Is party switch of former Austin mayor part of a trend or merely opportunism?

Since President Reagan took office, 50 present or former Democratic officehold-ers have switched to the GOP, according to Texas Republicans. A recent convert is Carole Keeton Rylander, former three-term mayor of Austin, an almost certain candidate for the House seat held since 1963 by Democrat J. J. (Jake) Pickle -- and, until last month, a lifelong Democrat.

Why did she do it?

In discussing her party switch, Mrs. Rylander initially employs glib explanations such as, ``I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me,'' or ``I realized the Democratic Party was my party of the past, while the Republican Party is my party of the future'' -- one-liners that have become clich'es of the South's party realignment story.

But what makes the longtime public official's story stand out is the fact that she is a woman, and mother of five, who has strongly supported many women's issues that have not always received the backing of her new political party.

Mrs. Rylander -- who served for 11 years on the Austin school board and as mayor under her former married name of McClellan -- said in a recent interview there are no ``women's issues,'' because issues like family values, education, and employment rights are equally important to both sexes. Yet she has been, and remains, a strong proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, of equal pay for equal work, and of family-planning services supported with tax dollars. She has been pro-choice on abortion, although she now says she opposes abortion personally and would rule out tax dollars for its practice, except in cases of rape or incest, or where the mother's life is threatened.

How does she square these views with those of the Republican Party, especially its vocal right wing? She says simply that any political organization includes people of varying viewpoints and that she will continue advocating her strong beliefs. ``One reason I left the Democratic Party was my feeling that there was no longer any place there for the moderate-to-conservative viewpoint.'' She adds,``I haven't changed, and I haven't changed any of the beliefs or anything I feel strongly about.''

The potential differences she may have with some Republicans are not, in any case, her favored topic of discussion. Seated in her Christmas-decked home that wears comfortably the marks of heavy family traffic, Rylander prefers to focus on such issues as economic growth and opportunity, issues she says have been abandoned by the Democratic Party.

Speaking of her experience as mayor, from 1977-83, Rylander says she watched her former party's local organization slowly adopt a ``no growth'' stance in an attempt to protect Austin's environment and way of life, both vaunted throughout Texas. She says the philosophy shackled private enterprise, ``which must be allowed to operate for the job growth we need,'' and has ended up hurting most of those members of the population -- minorities, women, the young -- who once were considered part of the Democrat ic fold.

No more, she says. ``This part of Texas is experiencing rapid transition, with a newer, younger population.'' (Austin was the nation's 10th-fastest-growing metropolitan area between 1980 and 1984.) ``And if our sons are any indication,'' she adds, ``there's a lot of conservative thought out there.''

With two sons at Harvard University, the Rylander family may not typify the central Texas electorate. But Carole Rylander is no doubt counting on a conservative trend and the new attractiveness of the Republican Party as she considers a possible campaign. She stops just short of announcing her candidacy in the congressional race, out of sensitivity to her position on the state's nonpartisan Board of Insurance. (Candidates must file in February.)

Locally, some Democrats and Republicans alike are calling Rylander's move political opportunism, noting that a run against Representative Pickle would be suicidal, but to wait for his retirement would require more patience than Rylander admits to.

Democratic pollster George Shipley says Rylander's credibility will face ``tough scrutiny'' in a race against Pickle, since she has a ``long record of being pro-choice and pro-labor.'' He says Pickle would win ``decisively,'' adding that the 22-year congressman is ``something of a local treasure.''

But Richard Box, chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, says thousands of new young voters are pulling the fast-growing Austin area to the right of its former liberal bent. He acknowledges, ``Pickle will be very hard to beat, but we have a shot at it.''

Rylander says she had been uncomfortable with the Democratic Party for some time -- she remembers acknowledging that she wouldn't have won her third mayoral term without Republican backing -- and that ``the time to speak up was now.''

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