Buttons on display at the 2016 Texas Democratic Convention.

Recap: Chaos and Castros at the 2016 Texas Democratic Convention

The Clinton versus Sanders fight largely lay dormant at the 2016 Texas Democratic Convention — until it really, really didn't.

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Update: This post has been updated to reflect the total number of convention attendees and delegates. 

Will Rogers once said, “I belong to no organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

Well, ol’ Will would have felt right at home at the final session of the 2016 Texas Democratic Convention on Saturday night. The Alamodome’s food vendors had closed up shop, and the final general session was running nearly an hour late when the proceedings degenerated into near-chaos over a resolution to limit the power of superdelegates — party leaders who can support any candidate they choose at the national convention — in 2020.

The convention drew about 8,000 attendees, including more than 5,000 delegates, according to a TDP spokesperson.

Raffle for a Donald Trump piñata at the Texas Democratic Convention.
Raffle for a Donald Trump piñata at the Texas Democratic Convention.  Alexa Garcia-Ditta

Though Texas Democratic Party officials had worked hard to paper over the divisions between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters throughout the weekend, the superdelegate debate (or “hot mess,” as Alexa called it) exposed real animosity between the two factions. Bernie supporters — who backed the resolution — clearly resented Hillary’s near-complete conquest of the superdelegate count and were dead set on keeping something similar from happening again in 2020.

It was the one time that the convention reached the level of turmoil and sheer nastiness on display at the Texas Republican Convention’s contentious debate over a proposed Texas secession amendment last month.

Indeed, Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa’s struggle to keep order Saturday mirrored Texas GOP Chair Tom Mechler’s time at the podium in Dallas, looking tired and exasperated as secessionists and anti-secessionists shouted each other down.

But the Dems’ descent into mayhem came as a surprise; until the final session, the fault lines between Bernie supporters and Hillary supporters never seriously disturbed the proceedings. State party leaders and lefty political celebs like Wendy Davis and Jim Hightower (who appeared by video) worked hard to quell differences and bring Sanders supporters behind Clinton, who herself appeared in pre-recorded video form.

Julián Castro takes the stage at the Texas Democratic Convention.
Joaquin Castro takes the stage at the Texas Democratic Convention.  Naveena Sadasivam

But it was HUD Secretary Julián Castro (who isn’t Clinton’s VP nominee, much to many attendees’ disappointment) and U.S. Congressman Joaquin Castro who really carried the anti-Trump torch together, emphasizing that Clinton is the candidate to take down Donald Trump in November. The Castros and a parade of Texas Dems linked Trump’s “bigoted,” “racist” rhetoric to the likes of Texas conservative leaders Dan Patrick, Sid Miller and Ken Paxton, who peddle anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant policies while allegedly exploiting taxpayer funds.

Many party leaders rallied Sanders supporters at the general session, saying they too “felt the Bern.” Hoping to coax Sanders supporters to Team Clinton, they emphasized the difference between the Democratic and Republican primaries. The Democratic primary had helped strengthen the party, they said, as opposed to the Republican primary, which resulted in the nomination of a “monster,” as El Paso state Senator José Rodríguez put it.

Early in the general session speeches, Bernie supporters drowned out U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson when she threw a little shade at Sanders’ party affiliation (“If you are a Democrat — and Bernie, he’s not been one in Congress yet”), but Johnson rescued the bit, sort of: “I love the energy,” she said, and then reminded the Sanders faithful that “no matter how loud [they] scream here, it doesn’t get extra people to the polls.”

However, when Hinojosa brought the superdelegate petition up for consideration Saturday, those hard-won good feelings evaporated. For 90 minutes, Bernie supporters and Hillary supporters made motions and counter-motions, argued and generally hollered at each other.

Sanders’ petition supporters accused superdelegates — who can support the candidate of their choosing — of representing big corporations instead of voters. One petition opponent responded that the GOP likely wished it had superdelegates, who might have been able to quash Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the party.

Finally the chair called for a voice vote on the petition. When that didn’t yield a clear result, he called for a standing vote: petition supporters stood and were counted, followed by opponents.

Although the results looked pretty close from the press section, Hinojosa declared that the petition passed.

Then all hell broke loose.

“The guests are voting!” Hillary supporters shouted — and, since guests were not seated separately from delegates (as they had been at the GOP convention in Dallas), who could tell? “The media were voting!” someone else yelled. “The press people are voting!” We weren’t, of course, but it testifies to the anger, even the desperation, of superdelegate supporters.

Hinojosa struggled to move on to other petitions, losing control of the seething, raucous room. Finally, he ordered another vote.

This time, supporters and opponents were to vote by holding up their blue delegate badges. And once again, it looked pretty close, but Hinojosa declared that the petition had passed. Sanders supporters cheered, waving blue Bernie signs in the air. A half-hour later, the 2016 convention adjourned two hours behind schedule.

It was an awkward end to the Democratic Party party, but both factions can claim victory. Bernie supporters won procedurally on the superdelegate issue, while Hillary backers heard expressions of support for their candidate from every major state party leader.

But it wasn’t just Bernie versus Hillary that had Dems split on the direction of the party. Attendees convened in sometimes contradictory caucuses — yes, there’s an anti-abortion bunch in the TDP, who met just down the hall from better-attended pro-choice caucus — and often resisted each others’ pull, alternately to the middle or to the left, on some of today’s most contentious issues.

On Religion: David Brockman’s Dispatch

  • On Thursday evening, an ethnically and religiously diverse crowd of Democrats gathered downtown to help members of the Muslim Democratic Caucus celebrate the breaking of their Ramadan fast. The MDC’s banner for the evening gave a clear message: “I am a Muslim. I am an American. I vote.”
  • This convention saw the first-ever Secular Caucus meeting at a state-level political convention, and it drew a standing-room-only crowd. Stressing the growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, speakers called upon Democrats to recognize them as a political constituency.
  • Another standing-room-only crowd gathered to attend a Texas Freedom Network workshop on combating religious extremism. TFN President Kathy Miller called it “despicable” that far-right politicians are using “religious freedom” to legitimate discrimination. She encouraged progressives not to shy away from discussions about religion and to work to defend the tradition of church-state separation.
  • And contrary to Greg Abbott’s claim that you’ll never hear “the word of God” at a Democratic convention, TDP16 featured not only the Ramadan event mentioned above, but also a multifaith invocation at the opening session, and meetings of the Jewish and Muslim caucuses. Democrats of various religions — and no religion — reaffirmed support for the American tradition of church-state separation.

On Reproductive Health: Alexa Garcia-Ditta’s Dispatch

  • The TDP platform — which unanimously passed with no discussion or fanfare, unlike the battle over superdelegate resolution language — calls for a full “repeal” of House Bill 2, Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law currently before the U.S. Supreme Court; it also calls for paid family leave, Medicaid expansion, affordable child care and access to all forms of contraception. (Read the near-final document here).
  • The platform explicitly names Planned Parenthood twice in its support for full funding of family planning and other preventive health services, a change one delegate told me was “extremely important” to her given the role the organization plays in providing birth control and other health services. The mentions also signal the party’s full-throated support of the organization, which has come under more fire than usual from right-wing lawmakers in the last year or so, thanks to those deceptively edited videos released by California anti-abortion activists
  • The platform recognizes that “a joined egg and sperm has no independent status,” which could be a nod to looming personhood legislation, supported by anti-abortion lawmakers and groups like Texas Right to Life, which would grant legal rights to fetuses.
  • Convention-goers rallied loudly behind access to abortion, and advocates called on the Democratic Party to use the “actual word,” abortion, when discussing the issue. Shying away from the word “perpetuates stigma,” said Lilith Fund director Amanda Williams at a packed pro-choice caucus meeting.
  • Still, not every Democrat gets behind abortion. Pro-life Dems showed up, albeit in smaller numbers, this weekend, and talked about defending the “unborn” and supporting Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, HB 2.
  • All in all, the chatter about reproductive rights and abortion access this weekend had a tenor celebration and pride. Elected officials reminisced about the 2013 filibuster (the three-year anniversary of Wendy Davis’ historic stand is June 25) and delegates and convention-goers packed the pro-choice caucus and reproductive health meetings. In a state where conversations about these issues are often centered on playing defense — and all signs point to more attacks on reproductive freedom to come 2017 — it was a nice change of pace.

On Energy and Environment: Naveena Sadasivam’s Dispatch

  • Fracking proved to be a divisive issue at the convention. While delegates on the platform committee voted to regulate fracking Saturday, a majority of delegates separately signed a petition to include language on a fracking ban on Friday. At the general session, TDP Chairman Hinojosa told the crowd that since the petition had received more than 50 percent of the delegate votes, “it is automatically adopted.” Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, later clarified, telling the Observer that the platform will remain unchanged and that the resolutions will exist separately.
  • There was also much discussion of HB 40, the 2015 law that restricts Texas towns from regulating oil and gas drilling, at the energy caucus on Friday. Attendees voiced their worry that the law, which was introduced in response to Denton’s fracking ban, impedes communities’ rights to establish stringent fracking regulations. The platform language reflected those concerns. It specifically rebukes the law, saying “Texas must repeal HB 40,” and calls for the party to support “the rights of local governments and voters to regulate oil and gas operations.”

The TDP’s platform passed on a unanimous voice vote Saturday afternoon, which platform committee chairperson Celia Israel credited to the “unity” of the committee and delegates. The aspirational document, which is more than 40 pages long, rejects policies that restrict transgender Texans from using certain bathrooms, affirms women’s rights as human rights, and calls for the decriminalization of marijuana and a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour.

But just as the secession fight in Dallas in May laid bare the deep rifts in the Texas GOP, so too Saturday’s battle over superdelegates revealed just how profoundly divided Texas Democrats still are about the character and the future of their party. They may go into November united in their hostility toward Donald Trump and other GOP candidates, but in other ways, the Texas Democratic Party is as messy as it was in Will Rogers’ day.