Texas Democrats at the Crossroads

Posted in Around The State, Commentary, State Convention at 1:29 am by dembones

Floor debateBoyd Richie earned major respect from delegates at the state convention after word of Thursday’s temporary injunction preventing the Republican party from naming a replacement for Tom DeLay began circulating at the Kickoff Reception. Even Maxey supporters were raising eyebrows at the ability of the party, under Richie’s interim leadership, to put together a defense team (that includes Chad W. Dunn and K. Scott Brazil) capable of building an impressive case and sending a message that Texas Democrats are going to fight to win.

Kickoff ReceptionHowever, the strength of Team Maxey is impressive. Maxey’s campaign for state chair is efficient and well-organized. Nothing is wasted. His supporters made certain everyone wore their allegiance on their lapel. Others were running calculations to determine if recent polling that showed Maxey in the lead was bearing out. Those polls indicated a majority had yet to make up their minds, but there was much less indecisiveness apparent on the lapels at the second-floor ballroom of the Hilton.

The last time state delegates to the convention were asked to decide the party’s leader, Ronald Reagan was President and Bill Clements was Governor. The delegates met that year 30 miles away in Dallas, and were joined by a “Pillsbury Bake-off” of Democratic Presidential hopefuls for the 1984 campaign: then-U.S. Sens. Gary Hart of Colorado, Alan Cranston of California and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, former Florida Gov. Reuben Askew and former Vice President Walter Mondale appeared to make speeches and test the political waters for a Presidential run.

AP reporter Laura Richardson summarized the speeches in 1982 in terms that are contemporary and relevant to the current state of affairs, while simultaneously nostalgic and haunting.

“Just as there must be unity among Texas Democrats, there must be unity among all Democrats, and among all Americans,” Askew said. “Never before has the need for American unity been any greater.”

Hart called for a high-tech revolution, talking about computers on the assembly line and in the classroom.

“Like all Americans, Democrats have always believed that the human mind can shape the future. Our willingness to change — to be revolutionaries — has guaranted our survival and renewed our spirit,” Hart said.

Hollings called for a more traditional route to economic recovery, saying, “You can’t deliver grain with an optic fiber.”

Washington Post staff writer Dan Ballz, in Dallas for the bake-off of Democratic Presidential hopefuls, noted a far-more intriguing aspect to the convention.

Five contenders for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination drew much of the attention at the Texas Democratic state convention here this weekend, but the emotional highlight came on opening night with a speech by a young, liberal candidate running far down the ballot.

“We’ve had enough of this Reaganomics,” shouted Jim Hightower, former editor of the Texas Observer and now Democratic nominee for state agriculture commissioner. “Reagamortis is setting in.”

Hightower, an unabashed progressive and a powerful orator, had more than 5,600 delegates and alternates rocking back and forth between laughter and cheers as he ripped Reagan, Republican Gov. Bill Clements and the entire Republican Party in a speech brimming with one-liners.

Hightower, Jim Mattox, Ann Richards and Garry Mauro later joined Lloyd Bentsen, Bill Hobby and Mark White in November 1982 victory celebrations. A change in the political climate made it possible for an infusion of new blood. The election of a Republican governor in 1978 had ended a Democratic lock on the governor’s mansion that had held for more than 80 years.

But the election of Clements also unlocked the Democratic Party to a younger generation of candidates whose views had long been held down by a succession of conservative Democratic governors. Now, the presence of these candidates on the Democratic ticket gives Democrats hope of beating Clements and sweeping all the state-wide races.

This is the scenario playing out again in 2006. Electoral defeat has opened the party to new ideas and a new generation of political activists is moving to the foreground in the Texas Democratic Party. In opposition to this force of change is a more mature and conservative party stalwart that saw Ballz’ prediction come true:

Today, many conservatives who call themselves Democrats are supporting Clements. In fact, the governor and Bentsen share many of the same contributors — and have been careful not to offend one another this year. Another victory by Clements, the brash founder of a huge oil-drilling firm, could turn many of those Democrats into permanent GOP voters, creating a Republican Party of substantial strength for the first time in modern Texas history.

Clements regained the governorship in 1986. Ann Richards regained it for the Democrats in 1990. George W. Bush cut her reign short in 1994 and ultimately proved Ballz correct. All the conservative Democrats permanently switched over to the Republican Party.

Had Enough? Vote DemocraticExtremism, corruption and incompetence mark today’s Republican Party. The climate is right for Democrats if they will present an appealing temperament to voters in November and welcome the moderate Republicans back.

The battle of the 1982 convention over state party chair was settled in favor of the youth. The progressives prevailed, and they even managed to temporarily forestall the defection of conservative Democrats. However, the victory was short-lived, and has been followed by what can be rightly described as the darkest period in post-reconstruction history for Texas Democrats.

Glen MaxeyTwenty-four years later, we find ourselves at a similar crossroads. Boyd Richie, representing the older, more conservative element, versus Glen Maxey, the progressive. Delegates face a vexing decision. It is going to be an extremely interesting convention. Stay tuned.

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