Two – Stepping Forward

At their state convention in Austin, Texas Democrats looked like a party on the rise.


On the first night of the recent Democratic state convention in Austin, the tone of the festivities was downright boastful. For recent observers of Texas politics, this took some getting used to. It’s been a while since Texas Democrats had much to crow about. But you couldn’t look at the packed main hall of the Austin Convention Center-where Democratic delegates, alternates, and guests filled nearly 15,000 chairs-without thinking that perhaps Republican dominance of Texas politics was beginning to end.

Seated in neat rows of metal chairs, the crowd seemed to stretch for a quarter-mile. It was by far the largest gathering of Texas Democrats in at least a decade. The turnout was twice the size of the 2006 state convention, and three times larger than the lean 2004 gathering in Houston.

Party Chair Boyd Richie took the stage to open the convention’s first general session on June 6 and began to, well, boast. “We turned Dallas County blue,” he said. “And by the way, Harris County, you’re next. … Your Texas Democratic Party is a lean, mean, campaign-winning machine.”

Not long ago, that statement would have been laughable. Now Richie has some results to back his brag. (Later in the convention, Richie handily won a second two-year term.)

The assembled delegates were shown a slickly-produced video set to rock music that ran down the recent wins: 47 Democrats elected in Dallas County, eight Texas House seats picked up in three years (and only five more needed to win a majority), two congressional seats since Tom DeLay’s 2003 redistricting, 2.9 million Texans who voted in the March Democratic primary-almost 2 million of them new to the party. When the video ended, the crowd roared.

Many delegates came clad in yellow or blue Hillary Clinton T-shirts, or Obama shirts of every conceivable design. The competing attire served as a constant reminder that the massive convention turnout was due largely to the heated presidential primary.

The ferocious contest between Obama and Clinton has no doubt been a boon to Texas Democrats. But the primary left two nagging questions hanging over the state convention: Will Clinton supporters unite behind Obama, or will the Democratic Party choose dissension over victory? And can the Texas party entice these new voters back to the polls in future elections, or will they melt away when this historic presidential election ends?

Wounds from the presidential primary remain fresh. Clinton officially conceded the race on the convention’s final day; delegates watched her speech endorsing Obama, or at least a few minutes of it, before the feed was lost. (It wouldn’t be a Democratic convention without some technological snafu.) Nearly all the elected officials and party leaders who addressed delegates offered messages of togetherness. Chelsea Clinton was one of many who, in a brief speech Friday night, urged delegates to back Obama. Later that night, state Reps. Rene Oliveiraro (a Clinton supporter) and Yvonne Davis (who backed Obama) took the stage together and held hands in a show of unity. The crowd rose and chanted, “Yes, we can” in unison.

On Saturday, state Sen. Royce West of Dallas commanded Obama and Clinton delegates to clasp each other’s hands in a “We Are the World” moment. (West’s appeal for unity was far more appetizing than that of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who took the too-much-information route: “Anyone who’s been in a relationship knows that eventually you stop fighting, and you get back together. … As my husband Pete says, the makeup sex is really good.”)

Despite the many calls for unity, animosity between the two sides lingers, and may not go away anytime soon. Some Obama supporters were still muttering about Clinton remaining in the race so long after her chance for victory had dwindled to nil. Many Clinton diehards, meanwhile, weren’t quite ready to embrace Obama, though most said they eventually would. One Clinton supporter toted a sign that read, “Small-town, gun-owning religious Democrat bitter about Obama.”

More than a few Clinton delegates said they wanted Hillary as the vice presidential nominee-and suggested Obama can’t win without her. That sentiment could prolong the discord if Obama chooses someone else. The Clinton supporters tried to prevent their delegates from switching to Obama. Their largely successful efforts arose partly from loyalty to their candidate, and partly from the desire to provide the former first lady with at least a little leverage at the national convention, should she need it. One Clinton delegate who announced she was switching to Obama was denounced by Hillary supporters as “rogue.”

“I’m disappointed. I don’t like [that Obama’s the nominee],” said Kevin Rice, a Clinton delegate from San Antonio. “I guess I have to vote for him because I’m a Democrat. But it’s going to take some time. It’s almost like a mourning period. Our campaign died, and we’re in mourning.”

McAllen state Rep. Veronica Gonzales said anger about Clinton’s loss was particularly acute in South Texas. “I feel that Hispanics who are upset about Clinton not getting the nomination just won’t come out and vote,” she said.

Bigger hasn’t always been better for Texas Democrats this year. The party’s hybrid presidential primary-caucus system-which came to be known as the Texas Two-Step-wasn’t accustomed tohandling so many voters. It’s been a monumental logistical challenge for a party that isn’t exactly known for its organizational aptitude. At the state convention, that trend continued.

When delegates from Fort Worth caucused on the convention’s first night, they hoped this last step in the three-tiered process would go more smoothly than their chaotic county convention-step No. 2-in late March. That process lasted until 3 a.m.

No such luck. It took more than 90 minutes just to sort through which delegates and alternates had shown up. “No matter how long it takes, it can’t be as long as the [county] convention,” said one Obama delegate early in the night. She was almost proved wrong. The Fort Worth delegation of several hundred could send just five delegates (three for Obama and two for Hillary) to the national convention in Denver, and nearly all of the delegates assembled wanted to go. More than 100 Obama supporters in the Fort Worth caucus ran for the three Obama delegate slots. By the time the speeches were over and the voting had concluded, it was nearly 2 a.m.

Hillary Clinton

At least there were no accusations of corruption in Fort Worth. In March, the Hidalgo County convention ended in acrimony and chaos when outgoing county chair Juan Maldonado, a bail bondsman, chose a less-than-democratic method for selecting Hidalgo County’s delegates to the state convention. Maldonado appointed himself, his assistant, and his nephew, as well as prominent local officials. Nepotism was Maldonado’s parting gift to the party. He had already lost his bid for re-election as county chair earlier in the spring to Dolly Elizondo, who will be the first woman in Hidalgo County history to serve as party chair.

After all the confusion of March, many Democratic activists came to the state convention hoping to scrap the caucus half of the Texas Two-Step and, in future presidential elections, award delegates only through a primary election. Party leaders decided to save that debate for another time. They appointed a committee-headed by state Sen. West-to study the Texas Two-Step and make recommendations to the party’s executive committee. West’s panel will hold hearings with Democrats in the state’s major metro areas. At press time, no dates had been set.

A more immediate concern among party leaders is ensuring that the nearly 3 million people who voted in the Democratic primary return to the polls in November, and beyond. It seems unlikely that Texas will be up for grabs in the presidential race, despite the Democratic excitement this year, raising the danger that many primary voters-if they believe their votes won’t matter in the race for the White House-could disappear from the political scene as quickly as they arrived. Even if they do return in November, will they vote for Democrats in down-ballot races?

The state party has set its sights on sweeping all elective offices in Harris County (as it did in Dallas County two years ago) and winning the five seats needed to claim a majority in the Texas House. These two goals are not only attainable, but critical to the party’s prospects. If Democrats have any hope of capturing the governorship or a U.S. Senate seat any time soon-they haven’t won a statewide race in 14 years-the party must dominate in Houston. Likewise, retaking the Texas House would not only end Republican Tom Craddick speakership, but also give Democrats a big say in the next round of legislative and congressional redistricting that begins in 2011.

Toward those ends, the party distributed blue “volunteer” forms at the state convention for delegates to fill out if they want to work on campaigns in the fall. The party also passed around plastic buckets for delegates to deposit $10 donations to the “majority builder” campaign.

The party already has the names and addresses of the roughly 1 million people who returned to their polling places to caucus on March 4-a list of motivated partisans that’s one major reason to keep the Texas Two-Step intact.

Party spokesman Hector Nieto said the party will communicate with the caucus-goers-and the thousands who attended the county and state conventions-through telephone and mail campaigns. “We have the numbers to be competitive statewide,” he said. “It’s just a matter of making sure the people who want to be involved in the process have the means to do that.”

In other words, the primary has given Texas Democrats-too long accustomed to rust-the tools to reclaim some semblance of power. We’ll soon see if the party succeeds at using them.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST