Several of Galveston's municipal races this season are weird enough to make us all proud. God bless Texas politics.

In the mayoral race, the traditional developer-vs.-preservationist stand-off is given an added cultural je ne sais quoi by fresh developments.

A letter from a supporter on the website of challenger David Bowers, who is gay, referred to incumbent Roger "Bo" Quiroga, who is Hispanic, as the "Macho Nacho." Quiroga, no stranger to the art of insult himself, has referred to the The Galveston Daily News as "the worst disaster to hit Galveston since the 1900 storm."

The latest furor is over whether to continue Beach Party Weekend, a phenomenon that attracts young people, some of whom get all knee-walkin', commode-huggin' drunk and misbehave accordingly.

The Daily News ran a picture of one celebrator holding a puppy by the ear, which an ally of the mayor's says proves the paper has a bias against the mayor. Actually, the photo is sort of interesting on its own merit, in a way.

Then there is the controversy about whether City Manager Steve LeBlanc had a right to ask a hardware store to put up a Quiroga lawn sign. LeBlanc says that being city manager does not take away his right as a citizen to support whomever he wants on his own time, but many think it is Bad Form.

Meanwhile, a heated Democratic primary race for county commissioner dragged in the late Wayne Johnson for an endorsement in absentia.

Johnson, a talented politician and a lovely man, died at a tragically young age. Incumbent Commissioner Stephen Holmes was appointed by the county judge to serve out Johnson's term in office. A flier bearing Johnson's picture and signed by 16 African-American ministers claimed that Holmes was appointed in "an undemocratic and apartheid manner."

"Let's not dishonor the memory of Wayne Johnson by endorsing political apartheid with malice toward none," said the slightly confusing flier. Wayne's widow, Sallie, said she was outraged by the fliers and considered suing.

Actually, this is not the first time that the popular Johnson has been posthumously claimed for political purposes. He was a cheerful man with a good sense of humor -- I suspect he would be amused to know he's still active in Galveston County politics.

Back on the "Macho Nacho" letter, in a flier put out at a Rotary Club meeting, Quiroga asked: "Is this a secret plan of David Bowers and the Galveston Daily News to divide the city and defeat Mayor Quiroga? Citizens, you be the judge."

Asked whether he saw any distinction between a letter written TO a candidate and one written BY him, Quiroga found great food for thought: "That is a very, very tough question. Let's not be naive about these things. We know people meet. We know people talk about strategy." Bowers has apologized for his unfortunate supporter.

What one likes about Galveston politics is that people really get into it: lawn signs everywhere, lots of heated discussions, everybody knowing everybody, and lots of complications stemming from feuds and friendships that go back for years, if not generations. Among those BOI (born on the isle), being a Galvestonian is a complete identity.

The island is 50 percent white, 25 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic. Normally, the place does quite well on the racial harmony front. It is historically heavily Democratic; the Republicans have just fielded their first sheriff's candidate since Reconstruction.

Of course, Galveston is in danger of being swamped by people with loads of money looking for a beach place. The trouble with islands is that there's only a finite amount of room on them.

The only things that seem to be holding off that awful point in development when all the poor people get driven out by hungry real-estate brokers are that there are lots of poor people of all colors and the schools are not very good (though not as bad as is claimed, point out proud Galvestonians). So the rich Houstonians settle in gated communities nearby.

Those who recall the funky, tacky Galveston of 30 years ago, with its faded mansions all looking as though they were inhabited by Tennessee Williams characters, will be charmed by the miracles achieved by money with good taste.

Rather than being quainted up or cuted up, much of old Galveston has been lovingly preserved and restored. The leading players have been George Mitchell, the Kempners, the now-deceased Howard Barnstone and the Galveston Historical Foundation. Now the struggle is to prevent unseemly eruptions of new tackiness, like filling stations, among the restored mansions.

Everyone's in favor of tourists, of course. The question is: What kind of tourist -- upscale family trade, or beer-swilling kids and working-class folks who like to fish?

The shorthand for this debate is the T-shirt shops, since the proliferation of T-shirt shops is held to signify a less-than-classy form of tourism. A tour of local T-shirt shops would seem to bear this out, as the fronts of these shirts sport such philosophical nuggets as:

  • "Hold My Beer While I Kiss Your Girlfriend."
  • "FBI -- Female Body Inspector."
  • "The Texas Two Step: 1. Drink. 2. Repeat Step One."
  • "Shut Up and Fish."

      It takes a personality with a certain edge -- or several beers -- to wear such shirts.

      Personally, I think Galveston is already upscale. It used to be you could get seafood fixed three ways: fried, fried or fried. The seafood restaurants now offer a great range of preparations, and such frou-frou as crisp vegetables, imported beer and good Chardonnay.

      It may be impossible to stop gentrification. On the other hand, Galveston still has that nice layer of tackiness -- even in its politics.

      Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.