News : Making the Party 3

Dem Convention holding auditions for its supergroup

What if shamed former majority leader Tom DeLay was given only two calendar options for “exiting stage right?” The born-again Christian could either quit Congress on 06-06-06, the same day The Omen was released, or three days later, when his sworn mortal enemies opened their Texas Democratic Convention in Fort Worth.

Which day might be more damning?

By now you already know one of the choices wouldn’t summon up a hellfire. Because last weekend the highly visible, gerrymandering Dem-crusher, one “Please-Hammer-Don’t-Hurt-‘Em” DeLay, actually (accidently? Nobody at his old Washington office would say) coordinated his walk of shame with Big Blue’s state event.

And Texas did not burst into GOP-purging flames.

Instead, on the day of his departure, well-mannered Cowtown conventioneers smiled for pictures with a life-size cardboard DeLay behind bars.

The happy occasion, along with a can’t-win lawsuit to keep DeLay on the November 7 ballot, managed to fan a lil’ bit of air on the kindling that was the Dems’ keynote speeches. But even top-of-the-ticket candidate Chris Bell undersold the serendipity, and he’s the one who lugged in the cornerstone — a 187-page ethics complaint filed in 2004 — upon which the DeLay-undoing was built.

(Special note to the Dem Party Mailing List Manager: not all your members are getting their “GOP: Culture of Corruption” listserv notices. This came to the Current’s attention when, after the gubernatorial nominee’s acceptance speech, and only two vague sentences about his role in the DeClawing, a matronly delegate seated in the Denton/Tarrant section asked the man next to her, “What’s all this about DeLay?”)

So what was left for the Dems to get riled up about?

Not immigration (even though a week earlier the Texas Republicans had sent out a predictable message from their San Antonio convention: “build a wall and do not — we will repeat this until you like it — do not give amnesty to anyone.” `See “Front-Runner Fatigue,” June 7-13, 2006`). The Dem’s immigration discussion was kept to the caucuses and their 28-page party platform, which declared, “We believe it is the height of hypocrisy for Republicans who consistently oppose increases in the minimum wage and worker protections to now claim they are ‘protecting American jobs’ with extreme immigration proposals.”

The debate didn’t make it to the general session stage because, Bell told the Dallas Morning News, the GOP was using it as a wedge issue to upset their voting base. (But immigration may have caused the event’s historic mending between the Tejano Democrats and the Mexican American Democrats.)

Still, Democratic blood got nowhere near 212 degrees Fahrenheit with the subjects that did take center stage: TAKS-test bashing! Stem-cell-research demanding! Hating on politicians who changed party colors! Both Governor Rick Perry and Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the respective Republican and Independent currently poised for a gold and silver in the governor race, used to be Blue. But there was only one Dem daring enough to suggest that might mean, deep down, Texans are the same. San Antonio’s own District 8 Councilman, Art Hall, gave the opening prayer at the convention, and closed with “Bless Texas, bless Chris Bell and all candidates, Democrat, Republican, Independent and others.”

Then the (as yet un) re-elected party chairman reclaimed the mic to carry on that good feeling, announcing: “Our real enemies are outside this convention hall!”

Sure the speakers covered issues easy to care about; some that probably even tested well in bipartisan surveys (General Wesley Clark talked about loving soldiers but hating war; retiring state Senator Gonzalo Barrientos said jobs and justice should be the party’s dual purpose; and with Texas students in a race with Mississippi’s to the bottom, just about every speaker raised a hue and cry for school reform).

But when you’ve got 5,000 delegates hungry for a big win from their scrappy, Southern blue or yellow underdogs, you don’t want to take them on an all-night thematic walkabout.

You want to tell them that there’s something beyond that Democrat core issue: “How Republican Leadership Screws Everything Up.” That there’s a time for stump speeches and there’s a time for the kind of advice former Governor Ann Richards gave a guy in 2004, when he was running for a GOP incumbent’s seat.

“Oh, Sweetie, the only smart reason to run for office is because you can win,” she told State Representative Mark Strama, D-Austin, before he pulled the upset and became part of the multicultural (store that little bit of information for later) Take Back Texas 13.

Strama is young (“I’m older than people think”) and well-groomed (his resume, too; his first job out of college was on the 1990 Governor Richards campaign). And last weekend when it came time to screen a convention video starring him and the conquering Take Back Texans, it was like somebody flipped the switch to “on,” and the room juiced up to its electric potential.

Then a former presidential hopeful who didn’t make it out of the primary blocks took the stage. General Clark may have gotten a standing ovation to Journey’s rockin’ “Don’t Stop Believing,” but the best bet for streetlight people (and the other groups that hang out on the Dem’s corner) isn’t untested candidates, says a political strategist who’s been giving the state party some of its most noticeable and recent wins. If he’s right, then a Houston lawyer in her first political race can’t bring down U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison with just a smile and a multi-syllabic, three-part name (no, the challenger isn’t Mary Tyler Moore, please study up before the election); if he’s right, then those Dems trying to take off into the rarefied air at the top of this year’s ballot will take a header.

So what kind of candidate should the party be loading into its carrying pack? Someone who can be groomed for the long haul, says the strategist, and who is a winner. And what do the state’s winners look like? Right now they look like Texas’ big titleholders, the Republicans. But in some smaller bouts, say, at the municipal and state representative level, the party has been working on the new prototype for a Democratic winner. And if you knew what to look for at this year’s convention, you caught a glimpse of it.

Did that last line send your mind racing back to the weekend’s media coverage? From “Hotel reservations for 400 Dems canceled in Fort Worth” to “Dems looking to build faith-based message?” It’s not in there. Liberal bloggers who didn’t make it over to the YearlyKos Convention in Vegas to see Howard Dean may have “gone to Fort Worth so you wouldn’t have to,” to steal a phrase from But the Current doesn’t have time to wade through their Bloggers Caucus to find out if they saw the proto-Dem, too.

The strategist with the winning streak says don’t look back at what was served up as “The Dream Team,” either. That was an older, creakier (though multiethnic) body that came in swinging for the fences.

Imagine a candidate who came up through the minors, who has a proven record, and who 12 years ago when the Texas Republicans got the keys to the state, was still young enough to get cast on MTV’s The Real World. Think of someone who’s photogenic, with a United Colors of Benetton multi-ethnic appeal. Because of an early blooming ambition, they made it to some “30 under 30” list, and if the party has its way, they’ll be on the “40 under 40.” Can’t wait to meet a Dem being groomed to revive the party in the next few election cycles? San Antonio, you already have.

What was Art (note to award givers and the state board of elections, it’s not Arthur) Hall, a Baptist preacher, lawyer, and native Lubbockian (Lubbockster?) of Black and Filipino heritage, doing blessing the TX Democratic stage? Could it have anything to do with him serving the last council term that City law allows? People would kill for some airtime to address the party faithful. Rick Bolanos, who’s coached football for 20 years and is running for U.S. Representative Henry Bonilla’s Republican seat, broadcasted an angry fax before the Dem convention blasting Chairman Richie for not letting him (or any other national congressional candidates) make such an address.

“The Texas races are extremely important, all the way from dog catcher to attorney general,” Bolanos said in a later interview. And making your best impression at a big convention, could mean big campaign donations and people buying into your growing role with the party.

Just ask Juan Garcia, a sandy-haired, former naval air officer on the hunt for a state representative seat out of Corpus Christi this November. He made it onto a slim roster of speakers on opening night and picked over the bones of Cheney’s February hunting mishap, to tell us that before Cheney shot Whittington in South Texas, he tortured him for an hour and a half, and that Rumsfeld had turned down the hunting companion’s request for Kevlar right before the accident.

Of course, the dawning of a new winning formula hasn’t been a secret. Look at San Antonio’s thirtysomething leaders, look at the Take Back Texans, a group with barely a silver hair among them, and that in total speaks three languages and looks like a living representation of 2004 Census figures that say the state is 50 percent white, 35 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Black, and 3 percent Asian. “Yeah, we look like Texas,” says Representative Strama.

Maybe the party isn’t coming up with stringent height/weight/age requirements like you see when trying to get a job as an astronaut (although when candidate Garcia was introduced at the convention, the emcee pointed out how tall he was). But somebody’s working out Democratic demographics and image-making.

Some of the old guard oracles are already looking into their cauldrons, and its not their reflection they see in the water.

“Almost all the state Democratic representatives are Black or Latino,” an older white convention delegate from Baytown’s I-10E Democrats said, with just a hint of dejection. “There’s only a very few left.”

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