Update Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
Dems Elect Hinojosa, Wrap Convention
Texas Democrats elected Gilberto Hinojosa of Cameron County state party chair this afternoon toward the end of their convention in Houston.
Hinojosa is the first Latino to chair a major political party in Texas. Hard to believe it took until 2012 for a Latino to head the Texas Democratic Party; Latinos will soon comprise a majority of Texans.
Hinojosa was widely expected to succeed Boyd Richie, who’s stepping down after six years. He handily defeated two opponents in voting by convention delegates. Hinojosa’s election was anti-climactic, but historic nonetheless.
The Georgetown-educated lawyer worked for quite a few years as a legal aid attorney. He later got into politics and became Cameron County judge. Most recently, he’s been the county’s Democratic chair.
Hinojosa has promised a new approach for the party. For many years, Democrats have tried to win elections by convincing moderate Anglo voters to chose Democrats over Republicans. That hasn’t worked so well. Dems have lost 91 consective statewide elections over the past 18 years. Hinojosa has talked of focusing more on community outreach and organizing, and on turning out Latino voters.
Democrats are reaching out more to Latinos—party officials have talked often about their Promesa Project in which young people elicit promises from their relatives and friends to vote for Democrats. And some outside groups also are hoping to increase Latino turnout. But despite these efforts, there are some in the party who don’t believe relying more on grassroots organizing will be effective. Some Democrats wonder if Latinos will ever vote in sufficient numbers to help Democrats prevail. With this backdrop, it will be fascinating to see if Hinojosa follows through on his rhetoric.
On this day, though, he talked about unity. In his speech after the election, Hinojosa recalled visiting Arizona as a young attorney to represent migrant farm workers who were on strike. He visited their ramshackle camp in an orchard one morning. The farm workers were very poor, but they shared their breakfast—pieces from a cow head wrapped in tortillas—with Hinojosa and another young attorney. Their generosity taught him something, Hinojosa said. “To them, what was theirs was ours,” he said. “Because we’re all working for the common good.”
This selflessness, he noted, is what Democrats are all about: “We care for all Texans.” But then he noted, “We can only succeed at that if we win elections.”
Therein lies the rub. Despite the hopeful mood in the convention hall after today’s historic election, Hinojosa and the rest of the party have a long way to go.
Update at 2:35 p.m.
The Self-Defeating Prophecy for Democrats
If you want to understand the money problem facing Texas Democrats, consider the plight of Keith Hampton.
He’s running for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals against controversial presiding Judge Sharon Keller. Hampton, an experienced and respected attorney, is one of the very few Democrats this year who has an outside shot at winning a statewide race—which the Dems haven’t done in nearly 18 years.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more vulnerable Republican incumbent in Texas than Keller. She has long drawn criticism for her handling of disputed cases on the state’s highest criminal court. But she’s mostly known for refusing to keep her office open to receive a last-minute appeal from death row inmate Michael Richard who was executed a short-time later. Keller’s actions drew condemnation from the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, and Keller had to defend herself in a court of review in 2010
In fact, a recent poll by the Texas Bar Association of more than 9,000 attorneys favored Hampton over Keller by a spread of 52 percent to 38 percent. Scott Henson at the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast has long argued that perhaps the Democrats’ best chance of breaking through in a statewide election is in a down-ballot race like a Court of Criminal Appeals campaign. He has the numbers to show that the Republican advantage in Texas shrinks—in presidential election years—further down the ballot.
The problem for Hampton—and for many Democratic candidates this year—is they can’t seem to raise much money. Hampton addressed the problem when he visited with reporters today after speaking at the Texas Democratic Convention.
He said many major Democratic donors in Texas are so demoralized by defeats in 2008 and 2010 that they’re reluctant to give any money to state candidates this year. Not only will they not give money; he can’t even get some donors on the phone.
“If their assistants could give money, I would be flush with cash,” Hampton told me.
Paul Sadler, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, has expressed similar frustrations with his fund-raising , and I can understand where they’re coming from.
But I can also understand why Democratic donors are reluctant to give again. This is the cloud that lingers over the party from the 2010 election. Some donors gave heavily to Bill White’s campaign and believed that he could beat Rick Perry. Donors opened up their check books in 2008 for state Supreme Court races that—they were told—Democrats had a chance of winning. Same with the effort to sweep Harris County in 2008. Some donors feel they were misled about the party’s chances. And they don’t want to waste money that could go to the national party.
But, as Hampton points out, Democrats can’t win if their major donors sit out the state elections. “It’s a self-defeating self prophecy,” he said. “’I’m going to lose, so I won’t try, so I’m going to lose.’”
This is the conundrum facing Democrats. They’re depressed because they can’t seem to win. And they likely won’t win until the party and its donors emerge from the doldrums.
Update at 10:16 p.m.
Castro Gives Keynote to Diminishing Crowd
I won’t say that Julian Castro brought down the house tonight—and it was only a partially filled house at that—but the young mayor of San Antonio, who many Texas Democrats hope is the future of their party, delivered a good speech.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Castro’s keynote address was how few delegates remained in the convention hall to hear it. Castro didn’t take the stage till 8:59 p.m.—after a short intro by his twin brother (and congressional candidate himself) Joaquin. A late-starting keynote speech has been a frequent problem at past Democratic conventions. Tonight, a good number of delegates left after former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk’s speech. Another chunk of people headed for the red-painted exit doors after Paul Sadler, a candidate for U.S. Senate, spoke. It was getting late, and some older delegates were clearly tired.
So when Julian Castro bounded to the stage, there were many more empty blue felt chairs in the hall than delegates—and a distinct lack of energy.
Castro’s speech hit all the high points: the deficiencies with Republican governance, the importance of education (and the damaging cuts to public schools in Texas). He employed a slightly awkward coin metaphor, saying that if GOP policies weren’t reversed, Texas might soon resemble a coin that has “decay creeping around the edges.” The Stanford and Harvard-educated Castro then said the only difference between the students he met at elite universities and the students he knew back in San Antonio was that “too often their lives had been lived on the other side of that coin.” I assume he meant the less shiny side.
He also properly boasted of his economic accomplishments as mayor, pushed for Obama’s reelection and then mocked Republican extremism. “The Republican Party has left everyone behind,” he said. “And in a few weeks, when they nominate Ted Cruz [for U.S. Senate], they will have jumped the shark.”
Perhaps the most powerful part of the speech came at the end, when Castro talked of his family. His grandmother, he said, was orphaned in Mexico and came to live with relatives in San Antonio. She dropped out of school in the third grade to get a job. Yet, by the time Julian and Joaquin were born, their grandmother had taught herself to read and write in English and Spanish. If she were alive today, she would be amazed, he said, to have one grandson as mayor and another on his way to Congress.
It was a touching American tale, the kind of personal story that would make for a good speech at the Democratic National Convention. And perhaps Julian will get a speaking slot in North Carolina later this summer. If he does, more people will assuredly stick around to hear him.
Update at 7:45 p.m.
Exit Boyd Richie, Stage Left
Say this for Boyd Richie: He left with a bang. The outgoing chair of the Texas Democratic Party gave fiery farewell speech tonight early in the opening session of the state party convention.
He’s stepping aside after a rocky six-year tenure that saw Texas Democrats make real gains in his first two elections of 2006 and 2008. But he also oversaw the disastrous 2010 campaign. He leaves the party as far from power as it’s ever been while making little progress mobilizing Latino voters in recent years.
So the tribute video that played tonight before Richie’s speech boasted not of electoral gains—as Richie once did at the more energized 2008 convention, during more hopeful times—but of the millions of dollars the party raised, the nearly five million pieces of mail it sent, the 11,000 Facebook likes and the one less “Hammer” (Read: Tom DeLay) who’s in office.
In his speech, Richie said the party under his leadership had sued to protect Texans’ voting rights, and had sent out thousands of press releases to media outlets and tens of thousands of talking points to Democratic activists. Clearly they got good at mass emails.
There weren’t many accomplishments to boast about, but Richie wasn’t backing down. “Wherever we went, we always ran as hard and as fast as we could,” Richie said. “We always tried to move the party forward, and I think we’ve made real progress.”
But then he seemed to take a shot at his own party’s delegates. “I will say, as an aside, we might have been able to run a little harder and a little faster if some of you had written more checks.”
That one didn’t go over well.
Richie saved most of his ire for a predictable foe: Republicans. “You have got to give them credit,” he said. “They’re a disaster at governing, but boy can they politic.”
He blamed Republicans for winning over Texans with prejudice and propaganda and said his biggest disappointment was that his party couldn’t “message past the prejudice in our state….[Republicans have] done an excellent job exploiting it. They’ve made us quite comfortable with our prejudice.”
He told Democrats, especially those in rural areas, to stand up, speak out and don’t be afraid to call bullshit when you see it!” This drew a standing ovation.
He then listed the many Republican outrages, from cutting education to gutting services for the elderly and disabled to the “war on women.” After describing each transgression, he implored the delegates—often in a shouted voice—to “stand up, speak out and tell the story!”
The difference between Democrats and Republicans, Richie said, is, “We’re right and they’re wrong.”
Fair enough. And the red meat speech seemed to fire up the crowd, which of course, is mostly the point of these gatherings. Tomorrow the Democrats will elect a new chair. Most people expect that Gilberto Hinojosa will become the party’s first Latino chairman. But on this night, Richie got a few last shots in.
Searching for Hope at the Democratic State Convention
Pity Texas Democrats. They gather for their state convention this weekend in Houston at a dark time for their party. Whatever hope they generated with gains in the 2006 and 2008 elections is long gone. The number of Democrats in both the Texas House and the state’s congressional delegation are historically low. Since 1994, Democrats are 0-91 in statewide elections, a losing streak they’re unlikely to snap this year. The May 29 primary yielded some embarrassing results, including several perennial candidates either reaching a runoff or winning the party nomination outright. In one congressional race, the Democratic candidate is a Lyndon LaRouche follower who has equated Obama with Hitler. So there’s that.
And, as the Texas Tribune reported, the party had to resort to an online outreach campaign to attract delegates to the convention. Even by Texas Democrats’ standards, this feels like an especially low ebb.
But, still, party conventions are about hope, and Democrats will find some this weekend if they squint hard enough. At the convention’s first general session tonight, delegates will hear from two young, big-city Democratic mayors, Houston’s Annise Parker, and San Antonio’s Julian Castro, who the was profiled in The New York Times as potentially the nation’s first Latino president. That seems a little far- fetched at the moment, but Castro is undoubtedly a rising star for the party. He will deliver tonight’s keynote address. (A rising star from the past, and another former Texas mayor, Ron Kirk will also speak).
The headline event of the convention will be the election of a new party chair. Cameron County’s Gilberto Hinojosa is expected to win. He’s promised a new direction for the party, one that focuses more on grassroots turnout and energizing Latino voters. He’ll have his work cut out for him.
I’ll be posting reports in this space from the convention floor on Friday and Saturday. Check back for updates.