kind of a problem because I think that as you can see historically, at the time of the growth of the Union Movement and the organization of the CIO, there was a tremendous amount of rank involved--participation in union activities and in building the union. By the same token, when working people see that something that is going on is very much in their interest and affects their livelihood and is very relevant to them, they will participate and they will fight for the right to have their demands and their needs represented. I think over the past years of prosperity which are now coming to a close rather abruptly and where we now see an economic crisis—a depression, an increase in unemployment—but where over the past few years you’ve had a tremendous prosperity, relatively speaking, in this country--the Union Movement has gotten more and more divorced from the needs and demands of the average working person and closer and closer to an identity with the state power, with the government, even largely with the employers who also have the same common interests. And because of that, many working people, many rank and file union members do not see any relevance in day-to-day participation in the Union Movement. But I think already we’ve begun to see the potential and the possibility of turning that around, and I think this would apply when you had a big upsurge to make some very fundamental changes in this country. I think we’ve seen some large unemployment marches locally in a number of cities lately and also in Washington, D.C.—marches protesting unemployment, layoffs, inflation. There have been an increased number of fights for union democracy in a number of past contracts and election campaigns. There have been demands, there have been wildcat strikes, there have been union activities that have gone on in the last year or so corresponding to the change in the economic situation which indicate the willingness and the ability of the majority of working people to fight when they see the possibility of winning and when they are faced with the necessity of putting their lives and their livelihood on the line. I think this kind of participation is the kind of thing in the tradition of the building of the CIO, in the tradition of the struggle for civil rights in this country, in the tradition of the women’s struggle, these kinds of things are the kinds of things that we’re going to see when the majority of people become involved in fighting for some really meaningful and necessary social change and getting involved in a government or in a society that represents their interests more closely.
LM: (21:18) Is the Democratic Party and the labor organizations as they presently exist a major stumbling block to the accomplishment of the Socialist Workers Party’s program?
DL: Well, I think that the Democratic and Republican Parties are really two sides of the same coin. If you look at the main votes that are taken in Congress, you can’t tell whether it’s going to be Democrats or Republicans. It’s not split along party lines. As far as whose interests the Democrats and Republicans represent, they’re virtually identical. The very large corporations generally contributed about equally to both parties so that no matter who wins, they win, and no matter who loses, they win. I think that there has been an alliance between the Democratic Party and the top leadership of labor which has been a very detrimental alliance. It’s been against the interests of the majority of workers in this country, but I think that alliance is beginning to founder a little bit because the Democratic Party is not able to deliver and will not be able to deliver, and that although there will have to be many changes in the Union Movement in terms of throwing out the misrepresentative leaders, the Meanies and the Ruthers and the Fitzsimmonses who don’t represent the majority of workers in this country. And although that’s going to have to be dealt with, I think that we’re going to see--even as there was this falling out at the Democratic convention or the mini-convention that was held recently--I think we’re going to see an increasing distance of necessity between the Labor Movement and the Democratic and Republican Parties in the coming period and I think that that is going to stay then a very unfortunate alliance in terms of selling the interest of the majority of workers down the drain, but I think that that alliance is very much on the rocks right now and will become more so as Reagan followers begin to make themselves more heard in the coming period.
(23:23) One of the things that’s interesting, for example, is that in most of the last elections locally and even nationally have been won by a minority. By that, I mean that the majority of eligible voters have not even participated in the electoral process because they do not see candidates that represent their interests and they do not see any reason to vote for Tom, Dick, or Harry, which is what it amounts to. And so there’s been a pulling away from the kind of commitments that the Labor Movement has been able to carry on, a kind of a stranglehold over the majority of works in this country, and I think that’s going to increase.
LM: On the other hand, do you think that the voters would take the risk of voting for the Socialist Workers Party when there have been members in the SWP who have said that they see a closer ties with the Soviet Union than they do with the United States?
DL: (24:29) I don’t think it’s so much a question of voting for the SWP. I think the SWP—Socialist Workers Party—and this is what I said when I ran—that we cannot lose. That we win; that everyone that votes for the Socialist Workers Party—and many of them are protest votes; they’re not votes necessarily that agree with us all the way down the line by a long shot. Many people vote for the Socialist Workers Party today as an alternative. They vote for us because they see us as principled, because they see us as basically a working class because of the role that we have had against the war in Vietnam, our consistent struggle for the rights of minorities, blacks and Chicanos, our participation in the Women’s Movement and even though they may not agree with all of our program, they vote for us as a protest. I think that that’s going to increase and I think that every vote that we get for that reason—or any other reason—is a victory, and it is a victory because what it does is it wrenches people away from the two-party trap--from the fox and the wolf game as Malcolm used to say—Malcolm X. You know, it wrenches people away from that and into looking at independent politics as an alternative.
Now, I don’t think, however, that the revolution is going to be won at the ballot box. I don’t think that the Socialist Workers Party is going to be elected into office and that that’s how we’re going to have a Socialist Revolution. I think what we’re talking about is a commitment on hands of the majority of people to a fundamental change, and it’s going to be that kind of a struggle--that kind of a fight--more similar, if you will, to the wars or the battles that were waged against the war in Vietnam, to the massive outpourings of the Civil Rights Movement. That is the kind of thing, a general strike; sit-down movements and so forth that are going to bring change in this country. And the vote that we get and the increasing vote that we get is only a small reflection of that. And as I say, many people don’t vote at all, and some of those people think more closely to our position and our determination and don’t vote simply because they’re either not aware of the Socialist Workers Party or any alternative. They think that we cannot win. They think that it’s hopeless and they don’t want to go to the ballots and cast their vote for someone they know is going to cut their throat, and that’s becoming an increasing problem in terms of keeping a captive electorate.
LM: Help me clarify this point. You mentioned the general strikes that will result in the pressure put on the government. Are you saying, then, that we will maintain the Democrats, the Republicans, but they will be forced to adopt your program?
DL: (27:25) No, I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that the fundamental changes that have to be brought about in this country—a revolution, if you will—is not going to be brought about at the ballot That the fundamental struggles are going to be waged in the street, at the workplaces, and in the neighborhoods and communities, not in the polling booth and in the voting booth, and that we have to recognize our participation in the electoral process, which is a very important one and one we fight for very hard and one we consider to be very important--that that participation is mainly of an educational and a propaganda nature. It is not any more than electing Ford over his opponent or Nixon over his opponent is going to change fundamentally what is going on in this country. Fundamental change in this country is going to be brought about my masses of people taking their own destiny into their hands, if you will, and organizing collectively to bring about this kind of change.
LM: Are you speaking about an eventual armed conflict between the powers that be and the laborers, the workers?
DL: No. We don’t advocate violence.
LM: No, I know you’re not saying advocate-
DL: Right. Right.
LM: But do you see violence as the way that it’s going to be accomplished, whether you advocate it or not?
LM: I think you were saying the conditions will force the situation.
DL: Right. Well, let me just say historically, I don’t think any fundamental change of this nature has ever been accomplished without violence or that it’s certainly not desirable. It is not something you plan--that you count on or want to see happen--but I don’t think that this is a peaceful world. I think the most violent actions have been perpetrated by the leadership of this country, by the government of this country against the people in Vietnam, against the people in the Middle East, against the people in Africa and in South America, and I think this is a very violent world and that you do not see any kinds of fundamental change without it, and probably there will be violence associated with any fundamental revolutionary change—with any basic economic, social, and political revolution that would occur in this country.
LM: Let’s talk about a violence of another type—your campaign.
DL: Right. (laughter)
LM: How did you happen to be chosen to run in the Mayor’s election? I think it was ’71?
DL: (30:03) Right. The Socialist Workers Party in Houston at that time was relatively new party. Socialism is not new in the South; as a matter of fact, Eugene Debs, who ran as a Socialist candidate, got a very large vote in Louisiana and East Texas for a couple of his campaigns in the early part of the twentieth century—very early part. But the Socialist Workers Party was new to Houston, and as a matter of fact, there had been quite a lull and quite a back-stepping from that good period and that populism and so forth that we saw in Oklahoma to a period of real repression and driving out of people with these kinds of ideas. A rise, if you will, of sentiment for the Ku Klux Klan and for these opposite, right-wing kind of tendencies. Well, there were a number of people that were very concerned that socialism be reestablished in Houston and that we wage the kind of campaign publicly—a kind of public campaign and an election campaign--to bring these ideas back and to put forward the ideas of the Socialist Workers Party in Texas the same way we have done all around the country.
I happened to be in the right place at the right time, I think is the best explanation. I moved down here. I had had some experience in the Labor Movement in Seattle, which is where I moved from. I had experience in the Women’s Movement and in the Anti-War Movement. I got involved immediately upon coming to Houston because there was a very important Supreme Court case to that and I got involved in the Abortion Movement, as a matter of fact, with the National Organization for Women, and we were very involved in trying to lend support to the fight being waged to turn around the Texas Law prohibiting abortion. I got involved in the Anti-War Movement very quickly in Texas and it was a very sizeable and very important movement in Texas. I got involved also making it clear where I stood on the question of racism, and so after making these various interventions and taking these stands, the Socialist Workers Party asked me to run for mayor. Now, I was the first woman, also, to have ever run for Mayor of Houston, and the first Socialist to have ever run, and all of these things were considered in terms of asking me to play that kind of a role. And so when I announced my campaign in February in 1971, it was on the heels of already having played a role in the Abortion Movement, played a role historically in the Labor Movement and having been active in the Anti-War Movement here in Houston.
LM: Did you really have a program, if by some stretch of imagination you had been elected mayor?
DL: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Well, I always said at that point that the first item on my agenda would have been to fire police Chief Herman Short. That’s kind of getting to be the theme of every campaign since then, no matter who the police chief happens to be, but I had every indication that—it was established, in fact, that the police chief had given de facto backing in the sense of winked his eye or turned his head the other way to Klan elements and right-wing racist elements operating in and around the police force and the sheriff’s department who were very organized fashion committing terrorist activity against a whole number of dissenters in the Houston area against black militants, against Chicanos, that occurred of course, too, in terms of activities and the farm workers against anti-war activists, against civil libertarians, including a number of professors at the University of Houston and Rice, and against some of the women in the Women’s Movement and so forth. All of these activities were well known to the police department and to the police chief and they were basically condoned. There were a number of arrests made where the Klan members arrested were given amnesty and immunity, were released, were even sometimes patted on the back by the police department.
LM: What evidence do you have for that?
DL: (34:58) Well, there were documented arrests, for example. I don’t unfortunately have the documentation in front of me right now, but there were several documented arrests after some raids at Space City newspaper, one in particular where there was a cloth rope-pipe fired through the window, where the assailants were observed and their name and description was turned into the police and they were in fact picked up and they were released without any charges being pressed. There was an attack by several Klan members on an anti-war demonstration in Hermann Park where a flag was seized and burned. The Klan member involved had his picture in the paper the following day, having had the flag returned to him and being told he was a good American by the police department. There were a number of incidents like this, but that was only part of the program and not just in terms of removing the police chief as an individual but turning around what the police force represented in Houston that was part of my campaign. I was very concerned that the offices of the city be used to benefit the majority of Houstonians and I said that the candidates running against me and who, in my opinion, although there were different bases, they remained having the same program today. These candidates represented big business, they represented real estate, the represented particularly in one case the Astrodome—that they were not concerned about the interest of the majority of Houstonians. That we needed a mayor and a city council that was going to use these offices and these powers to take on at that time the Anti-War Movement, to go on record and support of the Women’s Movement and the demands women were making for abortion, for child care centers, that would back up union organizing rights, that would take on the demands of blacks and Chicanos for not only improvement in their neighborhoods and these kinds of things but upgrading Affirmative Action hiring plans and all of the kinds of questions that affect the majority of Houstonians who are, in their majority, blacks, women, Chicanos, and young people. I was concerned about education and the kinds of priorities that were being given to education in Houston where to a large extent the materials used in education were biased. The real history of Texas and the real history of Houston were not being told; there was not any black history, there was not any Chicano or Mexican-American history. I advocated bilingual education from the earliest grades on up. I wanted women’s history taught in schools and all of these kinds of things, which I think have been a contributing factor—or the lack of which has been a contributing factor to making Houston among the lowest in terms of scoring on national averages.
LM: What about the city finances? I’m sure you had something planned for that.
DL: (38:17) Right. One of the biggest problems in Houston is very clearly the tax distribution. There is a fantastic amount of wealth right centered in downtown Houston—centered in the oil industry, in the banks, in the construction and development industries downtown. I was for totally restructuring taxation so that big businesses and these big businesses, most particularly, would be the ones to feel the tax burden and disproportionately, as they should, not only pay increased taxes but also utility bills and the various other kinds of things that are coming up now--telephone bills and so forth. And I think that you could collect enough money in downtown Houston alone to more than finance the city budget without penalizing the small homeowner.
One of the things that came up in the campaign were the ship channel industry where it turned out that the City of Houston had made sweetheart contracts with the big oil businesses and chemical companies along the ship channels so that they were existing tax-free for a period—I believe it was—of five years and with very minimal taxation after that. Those industries in that area had to be annexed as far as I was concerned. Those people had to be taxed. Those people moved here and moved large corporations here not only because of the accessibility of the ship channel and the nearness of the oil, but because they got such a favorable break in terms of taxes. They were able to get away in many cases with a non-union plant. They were able to pay lower wages, to have worse working conditions and so forth in Houston. This was not the kind of lure that I wanted. I want these people to pay through the nose for the fantastic profits they’re making and since I’m now in the oil industry, I know what kind of profits they’re making, and that was a large part of my campaign in terms of financing.
LM: Incidentally, with those kinds of views, how did you ever get into a job with the oil company?
DL: Well, to make a long story short, after I ran my campaign for mayor and then ran a campaign for governor, I had a very hard time getting a job in Houston. I had had a lot of experience in Child Welfare and in the Welfare Departments in New York and in Seattle, and I applied to the Welfare Department here and was turned down three times, I found out, only after I intervened. My qualifications were superior to almost all of the other candidates, I would venture to say. I did excellently on the state boards, and I was told, finally, that I was turned down because of the fact that the Socialist Workers Party was on the Attorney General’s List. I was going to take that to court at the time that I got this other job. I was also turned down by a number of other companies in town, including the telephone company, because of my politics.
As a matter of fact, at the time that I was hired by Atlantic Richfield, I had been placed on the Disabled/Hard-to-Place unemployment list in the Unemployment Department even though I have a college degree and Phi Beta Kappa and a number of years of employment experience and was being given the opportunity to train in a job based on the fact that I was a disadvantaged worker merely because of my politics. I applied to Atlantic Richfield, and I believe I got hired there for two reasons. One, a woman several months before I got hired had filed an Affirmative Action suit against Atlantic Richfield and had gone in herself and gotten hired. She was the first woman hired since World War II and that was in 1973. Also, within several months before I applied, Atlantic Richfield had decided that it was in their best interests to drop the loyalty oath from their application. The combination of these two things and the fact that I hounded them quite a bit, I think, made them decide that it would be inadvisable not to hire me because of the potential of a court suit, and so I was hired there in December of 1973, and I was at that time, I believe, the fourth woman to be hired by that company since World War II for an hourly job in the plant.
LM: Have there ever been any pressures brought on you while you’ve been working there?
DL: (42:54) I can’t say there have. I’ve had to file a couple of grievances; I’ve won them. I don’t believe in filing something or doing something unless you can win it, and I haven’t lost anything yet as far as I’m concerned even though I’m not the mayor or the governor at this point. No, I would say that I’m very careful in any job that I have to make sure that my attendance is good, my work record is good, my performance on the job is good, so that any conflicts that I do run into are very clearly based on my politics and not anything I do on the job. At this point, I have overcome successfully a couple of incidents of that nature and they haven’t been able to give me any real trouble.
LM: In doing the research for the interview, I noticed that some of the other members of the party who have run for public office appeared—at least on the surface—seemed to have some conflict with what you’ve been saying. For example, one of the candidates said that there wasn’t much difference between socialism and communism, and another candidate said that in any war with the Soviet Union, he would have to support the Soviet Union. Is there a consensus in the party? It seems that there are conflicting views here.
DL: No, I’m not sure exactly why you say those particular things conflict with what I’m saying, because I would say, well, firstly that there really is no fundamental difference between socialism and communism, but I don’t see that there is communism anywhere in the world. In other words, Marx says that communism is just a higher form of socialism, and in that sense, there is no fundamental difference. I don’t think that the Soviet Union or any country in the world is Socialist, much less communist. Communism, I think, refuses an epithet rather than scientifically. And in terms of the Soviet Union, yes, I think the Soviet Union fundamentally has made the kind of turn and set the kind of example that is going to be necessary, although I do not support the lack of democracy there. And I don’t anticipate--particularly with the d’état--I don’t anticipate a showdown between the Soviet Union and the United States.
LM: Well, I noticed that in your campaign, none of these types of topics were discussed; it was the other members of the party which brought them up. Do you feel that these kinds of remarks hurt your chances?
DL: (45:50) Not really, as long as you explain what you’re talking about. Many people told me, for example, “We support a lot of the things that you’re saying. We think it’s fantastic. Why do you have to call yourself a Socialist? Why don’t you just run as a Democrat or something?” Well, aside from the principles involved which would prohibit me from running inside of the Democratic Party because I think that would be supporting the other side of the fence—aside from that, I think it’s very important to educate people about what socialism really is--and communism, if you will. I think that the majority of Americans in this system have been extremely miseducated. This is one of the few countries in the world, I would venture to say, that you can get a PhD in history or philosophy or sociology and not really study Marx and Engels and Valkanov and some of the real—Volkoren and the founders of an ideology which one-third of the world reports to support. And if it is possible for Socialists to make more clear to Americans what we mean by “socialism” as opposed to what the epithets that are applied to what they call “socialism” by the rulers of this country, I think that’s an important contribution and run very proudly as a Socialist and I explain that I became a Socialist because I was forced to reject the alternative, which is not democracy and which is not the free world but which is capitalism. And capitalism is the antithesis of socialism from a scientific point of view. All of the epithets that are thrown around that say “free world” and “democracy” and all of these kinds of things are epithets, and that’s exactly what they are, and they do not scientifically differentiate the economy of this country’s capitalism from the economy of socialism, which is a worker state or a planned economy.
LM: Now, during the campaign in ’71, you’d complained of right-wing terrorism against the Socialist Workers Party and office-
LM: And I don’t know if you mentioned against your own home or your person, but perhaps you could go into that a little more. What kind of harassment did you really experience?
DL: 48:25) Well, as I said earlier, I declared my campaign and announced myself as a candidate for mayor as the first Socialist and the first woman candidate for Mayor of Houston and I did that on the basis of my participation as well in a very active participation in making a major speech at the University of Houston on International Women’s Day, being well-known in terms of the Anti-War Movement and well-known in terms of my support to the black and Chicano movements, and within a month after the time that I announced my campaign, I was called up early one morning by a campaign supporter who told me that our campaign headquarters--which was at that time located in a storefront on Wheeler and Scott—in other words, right almost exactly between the University of Houston and Texas Southern University and in the heart of a rather large black community—that that campaign headquarters had been demolished. As he put it, “Your window is all over the pavement.” So I went down to the campaign headquarters, which was also a public bookstore, and in fact, found out very quickly that the Socialist Workers Party had been pipe bombed, as it turned out, and it was a very effective bombing. It resulted in almost complete demolishment of the building. There were holes all the way through a several-inch-thick concrete roof. All of the bookshelves and books were on the floor. All of the plate glass was broken and the floor was torn up and so forth. It was clear to us from the campaign of harassment that the plan had been waging over a period of time against Pacifica Radio, the Space City News, and a number of individuals, as I said earlier--that it was undoubtedly The Klan that had bombed our campaign headquarters. And we launched a very, very aggressive campaign for support to a stop to this right-wing terrorism. This was only the culmination, as I said, of a long series of incidents. And a lot of us got together—a lot of the previous victims, and also a lot of civil libertarians, a lot of civil rights supporters, women, anti-war activists, professors. We went down to City Hall, literally, once or twice a week—as often as the city council met. We presented petitions, we presented statements, and we demanded an investigation.
At that time, the Head of Criminal Intelligence Division, Joe Singleton, called me into his office and had a couple of his intelligence agents interview me—the Arson Squad interviewed me behind a one-way mirror. The Federal Intelligence Division wanted me to take a lie detector test and they wanted to ask me on a lie detector test if I had bombed our campaign office in order to get publicity because I keep insisting that it was the Ku Klux Klan that had done it. That went on for a number of rounds. We had an excellent attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union whom I called up and who advised me not only not to take the lie detector test, but to get out of his office just as fast as I could, that the whole thing might be rigged. I did not take the lie detector test. I did not take the truth serum test that some other John Burke Society members offered to pay me for taking, and instead insisted that the City of Houston be responsible for putting an end to this kind of activity and insisted that the police department in the City of Houston knew who was responsible for it.
Two months later, our headquarters, which we had by then resurrected and put in new windows and all of that was machine-gunned, and between that time, another building in the Montrose area which housed some sort of dissonant types was bombed and destroyed. Again, after many months of constantly fighting this thing and constantly putting pressure with the support of a lot of people who were also concerned on the city government, three Klan members were indicted for bombing our bookstore and a couple of others who had frequented the bookstore were indicted for various things such as carrying a bomb, being in possession of a bomb, and so forth. It’s interesting that all of these indictments were eventually dropped and that none of the people that actually were indicted for blowing up our campaign office ever went to jail or anything like that, although a number of Klan members at that time did get some sort of sentence.
(53:48) Shortly after we were bombed, it was kind of interesting because I had the opportunity to debate the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, Frank Converse, who was at that time the Grand Dragon, and also the owner of a gun shop in Harris County. If I’m not mistaken, it was just outside the city limits—the Houston city limits—and he also ended up getting indicted for possessing illegal weapons and various other types of things. We debated and we had a very successful debate for half an hour, impromptu on Channel 11, and apparently, the response was so fantastic, they said they got more than 75 phone calls threatening and praising and screaming about the debate before they closed their switchboard down, and so they re-invited us to debate again a week later for an hour, which we then did. And I think a lot of the viewpoints that I expressed and a lot of the determination that I expressed—that we wanted dissidents and black militants and anti-war activists and women and young people, civil libertarians—to be able to freely participate in Houston’s political life--to demonstrate, to leaflet, and to hold their point of view. These things came out on that program and I think these programs were one of the contributing factors along with the fantastic response and participation that the whole community by and large gave, to getting the situation turned around and reestablishing really what it was was Democratic rights. As a matter of fact, the committee that was formed was called the Committee to Defend Democratic Rights in Houston. So we don’t take democracy lightly and we say that it was the police and The Klan that were anti-Democratic at that time.
LM: Were you personally threatened at any time?
DL: (55:45) Oh, yes. I was constantly threatened. We had a number of phone calls, a number of visits and people riding by the house. The federal government intervened with someone from the Alcohol Firearms and Tobacco Division that got involved in the case. As a matter of fact, I was getting such explicit information over the telephone regarding the activities of The Klan and where these bombs could be located and the names and addresses of these alleged secret members that the federal agent requested that I place a voluntary tap on my telephone so that the evidence could be used in court, which consisted basically of a tape recorder that I would activate at the time some meaningful conversation occurred. A couple of rather unimportant conversations occurred within a couple of days after he had placed the device on my phone, and when it finally came to one that was really quite meaty and had a lot of information in it and I activated the device and played it back later, it was nothing but a high-pitched squeal on the tape recorder, and I called the federal agent and told him that something was the matter. He came over and checked it out and had his people check it out, and their determination—which is heresy—but their observation was that some local authorities were probably interjecting an anti-bugging device over my telephone, namely a high-pitched frequency noise so that these names could not be reported. One of the main reasons for this was that some of the names being given to me as Klan sympathizers and activists were police officers.
LM: Was it ever checked out by the federal government or by the agency?
DL: (57:41) Well, of course, I didn’t have any valid tapes. I did volunteer to appear before the Grand Jury. I was interviewed by the district attorney at the time. He took down a couple of names but said it was all heresy--which of course, it was, legally, heresy--because we were not able to—ironically, I’m very much against wiretapping, bugging, and so forth, but this was one instance where I was to control the device and was not able to activate it because of some local interference.
LM: What did you learn from your experience as a candidate?
DL: Well, I learned that it pays to be fighter, for one thing, and I mean in a fighter in the best sense of the word. I mean that it pays to stand up for things that you believe are in the interests in the majority of the people. I also learned that the majority of Texans are not night riders and they are not terrorists and they are not supporters of the Ku Klux Klan. I learned that really, this city is not a whole lot different from any others; a little bit more wide open, I suppose, in some ways, than some of the other places I’ve lived and I’ve lived all around the country. But I developed a great deal of confidence and a great deal of optimism about the people in Houston and about the future and the potential of this city, and for that matter, people in general. The things that I knew before I began campaigning were reconfirmed, namely that the city administration is not really fighting for the interests of the majority of Houstonians, that the police department is not in business to protect poor people and blacks and Chicanos and is very much politically involved and is very much involved, I believe, with right-wing elements in this city and probably with Mafia types and so forth. And basically, I think it was a good experience and an experience I think that we can repeat, and when I say “we” I don’t mean just the Socialist Workers Party.
One of the things that was interesting about my campaign, for example, was that at the time that I declared my candidacy, I was not allowed, officially, to file for the ballot, and that was because in order to file to be a candidate—in order to run for office in Houston at that time in 1971—you had to have lived in the City of Houston for five years, you had to sign a loyalty oath, which was a very particular loyalty oath regarding the State of Texas and the City of Houston, you have to own real estate in the City of Houston. You couldn’t rent. You had to own real estate in the City of Houston, and you had to pay $1250 to get your name on the ballot.
Well, I went down there and I said, “I am filing and I intend to be a candidate. I rent a house. I do not own any real estate. I’ve lived here over a year but not five years. I refuse to sign the kind of loyalty oath that you want me to sign. I support the Bill of Rights, but I do not say which the loyalty oath said—that you will fight against any means to change anything in Texas,” that’s basically what it said—and I said, “I will not pay $1250 for the public privilege of having my name put on the ballot.” One of our big fights during the campaign was to have all that turned around. The legislature threw out the five year thing and reduced it to one year, so that eliminated that, but on every other count, we won, including getting a Supreme Court Justice, I understand, according to the American Civil Liberties Union who took the case out of bed on V-Day several hours before the final filing deadline. And not only did we get on the ballot, but we got a few other people on the ballot who also didn’t meet that criteria as a result of winning that suit, and I think that’s important. And I think those are the kinds of things that can be done in Houston, that people will fight for in Houston, and that the field is wide open for engaging in that kind of a struggle and I learned that and I was very optimistic of that then.
LM: Well, we’re getting near the end of the interview, but there’s one question I was curious about. How did your husband react during all this? Is he a member of the Party also, or-?
DL: (1:02:45) Well, let me start out by saying what I always say. People asked me that all during the campaign, and I remember always asking Mayor Welch and the people that asked me that question, “Do you ever ask Mayor Welch how his wife feels?”
You know, that’s a funny kind of question because let me say first off that yes, my husband supports the campaign, and yes, he’s a member of the Socialist Workers Party, and yes, he’s run as a candidate before, too. But most of the time, that question would not be asked of a male candidate because it would never occur to most interviewers or most supporters to ask a male candidate if their wife supported the campaign. It is assumed that men do what they want and women tag along, and if they don’t, you know, you’d ask Mrs. Ford, maybe, how would she like living in the White House or something like that, but not as a determinate, and it was educational to discuss the whole role of a woman as a candidate exactly equal to a man as a candidate, and whether or not my husband supported me should be treated the same way as whether or not Mrs. Ford wanted to move into the White House, and yet really, it isn’t, because there’s an assumption somehow that I couldn’t do this kind of thing if my husband didn’t support me. It is true that as a feminist, as a supporter of women’s liberation that I couldn’t live with a man that wouldn’t support my right to do this. He might not support my doing it, but he would have to support my right to do it or I couldn’t live with him, and that’s more the way I view my husband than as a husband who votes. But I would be surprised—maybe I’m wrong, I mean, maybe you’re more conscious—but I found during the campaign that this question was constantly asked to me and it was never asked of Mr. Welch or Mr. Hofheinz, who were right next to me on the same platform.
LM: Well, I don’t mean to disappoint you, but the reason why I asked it was because of the personal danger involved.
DL: (1:04:41) Yeah, well that—right, okay, but as I say, that that’s not the main—when I was up there on the stand, people mostly asked it because I was—like, for example, they don’t ask Dan Fine(??) when he ran for Mayor as a Socialist if his wife supported his campaign, just for an example. Now, he was also a Socialist. He had personal danger involved. I’m a Socialist, but they asked a man and not a woman.
As far as personal danger, I think when you decide to be a revolutionary; you decide that you’re going to do whatever is necessary. You’re going to put up with whatever’s necessary and I couldn’t live with someone that wasn’t a revolutionary, so that particular question never came up. But I think if you’ll think about it, people didn’t ask Dan Fine(??) that and he was also a revolutionary and he was also in danger, and he was also married and also has a child. So that’s just something to think about.
LM: Maybe I’d best go home and look in the mirror. Okay. I’ll take it under advisement. (laughs) Before we conclude, are there any areas that I haven’t asked you that perhaps you think would be pertinent to the interview?
DL: (1:06:00) Well, no. I think we’ve covered a lot of territory, and the only thing that I can say is that I think in the next few years, there are going to be a lot of changes in this country and in this city and they’re going to be reflected more in terms of the working class and the labor unions and the Union Movement than has been true in the past, and I think that’s going to lend a little different character to the kinds of things that are going to happen. I think they’re going to be bigger and better—don’t get me wrong—but I think that we are making a turn to where the kinds of things that this country has always been involved in and represented--the kinds of economic and political policies that it’s maintained--are going to affect and are affecting working people a lot more and that you’re going to see a lot more struggles in this area which we will be involved in and which will be reflected a lot more in our campaign than was possible in my campaign.
LM : Well, on behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives and Research Center, I want to thank you for a very stimulating interview and I think it will be quite useful to researchers in the future who wish to learn something about the events that occurred in the early ‘70s.
DL: (1:07:14) Thank you. I enjoyed it.
LM: Thank you very much.