Election - Democratic Party The fight club

While local Dems argue, the party's strength wanes

Rudy Casias, Democratic Party Chairman. (Photo by Elyas Bakhtiari)

Turf wars, mudslinging, accusations of cronyism and corruption, legal battles: This may be business as usual when Democrats and Republicans butt heads over legislation in Austin, but when it describes the state of the union of your own local party, you know you're in trouble. In addition to coping with November's ass-kicking in national elections, local Democrats are also trying to fix a Bexar County chapter that is on the verge of bankruptcy and hasn't held a productive meeting in months.

The source of the infighting is a debate between precinct chairs and County Chairman Rudy Casias over control of the party. According to Precinct 3047 Chairman John McConnell, Casias has overstepped the boundaries set by the Texas Democratic Party's bylaws. These delegate authority at the county level to the County Executive Committee (CEC), a group made up of the County Chairman and each precinct chairperson. McConnell claims Casias' role is to call and oversee meetings, but any party decisions should be made collectively by a CEC vote.

Much of the debate between the feuding Democrats hinges on technicalities. According to party rules, the County Chairman must call at least three CEC meetings during an election year, but the rules do not require meetings during a non-election year. Casias claims to have filled his obligation with several meetings in 2004, but McConnell argues the meetings were not official CEC meetings because they were not technically labeled as CEC meetings beforehand.

As if convening the 40 percent of the 237 precinct chairs needed for a quorum wasn't difficult enough, the last 2004 meeting ended in disarray when approximately 10 members walked out, busting the quorum. Michael Murphy, Precinct 3015 chairman, claims Casias engineered the walkout to keep the party in the control of a few wealthy consultants. "If a party is disfunctional and not having regular CEC meetings then it simply becomes a conduit for funneling money to paid consultants. It's not in the interest of the consultants to see a large, vibrant party, because then `the consultants` are going to have to prove they can do a better job to get that money."

But Casias points the finger at a handful of precinct chairpersons, claiming their constant bickering about CEC procedure alienated people interested in working with the party. "These people are constantly yelling and acting like children, and they turn off the people that are there to listen to what's going on," Casias says of his opponents.

McConnell and Precinct 1037 Chairman Dan Ramos, are raising money to file a court order that, if approved, would legally bind Casias to adhering to Texas Democratic Party rules. Ramos is also considering a professional audit of Casias' budget. "There's been a tremendous amount of money gone through the Democratic Party with no accountability whatsoever. None of that money was ever approved to be spent by the CEC," says Ramos.

While party rules specifically require spending decisions to be approved by 51 percent of the CEC, Casias claims the CEC voted to give him authority over the budget in an August 2004 meeting.

"These people are constantly yelling and acting like children, and they turn off the people that are there to listen to what's going on."
- Rudy Casias,
Democratic Party Chairman

Murphy has taken a page from the Dallas County Democratic Party's playbook in his attempts to restore power to the CEC. Precinct chairs in Dallas, upset that County Chair Susan Hays hadn't called a CEC meeting in almost a year, circulated a petition to call their own CEC meeting, which eventually led to Hays' resignation in early April. Murphy recently started his own petition, which requires the signatures of 51 percent of precinct chairs, but is doubtful it will get the same support the Dallas petition received.

This battle between the County Chair and the CEC has continued for several years according to Ramos, who has been involved with the party for nearly four decades. Satellite groups such as the Northwest Democrats and the Tejano Democrats have sprung up around the county and are siphoning resources from the county party.

Casias is struggling to pay the $900 monthly rent for the office on Wurzbach, even though it's significantly cheaper than the $1,600-a-month office he inherited when elected. Casias recently laid off all paid staff members; the office is now run by a temporary volunteer staff or the telephone's voicemail system. Casias says the shrinking budget is a greater concern than holding CEC meetings. "It costs money mail to the letters, it costs money to rent a place to have a meeting in. It's just a lot of work," Casias says.

Whether the County Chair has authority over the CEC, as Casias claims, or if it's the other way around, both factions are attempting to move beyond the squabbling to focus on rebuilding. Murphy recently started a website (www.dempc.org) as a resource for precinct chairs who wish to unofficially meet and discuss issues facing local Democrats. Casias is focused on keeping the party afloat and increasing the number the precinct chairs; only one-third of more than 680 precincts are represented. Casias will host a casino night fundraiser this Friday in hopes of raising enough money to keep the party running for a few more months. "If we're really Democrats we need to set aside the differences and focus on the mess the President is making and the issues that are important to the people."

By Elyas Bakhtiari