HOUSTON — State Rep. Borris Miles practically leaps into the conference room at the Anna Dupre Apartments in inner-city Houston. The residents’ council meeting has already started.
“You gonna give me some sugar,” he says to an elderly woman on his way into the dingy room. She promptly kisses him on the cheek.
The Democratic incumbent solicits their concerns and dutifully listens as the women, many in wheelchairs, fill him in: They want a new roof for a bus stop. Their nonprofit paperwork is a mess. And the cars drive too fast on the boulevard out front.
“Is that it?” he asks. “Anything else?”
Miles tells the gathering that the roof and the paperwork won’t be a problem. The traffic might be beyond his control, though, and he reminds them that he doesn’t like to promise things he can’t deliver. They all nod.
“Alright, y’all know we got an election coming up?” Miles asks.
He holds up a sample mail-in ballot and explains the procedures before warning them not to let others fill out the forms for them. Then he acknowledges the elephant in the room, and at least part of the reason he is working his tail off right now: He’s got an opponent. The same one he had last time. And the time before that.
“Just 'cause I got elected don’t mean I’m gonna turn my back on ya,” he said. “But I need your help now. I’m getting tired of foolin’ with Al Edwards.”
The crowd bursts in laughter. They’re kind of sick of the Al vs. Borris grudge match, too. It’s comical for outsiders, but the ritualistic feud between the two Democrats feels more like a recurring nightmare to whoever the incumbent happens to be. And that title keeps changing.
When their fight began a few years ago, the incumbent was Edwards, a civil rights activist and lay minister who was first elected to the Texas House in 1978. Now 75, Edwards is perhaps best known for legislation making Juneteenth a state holiday. It commemorates June 19, 1865, the day slaves in Texas learned they had been freed.
Edwards’ other signature effort, legislation aimed at banning raunchy cheerleader routines in public schools, drew national headlines in 2005. But the so-called “booty bill” died in the Senate after narrowly passing the House.
When the next election rolled around in 2006, Edwards pointed with pride to his high-profile committee assignments, including his service on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
But Miles, a former cop and wealthy businessman, said Edwards had strayed far from his Democratic roots and hadn’t done enough for their impoverished district south of downtown Houston. He tagged Edwards as a “Craddick D,” meaning he was a Democrat tapped to join the inner circle of former House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland.
Miles easily won in a runoff that year, and he seemed to have strong prospects heading into his re-election battle after the 2007 legislative session. His fortunes dimmed considerably, though, after allegations surfaced that Miles had crashed a Christmas party, brandished a Derringer pistol and made threats — calling himself a “gangsta” — before kissing another man’s wife on the lips.
The controversy was hanging over Miles during the 2008 elections. And this time it was Edwards accusing the incumbent, who has a penchant for wearing custom-made suits and driving foreign cars, of losing touch with the district. Edwards easily trounced his opponent and returned to the Legislature.
The allegations against Miles soon blossomed into a felony indictment and two charges of deadly conduct. Miles hired famed defense attorney Rusty Hardin to represent him, and he hotly denied the accusations. He said the whole thing was cooked up by Edwards supporters desperate to take him down.
At the 2009 trial, Hardin showed the jury a blown-up photo featuring a wine glass in Miles’ hand. He said Miles could not have been holding a gun as witnesses had claimed, and the jury agreed. Miles, who says he spent $400,000 defending himself, felt both vindicated and angry. He again challenged Edwards in 2010, and he won in a nail-biter — 11 votes, later reduced to eight after a recount.
The way Miles sees it, the grudge should have ended right there. He says he has tried to reach out to Edwards, to bury the hatchet and work together for the good of the district.
“Why can’t he just let it go?” Miles asked.
In a telephone interview, Edwards said that if he were motivated by self-interest, he wouldn’t run again. His 30 years of service make him eligible for a pension of more than $86,000 a year, and he'll have to give that up and start drawing $600 a month as a part-time legislator if he wins.
But he said the district is awash in problems — drug abuse, unemployment, underfunded schools — and he wants to put his long years of experience back to use.
“Seniority is what counts when you want to get on some of these powerful committees,” he said. “Why give away all this power that District 146 has accumulated through me to someone who has been there for such a short period?”
Miles, 46, concedes that he doesn't have the seniority that Edwards accumulated over decades in the Legislature. But he said Edwards wasted it on foolish endeavors like the booty bill and a a botched effort to put a Juneteenth statue on the grounds of the state Capitol in Austin.
The veteran lawmaker fought for the monument for years, only to see the plans get engulfed in controversy after one of the central figures carved for the bronze statue was a dead ringer for Edwards himself. According to media reports, the statue is still sitting in the basement of a Bastrop foundry.
While there are plenty of controversies for each candidate to exploit, their differences are largely stylistic. They're both Democrats who want more money for their district from a state controlled by tight-fisted Republicans. What isn't clear, in a delayed primary with no presidential election to drive up turnout, is who will show up at the polls.
After getting a good pair of shoes with "some support in the middle" and pounding the pavement to get out the vote, Edwards says he feels good about his chances.
Miles sees the 2008 election, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton drove turnout through the roof, as an anomaly.
"I feel a lot better this time," he said. "We're gonna blow Al out of the way. It ain't even gonna be close."
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/texas-politics/2012-elections/ding-ding-round-4-borris-vs-al-grudge-match/.