The Road Back To Power

The Texas Observer talks recovery with two Democratic campaign experts


Democrats are still dazed from their drubbing at the polls on November 2. The initial shock has given way to a low-grade depression. It’s a funk fueled by all the tragedies—large and small—they see coming in the days and years ahead. The sane among the party faithful are willing to admit they’ve hit bottom. In order to win back power, it’s time for new faces and new approaches.

There is no reason it can’t start here in Texas. After all, from Texas vaulted the radical Republicanism that currently has a chokehold on the nation. It would be oddly appropriate that a new pathway to power go through the Lone Star State. If progressives can convince Texans—their toughest audience in their least receptive market—the rest of the nation should be relatively simple.

Of course, in the still-smoking debris of 2004, it’s hard to imagine such a thing. Republican control of the state is unlikely to change anytime soon. However, even with the GOP’s solid majority, the recent election was not entirely unkind to Texas Democrats. In the major urban areas of Dallas, Harris, and Travis counties, Democrats scored some impressive victories that could signal the beginning of a political shift to match the demographic one already underway. Two years ago, predicting that a woman, who also happens to be a Latina and a lesbian, could be elected sheriff of Dallas County would have meant a permanent exile from punditry mountain. Yet Democrat Lupe Valdez did just that, beating Republican Danny Chandler by almost 18,000 votes.

In a continuing effort to be a forum for positive change, the Observer sought out two of the more innovative up-and-coming Democratic political campaign consultants in the state. We wanted to know what they saw as positive in the last election, what weaknesses were exposed, and what still needs to be done.

James Aldrete is president of Message Audience Presentation, an Austin-based political communications company. In the last election cycle, Aldrete and his shop worked on numerous campaigns, including voter contact mail for rural areas in battleground states, Hispanic media on television and radio in five states, three Texas congressional races, and a number of state representative races in Oklahoma.

Mustafa Tameez is a Houston-based political consultant with a varied background in everything from sales to software. In the last political cycle, he worked for Houston Mayor Bill White, Nick Lampson, and Hubert Vo, among others. Texas Observer: What are some of the positive developments that you saw in the last election cycle? James Aldrete: Other than redistricting itself, nothing horrendous happened in Texas this election. It looks like we may have made one gain in the Texas House. We did knock off, both in the primary and the general election, key lieutenants of Speaker Tom Craddick’s team and those that eagerly put the Children’s Health Insurance Program and other programs on the chopping block. I think that sends a clear message. Craddick is going to have more opposition and more cohesive opposition. He is going to need more moderate members on his side, or they will suffer again.

I think we learned in Chet Edwards’ campaign that there are limits to the Republicans’ lack of compassion—but they have to be held accountable in a language of values. And I think the Edwards campaign did it beautifully. Children’s health insurance was no longer a welfare program. Edwards talked about it as a program that gets people off welfare and on their feet. It is something that Carole Strayhorn has used effectively. It is something that Mark Strama brought up. It is something that Hubert Vo brought up. We often talk about social programs in terms of just helping everybody—endless compassion that is not rooted in any of the stricter, harder values. In Chet’s race, they rooted the compassion of CHIP by talking about the work ethic it rewards, the pride that disdains welfare, and the self-reliance that we all hope to promote.

People realized that not cutting CHIP meant more taxes and more spending—but they still voted in favor of the candidates who spoke up for it. So that part is definitely hopeful. We have a model in Chet Edwards. Talk about the values part of it, not just the programmatic aspect. This of course just keeps us in the game—but it doesn’t help define us. It doesn’t solve the problem that we don’t have a coherent agenda of where we are heading and where we hope to lead Texas. We need to find a way to get off the critique and define what it is we stand for. We know where we will stand—don’t get me wrong. But you always have to be looking forward. And not just protecting Social Security, protecting Medicare, protecting CHIP, just protecting, protecting, protecting. After protecting, we have to say what frickin’ values we stand for.

Here is the other place where there has been progress: Independent groups are filling the void. Progressives are coming to understand that you can’t expect—nor is it necessarily desirable—to have everything come through the party. This is not a criticism of the party; it’s just that we need multiple voices, multiple identities getting people involved. Annie’s List provided support for women candidates. You have Drive Democracy building up a Texan version of If we look down the road, we will also need an enlightened Catholicism movement, and that wasn’t always an oxymoron. If we don’t have an enlightened Catholic movement, and a more vocal and organizing progressive faith movement, Republicans will continue to chip away at our Hispanic and African American bases—most especially with newly arrived Hispanics who don’t have an historical understanding of discrimination and have a high desire to assimilate.

TO: The Republicans have created this moral universe using abortion and other wedge issues. How do they do it?

JA:There is coherence to their argument. They are masters of identity projection. For all their complaints about liberal Hollywood, they have a better, more Hollywood-like political strategy. If you go watch a movie where you get to see some hero kick somebody’s ass, you feel better about things. I’ll admit it—I do. If you have a shitty state of life with this economy or health care, Republicans give you the chance to say, “I’m married, I do right by God, and we just kicked some Arab’s ass, and I ain’t no gay guy over there.â€

On our side, we are still just a collection of people—and I’m not sure what defines that collection. Without Bush, who are we? We have no code words. I write this stuff all the time, and other than “all†and “everybody†I don’t think we have any code words. Is that from an overdose of honesty or a lack of vision and salesmanship? TO: What else needs to be done? JA: What you don’t see is real, honest thinking about where we are headed as a state. Planning for the future—not thinking about just what’s in front of you—is a difficult challenge for a business, and it’s a difficult challenge for a party. And when you are on the defensive, you get into the pattern of how do you make next month’s mortgage payment. We are a party right now that looks at the next legislative session trying to figure out how we survive it. We have some incredible and intelligent legislators—and unless we provide them support and venues to connect ideas, they will continue to talk about the consequences of the Republicans’ plan without offering an alternative vision.

We also need a true realization of how low play. You always have to be prepared for it. I’m not saying we must stoop, but if there is a gutter, they’ll jump in it. If there isn’t, they’ll dig one. And we can’t hesitate to fight while we worry about our dry-cleaning bill.

We need a faith-based anger, a faith-based populism. We have to take on social ills without being for free sex. We have to take on corporate greed without being against those who want to move up the ladder. That means taking on the bastards but doing it in a language of faith. We have to take a stand for work, without being against the belief system that helps so many people get through the day-to-day.

When we go to defend choice, we don’t attack teen pregnancy. We will throw it out there, but we don’t go out and attack it. Texas is number one in teen pregnancy—and they should have to answer for it.

TO: Can a progressive agenda win in 2006?

JA: It’s a hard pill for some to swallow, but the big fights that will determine the course of this state will be determined in the Republican primary. For us to be truly competitive, we need the energy and focus of a single-issue candidacy. It’s the power of the negative—you define yourself by where you draw the line, not by how far you will push the line out. A single-issue candidacy has the potential to create enough heat, redefine the landscape, and avoid the baggage that the responsibility of standing for every issue brings. Frankly, it may be the discipline we need.

TO: Anything else to add?

JA: Post-election, there’s been a lot of talk about values. It drives progressives mad. My advice is that we need to get over it. Whether moral values was the deciding factor or just one in a long list of factors, we need to address it. Values are what define us. We don’t have to become them, but we do have to articulate who we are. In the presidential debates, Kerry said ad nauseam he would hunt the terrorists down and kill them. Bush never had to say it. It’s time to stop compensating and start taking stock in who we are and demonstrate the courage to share it.

— Interview with Mustafa Tameez —

The Texas Observer: What are some of the things we learned from the election?

Mustafa Tameez: For Democrats, we live in a state that has a majority of Republicans. If anybody doubts that, take a look at what Bush’s numbers were—61 percent of the people in this state voted for him, a substantially increase from the 2000 numbers. If you are running for a state representative office or a local district city council or a small public office, people have to feel like—whether I am a Republican or a Democrat—I know that guy, and by my knowing that guy, I have access to government. That is how you get people to cross party lines. That takes longer. I think campaigns can’t start after Labor Day anymore. From a candidate’s standpoint, if you are going to be running for office for a state-representative type of race—you need to start a year ahead of time. Also, with such a high early-voting turnout, you no longer can start your turnout operation a few weeks before the election; you have to start moving things up a week or more before early voting begins.

TO: Is there a Democratic answer to the values platform Republicans run on?

MT: We as Democrats believe that we represent working families, the average person. That’s who we are. We are not the big business party. Right now in Texas, if I am the guy that sits on the fence or I’m Republican because I believe in lower taxes and I believe in smaller government, I am not inclined to change my vote to Democrat. But I would change if I thought the Democrat was going to do something for me. We have to begin to define an issue in their terms. As a candidate, you should not talk about health care as if it were some global issue— if you’re running for Congress. You should discuss health care in terms of how many health clinics are there in the neighborhood and what the community needs are and how you as a congressman can help.

As a Democrat, government is supposed to help people. If that is a Democratic philosophy and ideal, if we believe that, then shouldn’t we implement campaigns that act accordingly? We need to show that we can get government on their side to address their needs and make their lives better. It’s our role to represent average working people, and that means valuing families in terms of government action, not just talking about “family values†to get into government. They still have needs. They are still unemployed; they are still without basic healthcare. It is incumbent on us to have real solutions to real problems and not to try to have a catchier slogan than our opponents.

TO: Is the Democratic Party always just going to be a coalition of different interests?

MT: That’s what the Democratic Party has always been, with some interests that compete with each other. I don’t think that there are specific policies that all Democrats can agree on. You have African Americans who are very religious. Ministers are part of the activist base in that community. Put them in the same room with people who advocate separation of church and state or pro-choice constituents, and what do you get? While each group has separate values, their ideas about government’s role in their lives are very similar. They need each other to put their agenda forward. You bring them together by what they have in common, which is, you all live on the same street, for example. Then a collective decision is made on what they need there. If you want to win local races, that’s what it boils down to. When you are talking about statewide campaigns, it’s a lot more difficult. You can’t do that on statewide races, but the question is, until you win the local races, how can you win the statewide races?

TO: What else do you need to win statewide?

MT: I believe the only way you win in a statewide race is with true magnetic personalities. It’s no guarantee, but for statewide office, you can’t win without one. I think Democrats need that magnetic personality, more so than Republicans, to draw them in so that they can overlook their differences. A candidate should be able to get people to help them based not solely on agreement over issues, but on the ability and desire to implement policies to get what the voters want. In the case of special interests, they will approach a candidate with a magnetic personality very differently. They seek more iron-clad commitments from a candidate with less charisma before offering their assistance. TO: You have said campaigns have to change. How? MT: From a tactical basis, our campaigns have to be structured to win. Marketing companies don’t take a “one size fits all†approach. Campaigns can’t be like that either. People buy products for different reasons, just like people vote for candidates for different reasons, so a campaign should be very segmented. If you want to win because you feel that your public policy will help people more than your opponent’s, then you have to start looking at people as individuals. It’s not one message that goes to everybody. It’s a message for that person. Democrats have the capability to do this as never before. Technology now helps us to communicate to individuals as never before. You have computers where you can crunch data ten different ways.

It means that in campaigns, more people have to be empowered to make decisions and shape the necessary budget to be effective rather than have one consulting mail house that does mail for everybody. If our diversity is our strength, then we have to figure out how to use tha
diversity and appeal to it.