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Chris Bell photo i y have Mann FEATURE The Fight for Relevance Democrats look for signs of hope at their state convention BY DAVE MANN If the Democratic Party of Texas supplied its delegates with a single take-home message at its recent convention, it was exemplified by the chorus of a ’70s pop-rock song that blared several times in the convention hallJourney’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” The party die-hards heard that sentiment, or something like it, many times during the three-day gathering that began June 8 in Fort Worth. Seemingly every speaker at the various caucuses, workshops, and floor speeches urged the audience to “take back” and “reclaim” and “fight back.” Gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell, in his keynote speech, observed that Texas Dems will soon “learn how to win again.” Whether delegates are inclined to keep the faith probably depends on how far into the party’s future they choose to look. Texas Democrats have many reasons, some of them evident at the convention, to feel optimistic about future election cycles. But in the immediate futurethe next few monthsthe prospects aren’t good, and you didn’t have to look hard at the convention to see the bare patches of a party that, in the here and now, will likely remain far from power. There were no delegates at the convention from 98 counties, which is nearly 40 percent of the state’s total of 254. The party is increasingly an urban one. While that trend bodes well for Democratic legislative, congressional, and judicial candidates in fast-growing urban areas, it’s tough to win statewide with the party melting away in the countryside. Meanwhile, this year’s slate of statewide hopefuls isn’t the most inspiring lot. Parked on a flatbed truck in front of the Fort Worth Convention Center was an old school bus, courtesy of the Democratic candidate for comptroller, bearing a sign that read, “Rick, it’s still broken?’ It was meant as a comment on Gov. Rick Perry and the public school finance debate, but the image of a broken down bus outside the Democratic convention with the banner “Fred Head for Comptroller” seemed to be saying more than intended. Only the old-timers had likely heard of Heada member of the famed “Dirty 30” group of legislators from the 1970s. He hasn’t held public office in 25 years. The party’s delegates probably knew Bell and Barbara Ann Radnofskywho’s made a remarkable 400 campaign trips around the state in her challenge to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchisonand David Van Os, a former state Supreme Court candidate who’s running for attorney general this time. But some delegates must have wondered who on earth was Maria Luisa Alvarado \(lieutenHathcox left the conven tion rather miffed because she lost her speaking slot when ways in prestige since the heady days of four years ago and the buzz-generatingand ultimately disastroustrio of Tony Sanchez, Ron Kirk, and John Sharp. The lack of glitz shouldn’t be surprising. Most political observers view this election cycle as Democrats’ low ebb, at least in statewide races. There are more appealing Democratic contenders eyeing statewide office. They’re presumably waiting for a more forgiving political climateperhaps as early as 2010in which to run. Bell is the only one with even a shoot-the-moon chance of winning this year. So far he’s run a well-organized and savvy campaign, evidenced by his trouncing of old-pro Bob Gammage in the March primary. For those reasons, Bell received the convention’s prime time slot: the last speaker on the convention’s second night. His appearance was preceded by the usual trappings of a major campaign: the warm, personalize-the-candidate intro speech from his wife and a slick documentary-style video. But when the candidate took the stage, he was still just Chris Bell. He is tall and trim, with a fresh face and round wire-rim glasses. He looks like a lawyer 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 30, 2006