News Phoenix rising

Tejano dems seek to reconnect with their base

They haven't won an election for governor, attorney general, or any other executive branch office in 11 years. A failed redistricting battle left them with even fewer seats in the House, and financial experts predict that funding woes will limit the party in coming elections.

In this apparently discombobulated state, democrats had only one theme to energize their followers at the Tejano Democrats annual state convention in San Antonio June 25: unity. Party representatives hope to re-identify with their working-class and minority constituencies, who have felt abandoned in recent elections.

Rudy "Tejano" Pena, a member of the Tejano Dems, wants Texas' Latino community to be "more proud" and bring back the term "Tejano." "We are in a state of confusion. We were born here. Why are we calling ourselves Mexican-American?" (Photo by Melissa Santos)

"The party is being invigorated," Barbara Ann Radnofsky, who is running for Kay Bailey Hutchinson's Senate seat in 2006, told the Current. Citing issues such as health care, education, and abortion, she said, "we can find common ground on the most controversial issues. These issues that divided can really bring us together."

Radnofsky and other politicians addressed a crowd of about 150, detailing plans to regain political control. According to Mike Honda, a California congressman and vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee, the Dems have ignored their political base and rectifying that situation is the No. 1 priority. Honda echoed Senator and DNC Chairman Howard Dean's plan to reenergize the party, saying that Democrats must listen to and respect their constituency.

"We're going to invest in grassroots, and we're serious about it," Honda said. "We are going to invest in the states. This is a plan we need to implement now to be ready for '08."

As the party has split along liberal and moderate lines, Democrats are left struggling to retain their identity.

"Everywhere I go, Texas Democrats say they are looking for new leaders who aren't afraid to act like Democrats," Chris Bell, gubernatorial candidate and former congressman, told the crowd. "For too long we have assumed that all we really need to do is wait for people to realize just how bad Republicans are before they start voting Democrat."

However, some Democrats didn't pass up the opportunity to criticize the Republican Party, reminding convention-goers of the funding cuts to educational programs and veterans' benefits. In February, the Bush Administration axed 44 educational programs - many with high success rates - and on June 23, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that there would be a $1 billion shortfall in 2006 without emergency funding because costs grew faster than expected.

"No one spoke out on of behalf of these programs," Radnofsky said. "It's because they were beholden to a Republican administration. What Texas people want is a politician who is beholden to Texas."

Radnofsky proposed requiring medical insurance companies to cover preventive care and increasing veteran-benefit funding, observing that there is currently no VA hospital south of San Antonio.

"We have people using the emergency rooms for preventative care," Radnofsky said. "We need insurance reform. The current administration is ignoring it. They are talking about what they want to talk about, but they don't solve any problems."

Bell addressed the high dropout rate among Latinos and African-American students. Governor Rick Perry called a special session after lawmakers failed to solve the school-finance issue, and is shopping his education finance reform around the state.

"The irony of `the` education policy, based on high-stakes testing, is that it is driving down the quality of public education and driving significant numbers of students out of school," he said. "It is time for the Democratic Party in Texas to stand up and say, 'these are our children.' We cannot stand idly by and watch generation after generation of our majority population drop out of school."

San Antonio's David Van Os, who is running for Texas Attorney General, was the last to address the crowd, exclaiming, "I don't know whether I will prevail in court, but I will sure give it hell."

The Tejano Democrats, a splinter group of the Mexican-American Democrats, aim to maximize Hispanic representaion in the political process. Carla Vela, the newly elected vice chair of statewide Tejano Democrats, said that the organization's sole purpose is to register Hispanics, who make up nearly 32 percent of the Texas population according to 2000 census information, and "get them out to vote."

"We are a majority now," Vela said. "Our politicians have to take notice of us. Before, we weren't allowed to come to the table. We've changed that. We are going to make changes, especially against the Republican Party."

But challenging the Republicans is going to take unity, as Bell said. "If we are all in this together, it's time that we in the Democratic Party start acting like it."

By Heather Holmes

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.