There was a time when even the most conservative Texas politicians identified themselves as Democrats, simply because political reality told them it was the only avenue to election in this state. Rick Perry, currently the state’s Republican governor, began his career as a Democrat. Former Republican Senator Phil Gramm won a seat in the U.S. Congress as a Democrat. And John Connally served three terms as the state’s Democratic governor, before ultimately running for president as a Republican.
Over the last two decades, the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that Democrats are not only reluctant to seek elective office, they’re even skittish about telling friends and neighbors where they stand.
“They’re leery about actually saying that they’re a Democrat, coming out of the closet,” says Ann FitzGibbons, founder of a Political Action Committee called the New Era Democrats. “My belief is that if you do come out and give them a forum amongst other people who feel the same way, and start attaching names and faces with people who have the same beliefs, then all of a sudden it becomes contagious.”
FitzGibbons and a small circle of friends launched the New Era Democrats early this year after gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell asked them to help organize a fundraiser for him in San Antonio. She says that while local party organizations concentrate on important election-year functions, such as block-walking or operating phone banks, she believes that fundraising has been the “weak link” of their efforts. The New Era Democrats formed with the intention of reinvigorating demoralized local progressives and serving as a general-purpose fundraising arm that could continue to bolster Democratic causes between election cycles.
“You’re talking about an organization that really needs the leadership to say, ‘It’s OK. If you put the effort forward, you’ll see benefits from your efforts,’” FitzGibbons says. “What it’s going to take is a groundswell of people willing to put that effort forward, and keep moving ahead.”
The new PAC’s goal to swell Democratic coffers was demonstrated at a September 28 fundraiser at Lone Star Art Space. The turnout was skimpy, and seemed particularly small in the cavernous art-space setting. But the crowd included a mix of affluent, straight-ticket art patrons and young artists who have generally resisted political activism, but see FitzGibbons’s organization as the cure for their apathy. Even while admitting that they were disappointed that the fundraiser did not draw a sizable crowd, the attendees consistently spoke with enthusiasm about the party’s prospects this year.
A St. Louis native who moved to San Antonio 18 years ago, FizGibbons says, “My mother was a Democrat in Missouri. We were always doing block-walking, poll-watching, we were election officials. When I moved here, it kind of took a back burner, because I had my three children. I was always interested in it, but I never felt there was an organization that I could join, or any effort to say, ‘Are you a Democrat?’”
Jesus Toro Martinez, a local artist who attended the Lone Star fundraiser, says he is only beginning to take an active interest in party politics. “We just wanted to see a more progressive movement, to be more inclusive with the rest of the community here in town,” he says. “I just got involved by volunteering. A group of artists just started talking to each other; word of mouth, the power of grassroots, that’s what made it happen.”
Ray Kirsch is a virtual walking advertisement for the party’s Take Back Texas crusade. An employee with the state’s Department of Family Protective Services and a self-described “weekend artist,” Kirsch says he voted for Rick Perry in 2002. But his admiration for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell jump-started his participation in the New Era Democrats.
“We knew him, ’cause his wife is originally from San Antonio,” Kirsch says. “We wanted to get a fundraiser together for him, and then we started talking about other candidates in the Democratic Party that we were interested in.
“I think we’ve all become disgruntled with the current political situation in this state and we’re all looking for a change,” he adds. “Seeing what’s happening to the elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill: What’s going on with this money? It’s so hard to get. It freaked me out, because I had never dealt with that before.”
The New Era Democrats’ emphasis on fiscal conservatism surely shows the influence of Bill Clinton’s electoral model, but, in a sense, they are a throwback to an unbashed, old-school brand of progressive politics, what FitzGibbons likes to call “social responsibility.” They don’t represent an ideological departure from the traditional Bexar County Democrats, but their very existence expresses a kind of frustration with the dysfunctional nature of the local party machinery.
Carla Vela, chairwoman of the Bexar County Democratic Party, certainly understands that perspective. Since assuming leadership of the organization five months ago, she has been forced to “practically rebuild it from the bottom up. It wasn’t operating as a party. The previous chair `Rudy Casias` didn’t have regular meetings.”
Vela also took over an organization that was so strapped for funds that it did not have a headquarters or a checking account. Those problems have been rectified, and she’s working to fill the party’s numerous empty precinct chairs, one of the biggest impediments to mobilizing Democratic voters in the county. She says the Bexar County Democrats “lost a lot of faith and credibility” in recent years with their open bickering and organizational ineptitude, so she understands the emergence of a splinter group such as the New Era Democrats.
“What they’re doing is positive,” she says, “but we’d be much stronger if we were all working under one umbrella. We’d be a much more united force.”