Everywhere at the Texas Democratic Party’s convention in Houston in June the buzz was all about John Kerry and, a fortuitous guest of honor, John Edwards. But behind the scenes, conversations long overdue were taking place. Texas Democrats have finally started to look past November and beyond 2006. The topic was always the same: How to get off the mat and learn to counterpunch.

One such discussion took place in a small room tucked away in the cavernous maze of the George P. Brown convention center. Houston state Senator Rodney Ellis hosted the meeting and most of the other senate Democrats attended. Their participation signaled yet again that the leadership of the Texas Democratic Party, such as it is, now comes from its elected state legislators, who through their losing battles in the 78th Legislature have redefined themselves in opposition to the Republican majority. Remarkably for a group of men and women accustomed to speechifying, the senators came to listen.

University of Houston political science professor Richard Murray was the featured speaker. Murray presented a paper that detailed why Democrats find themselves shut out from state government and what needs to be changed to win again. His motivation, he explained, was less partisanship than a sense that Texas would be a better place with a healthy two-party system rather than the traditional one-party dominance.

Murray traced the Dems’ present straits to the 1970s and 1980s when the Reagan-religious fundamentalist axis took over the Republican Party, expanding its fundraising, assembling a network of lobbyists, consultants and think tanks, and honing poll-tested messages like parental notification for teen abortions. The 1994 election proved to be a turning point, a shift that would carry over for years to come. Democrats cannot simply count on changing demographics to lift them out of their present hole. Anglos will continue to be the voting majority in Texas for the next 15 to 20 years. Universal messages that don’t appeal to all races and ethnic groups will fail. At the same time, Democrats must be sensitive to the “different histories, barriers, and problems that have denied equal opportunity to all Texans,†wrote Murray.

He proposed a think tank, outside of the already unwieldy and heavily regulated official party structure, that would work on several areas where Democrats are lacking. First and foremost is data collection. The next census data won’t come until 2011 and the current batch of statistics is already outdated. Texas is in demographic flux and in many areas of the state fast-changing districts and counties do present opportunities for Democrats.

An essential part of any talk on Democratic revitalization these days has to have an Internet component. Glenn Smith offered his perspective on how building online communities can help. Smith, who has started a Texas-based MoveOn.org spin-off called Drive Democracy.org, talked about the power of the Internet to help Democrats in Texas to network. Smith shared a number of stories about the meet-ups organized on the Internet by the Dean campaign and others in which Democrats in places like Midland and Burleson discovered that they are not as isolated as they once thought.

But it is in the area of ideas that Democrats truly need help. Several of the participants at the meeting were devotees of the Berkeley linguist George Lakoff. It is Lakoff’s work on framing issues that could help lead Democrats away from the wilderness of disparate coalitions to the promised land of a cohesive political movement (more on this in future issues of the Observer). For now, as Texas is largely relegated to political spectator status in November, it’s a perfect time to start rebuilding. —JB