The Fight for Relevance

Democrats look for signs of hope at their state convention.

Chris Bell, photo by Dave Mann

If the Democratic Party of Texas supplied its delegates with a single take-home message at its recent convention, it was exemplified by the chorus of a ’70s pop-rock song that blared several times in the convention hall—Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” The party die-hards heard that sentiment, or something like it, many times during the three-day gathering that began June 8 in Fort Worth. Seemingly every speaker at the various caucuses, workshops, and floor speeches urged the audience to “take back” and “reclaim” and “fight back.” Gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell, in his keynote speech, observed that Texas Dems will soon “learn how to win again.”

Whether delegates are inclined to keep the faith probably depends on how far into the party’s future they choose to look. Texas Democrats have many reasons, some of them evident at the convention, to feel optimistic about future election cycles. But in the immediate future—the next few months—the prospects aren’t good, and you didn’t have to look hard at the convention to see the bare patches of a party that, in the here and now, will likely remain far from power.

There were no delegates at the convention from 98 counties, which is nearly 40 percent of the state’s total of 254. The party is increasingly an urban one. While that trend bodes well for Democratic legislative, congressional, and judicial candidates in fast-growing urban areas, it’s tough to win statewide with the party melting away in the countryside.

Meanwhile, this year’s slate of statewide hopefuls isn’t the most inspiring lot. Parked on a flatbed truck in front of the Fort Worth Convention Center was an old school bus, courtesy of the Democratic candidate for comptroller, bearing a sign that read, “Rick, it’s still broken.” It was meant as a comment on Gov. Rick Perry and the public school finance debate, but the image of a broken down bus outside the Democratic convention with the banner “Fred Head for Comptroller” seemed to be saying more than intended.

Only the old-timers had likely heard of Head—a member of the famed “Dirty 30” group of legislators from the 1970s. He hasn’t held public office in 25 years. The party’s delegates probably knew Bell and Barbara Ann Radnofsky—who’s made a remarkable 400 campaign trips around the state in her challenge to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison—and David Van Os, a former state Supreme Court candidate who’s running for attorney general this time. But some delegates must have wondered who on earth was Maria Luisa Alvarado (lieutenant governor) or Hank Gilbert (ag commissioner) or VaLinda Hathcox (land commissioner)? (Hathcox left the convention rather miffed because she lost her speaking slot when Saturday’s program ran long.) The party ticket has fallen a ways in prestige since the heady days of four years ago and the buzz-generating—and ultimately disastrous—trio of Tony Sanchez, Ron Kirk, and John Sharp. The lack of glitz shouldn’t be surprising. Most political observers view this election cycle as Democrats’ low ebb, at least in statewide races. There are more appealing Democratic contenders eyeing statewide office. They’re presumably waiting for a more forgiving political climate—perhaps as early as 2010—in which to run.

Bell is the only one with even a shoot-the-moon chance of winning this year. So far he’s run a well-organized and savvy campaign, evidenced by his trouncing of old-pro Bob Gammage in the March primary. For those reasons, Bell received the convention’s prime time slot: the last speaker on the convention’s second night. His appearance was preceded by the usual trappings of a major campaign: the warm, personalize-the-candidate intro speech from his wife and a slick documentary-style video. But when the candidate took the stage, he was still just Chris Bell. He is tall and trim, with a fresh face and round wire-rim glasses. He looks like a lawyer or a city councilman (he’s an attorney and former Houston city councilman, and served a term in Congress). Bell is an earnest man with reasonable, well-thought-out policy positions on important issues such as education, heath care, and stem-cell research. But he doesn’t exactly exude charisma.

Bell can be funny, though. He has a wonderful, deadpan style and precise comedic timing, and he had the delegates—and even some reporters—laughing. After listing the state’s many problems and poor national rankings in such areas as education funding, SAT scores, and children’s health insurance, Bell offered, “When Rick Perry is forced to explain why Texas is last in so many categories, he just smiles into the camera and says, ‘I’m proud of Texas, how about you?'” His Perry impersonation was spot on. Bell had to wait 30 seconds for the laughter to subside before delivering his kicker, “Well, Rick, we’re proud of Texas, we just don’t like what you’re doing to it.” Bell also had one-liners for the state’s comptroller and independent candidate for governor. “Someone once said that Carole Strayhorn is Rick Perry in a skirt. I, on the other hand, see Rick Perry and Carole Strayhorn as two sleeves of the same empty suit. She is nothing more than a politician in search of a parade… We don’t need a Carole-come-lately. We need a leader.”

For Bell to win, the theory goes, Perry, Strayhorn, and singer-author-independent candidate Kinky Friedman must split the GOP and independent votes, while the large majority of Democrats push Bell into office with about 35 percent. To pull this off, Bell must generate a huge Democratic turnout and excite the faithful enough to prevent defections to Strayhorn or Kinky. The convention speech was an opportunity to keep the partisans on his side, and Bell was certainly making his pitch. But his speech didn’t seem to rev up the crowd. His policy declarations about ending the “tyranny of the TAKS test,” about fostering an education “revolution” that raises teacher pay and appeals to a “new mainstream,” and about increasing funding for health-care programs and stem-cell research all received enthusiastic applause. But Bell never roused delegates to their feet for ovations the way former presidential candidate Wesley Clark—the early evening headliner—had a few hours before. “To win, all we need to do is stick together,” Bell said. Indeed, but he will need to energize the base more than he did at the convention to prevent the serious Democratic campaign money (and later precious Dem votes) from defecting to Strayhorn.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of indications that Democrats should feel good about the party’s long-term future. Chief among the positive signs was the party’s apparent unity. Sure, there was a contentious race for the party’s chairmanship—a tussle between the moderate and progressive wings. West Texas attorney Boyd Richie, a centrist who’s served as the temporary head of the party since April, bested Austin liberal Glen Maxey, who put on a spirited campaign befitting his reputation as one of the state’s best organizers. But even that fight appeared to end amicably with pledges from Maxey and Richie to work together on party unity. Meanwhile, there was little of the public, petty sniping seen as recently as two years ago in Houston or the strained—and faux—collective happy face the party presented in 2002. And compared with this year’s factious, raucous GOP convention, the Democrats’ gathering felt like a family reunion.

That was perhaps the surest sign that the slow role-reversal in Texas politics is finally complete: The Republicans, having ascended to total control of state government, are struggling to keep their activist base happy while trying to govern the state. The Democrats, meanwhile, have coalesced into a vocal, unified—for the most part—minority party. The turncoats purged from office for working too closely with the GOP leadership—most recently San Antonio Sen. Frank Madla and Houston Rep. Al Edwards—were nowhere to be seen at the convention. Instead, the most visible elected officials were the party’s young, sharp, on-the-rise lawmakers who are often discussed among the chattering class as statewide prospects. State Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas and Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, two of the convention’s co-chairs, and Rep. Mark Strama of Austin were seemingly everywhere—hosting receptions, stalking the halls, schmoozing with delegates.

When these and other future stars of the party are ready to run for statewide office, emerging Democratic majorities in the state’s urban areas may be able to elect them. With many rural counties unrepresented, most of the convention’s nearly 5,000 delegates were big-city folks. Wherever you turned, the diversity of the party was on display: Anglos and Latinos, African Americans, and Asians; yellow dog delegates clad in jackets and bow-ties standing next to tattooed motorcyclists in leather vests. Democrats are slowly taking over Texas’ major population centers—the cities and suburbs of Dallas and Harris counties that are filling with immigrants and minority voters. That’s a nice trend to have on your side when the GOP has so clearly branded itself the party for white folks.

The Democratic Party may be urban and diverse, but in 2006 that’s not enough just yet to elect Democrats statewide. But in certain urban areas, Democrats may gain seats in the Texas House and win a healthy share of judicial races. There have already been promising signs that Texas Dems have bottomed out and are on the way back up. As bad as 2004 was nationally for the party, Texas Democrats actually gained a seat in the Texas House—reversing a 30-year slide. Moreover, parts of the Republican base seem disenchanted with their party’s governance in Austin and Washington. At the recent GOP state convention, party leaders’ concern about Republican apathy this fall was evident: Numerous elected officials implored the die-hards not to stay home on election day. A soft Republican turnout might not tip statewide races, but it could help Democrats gain more ground in the Texas House. (Democrats hope that Donna Howard’s special election upset win earlier this year in a West Austin legislative district that leans Republican portends more success this fall.) Then, of course, there’s the big prize this cycle: The U.S. House. Democrats have fielded several intriguing congressional candidates in Texas. The list of challengers features four with military backgrounds, including an Iraq veteran, and a self-described Army wife whose son currently serves in Iraq. An upset win or two in Texas could help propel Democrats to a majority in the U.S. House.

On a state level, none of that may be as sexy as winning a governor’s race or snatching back a U.S. Senate seat. But for the moment, it’s what Texas Democrats can believe in.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST