At Texas Democratic Party convention, recognition of high stakes and a tough road ahead

An attendee claps during the general caucus of the Texas Democratic Convention at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas on July 15, 2022. (Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune, Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune)

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DALLAS — For the Democratic faithful gathered at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on Friday, there was a lot to be upset about: the rollback of abortion rights, strict new voting laws, the state’s lax gun rules as mass shootings persist, the government’s move to investigate parents of transgender kids for child abuse, and an electrical grid that doesn’t inspire confidence as the weather seems to get more extreme every year.

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For the party leaders who convened them for the first statewide convention since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the necessary response was clear: channel that anger and help end Democratic exile from statewide office — primarily by ousting Gov. Greg Abbott and installing former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

“Greg Abbott is chaos,” O’Rourke told the crowd during his keynote address. “He is corruption, he is cruelty and he is incompetence. But he is not Texas and he is not us.”

But even as the attendees were energized by stakes that seemed higher than ever, the tall task ahead was felt by many. A Democrat hasn’t held statewide office in Texas for nearly three decades. President Joe Biden’s approval rating is in a ditch as inflation persists and high gas prices eat up bank accounts. On top of that, Republicans seem to be continuing to make gains in once reliably blue South Texas.

In interviews with rank-and-file attendees, it was hard to find much full-throated optimism that any Democrats would win statewide in 2022 — and particularly that O’Rourke would oust Abbott, even as O’Rourke outraised Abbott in the latest fundraising cycle and recent polls have shown him narrowing the gap.

“It's hard to be super optimistic when you know how much long term power the Republican Party has had,” said Karly Ragsdale, a 24-year-old field organizer for abortion advocacy group Avow Texas.

Some expressed frustration about the areas of the state where the party seemed to be losing ground. The state party hasn’t poured enough resources into rural counties, especially in South Texas, said Lizette Gonzales. She said she sees Republicans aggressively targeting rural counties and trying to flip them while the state party sits idly by.

“When you have right-wing candidates and Republicans who come in tell them, ‘your gas prices are high because of Democrats’ and ‘your schools aren't good because of Democrats’ … when you're down on your luck, it's kind of easy to buy into stuff like that,” Gonzales said.

The state party’s perceived lack of investment in rural parties drove Gonzales and her husband Mario Muñoz, who chairs the Kleberg County Democratic Party, to support Kim Olson, the party’s 2018 nominee for state agriculture commissioner, in her bid to oust Gilberto Hinojosa, the state party’s chair since 2012.

“Gilbert has done a lot of good for the party,” Muñoz said. “He has, there's no knocking that. But we haven't had really any kind of support in the smaller counties. And without that kind of support, we're losing.”

Delegates will vote on Saturday on whether to reelect Hinojosa, who is being challenged by Olsen and Carroll G. Robinson.

But amid the disappointment, there was also a sense that Republicans had gone too far in their pursuit of a conservative agenda, and a hope that GOP leadership’s policies will alienate Texans.

Laura Estrada, chair of the Nueces County Tejano Democrats, said she has seen more voter interest in Democrats in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, as well as the Robb Elementary School shooting, which left 21 people dead and once more prompted calls for stricter gun laws.

“If it weren't for these key issues, I don't think there would be as much involvement,” Estrada said.

When the high court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing Texas to ban the procedure, Liz Corsey, a 32-year-old from Dallas, was angry. But she also thought of her two daughters — and worried about a future where reproductive rights were drastically rolled back.

“I worry that when they’re my age that if, God forbid, they have things that they need to take care of, they can take care of them instead of being forced to have a child they don’t want,” Corsey said.

The return of an abortion ban in Texas hit hard for Ophelia Howard, a 77-year-old who works with the Washington County Democratic Party. As a survivor of sexual assault, she said she could not imagine being forced to give birth to a child “from somebody who raped me.”

“It was very personal for me,” Howard said of the ban. “So anybody telling me what I can and cannot do with my body, I have a problem with.”

Another common complaint: the condition of the electric grid during a week that its state-run overseer issued pleas for Texans to conserve power as temperatures of more than 100 degrees gripped the state. Standing in line to meet O’Rourke at his booth in an exhibition hall, Steve Fox, a 46-year-old state employee, referred to the hundreds of people who died without power and heat during the winter freeze in February 2021.

“He's costing people's lives and he deserves to lose,” Fox said of Abbott. “He's probably the worst governor in the United States.”

Fox expressed more optimism about the state of his party.

“Abbott has screwed up so badly in the last couple of years,” he said. “Whether it's his stunts on the borders, shipping people to Washington D.C, dehumanizing people, not doing anything about the grid … This guy is terrible.”

But Abbott made sure his presence was felt in Dallas. His campaign parked an old ambulance with the words “Beto Truth Response Unit” and a huge image of O’Rourke’s face on the side outside the convention. And they arranged for surrogates to speak in Dallas each day.

On Friday, that job fell to former state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who told reporters that O’Rourke’s “liberal social policies don't fit the voters of Texas.”

“If you want a leader, if you want leadership for Texas, you need to re-elect the man who has the job,” Bonnen said. “Governor Abbott has shown tremendous leadership.”

In the hall, however, Abbott was the focus of the most ire. Attendees carried signs saying “Mothers against Greg Abbott” and “Abortion is freedom.” They argued his policies were turning back progress.

“Everything that was ever good for people of color, they're trying to overturn it,” said Howard, the Washington, Texas, resident.

But, she said, “I'm always hopeful that things are gonna get better. I'm always hopeful that things are gonna change. But hope is not enough to get us there.”

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