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FEATURE The Donkey Kicks An Infusion of Cash and Color Has the Democrats Thinking Big BY NATE BLAKESLEE PHOTOS BY BARBARA SCHLIEF 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 nameslike erstwhile liberal stalwart Babe Schwartzthat 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 tongueon the podium, at leastabout 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 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 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 platforma national embarrassment for years nowover 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 ticketin any case, decidedly not unified or moderate. So the Dems won the convention coverage media war. And that is, chiefly, what conventions are forpublicity. 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 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7/5102