Can Texas Democrats Ride a Ticket Led by White?

Bill White at the Texas Democratic Party State Convention.
Bill White at the Texas Democratic Party State Convention.

As a crowd rushed the stage in the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi waving signs with his name, Bill White began his speech to the Texas Democratic Party state convention. “Rick Perry is in it for Rick Perry,” the gubernatorial nominee declared. Playing against type — the wooden, spreadsheet-loving wonk that has often characterized his public persona — an invigorated White lit into Perry with relish, describing his opponent's alleged disregard for the "the public interest." 

Afterward, Perry spokesman Mark Miner called it “one of the most negative speeches by a nominee for Texas governor in modern history.” In other words, it was exactly what the delegates at the convention hall, frustrated with years of GOP dominance, wanted to hear.

“Rick Perry complaining about an opponent's negative tone is like a rooster complaining that all the crowing is making too much noise,” says Democratic strategist Harold Cook. He believes that all the speakers at the convention delivered. “But I’ll bet you,” he adds, “that when all those delegates go home, they’re going to be talking for weeks about Bill White."

The reason: White's speech reflected a new, bare-knuckled direction his campaign has taken of late, with repeated attacks seeking to cast Perry as a lazy and entitled career politician. That's a clear break from a sleepy image that sparked Perry's Miner to mockingly hand out NoDoz to reporters before White's speech. The delegates, most of them seeing him in person for the first time, got White 2.0. “He brought it right to Rick Perry, speaking Rick Perry’s language, and showed that he can go toe to toe with a Perry-style campaign,” Cook says. “Everybody got very excited, because I don’t know that there were that many delegates who expected that kind of Bill White to show up.”

Of course, White wasn’t the only candidate at the convention — and the question facing the party is whether he's the only one of consequence, or if he's the leader of a legitimate statewide ticket capable of leading the party out of the wilderness and back to power. White, trailing in most polls against the longest-serving governor in Texas history, no doubt faces a dogfight in simply getting himself elected, much less others running their own uphill campaigns. Speaking during daylight hours on Saturday, the day after White's speech, other Democrats seeking statewide office shared in little of the hoopla that attended the gubernatorial nominee. Though their remarks may more easily fade from memory, the candidates and their party try to brush off notions that White is the lone star among a field of also-rans.

“We know there’s more name ID at the top of the ticket, but we’re going to be supporting all of our nominees over the next few months and making sure Texans get to know our whole ticket,” says party spokeswoman Kirsten Gray of a statewide slate that includes a former mayor in White, a union leader in lieutenant governor nominee Linda Chavez-Thompson, a former state legislator, two lawyers and a farmer. 

Chavez-Thompson, an unapologetic liberal, believes the party's path to power lies in boosting the Hispanic vote in South Texas, where she says she's barnstorming on behalf of the entire ticket. “I’ve got to personally, singlehandedly look at ways that we can pull that 38 percent Hispanic voter turnout to 43 or 45 percent. If we can get 43 percent, we’ve got Texas.” If anyone doubts her importance to the party's fate, she shares no such misgivings. To hear her tell it, the reason Democrats have failed to capitalize on the oft-cited sleeping giant of the Hispanic vote lies is a simple personnel problem. "They need a messenger like me," she says.

Jeff Weems, the nominee for railroad commissioner, seems less taken with the all-for-one, one-for-all approach and the notion that either White or Chavez-Thompson can pull the entire ticket into office. He's hoping to lure a big showing among the voters frustrated with the current state of the oil and gas industry around the Barnett Shale in North Texas. He views himself as one of the more conservative candidates — and he's running a race that's entirely his own. “If Bill White’s strong, does that help me? Absolutely,” he says. “Do I want him to do well? Yes, I do. If there’s a way I can help him, I’ll do it. But the truth of the matter is, I have to run my own race the best way I know how.”

Barbara Ann Radnofsky, who is running for attorney general, says candidates should fan out, helping each other when able but largely filling in the gaps that others in the party haven't hit. “Do people expect us to appear together like little boys clumping around a soccer ball?” she asks. Citing advice from the late former state Attorney General and U.S. Rep. Jim Mattox, she says, "You don’t go everywhere where everybody else is." Though the candidates may not be clumping, she says, they are keeping quietly in touch behind the scenes. As an example, she says, she called White about a week before unveiling her “Sue Wall Street” initiative, a push to get incumbent Attorney General Greg Abbott to do exactly that. She called “as a courtesy, and so that he’d know, and because he’s really smart,” she says. “[White] called right back, and we had a long talk. My calls are always returned by the statewide candidates, and I have all their cell phone numbers.”

Just prior to the convention, the Perry campaign circulated an article from Capitol Inside, a political newsletter, reporting that Radnofsky’s campaign and the campaign of agriculture commissioner nominee Hank Gilbert were unhappy that their candidates were denied primetime Friday night slots. Gray maintains that the convention followed the traditional order. Ultimately, it never blossomed into much of an issue — if it ever was at all. Radnofsky says she doesn’t know where the story came from. “It didn’t come from us,” she says, conveying complete disinterest in her speaking time. Gilbert spokesman Vince Leibowitz says that what complaints there were didn’t reveal any disunity on the ticket. “It just would have been nice to have the down-ballot candidates speak earlier,” he says.

To the chagrin of the press corps, not only did that conflict fail to boil, but neither of the other more promising potential convention pressure points — the race for party chairman and the debate over the unique hybrid primary process known as the “Texas Two-Step” — produced much friction, either. The current system and chairman were approved in strong majorities. Coming out of such a smooth convention — cited by many attendees as the most unified in recent memory — Radnofsky, who was able to get her initiative inserted into the official party platform, is filled with a newfound confidence. “Now, I’m feeling pretty good about being the AG,” she says. Citing an outlier poll showing White and Perry tied at 43 percent, she reckons, “If Bill White can win, I can win.”

“I don’t think you are going to find anyone who says anything other than the state convention was a big net gain for Democratic nominees,” says Cook, acknowledging that it only played to a small subset of party insiders. “Still," he says, "I’d say our innermost concentric circle is happy as clams.”

The swell of positive energy actually began about two weeks prior to the convention when the Democratic activists crashed a Perry campaign press conference — complete with a chicken suit, symbolic of Perry's alleged debate dodging, that later made a convention cameo. “The White campaign began sharpening their knives,” Cook says. Mix that with U.S. Rep Joe Barton’s apology to BP, allegations of unethical conduct by Republican state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown and rancor at the Republican’s state convention and Cook says, “Yeah, there’s going to be some harmony.”

White balks at the idea that there has been a tonal shift in his campaign, saying he’s been contrasting himself with Perry from the start. That's all well and good, but the delegates and the other candidates heard something new in his convention speech on Friday. And, even if it is as negative as Miner claims, they Democrats like it, and they’re running with it.

“Bill White, when he gave that speech, he knocked it out of the ballpark,” Chavez-Thompson says. “I’ve heard him speak many, many times. I was especially proud of the speech he gave, because he knocked the Republicans on their butts.”

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