The Donkey Kicks

An Infusion of Cash and Color Has the Democrats Thinking Big

If the gospel at the Democratic Party of Texas convention in El Paso was unity, party chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm was the number one Unitarian, spreading the good word from caucus to caucus like a circuit-riding preacher. Members of the media, she said, were best left alone. “All they’re looking for is someone to give one negative comment, and they’ll put that in the papers,” she told a meeting of county chairpersons on the first morning of the convention, which was held June 14 and 15 in El Paso’s picturesque, if largely abandoned, downtown hotel district. The Republicans were trying to sow division, too, “and it’s only going to get nastier,” she warned them. Delegates on their way into downtown were greeted by a billboard lampooning the conspicuous absence of national Democratic stars at the convention, including Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt, who had been uninvited at the last moment at the behest of John Sharp and Tony Sanchez. Both apparently feared being tarred as “Tom Daschle Democrats,” which is the current shorthand in D.C. for anyone who opposes King George. Both Sanchez and Sharp like the President very much, as they are often at pains to remind the state’s independent voters.

A full page ad in the El Paso Times, meanwhile, was signed by two dozen-odd former officials calling themselves Democrats for Perry, including a few names–like erstwhile liberal stalwart Babe Schwartz–that must have jarred party regulars. Then there was the shadow convention, convened by the Republicans a block or two from the convention center, ostensibly to give “disgruntled Democrats” a chance to commiserate in front of the media. Party Chairwoman Susan Weddington personally hosted that publicity stunt, which was a flop, even as pathetic charades go.

Which is not to say that there were not disgruntled Democrats at the convention. There certainly were, but they did not flock to Weddington’s call, nor did they raise a ruckus inside the hall. State Rep. Paul Moreno, the plain-spoken dean of the El Paso delegation, lambasted Bush on the convention floor, but held his tongue–on the podium, at least–about those in his own party who continue to support him. Sharp, who refused to endorse Bush’s opponent, Garry Mauro, in the 1998 governor’s race and whose lieutenant governor campaign ads actually featured Bush, has traditionally been the target of that anger. “The way he played footsies with Bush, and the way he knocked out Garry Mauro, I was so goddamned pissed off,” Moreno said later. “But we’re gonna have to forgive him because the alternative is Dewhurst, and all the damage he’ll do,” he said.

Everywhere you looked, lambs were lying down with lions. Party gadfly David Van Os, who had supported Dan Morales’ maverick primary run against Tony Sanchez, decided against challenging Molly Beth Malcolm for the party chairmanship. On the convention stage, B.A. Bentsen, wife of former U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen, introduced Senate candidate Ron Kirk, who had only lately defeated her nephew, Ken Bentsen, in the primary. At an after-hours party for John Sharp, Ann Richards made a silent but highly symbolic promenade across the stage with Tony Sanchez, who infamously funded Bush’s campaign against her after the two Democrats fell out (reportedly over a toll road in Laredo). And the media played along. The convention is a two-day story in most of the state’s dailies, and it was by and large a love-fest on both days, with stories on the enthusiasm of the delegates and the ingenuity of the party’s wise men, who came up with such a diverse, moderate, and marketable ticket.

Malcolm’s show certainly benefited by comparison with the last statewide convention, in Fort Worth in 2000, when the party ran no statewide candidates and delegates snoozed through most of the conclave. The event also made a nice contrast with the R’s display in Dallas one week earlier, which was all about division. The story in each morning’s paper was about the Republican party faithful’s biennial attempt to purge the party of RINOs (Republican In Name Only), which this year meant those who would not pledge allegiance to the party platform. Notable RINOs this year included Governor Rick Perry and Senate-hopeful John Cornyn, each of whom dodged questions about the platform–a national embarrassment for years now–over the weekend. The R’s in general were found by the capitol press corps to be anxious, worried, and maybe less than thrilled about their ticket–in any case, decidedly not unified or moderate.

So the Dems won the convention coverage media war. And that is, chiefly, what conventions are for–publicity. That, and to inspire the troops for the fall campaign season by letting them see their stars up close and in person. No real decisions of any kind have been made at party conventions since the advent of the primary election system a generation ago. There aren’t that many involved in the process today who recall why the party used to convene bi-annually in the first place: to select candidates. “I think the primaries have done more than anything else to hurt the parties,” said former steelworker organizer Sam Dawson, a longtime party activist. “It used to be you had to control the party from the bottom. You had to have a person for every candidate in each precinct,” in order to have a fighting chance to get nominated at the convention. “I can still remember when an organization could elect somebody. Now it’s impossible. You have to have big bucks.”

That theme, of money trumping organizing, is a common complaint among Christian conservatives in the Republican Party. From the precincts to the state executive committee, social conservatives have completely taken over the party apparatus, yet they still cannot get their candidates elected to statewide office, because of the primacy of money in the primary system. A statewide primary is basically a sprint to see who can get the most advertising dollars lined up the quickest. You don’t need a machine, you just need a millionaire.

Theoretically, an organized constituency could take over the Democratic Party as well. In many areas, the party is almost an empty shell. As Darby Riley of Texas Environmental Democrats pointed out, 400 of 600 precincts in Bexar County (San Antonio) have no organizers at all. But if someone, say for example a posse of Jim Hightower populists, were to take over the party from the grassroots–what would it get them? They might be able to get a dynamite party platform drafted: moratorium on the death penalty, ending the drug war, re-regulating utilities–the sort of proposals that were effectively quashed by an overly cautious platform committee this time around. But wouldn’t they still run head long into the power of the party’s money men, who call the shots from the top?

Another function of an atrophied party base is that the organization doesn’t perpetuate itself. It doesn’t produce new organizers and new candidates to replace the old ones. “[Organizing] is how you build leadership. They don’t do that anymore,” Dawson said. Which leads to another question: Who will run the Democrats’ promised statewide get out the vote (GOTV) campaign? The lynchpin of the Democratic strategy is increasing turnout among Hispanic and black voters. But merely having Ron Kirk and Tony Sanchez on the ticket will not guarantee higher turnout. Events have to be organized in every county, massive numbers of voters have to be registered–it’s the type of coordinated campaign the Dems have not pulled off in some time. With Sanchez’s money, they have the wherewithal to do it, but rumor at the convention had it that the party had lost confidence in the usual suspects out in the counties, and was considering bringing in outside organizers to get the job done. That could cause some friction. “He who pays the piper usually gets to call the tune,” said former Court of Criminal Appeals judge Morris Overstreet, who heads the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats. But, Overstreet said, if there were not people “who look like me” working at high levels in the GOTV effort, “it won’t be milk and honey in la-la land.” He wasn’t worried yet, though. “There’s a lot of talking still to do, but I think it’s going very smoothly so far,” he said.

Ralph Yarborough, perhaps the most revered liberal in Texas history and perennially the most invoked name at the state convention, might blanch at the way party politics is conducted today, but he probably would have liked Tony Sanchez’s speech to the convention. Paul Moreno certainly did: “Goddamn, that shit Tony said was pretty Goddamned tough!” Moreno’s review seemed to catch the spirit of the delegates, who roared with approval during Sanchez’s keynote, which was heavy on the theme of corruption in the Perry Administration. The material was good–slamming the governor for kowtowing to insurance companies, utilities, HMO’s, and Enron–and the delivery was vastly improved from the wooden speeches Sanchez was giving just six months ago. Sanchez even laid out a proposal for new ethics legislation that would tighten several loopholes, including the governor’s ability to fundraise during the three week window between the end of the session and the last day to sign–or veto–legislation. According to the Sanchez campaign, Perry collected $1.2 million during that period last summer, just before he vetoed a record 82 bills. Team Sanchez’s willingness to go after Perry on ethics is all the more admirable since it leaves him open to scrutiny of his own record in oil and banking, a subject on which the Republicans have already begun to pound.

Molly Beth Malcolm hit many of the same themes in her opening remarks, methodically plowing through the campaign finance excesses of the R’s, under the catchy mantra “They’re for Sale, We’re for Texas.” The buzz was out well before the convention that the insurance industry would be taking a beating in El Paso. The convention was officially gaveled to order at 5:00 on Friday night, and the first punch landed at 5:56 P.M., in Malcolm’s welcome speech. (She went on to mention the industry six times in the speech.) Attorney General candidate Kirk Watson could barely contain himself, he was so ready to ring some bean counter’s neck. The single hottest issue in the state right now is homeowner’s insurance, according to the Democratic consultant who helped draft Malcolm’s speech. An unintended consequence of a 1990 insurance reform bill has allowed companies to gradually shift everyone into unregulated policies. Regulators and legislators sat on their hands, and the result has been that rates have gone through the roof. The blood is on the R’s hands on this one, the consultant said, and the campaign finance money trail will show it: “People are pissed off.”

Polling indicates Texans aren’t too happy about utilities or HMO’s right now, either, which means it’s a good time to run as a populist. (But when is it not, really?) Yet there’s no denying that this ticket, with Ron Kirk, Tony Sanchez, and John Sharp at the top, is the most pro-business in years. Kirk, who made a handsome living lobbying for corporate clients at one time, sells himself as a moderate and proudly wears the backing of the Dallas business establishment. Sanchez, a banker and oilman who flouted the party in the past, is an unlikely hero for the Dems, some of whom still question his loyalty to the party. With the U.S. House of Representatives hanging in the balance, shouldn’t Sanchez be backing fellow Laredoan Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, against Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla? (Or at least not trying to smear Cuellar?) Then there’s Sharp. As the former state comptroller likes to say of the R’s, no plane can fly with only a right wing. Of course, it can’t fly without one either, and that has traditionally been Sharp’s role in the Democratic party. He is still making hay with independents and moderate Republicans over the fact that he was once invited to join the R’s by the party’s money men.

But really, there isn’t a lot of party loyalty in this state, and that’s what the Dems are counting on. In large areas of Texas, people tend to vote for the candidate, not the party, which explains how Sharp very nearly beat Rick Perry for lieutenant governor in 1998, even with Bush winning in a landslide at the top of the ticket. Sharp is a much stronger candidate than current Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. In addition to being better known by voters, Sharp’s a known quantity around the capitol, widely respected in both the bureaucracy and the lobby, where Dewhurst is generally considered a lightweight at best, a joke at worst. Sharp figures to once again draw a considerable number of moderate R’s and independents, as he did in 2000. And this time, the theory goes, he’ll have higher Democratic turnout along the border and in the inner cities–high enough, by virtue of the diverse ticket, to put him over the top.

And that brings us to the most radical thing about what the Dems are doing. Having lost every statewide office, some have argued, the party had nothing to lose in nominating the first-ever Hispanic for governor of Texas and first African-American candidate for U.S. Senator from Texas since Reconstruction. In fact, they had a great deal to lose. Like it or not, race is still a central organizing principle of politics in Texas, as it is in much of the United States. The Democrats may be the party of civil rights, but that doesn’t cut much ice in the Panhandle or East Texas, where there are many, many white Democrats and independents who simply will not vote for a black or Hispanic candidate, even if his family has lived here for 250 years, and even if he hunts deer with his children every fall (as we heard several times at the convention). And while Hispanics may soon be a majority in Texas, voting patterns suggest they won’t be a majority of registered voters for another generation after that.

The Dems will always need Anglo voters, and they may have just written off a large number of them to the R’s. On a smaller scale, it’s a replay of the dynamic LBJ famously predicted when he signed the Civil Rights Act–that his party had just written off the South for two generations. In engineering the Sanchez-Kirk ticket, Sharp and the party leadership were essentially telling the party’s racist wing–there’s no other way to put it–that they could go to hell. And Phil Gramm and John Cornyn, with their carefully couched criticism of a “racially divisive” Democratic ticket at the Republican convention, were telling those same voters “Welcome to the fold.”

It must have felt good to be on the right side of that trade-off. Whatever the party may or may not be, it is truly inclusive. Look around the floor of a Democratic convention–gays and lesbians, pro-choicers and pro-lifers, motorcycle gangs, housewives, elderly African-Americans, farmers, electricians, young Chicana organizers, all under the same roof, hooting at the same speeches and getting over-served at the same cash bars–and ask yourself, “If this wasn’t a gathering of Democrats, what would it be?” During one of his few appearances on stage, John Sharp looked the delegates over and pronounced them beautiful. “It’s good to be here with all you good-looking, common sense people,” he said. Amen.

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Published at 12:00 am CST