The Observer’s Founding Editor: ‘Bring the Fight Back’ to Texas Politics

It’s long past time in Texas for straight talk, starting with the blunt facts about the nullity the Texas Democratic Party has become.

Illustration by Adam Maida

The presidency of Donald Trump is an emergency for the United States. Now is the time for each ethics-seeking American citizen to fight for democracy in a nonviolent revolution.

With the nation now ruled by Trump and Texas run by the likes of Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, what do we do next?

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This moment is not about Trump — we’ve had too much of that. Now it is about us, free people in a still-free state and a still-free country. It’s long past time in Texas for straight talk, starting with the blunt facts about the nullity the Texas Democratic Party has become. What else can be said honestly about it in a state where the major cities vote Democratic for president but Democrats haven’t won a single statewide office for 20 years? Even in the state’s most liberal city the Democrats can’t get it right. When a friend and I arrived at the 2016 Travis County Democratic Convention — in a county won by Bernie — we were handed programs listing the convention committees, all of which were stacked with known supporters of Clinton. And then speeches, speeches, driveling-on speeches. Not once were we, the Democratic delegates, expected to do anything but say (and vote), “Yes sir. Yes ma’am.” Liberal Democrats have been beaten down so much that they’ve given up at exactly the wrong time.

Even more tellingly, precinct organizing at the neighborhood level is all but abandoned, even though it was responsible for the history-changing ascendancy of liberals in Texas from the ’50s to the ’90s. Where are Frankie Randolph and U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough when we need them? Randolph, who helped start this very magazine in 1954 and hired me as editor, was the chief organizer of precincts in Houston and the inspiration to organizers in other cities. Yarborough was the fighting Texas senator in the great liberal tradition who led the precinct-rooted Democratic revival in Texas. Among many achievements, Yarborough was responsible in part for two of the most liberal federal judges in Texas history, Wayne Justice and Woodrow Seals.

Randolph and others led the Harris County Democrats as they integrated silently and became a model in the other big cities. Her recurring four-word speech to the hundreds of Democratic meetings she addressed was, “Work in your precincts.” African Americans, Hispanics, women, white liberals, gays, citizens, waged a nonviolent revolution to launch a Texas Democratic Party that was ready to take over the state, and did govern, for a while, with the election of Ann Richards as governor. Where and who now are the Henry B. Gonzalezes? One night in 1957, I stayed up all night in the Texas Senate chamber listening to Gonzalez filibuster segregation bills. “Who speaks for the Negroes? What about them?” he roared. “Is Texas liberty only for Anglo-Saxons?”

And so many others: Senator and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, the most eloquent leader in the drive to impeach President Nixon; Bob Eckhardt, the representative and congressman whose faithful drive was “to advance my views,” and many’s the time he did; Mickey Leland, the brilliant black congressman headed for the U.S. Senate until he went down in a crashing airplane. And always Yarborough, a model of progressive integrity who kept orating on the stump, “Let’s put the jam down on the lower shelves where the people can reach it.”

By contrast, the leaders of today are following the advice of mercenary campaign consultants. Until late in Wendy Davis’ 2014 gubernatorial campaign, you’d have thought she didn’t even know the state GOP was (and still is) actively denying 1.1 million low-income Texans health insurance through Medicaid, health care that would be almost entirely paid for by the federal government. As Davis has admirably confessed, “One of the things I learned during my gubernatorial race was that allowing ourselves to be message-managed is not the right direction to take. People are looking for authenticity, even if they don’t agree with everything you say.”

I posit that taking back Texas will require three initiatives: (1) we reorganize as Democrats from the precincts up, starting with each one of us in our own precinct; (2) young people run for public office to rebuild a strong movement inside the Demo- cratic Party, starting with city council, school board and mayor; (3) we fight for a bold new agenda that requires courage to advance in the face of right-wing reactionaries.

What are some of the issues that will give millions of oppressed Texans more reasons to vote in order to improve their own and their children’s lives? Democrats must fight, fight, fight for those billions of tax dollars offered back to us by our federal government for Medicaid. (And resist the GOP’s efforts to destroy the health care system.) Fight racism at every turn and opportunity. Go to the mat for a $15 state minimum wage, especially since the GOP may abolish Medicare and Medicaid while calling it reform. Create a statewide health insurance program for everyone; make worker’s compensation mandatory (we’re the only state that doesn’t); institute a state income tax so we will have enough money to educate all our citizens well and pay our teachers respectably; refuse to give state money to religious schools; ban gerrymandering, which disempowers minorities by concentrating them in wiggly-waggly districts. Oh, and radically democratize the Electoral College by instructing our state’s electors to cast their votes for the winner of the national election.

We owe, each of us and all of us, as much time and effort as we can practically give to advance our deep- est values and convictions. Our democracy is at stake. Democracy itself is at stake. It’s up to us.

This article appears in the February 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or subscribe now.

Ronnie Dugger was the founding editor of the Observer in 1954 and was its publisher until 1994. He has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, books about Hiroshima and universities, and countless articles in The Nation, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic, The New York Times, The Progressive, The Washington Post and other publications. Home again, living and writing in Austin, he received the George Polk career award in journalism in 2012.

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