Pin the crown on the donkey

(Photo illustration by Julie Barnett)

Once divided, newly unified local Dems working for Kerry

College students from several local campuses converged in the parking lot of a gas station at the intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and Loop 410 last Saturday. Their mission: to decorate about 20 cars with Kerry/Edwards flags, bumper stickers, and soap-on-the-windows slogans to remind Democratic voters to "vote smart, vote early," in the upcoming election.

Motorists also gathered at other strategic points along Loop 410 to participate in Circle of Voters, an event organized by Judy Hall. Drivers entered Loop 410 and drove clockwise, intending to navigate the entire 63 miles of that highway to give Senators John Kerry and John Edwards a higher profile in Bexar County.

It was one of many events that have occurred during the past few weeks and that are planned in the days leading up to the November 2 election, which many Democrats in Bexar County say is the most important vote in 60 years.

A historically splintered Bexar County Democratic Party has apparently put aside its differences to unify voters with a common goal to send President George Bush (and his entourage) packing back to his home state (Connecticut, thank you), and install Kerry in the White House for the next four-to-eight years.

"We want to show people how much fun politics can be," says Emma Hersh, a Trinity University student and co-founder of Generation Democrat, an organization to inspire youth about working to elect Democratic candidates in 2004.

Hersh steers away from complaints about a vacuum of leadership in the local Democratic Party. "We've got so many good leaders here. Everyone has played a huge role, and I can't say enough about them. Everyone is really working together to get Democrats elected."

But to be frank, yes, there is friction among the Democrats. There were signs of it during the primary election, when longtime political activist John Courage campaigned against Rudy Casias for chairman of the Bexar County Democratic Party, and lost. Some local Dems say Courage has not stopped campaigning for that office; he still has followers, especially at the campaign headquarters of the Northeast Democrats on San Pedro.

Other Dems credit Rudy Casias for uniting the factions of Democrats for this election. One result is that there is a Democratic Party campaign office on every side of town.

"We pretty well have it together," says Casias. "Initially, all the clubs were working on their own, but in essence, what is happening now is that each organization is working toward getting people out to vote."

The Northwest Democrats are set up at 4081 Medical Drive, the Westside Dems are operating at 422 N. General McMullen, the Eastside office is open in St. Paul Square, and the Southside Democrats opened for business in a medical office complex at 98 Briggs, off Somerset Road.

While locally the Dems appear to be gelling, the lack of money from the national party has forced Bexar Countians to scramble to raise funds to print election literature, bumper stickers, and yard signs.

Rudy Calderon, field director for the Bexar County Democrats office on Wurzbach, seemed surprised to hear of a shortage, adding that his office has distributed between 10,000 and 15,000 signs during the past few weeks. "All yard signs around town are funded through the county. One problem is we don't get any money from the DNC."

A shortage of signs has not been a problem for Judy Moschner, who lives in the Woods of Shavano on the City's far North Side. The problem in her neighborhood, she says, is that people are stealing them from her front yard almost as fast as she can put them up. "I've had two previous signs stolen, and it seems to be a bipartisan activity, since a neighbor had a Bush/Cheney sign that was stolen." Her husband, John, posted another sign recently, and anchored it with a corkscrew rod designed to keep dogs leashed in the yard. Someone, apparently frustrated with his extra attempt at security in his own front yard, set the sign on fire.

Francisco Salas, a Purple Heart-decorated Vietnam veteran who says he believes George Bush is lying about the war in Iraq, had to travel to the North Side to purchase a sign for his yard on West Villaret. It is the only sign on his street. "I'm really disappointed in my neighborhood; they don't understand what all is going on."

Ruben Estrada expressed his frustration when he found the South Side Democrats office closed one day last week. "Where are you people? How do you expect us to vote Democratic?" read the note he left on the door. He later confirmed that he had been looking for a Kerry/Edwards sign to plant in his yard.

Longtime political activist Gina Casteñeda leads the South Side office. She says Estrada got his yard sign the next day. She also says people on the South Side would like to see a permanent Democratic satellite office on that side of town. "The South Side has been neglected for many years. We've been open three weeks, and we've been working fast and furious. We really feel that there is some hope out there."

Castañeda says that in the past, "politics has always been a game of cutthroat in this part of town, but with recent growth on the South Side, a lot of younger people are getting involved, they want to see change."

Coincidentally, Vincent Claudio, a history student at the Texas A&M Kingsville satellite campus at Palo Alto College, entered the South Side office and asked for a Kerry/Edwards yard sign. "I want to spread the word as fast as I can." This year, Claudio, 20, will vote for the first time this presidential election.

Former county judge John Longoria, who attended a debate watch party at the South Side office last week, is a veteran local politician who says he has seen an unprecedented level of unity among the Democrats. He emphasizes the importance of the South Side campaign office. "We need a presence of the party out here."

That presence would entail getting volunteers out into the neighborhoods, to knock on doors, address issues such as social and economic justice, and get people out to the polls on Election Day. "Signs don't vote. You've got to go to the door. People are simply trying to survive, and they don't relate that to voting."