O grave, where is thy victory? In the 18th State Senate district in south Texas, is where. On Tuesday, voters there rejected conservative Republican J. Everett Ware and reelected Sen. John Wilson, who'd been dead for six weeks.
"I wouldn't have run against Sen. Wilson if I didn't know he had lung cancer," said loser Ware, a doctor from Victoria, Tex.
So imagine how Ware felt on Sept. 19 when Wilson died. Then imagine how Ware felt after he got less than a third of the vote.
"It's the most complicated political campaign I ever heard of, much less got involved in," said Ware.
For one thing, his defeat by a dead man came as no surprise.
"Quite the contrary. I really expected to lose. I had only entered the race to be sure that someone reflected the late Sen. Wilson's views. I'm a conservative Republican and he was a very conservative Democrat. I entered the race with his knowledge and approval. It is not true, as some people have been saying, that I had access to his medical records. Of course, I knew he had lung cancer, everybody knew that. But it was a surprise to me that he went as fast as he did."
When Ware entered the campaign, with Wilson still alive, he had "no intention of campaigning."
Then Wilson died, and the secretary of state, David Dean, a Republican, pointed out that he'd died 24 hours past the filing deadline -- so no other Democrat could take his place. With the total assurance that he would be unopposed, Ware took to the stump, bought radio spots, and spent $30,000 to take his case to the people.
"Being that there was a dead man on the ballot, I felt obliged to make a serious campaign," Ware said.
He waged a hard but respectful fight.
"I made a radio campaign, but there wasn't enough time to get across what the issues were."
It would seem there was only one issue in the election, but: "I didn't want to stress the fact that he was dead. I'd just say, 'If he was here, I wouldn't have to be here.' Unfortunately, I was preaching to the choir," said Ware, meaning that he was talking mostly to fellow Republicans, which seems strange, seeing that a hefty portion of them wouldn't have voted for Wilson, dead or alive.
Ware said the Democrats didn't actually deny Wilson was dead. "They had ads that said something about how he'd lost a long battle against lung cancer. But they wouldn't come right out and say John Wilson was dead, no," Ware said, in a tone that suggested that this would have been coarsely inappropriate to electoral comity.
Consequently, as little as 15 percent of the voters in some counties knew that Wilson was dead, said Ware.
At Democratic Party headquarters in Austin, executive director Joe Gagan retorted: "If as little as 15 percent knew, that's fine with us, but I don't think it's true. We had a committee chaired by a county chairman down in Flatonia that held a press conference where they said he was dead. The press loved it. One paper had a headline that said 'Demo Chairman Calls for People to Elect Dead Man.' "
The name of the group backing the late Wilson was: "Committee for a Fair Choice."
Said Gagan: "All the Democrats did was, we attempted to indicate there was no debate in the race."
Texas Democrats have looked favorably upon the dead before. In the late '70s, Gov. Dolph Briscoe appointed one of them to a regulatory commission.
In this election, there were special problems. If the Democrats withdrew their candidate on grounds of death, then Ware would have been elected. But the Democrats realized that as soon as Wilson won his Senate seat, the seat would be declared vacant, forcing a special election. Of course, there was already another special election scheduled for tomorrow, for a new senator to serve out Wilson's old term, which expires Dec. 31. Then again, the state legislature isn't scheduled to meet between now and Dec. 31, so some Democrats felt tomorrow's vote was nothing more than a dodge by Republican Gov. William Clements.
"He did it to confuse the voters," said Gagan. "They couldn't understand why they'd have to vote twice in five days for the same Senate seat."
Especially if John Wilson was running, and even more especially if he'd be dead during both elections.
He'll still be dead during the third election, at a date yet to be announced by the governor. That's the election the Democrats wanted to make sure would be held, and that's why they got out the vote for Wilson.
Said Ware: "One of the people running Sen. Wilson's campaign was John Sharp, who'll be running in the special election."
Just as Ware never planned to oppose the live Wilson, he says he has "no quarrel with John Sharp." Ware has to run in the first special election because his name is already on the ballot, but once again, he won't campaign, although presumably if Sharp died before tomorrow, Ware could once more brandish the same campaigning skills he showed against Wilson.
"I would like to have won, yes," Ware said. He does not blame his defeat on the fact that the voters didn't know Wilson was dead. In fact, he took one of his worst drubbings in his home county of Victoria, winning only 28.8 percent of the vote when he was sure that "at least 75 percent of the voters knew Wilson had died. It was very sophisticated on their part. They wanted to force the special election -- this is John Sharp's home town, too."
As for other counties, Ware could only say: "I don't know."
In contrast with Victoria, Ware got 31.5 percent of the vote in Brazoria County, where Ware estimated that only a small portion of the voters may have known that Wilson was dead. "They take the Houston Post and the Chronicle over there," he explained.
There were inexplicable anomalies. In one county, Ware said, voters swarmed out to vote against congressional candidate William Patman, whom they perceived as a liberal, and who won his race, district-wide. In this particular county, however, they rejected him in favor of an opponent who had admitted two years ago to being an alcoholic, and was widely accused in the campaign of being a homosexual. "They're conservative down there. They'd rather have a gay than a liberal," Ware said. But they overwhelmingly rejected Ware, a conservative, in favor of a dead man, thereby hinting at whole new possibilities for the founding of an ultra-right wing in Texas.
At Republican headquarters in Austin, spokesman Taber Ward said that if Wilson had never had the lung cancer to start with, "he probably would have been unopposed." And he pointed out: "There's no requirement in Texas for a candidate to be alive, except before the filing deadline."