But First…The Bloodshed
If the State Democratic Executive Committee meeting held in Austin on January 15 signals the onset of the rebuilding of the Texas Democratic Party, it was hard to tell. Party insurgents attempted to use the conclave to overthrow the chair, Molly Beth Malcolm, whose term officially expires in 2004. Their defeat had been a foregone conclusion for weeks, adding to the theater-like unreality of the event, and indeed, by the end of the day, the SDEC passed a resolution saluting the chair instead. Critics rightly note that Malcolm seemed to voice no objection as she signed the Party checks that fueled the pitiful and fractious coordinated campaign, but in reality, Malcolm was a marginal figure in the election, far removed from the real power of both those who fronted the money, and those who conceived the Dems’ disastrous strategy.
Jesse Martin, the author of the motion to remove Malcolm, predicted that the ills plaguing the Party–Austin-based consultants and a moribund grassroots seemed to be the consensus–would continue as long as the chair remained. Vice-chair Juan Maldonado read a letter to the group claiming that nefarious interests, whom he would not name, had already chosen a Hispanic successor (also unnamed) as Malcolm’s replacement to be foisted on delegates at the next Party convention.
Martin was joined by progressives and Valley activists who carried signs and wore stickers that read, “Party Reform Now.” Everybody agreed they were tired of losing elections, the Party had distanced itself from its core values, and the current leadership should take some responsibility for the mess. To counter the self-serving argument that the Ds had simply succumbed to the nationwide Bush tsunami, they noted that in every state neighboring Texas a Democrat had won a statewide office, but not here.
“The Party structure across the state is in deep crisis,” complained Stan Merriman, chair of the Progressive Populist Caucus. “Less than 30 percent of precinct chairs showed up for the election of the new Harris County Democratic Chair. A new team to bring new ideas is needed to reform–or we will flounder for the next 10 years.”
But the new team seemed to consist of mostly old faces. Former attorney general Jim Mattox was floated by progressives as a possible successor to Malcolm. Former gubernatorial candidate Garry Mauro could be seen in the hallways pushing a new “Billie Carr Democratic Caucus,” an ironic moniker coined by Jim Hightower. At least one executive committee member, Concepcion Elizondo, blamed Mauro for the insurgency, casting it as a strategy to control delegates for the presidential convention. Mauro ridiculed the accusation, insisting he hadn’t even chosen a candidate to support. While reluctant to cast blame exclusively on Malcolm, Mauro did fault consultants with divided loyalties for distancing Democrats from their common values.
Progressives vowed that the SDEC was just the beginning of their campaign. Their next step will be to try and convince two-thirds of county chairs to demand a recall of Malcolm. Taking a cigarette break outside, party consultant Jeff Crosby tried to inject a little reality into the proceedings by pointing out that in the real world, you have to pay to play: “Hey, surprise! Money comes with strings attached.”
Life After Torres
A year after the brutal killing of Luis Torres by Baytown Police (See, “Are You Experienced?”, March 29, 2002), angry citizens of the greater Houston area are still looking for justice. A Harris County grand jury no-billed the officers involved after prosecutors declined to ask for indictments. (The district attorney’s office in Harris County has an abysmal record of convicting cops who kill minorities.) A Baytown Police internal affairs investigation also exonerated the officers. Critics note that the acting chief of police stated publicly within hours of the killing that his men were blameless. And an FBI investigation did not find sufficient grounds, under its narrow mandate, for criminal civil rights charges.
Now the ACLU and LULAC are lining up behind a bill filed by Rep. Rick Noriega (D-Houston) that they believe will help create a measure of fairness in cases where police kill. Supporters have dubbed the legislation, the “Luis Torres bill.” It creates an independent prosecutor for cases in which police are accused of serious crimes such as the use of excessive force while in police custody. Advocates are portraying the Torres bill as a way to make the work of district attorneys easier, since it removes them from having to charge officers whom they might need to prosecute other cases.
Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal doesn’t see it that way. Rosenthal told the Baytown Sun he thought the bill was ridiculous. Rosenthal said criticism is inevitable, and such cases wouldn’t be investigated at all if it wasn’t for the work of his office. Criminal Justice Committee Chair Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) is also lukewarm about the bill. “You can’t arbitrarily start stripping duties from the district attorney. After all, he is an elected official,” Whitmire told the Sun.
To Houston-area Latino leaders, the opposition is seen as further evidence of a lack of equality when it comes to justice for minority victims of the police. “How many more Torreses is it going to take?” wonders Johnny Mata, Houston-based LULAC spokesman.
Advocacy groups insist they are undeterred by the initial resistance they have met in pushing the Torres bill. ACLU Executive Director Will Harrell takes issue with Sen. Whitmire and DA Rosenthal’s statements. “Those comments are an insult to the dead and further illustrate the need for this legislation,” he says. “To be sure, the DAs and the police associations will oppose this bill. But we have won battles of this nature before, and we will again.”