By Steven G. Kellman
It is almost as risky to film a political campaign as to run one. Of thousands of aspirants for public office in the United States, which is likely to provide the most compelling story? What if the campaign you started to document suddenly implodes or refuses further access? Though political close-ups are a long shot, campaign films have become a staple of P.O.V., the PBS summer series of independent documentaries. In 1996, Taking on the Kennedys examined the first attempt at public office, a Congressional seat from Rhode Island, by Ted Kennedy's 26-year-old son, Patrick. Bill's Run, broadcast this June, followed Bill Kassebaum's election to the Kansas House of Representatives. In 1992, Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics inspected the peculiar electoral culture of the Pelican State.
Paul Stekler, who co-directed Louisiana Boys, is back with something closer to home, which for him is Austin, where he heads the University of Texas film program. In Last Man Standing, which KLRN-TV will air on July 20 at 10 p.m. on Channel 9 and Cable Channel 10, Stekler tracks one contest for the Texas House of Representatives in 2002. It was a fateful year, in which Republicans swept what was once a solidly Democratic state. "Politics, like the country," says Stekler in a voiceover, "is never static." Focusing on a two-term incumbent and his 24-year-old challenger, he finds drama in the shifting tectonic plates of representative democracy in this enlightened state.
Last Man Standing begins in the dark, minutes before the polls close on November 5, 2002. Rick Green, Republican representative from District 45, which includes Blanco, Hays, and Caldwell counties, and his Democratic opponent, Patrick Rose, stand outside the same voting place. Each tries to coax support from the final stragglers. Green and Rose are both young, attractive men, but Green rebuffs his rival's attempt at cordiality. To explain the tensions and issues in this race, the film goes back to June, when campaigning consisted of shaking hands at the Luling Watermelon Thump, and works its way to 12:02 on the morning after Election Day, when the winner is determined by a margin of 360 out of 38,000 votes.
Stekler sets his local race against the backdrop of the candidacies of Tony Sanchez for governor, and Ron Kirk for United States Senate. Desperate to oust Rick Perry, who inherited the governor's mansion when George W. Bush exited for Washington, the battered Democrats placed their hopes in a Laredo businessman with a Tejano identity and plenty of cash. But the the mathematical majorities of the state's minorities could not offset Sanchez' lackluster performance on the stump. "You gotta have some Elvis to get elected," Molly Ivins explains on camera. And Sanchez seems a Latino Lawrence Welk.
Texas had become a very Republican state, notes former Clinton adviser Paul Begala: "It's South Carolina on steroids." Karl Rove, Ann Richards, and Henry Cisneros also offer observations on what is happening in the state that used to produce powerful Democrats such as Sam Rayburn, John Nance Garner, Wright Patman, Jim Wright, Lloyd Bentsen, and Lyndon Johnson.
Only lobbyists pay much attention - and money? - to the Texas legislature, so it is likely that most viewers of Last Man Standing outside District 45 will be anxious about the outcome of the Green-Rose race until the final frames, when Stekler concludes: "Today's loser may be tomorrow's winner. That's the American way." The winner is now campaigning for reelection, and, with few exceptions, a leader's need for deep pockets and shallow slogans continues to be the American way. •