The Texas Democratic Party’s futility has lasted so long, we’re running out of fresh ways to describe it. The past 15 years for Texas Democrats have been a political wasteland strewn with the smoking ruins of failed statewide campaigns (how’s that for an image?). There have been occasional successes—a 2006 sweep of Dallas County and, in 2008, falling just two seats short of reclaiming a majority in the Texas House. But the low points have been much more frequent. Democrats haven’t won a statewide race in Texas since Bill Clinton’s first term—a losing streak spanning 15 years and 29 major state races. (If you include Railroad Commission and statewide judicial contests, Democrats are a combined 0-91 since 1996.) In 2003, the GOP swept into power in the Legislature with huge majorities in both chambers. In 2006, Democrats lost the governor’s race against a vulnerable Rick Perry. The governor won reelection with only 39 percent of the vote after some Democrats defected from their own party’s nominee to vote for independent candidates Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn. But Texas Democrats have reached their lowest point yet.
The 2010 election was a disaster—and that’s putting it mildly. Democrats handily lost every statewide race again, but this time they also ceded two dozen seats in the Texas House. In January, two Democrats switched parties, handing the GOP an astounding 101-49 edge in the House. The two-thirds majority allowed Republicans to suspend House rules. The 101 Republicans also constituted a quorum. That meant the House could still function even if all the Democrats never showed up.
Of course, the good thing about near-irrelevance is that you have little to lose. And if this is the Texas Democratic nadir, then a comeback is sure to follow. Democrats will likely gain seats in 2012. The question is: how many? And will they have any chance to win the open U.S. Senate seat next year? That will depend on whether the party can identify its shortcomings and find new approaches to campaigning. As the party prepares for the 2012 election, now seems the opportune time to take stock of how Democrats found themselves in this predicament. And what the party must do to rebound.
We called a diverse selection of Democrats to ask their opinions. Some are inside the party, some are outsiders. Some are consultants, one is an elected official, and others are activists and organizers. Many of their answers differ, hinting at the party’s divisions. Some said the Democratic Party needs better messages, others said the party has to find better candidates. Several argued that lack of money is the main problem, and others contend that the party needs to focus more resources on grassroots organizing and turning out voters.
But nearly everyone mentioned one topic that Democrats must run on—the drastic cuts to services that Republicans instituted in the 2011 legislative session. The deep budget cuts, including a $4 billion reduction in education spending, will impact millions of Texans. Republicans could face a political backlash. For Texas Democrats, that offers hope.
Farris is a Democratic activist and writes an Austin-based political blog (www.meanrachel.com).
“I think [Democrats] need to define themselves again. It seems like the Democratic Party has been defining itself as it relates to the Republican Party for too long. Instead of just [being] who they are. They don’t really stand alone enough, and I think we’ve run way too many Republican-lite candidates, hoping that no one will notice that they’re actually Democrats.
“It’s just a very weak way of running campaigns, I think, in terms of the candidates. To gain relevancy, you really have to redefine what the Democratic Party in Texas stands for and make people proud to be Democrats, excited to vote for Democrats. I’ve lived in Texas all my life and in my lifetime of voting for Texas governors I’ve never been excited to vote for the Democratic governor. I always do, but I’ve never gotten to be excited and think they’re going to win. It’s just been a very sad state of affairs since I’ve been able to vote. I didn’t get to vote in the Ann Richards days. To me, if the Democratic Party wonders why the young people aren’t coming out to vote, it’s like, well, give us someone to be excited about voting for and maybe we will.
“Personally, I feel like the [Rio Grande] Valley is the future of the Democratic Party. There is a wave to be ridden there that the Republicans already have their surfboards out for, and they’re ready to go. And we’re kind of like, ‘Oh, you know, it’s not really going to happen and let’s not really mess with it.’ To their credit, the Democratic Party has been saying they’re going to look for this Hispanic statewide organizer—not a Hispanic person but someone who can organize Hispanics.
“I think it’s antiquated thought [that keeps Democrats down]. I think it’s just an old-guard mentality and that people are like, ‘Well this is Texas, a Democrat can’t win in Texas. Have you looked at the numbers? Young people don’t vote, Latinos don’t vote.’ All of this negative ‘We have to be like them in order to win.’ Well we never win. What’s the point of being like them if we never win? It’s not like we’re fooling anyone. To me it’s like, we’ve tried it that way. It doesn’t work. We know it doesn’t work . . . We’ve already tried it your way. Can we try it a different way? We have nothing left to lose.”
Angle is a former staffer for Texas Democratic Congressman Martin Frost. In 2004, Angle started the Lone Star Project, an effort to raise money and recruit candidates to make the Texas Democratic Party viable again. He’s helped direct recent Democratic coordinated campaigns and plays a major role in the party.
“I think the first thing that the party needs to do is get Democrat activists and sympathetic allies to really focus on the problem being the Republicans. As Democrats, we spend a lot of time expecting each other to be perfect or to never make mistakes. Too often we let Republicans off the hook, and Republicans have trashed Texas. Their time being in complete control of Texas has been a horrible time for most Texas families. And they’ve really eaten up or sold the seed corn for Texas and put its future at high risk. So I think the first task of the Democratic Party, which is very hard, is to get our activists and allies to really focus on the problem as the Republicans, not each other.
“Certainly it’s really very, very important to win back the confidence of donors and then expand the donor base. It’s really easy and it’s really common among Democrats to think, ‘Well gosh, we do grassroots politics, we don’t do high dollar politics.’ Well the truth of the matter is effective grassroots politics is one of the most expensive activities the party can do.
“People in Texas forget that 2010 wasn’t just a bad year in Texas. It was a bad year for Democrats. It was a bad year everywhere in the country. You had places in the Midwest where Democrats had complete control and now they don’t have any control at all, so it’s important that Texans not think, ‘Oh gosh, it’s only bad here, it’s worse here than everywhere else.’ The truth of the matter is that 2010 should be a bump in the road. It shouldn’t be a wall to block progress.
“What you have to be is mainstream. Democrats have to reflect the mainstream views of most Texas voters, almost by definition. Democrats have to be centrist and they have to be mainstream. That’s not always being moderate. Sometimes the mainstream position is more progressive on a lot of issues, and I think in fact most Texans, when they really think what’s good for themselves and for their families, they’re more progressive—particularly when it comes to economic issues and really knee-jerk social issues—than Republicans are. We have to do a better job of articulating that. And most of all, we don’t have a megaphone. The governor can say 10 words and it gets covered, whereas Democrats, we don’t have that.
“What I thought for the last several years, I still believe. When you’re thinking about first of all efficient use of money and where you have something to win, if you’re not talking about statewide, then you’ve really got to look at these urban counties where you can build a coalition. In almost every election that’s competitive—if it’s a safe district, it’s a safe district—but in almost any competitive election in Texas, for a Democrat to win, they’ve got to build a coalition between African Americans, Hispanics and progressive Anglos. And the places where you can do that are in the urban centers. By that I don’t just mean Dallas and Harris counties. There are a lot of counties nearby. That’s where you start. If you’re going to win statewide, if anybody wants to win statewide, you’ve got to start with the urban centers and add the key border counties. There has not been a significant and meaningful investment in the border counties in Texas—by Democrats or Republicans. Republicans throw a little TV on at the end, but they don’t really invest. They don’t even try to get Hispanic votes, really. They fake it, but they don’t really try. As Democrats we just haven’t put enough in because we haven’t had the resources to really compete as hard statewide as we should.
“The most important thing that’s happening in Texas right now is virtually ignored . . . and that is redistricting. What the Republicans did in redistricting at the state House level, state Senate level, the congressional level or even at the State Board of Education level is they used the district lines to push back the effects of the demographic change in Texas. In order to hold on to power, they have systematically lessened the impact of African American and Hispanic votes. The legal challenges that are taking place right now are more important and the results of that will have more impact than any political decision that’s going to be made.”
Ewing has served as Dallas County party chair since 2005. She helped lead the Democratic sweep of Dallas County in 2006 and has been a major proponent of grassroots campaigning ever since.
“One thing I learned early on, from my very first campaign, which I guess was in ’06, was never take a voter for granted. They want to be asked. You just can’t say, ‘Oh well, you know so-and-so is going to vote our way.’ No. They want to be asked for their vote.
“What happened was when I campaigned for county chair in 2005, we did what we call the club circuit—there were three of us running—and we went from club to club telling everybody why they should vote for us. And what I got over and over was, ‘Well, are you going to come work my part of town?’ I said, well, why wouldn’t we? [They said] ‘well nobody ever has.’ I didn’t know. I was an idiot. And what I found was if you lived in the eastern part, central part, northern part, [the party] said, ‘Oh well that’s just Republican territory. That’s not where our voters are.’ And they were ignored.
“I promised them: If I get elected chair, we are going to go after Democrats in the county, wherever they live . . . So in ’06, it was kind of something I stumbled on. I was just trying to keep my promise, and then we looked at the results and 60 percent of our vote came from the parts of the county that we’d always ignored.
“When we first started off it was mostly candidates and their families. And people would come to the door and they’d say, ‘Well you’re the candidate? I’ve never had the candidate knock on my door.’ They’d had workers and runners, but they’d never actually had a candidate. And that made an impression, that they could actually talk and ask a question.
“I think [state Democrats] miss the boat because they don’t work with the local parties. It’s all top-driven, consultant-driven, media-driven. ‘Oh I’m gonna spend $5 million on TV’ and all that kind of stuff. And you know, that’s fine and well and good, but I think if the state party would partner more with the local counties, you could have Senator so-and-so come to town and show up where the people are [block] walking. Just show up at a little small rally and say, ‘I appreciate you coming out, walking for me.’ You can’t expect him to go door to door, but then the people who are walking feel more of a connection with a candidate they’ve actually met than with someone they see on TV commercials.
“Unfortunately, most of these statewide candidates, the only time they come into Dallas is when they’re looking for money.
“There’s a disconnect.”
Maria Berriozabal is a community organizer and activist in San Antonio. She was the first Mexican-American councilwoman to be elected in a major city.
“When I think Democrat, I think of the words of John Kennedy when I was growing up, when I was a young woman. It’s a party ‘of the people.’ And to me ‘of the people’ is grassroots. It’s neighborhood associations. It’s environmental groups. It’s women’s groups. It’s athletic groups. PTAs, churches. And not what we usually think of as ‘The Democrats’.
“There have to be some changes in the structure of the party to include these groups. And it’s going to take bringing in the leaders of these organizations to the table. I think of what happened during the primary with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I was supportive of Barack Obama from the very beginning and what we did is that we created a new infrastructure, a new human infrastructure, of people that were not the traditional individuals who are the Democrats. And we need to bring those people back.
“I think of the issues that are important to me, for example the issue of the DREAM Act. I work with all these college young people. I don’t meet them as Democrats, although they are. They’re just young people who have an agenda. And it’s to help their brothers and sisters who are young people.
“You go where the energy is. And the energy right now is in issues like immigration.
“I feel lonely when I’m working on issues of immigration, issues of the DREAM Act. I did not see, at least in Texas, the power that I would have wanted supporting the young people.
“When we’re looking for people to support us with the vote, we have to listen very carefully to what the people are thinking. What are their worries? Where’s the energy? Where are the demonstrations on the street? What is it people care about? And then that’s where we go. It’s not like we are the Democratic Party and we decide what we want people to coalesce around and then we hope that they’ll come. No. We go where they are.
“I don’t think that’s being done enough.
“Go where the people are and search for those leaders that are already into those issues. Go to those leaders and invite them as Democrats. That’s the only way I know how.
“I think you speak about the issues. If the issue is a woman’s right to choose, that’s what you talk about. And you talk about it in places where the women are gathered. . . . if the issue is the DREAM Act, you talk about it, but you go where the people who are supporting it are. It’s issues, but you do it if it’s organic. You go where the people are and don’t wait for them to come to your meet-the-candidate night.”
Bell served on the Houston City Council from 1997 to 2002 and in the U.S. House from 2002 to 2004. He was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006. He now practices law in Houston.
“When you meet with a horrible defeat like we suffered in November 2010, people are very, very disappointed. But to act like that was a lower point than where we were in 2005 and 2006, I find that a little tough to accept. I understand why people are frustrated, but they need to get over their frustration, realize that we got caught in a bad cycle in 2010 and we are going to come back and the comeback could start as early as 2012.
“What do we need to do?
“We’re not going to get Republicans to cross over in Texas in large enough numbers to elect Democrats. Continuing to reach out to them and continuing to try to placate them in campaigns is a loser. The trick going forward will be to get a large-enough number of so-called independents to join with Democrats to elect Democratic candidates. That means running with positions favored by the Democratic Party and not trying to divide the baby on every issue so you can have something to sell the Republican Party. I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of that. A lot of times the message coming from the Democratic Party has gotten very muddled, and people really don’t know what we stand for.
“The easiest one to sell now, I think, is public education. If I were in the Republican Party, I’d be horrified that the polling is showing that people’s concern about public education ranks above the economy. People care about schools. And I think they’re going to start demonstrating that at the ballot box. Democrats need to own that issue.
“All that’s gone on is a bunch of talk [about improving turnout]. Nobody’s really done anything to capitalize on [changing demographics]. If you look at California . . . and you see the success they’ve had in mobilizing the Hispanic vote there, I think you take a lesson from that. The real lesson is that—and in Nevada—is a heavily organized labor vote in the Hispanic community. Whoever is the new chair of the Texas Democratic Party needs to make that a priority, to join with labor in this state and do whatever possible to start not only increasing the ranks of those labor organizations, but making sure that they’re going to work with us to get those folks out for Democratic candidates. They can mobilize the vote very quickly in California and Nevada, and we need to be able to do the same thing here . . . It’s not enough to keep talking about it and hope that magically a large number of Latino voters are going to show up at the polls.”
Turner has represented his Houston district in the Texas House since 1989. Both Texas Monthly and the Observer named him to their best legislators of 2011 list.
“For me, the No. 1 issue that Democrats need to emphasize and to talk about in every forum, in every geographical area of the state, is the harm [Republican legislators] have done to public education. To me, that is the No. 1 issue: the attack on public education.
“This is what they did and it also suggests what they are prepared to do again if we don’t change the players in Austin, Texas. The bill that we passed says that when we come back again, education will be a budgetary decision, not driven by the [funding] formulas that we’ve used over the years. It will be what the budget writers decide to give to public education. What Republicans did this time around . . . they treated the expected [enrollment] growth like it doesn’t exist, and they simply chose to under-fund public education, by $4 billion if you’re looking at the formula, $5.3 billion if you’re looking at the formula plus the grants that have gone to our local school districts. When we come back again [for the 2013 legislative session], if the message remains the same, education will take another significant cut.
“It’s no longer viewed as an investment by the leadership. It’s viewed as a cost, and a cost that can be significantly cut. That goes contrary to what most Texans feel, and it certainly cuts right at the heart of Democratic values. And I think we ought to encourage as many people as possible to run for positions in the state House and the state Senate.
“In every state race where there were legislators who voted to cut significant dollars from public education, there ought to be a Democratic candidate standing right there. In 2012, in terms of the state House in the State of Texas, it should be a referendum on education. That is the issue that Democrats should stand firmly on, that we should champion. And we should run candidates in every single race where there were people who voted to shave $5.3 billion from education, to reduce teachers pay, to furlough them, not to fund student growth—in every race, there should be a Democrat standing in that slot.
“If the people of Texas don’t make a correction, it will only get worse.”