Looking for Dems in Fort Worth

You cannot have two Republican parties and prevail.– Representative Sylvester Turner

If you were accused of being a Democrat today, would there be enough evidence to convict you?– Delegate Sharon Teal

The 2000 Democratic convention, held at the Tarrant County Convention Center the weekend of June 9, played less like an exercise in small “d” democracy than it did a two-day workshop on building self-esteem. To be sure, with all twenty-nine statewide elected offices held by the opposition, the Party has never needed it more. Thus we read on page three of the convention program: “A Few Good Reasons to be Proud You’re a Democrat.” The list, which gives the Party credit for everything from the women’s suffrage amendment to putting a man on the moon, is notably short on recent accomplishments. Throughout the convention, few speakers leave the stage without reciting some version of Party chairperson Molly Beth Malcolm’s signature affirmation: “I’m proud to be a Texas Democrat.” By the end of the convention, some in the crowd of delegates may have silently added “…whatever that means.” It seems that even as the Party fights to retain its slim majority in the House and to retake the state Senate, it is suffering not only from an inferiority complex, but also an identity crisis.

Identity became an unofficial theme in Fort Worth. “We have to make sure we are who we say we are,” Representative Sylvester Turner of Houston warned the assembled delegates. For the Democrats, that has always been easier said than done. When the Republicans convene, they caucus in groups divided by senate district. They don’t split along identity lines, as the Democrats have always done, with their black, Hispanic, women’s, gay and lesbian, labor, non-urban – and, since 1994, motorcycle – caucuses each meeting separately to discuss their own issues. (Although it’s worth noting that the Republican “identity” remains pretty uniform no matter how you divide them.)

In this crucial election year, however, the Party finds itself fighting not to speak with one voice, but to distinguish that voice from the message of the Republicans. “What’s happened in the last several years is that Democrats have gotten very skittish about delivering our message. We’ve tried in too many ways to emulate Republicans,” Turner said in a post-convention interview. And given a choice between a real Republican and a Democratic version, “Republicans vote for themselves,” he said.

This year they won’t even have that choice, at least in statewide elections, where the official Democratic strategy, for the first time in modern state history, is to field no candidates (one candidate, Gene Kelly, is running against Kay Bailey Hutchison without the Party’s approval). Most of the Party’s energy is focused on David Fisher’s senate race in East Texas, where an open seat will determine which party will hold a sixteen-to-fifteen advantage. That will be more crucial than ever next session, which will feature the all-important and fiercely partisan redistricting process. By determining in part who will get to select the lieutenant governor (the Senate’s presiding officer), that one race will also influence the Republican succession derby, should Bush ascend to the White House in January.

The Democrat’s identity crisis hasn’t been diminished by having Bush at the top of the state ticket the last six years. The most powerful state Democrat, House Speaker Pete Laney, refused to endorse Al Gore’s presidential candidacy at the convention. Laney (who often tells reporters, “I’m not endorsing anybody, I have a House to run”) literally walked away from reporters who pressed him on the issue.

Who could blame him? Gore doesn’t have a prayer in Texas anyway. In fact, as the presidential season wears on, the two candidates have become increasingly difficult to distinguish. “The center-left-right distinction just seems more and more blurry in the politics of this election,” said Ed Sills, Texas A.F.L.-C.I.O. communications director. “Look at their positions. Bush has a disability program one day, an education program the day after that. He’s trying to sound as soft as you would hear a conservative Republican sound. And Al Gore on the other hand is looking tough on issues like crime. In any other situation, you might have expected Gore to go after Bush on the capital punishment stuff. But he’s basically echoing him instead.”

There was little evidence at the convention that the Party is ready to leave the middle of the road. Fort Worth Congressman Martin Frost told reporters that the national Party had to eschew ideology and philosophy and hew to the middle ground, if the Democrats are to finally win back the U.S. House. Texas A.F.L.-C.I.O. president Joe Gunn, meanwhile, was working the caucus rooms, telling delegates that the Party had to move to the center, to win back moderate voters.

Gunn and his fellow leaders in the national labor movement have to swallow a bitter pill to endorse Gore, who wholeheartedly endorses the Clinton administration’s program of economic globalization, most recently epitomized by the President’s ramrodding China trade liberalization through the U.S. House of Representatives. Labor drew a line in the sand on China trade – and lost. As a result, the country stands to lose hundreds of thousands of union jobs over the next generation, as China, with its cheap labor and negligible environmental standards, becomes the next fertile field for multinationals. In the wake of the betrayal, both the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters have publicly announced that they may endorse Ralph Nader instead of Gore (or Bush, who, for his part, has pledged to remove all U.S. tariffs). But the Texas A.F.L.-C.I.O., according to Ed Sills, is sticking with Gore. As Sills sees it, they have no choice. “If the U.A.W. decides to go to Nader and that proves the margin of difference that elects George Bush, I think they might wake up the morning after the election with a major headache,” he said. “It doesn’t take a long memory to remember twelve years of Reagan and Bush. If they just think back a few years, I don’t think it’s much of a contest between pragmatism and idealism here.”

But that emphasis on pragmatism has cost the Party dearly, according to Party progressives like state representative Sylvester Turner. “We don’t want to be [called] ‘liberal,’ and we allow Republicans to tell us what we should not be,” he said. A little more idealism, Turner said, might draw some new faces into the Party, particularly young people, who were noticeably absent from the convention. “Young people are idealists, they believe in ideas and people who are willing to fight for them,” he said. Following the massive demonstrations in Seattle and D.C., it seems clear that more young people are politically active across the nation than they have been in a generation. But few seem interested in electoral politics.

Dennis Speight, director of Texas Young Democrats, said that young people have to be convinced that the Party supports the issues that matter to them. And what if – as in the case of globalization, which has captured the attention of tens of thousands of young people – the Party isn’t on their side? “If they can’t find anyone in the Party to get behind, then I would say to them, ‘Don’t wait, do it on your own,'” said Speight. Many have done just that, throwing their energy into getting the Green Party and Ralph Nader on the ballot in Texas. (Activists recently turned in more than 74,000 signatures, and it appears Nader and other statewide Green Party candidates will be on the ballot this November.) But Speight isn’t worried. “I don’t see Nader being a Ross Perot for either Party,” he said. (Many analysts believe Perot, who drew support mainly from discontented Republicans and independents, cost the elder Bush the election in 1992.)

If Nader does end up costing the Democrats the White House in 2000, progressives will pay the price, according to Ed Sills: that’s because, despite their similar rhetoric, there is a difference between the two major candidates. He lists the familiar issues that matter to working people: health insurance, prescription drug prices, school vouchers, the minimum wage. Not to mention presidential appointments: under Clinton, the National Labor Relations Board has been headed by a former general counsel for the U.A.W. Under Bush, organizers would face an uphill battle. They don’t want to go back.

But are they going forward? Moving from caucus to caucus in the giant convention center display hall, there is little excitement, little sense of a movement afoot. At the scarcely attended women’s caucus, the mood is somber. There are few young faces. Even at the convention’s climax, when hundreds of David Fisher’s East Texas supporters paraded around the convention floor waving signs and shouting, the outburst of enthusiasm seemed a little too perfectly timed. Fisher gave the speech the Party activists – from the teacher’s union, AARP, and the pro-choice and minority caucuses – wanted to hear. It was a sight difficult to reconcile with reality: the Party’s most progressive and active members, pinning their hopes on a social conservative from East Texas, who, as he confirmed in a brief interview on the floor, will side with the Republicans and conservative Democrats on such hot button issues as gun control and abortion rights.

Yet there was common ground to be found in Fort Worth. Fisher’s constituents may be home-schooling fundamentalists, but they are also economic populists. But the big picture was hard to find. “From my sense of talking to a number of delegates, the people are ready to move,” Sylvester Turner said. “But the leadership is not where the body is. When the leadership gets there, we’ll move forward. And that’s whether you’re dealing with farmers, Hispanics, African Americans, Anglos, urban, rural – I think there’s common threads that unite Democrats across the state of Texas, but you have to paint the picture for them.” Turner is not the only Democrat who has called on the Party to get back to its core message. Since the debacle in 1998, Democrats from John Sharp to Garry Mauro (and, recently, Ben Barnes) have argued that the Party needs to take a progressive turn to recapture its base of Texas liberals. But Mauro is just a lobbyist, and Sharp an accountant. The Party is being run these days by Molly Beth Malcolm, a former Republican, and the course, at least for now, is straight down the middle.

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Published at 12:00 am CST