Political Intelligence

Words Not to Live By


The platform of the Texas Republican Party is a nonbinding document that few read. Most Republican elected officials pretend it doesn’t exist. It demands abolition of the Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service, deportation of all undocumented immigrants, and denial of emergency room care while they’re still here. It is a utopian work that urges American withdrawal from the United Nations.

To the party faithful, the 7,000-word revelation of shared principle has become an almost sacred text. Every two years, at the Republican state convention, party loyalists spend three days composing the platform with the care usually reserved for international treaties (of which they are, of course, suspicious).

So on June 12, the first official night of the 2008 convention in Houston, the 32-member platform committee crowded into a small, gray-carpeted side room at the George R. Brown Convention Center to finalize the platform. They heard testimony from a parade of delegates seeking changes in the platform. Some wanted to soften the document’s stance on the war in Iraq (“There should be no timetable for pulling out of Iraq or Afghanistan”). Some wanted to moderate the position on immigration (“No amnesty! No how. No way”). Others wondered how enthusiastically the document should endorse the government of Taiwan.

Delegate Brittany Paxman, an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin, begged the committee to tone down the harsh language on social issues. “When we legislate issues like school prayer and gay marriage, we end up excluding people who would otherwise be Republicans,” she told the committee. “I think we should apply that small government philosophy to social issues.”


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Since 2004, the party platform has called for repeal of Gov. Rick Perry’s toll road plan known as the Trans-Texas Corridor. This year, the committee went even further, calling for investigation of elected officials who support the corridor. One delegate told the committee it should terminate the root cause of the Trans-Texas Corridor and repeal NAFTA.

A hirsute delegate wearing a Ron Paul shirt, who identified himself as Duane Jones, told the committee that the platform should endorse legalization of marijuana, but only for medical purposes. Really.

“You can give me a hair test right now, because I don’t use that stuff anymore,” he told the committee. Then he added that hemp is also an excellent energy source-better than ethanol, oil, and natural gas (the platform calls for more gas drilling). “Let me get this straight,” asked one committee member with a bemused look. “Are you saying we should use marijuana instead of gasoline?”


As the 11 p.m. printing deadline neared, committee Chair Kirk Overbey ended debate by trying to soothe the delegates whose proposals foundered. After all, he said, “We’re going to approve a piece of paper that no one’s going to read for two years.”

The Dems’ Big Tent


Texas Democrats devote a lot of time at their state conventions to seminars and interest-group caucuses. You can tell a group’s popularity, at least in the opinion of organizers, by the size of the room assigned to it and which big-name candidates visit. The caucuses for supporters of home schools, guns, and abortion opposition met in the Austin Convention Center’s most cramped rooms during the state convention on June 6. Even the most ardent followers of Texas politics probably had never heard of the candidates who stopped by.

The Democratic home-schoolers used most of their hour-long seminar for myth-busting. “At one point in my life, I thought home-schoolers all wore prairie dresses,” said Theresa Cooper, who sported an Obama ’08 T-shirt. When Cooper’s son developed a severe peanut allergy-and her school district couldn’t guarantee he would never be fed peanuts or peanut butter-she decided to homeschool him. That’s when she discovered a large community of progressive home-schoolers.

Democratic pro-lifers, meeting down the hall, touted their progressive bona fides, too. Jim Dillon, a little-known candidate for state representative from Central Texas, kicked off the event with a graphic description of partial-birth abortion. “I’m alive today because my mother didn’t choose abortion,” said Dillon, who’s running against Republican incumbent Dan Gattis.

“Somebody has to speak for the unborn in the Democratic Party,” Dr. Lois Kerschen, president of Democrats for Life of Texas, told the crowd of about 80. She said her group was focused on funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Women Infants and Children program to offer women alternatives to abortion. “We offer more choices than pro-choice,” she said.

The 75 delegates who came to the Democratic gun owners’ caucus crowded into a room the size of a walk-in closet. Dan Barnett, founder of Amendment II Democrats, brandished a banana clip (for the uninitiated, that’s the curved clip that typically attaches to an assault rifle) and discussed the rights guaranteed in the Second Amendment.

Barnett-who paused twice during his speech to answer his cell phone-was clearly startled by the overflow crowd. He ran short of handouts and business cards. A straight shooter to the end, he acknowledged, “This is more people than I ever expected.”



On the second night of the Republican state convention, scores of fired-up revolutionaries crowded a too-small room in the Houston Hilton. In contrast to the genteel atmosphere down the hall at the coffee-and-Kahlúa social hour for a state Supreme Court justice, these partisans whooped and hollered, wore their hair long, and railed against “The Establishment.” They weren’t a band of hippies at some parallel convention, but the Republican Liberty Caucus of Texas, a group affiliated with Ron Paul, the Republican anti-war candidate, Texas congressman, and self-styled “taxpayers’ best friend.”

The night before, Paul had announced to hundreds of cheering supporters that he was transforming his long-shot presidential bid into a movement, the “Campaign for Liberty,” to challenge the mainstream GOP with libertarian ideals. Convention organizers signaled their disdain by not granting Paul a speaking slot, but this only inspired his acolytes to get to work right away crashing the party.

Though Paul failed to appear at the Liberty Caucus meeting, the caucus-goers took turns bashing the direction of the GOP locally and nationally.

“The problem isn’t [that] conservative principles in recent years in Washington, D.C., have been tried and found wanting. They’ve been abandoned,” said Tom Pauken, the former chairman of the Texas Republican Party and current chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission. He railed against No Child Left Behind, out-of-control government spending, the bailout of Wall Street institutions, and Middle East adventurism. Three decades of political capital had been squandered in a matter of years, Pauken marveled. That must be a depressing thought to the grassroots activists who built the party, but the caucus audience seemed more excited than downtrodden. When one man worked himself into a lather over the pork-laden farm bill, shouts rang out for him to run for office.

The room had little, if any, love for John McCain. “Once you go Ron, you can never go John,” said Penny Langford-Freeman, Paul’s former campaign director, to uproarious applause. “You know too much to compromise, you know too much to embrace evil, even if it’s a lesser.”

This is hardly the message that party leaders want spread. Though Paul never garnered a significant number of delegates in his presidential campaign, his supporters are righteous (if not self-righteous), zealous, and vocal. At the close of the convention, as delegates walked to their cars in the sweltering heat, a group of Paul supporters gathered in a protest area across from the convention center for one last hurrah. They chanted: “Ron Paul! Ron Paul! Ron Paul!”

Dept. of Disenfranchisment


It sounds like a bad joke. A dozen nuns walk into their polling place in South Bend, Indiana, to vote in the state’s primary. They are all American citizens. All are registered to vote. They aren’t outlaw nuns. None of them has a criminal record or outstanding warrants, and their average age is about 85. Yet when it comes time to cast their ballots, they are turned away because they lack photo identification. This happened in Indiana on May 6 under the state’s strict new voter ID law.

Texas Republicans are trying to enact similar legislation. If they succeed, as many as 400,000 Texans, according to some estimates, will be disenfranchised. Those who will suffer will likely be minority and elderly voters, and perhaps a nun or two. That’s what Democratic lawmakers and voter ID opponents contended during a June 7 seminar on voter ID laws held at the Democratic state convention in Austin.

Daniel Kohrman, an attorney with AARP who argued against the Indiana law before the U.S. Supreme Court, told the crowd that the statute has already prevented more than 40,000 Hoosiers from voting. Still, the high court recently upheld the Indiana law (see “License to Vote,” May 16, 2008). Kohrman said that, given the Supreme Court’s ruling, he expects the GOP to propose voter ID laws in as many as 20 states next year. In Texas, Democrats narrowly defeated such a bill in 2007, but it is expected to return next session.

Republicans have claimed voter ID laws are needed to prevent election fraud. Yet studies have found little evidence of voters misrepresenting themselves at the polls. Democrats have long argued that voter ID legislation is a blatant attempt to prevent poor minority and elderly voters-who are less likely to have photo ID, and who also tend to vote Democrat-from casting ballots.

Dallas Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchia recited to an audience of about 100 the familiar GOP talking points on voter ID. Republicans have argued the requirements aren’t onerous. Nearly everyone has a driver’s license, and you need an ID for everything nowadays: to rent a movie and to board a plane. “We called Blockbuster,” Anchia said. “It turns out you don’t need a photo ID. You can rent a video with just your voter registration card.” While you do need an ID to board a plane, he noted, airline travel isn’t a constitutional right.

“This is a voter suppression bill,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat seated next to Anchia on the panel. “People in power want to hold on to power.”

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Dingus vs. Craddick


Democrat Bill Dingus, whose campaign slogan is “One of the Good Guys,” is a self-proclaimed optimist. Optimism may be his strongest attribute in running against Republican Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, who has held his Midland seat in the Legislature for four decades.

Dingus says residents of House District 82 tell him they admire what he is doing, even the ones who say they vote Republican “come hell or high water.” Nonetheless, Dingus, president of an oil investment firm and a former city councilman, says he expects Republican constituents to split their ticket and vote for him in November. He believes Craddick has “lost touch with his voters” and that a widespread desire for change will propel him to victory.

He has staked out issues that Democrats have used in the past to win in Republican districts: increasing enrollment in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, holding down electric rate increases, and halting the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Dingus’ supporters are calling his campaign “brave.” Asked to respond to this oft-heard description, Dingus said he found it “sad that to run against someone, such as Craddick, you have to have courage and guts.”

A legal challenge to Dingus’ candidacy almost ended his quixotic campaign before it began. The Texas Republican Party filed a lawsuit challenging his eligibility because he had not resigned from his seat on the Midland City Council when he filed as a candidate for state representative. Dingus resigned from the council and then filed his own lawsuit-against the state Democratic Party. The candidate hopes the lawsuit will force a definitive statement from all parties concerned about his eligibility to be on the ballot. One would assume suing the Democratic Party won’t hurt his chances in the district, either.