AUSTIN, Texas — As Texas Democrats arrive in Dallas this week, don’t look for them to generate national headlines as the Republicans did in Houston last month.
Republicans may have declared that President Joe Biden wasn’t legitimately elected, that schools should teach the “Humanity of the Preborn Child” and that U.S. senators should be chosen by legislatures, not voters.
But Texas Democrats would rather project level headedness — even if they have to lock their most outlandish relatives in the attic.
Setting a tone that the party is ready to govern, and offers a credible alternative to a rightward-lurching state GOP, is important, influential Democrats said when asked about the goal of their Dallas convention.
“It helps when you don’t have people advocating secession, repeal of all minimum wages and making gays and lesbians criminals again,” wisecracked party stalwart Rick Levy, the president of the Texas AFL-CIO.
Respectability is the goal as Democrats, tamping down their internal divisions, hold their first in-person convention in four years starting Thursday.
Republicans don’t worry about the provocative views of many of their state convention delegates because voters ignore their party’s platform and keep sending their nominees back to Austin and Washington, said Democratic consultant Harold Cook.
“One reason why the Democrats in Texas are not as embarrassing as the Republicans are is because the Democrats are trying to win,” he said. “They haven’t succeeded yet but they’re chipping away at it.”
Cook, who served as Texas Democratic Party executive director in the early 2000s, noted that Democrats who run statewide no longer succumb by the huge margins they once lost by.
“The Democrats kind of smell victory, even when it’s not there,” he said. “And so they’re going to try harder to be a political party that can then attract more people.”
In search of pretty packaging, Democratic convention planners chose not to bring in big names from the national scene.
In 2018, when state Democrats met in Fort Worth, they put a big emphasis on carrying Tarrant County. It had eluded presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s grasp by nearly 9 percentage points two years earlier, but the party’s 2018 Senate candidate, Beto O’Rourke, captured it by 1 point.
This year, there’s not as obvious a geographic aim for holding the convention in North Texas, though the party needs a big Dallas County turnout to win statewide.
In 2020, state Democrats held a virtual convention because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That year, they spent a lot of time picking targeted legislative races and focused their convention messaging on the goal of capturing the Texas House, recalled Levy, the union leader. The effort failed.
“It’s going to be much more statewide in focus,” he said of 2022.
O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Gov. Greg Abbott is helping the state party survive setbacks, such as inflation and Biden’s flagging poll numbers, Levy said.
“We have a governor who has made so many missteps and alienated so many people, it’s going to produce a lot of life and hopes and expectations,” he said of the Republican incumbent.
O’Rourke didn’t initially catch fire with union members when he burst on the statewide scene in 2017, Levy recounted. But he’s worked with them the past two years on an economic plan that stresses adding new jobs from renewable energy and carbon-reduction technologies, showing that fighting climate change won’t kill jobs, he said.
“We have a candidate who has really learned from the past and is putting a lot of resources and energy into the campaign,” which will help down-ballot candidates, Levy said. “It’s a really tough environment because of national issues, but we’re feeling pretty good about what we’re doing in Texas.”
O’Rourke also sought stronger ties to the party’s crucial minority constituencies. He forged friendships with some success, especially among Black leaders in North Texas.
Introducing O’Rourke before he speaks at the close of Friday night’s general session will be the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes III, a social-justice activist who is senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.
O’Rourke asked convention planners to tap Haynes for the role, said O’Rourke spokesman Chris Evans.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison will appear at a closed-door fundraiser for the state party Thursday night. Tickets begin at $1,000. At the start of Friday night’s session, Harrison is scheduled to speak. The former South Carolina Senate candidate is the only national party figure listed on the state convention’s list of speakers.
Harrison will face questions while he’s in Texas about why the national party hasn’t committed to a long-range party-building effort in Texas, much as it did with considerable success in Georgia, Levy said.
Renee Cross, executive director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, said the national party’s leaders and major donors face a difficult choice.
U.S. Senate races elsewhere are soaking up most of the national donor base’s money and attention, she noted.
“They’re going to direct the money to those races where they really need to hold onto a seat, and that’s probably a wise thing to do,” she said of national party strategists.
“However, you can’t continue to not invest in a state that, going back to the demographics, could be at the tipping point,” Cross said.
On Saturday, the Permanent Platform Committee will discuss and vote on a platform. Some planks in a draft of the unfinished platform obtained by The Dallas Morning News would push the envelope to the left.
For instance, the draft calls for the state to go to a single-payer health care system within three years; enact a carbon tax, with proceeds used to defray any increase in energy costs and subsidize clean energy technologies; and waive community college tuition for all Texas high school graduates. The size of the U.S. Supreme Court should be increased, and workplaces should be encouraged to “provide paid menstrual leave,” it says.
“They worked very hard to keep it pretty mainstream and attractive to a wide swath of voters,” said Cook, the Democratic consultant.
At lunchtime Saturday, delegates will vote on whether to reelect 10-year state Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa of Brownsville or replace him with former Air Force Col. Kim Olson of Mineral Wells or former Houston City Council member Carroll G. Robinson, head of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats.
Democrats should be grateful O’Rourke’s running for governor, said UH’s Cross.
“Who else would’ve been a feasible contender?” she said. “I can’t think of anybody.”
Added Cook, “Thank God for Beto. Win or lose, he will put on a respectable race, a credible race and a funded race. And that’s a pretty good deal for a political party who hadn’t won a statewide race since 1994.”
The statewide ticket’s prospects are uncertain, he said. However, the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion last month and continuing fallout from the May school shooting in Uvalde have given the Democrats’ statewide hopefuls at least a fighting chance, he said.
“I’m freshly convinced that it’s no longer impossible,” Cook said.