Shocking Development: A Democrat with Guts

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Conservative Texans of every flavor have plenty of candidates to get fired up about in next year’s statewide races. There’s Kay Bailey for the Chamber of Commerce crowd, Perry and Abbott and Dewhurst for the right-wing regulars, and Debra Medina for the Ron Paulers and Tea Partiers, to name just a few ballot-toppers. The state’s long-suffering progressives, on the other hand, have been staring at next year’s elections — if they’re not averting their eyes, unable to look — and seeing a big old pile of nothing. What leftie in her right mind is going to do cartwheels over the so-called leading Democratic contenders for governor, Tom “George W.” Schieffer and Kinky “Book Tour” Friedman? Or the Democratic contenders for the imaginary U.S. Senate seat, John “Who the Hell?” Sharp and Mayor Bill “What’s the Opposite of Charismatic” White? But one Democrat running for governor is showing flashes of actual (gasp!) progressive life. Last week Hank Gilbert, the anti-toll road activist and rancher who ran for Agriculture Commissioner in 2006, burst out with a clarion call to combat anti-gay discrimination in Texas. Among other things, Gilbert called for the state to recognize same-sex unions, for universities to recognize domestic partnerships, and for the state to make it easier for transgender folks to change their gender on birth certificates and drivers’ licenses. “Just because some people see this as controversial or say that Texas isn’t ready for this,” Gilbert said, “is not a reason I can use to justify remaining silent on the issue.” Dear God, can this be true? A Democrat with guts? This is highly irregular, people. Texans are used to Republicans swinging for the ideological fences and paying no political price for even the wildest swings. But Texas Democrats? Pure-T wusses. (It’s only fair to point out that Bill White has long spoken up for gay rights, to his considerable credit.) The overwhelming turnout for last year’s presidential primary demonstrated that there are progressive Democrats in Texas, and a pretty fair number of them. They’re the base. They’re the door-knockers and voter-getter-outers. But there’s nobody in the marquee races doing diddly-squat to get them off the couch. On Wednesday, Gilbert signaled that he doesn’t just have guts: He also has ideas. Specifically, in this case, bold and (at first glance) eminently sensible ideas for cleaning up Texas’ environment — and reforming its euphemistically named environmental “regulators.” Standing in front of Lady Bird Lake, Gilbert rolled out a nine-page “go green” plan. Among other key elements, he called for allocating $150 million to buy and develop state parks; requiring coal plants to use cleaner technologies by 2017; making North Texas’ filthy cement kilns cut their mercury emissions by 80 percent; and incentivizing alternative-energy production. Even more significant, given the pro-polluter boot-licking of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Gilbert proposed a whole new agency called the Texas Environmental Commission. This entity would absorb various state agencies charged with environmental oversight, bringing them all under one (quite possibly) more effective umbrella. The initial response from leading environmentalists was over the moon, as Dave Montgomery reported in the Star-Telegram: “Fantastic,” said Luke Metzger of Environment Texas. “Absolutely great,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen. More than anything, Gilbert’s moves show that there’s at least one Texas Democrat with the basic good sense to understand that you don’t win elections without giving people something to vote for. The days when mealy-mouthed, money-soaked DINOS (Democrats In Name Only) like Lloyd Bentsen could win statewide elections have long since passed. Gilbert, so far, has next to no money. Schieffer and Friedman will likely fund-raise circles around him. But if he continues to be the sole Democrat with a scintilla of progressive energy and genuine ideas, there’s an outside shot that the man in the cowboy hat could catch fire on the netroots, mobilize the TexObamans, and teach the wusses a lesson next March.