What Do Texas Democrats Do Now — and Who'll Lead Them?

Exactly one week after the drubbing their party took at the hands of voters, more than half of the surviving Texas House Democrats convened at the AFL-CIO's state headquarters a block from the Capitol. “It was a free-for-all,” says state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin. “People said goodbyes. It gave us a chance to gripe about the election a little bit.”

In a room where the expressionless faces of inductees into the Labor Hall of Fame stared down at them, the couple-dozen still-dazed members of the Legislature's near-superminority also began to consider the momentous work they have ahead. After losing 22 of their kind by the close of Election Night, the Democratic caucus now barely makes up a third of the Texas House, and members concede they won’t have the numbers to pass major legislation. They may not be able to block bills, either, without serious cunning and collaboration.  

On that front, observers say the Democrats find themselves at a crossroads on style and substance, politics and policy. With massive budget cuts looming, should they effectively sit out the session and force Republicans in the majority to have all the blood on their hands in order to win back seats in 2012? Or should they participate just enough to soften the blow in the areas they care about the most: education and health care? After all, with the wipeout of so many incumbents, the survivors gained mightily in seniority, upping their chances of getting good committee assignments and wielding what little power remains.

“The question is, will Democrats play Washington-style ball or not,” says Mike Lavigne, the former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “There should be room for cordial conversation and negotiation, but there are elements rising in the House who don’t want to see a cordial atmosphere and a continuing of that heritage of Texas politics that we can work together to solve these problems.”

Democratic members agree that power must come through forming a solid 51-vote bloc on key bills. But where exactly should they go from here? And who will lead them? They've been privately and publicly wrestling with those questions since Nov. 2.

Not all the free-for-all's attendees had escaped the cycle's political genocide. State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who for years has led his fellow Democrats strategically and tactically on the House floor, showed up despite having lost to Republican Marva Beck, a Centerville upstart who campaigned on a Segway, to remind the decimated group that it needed to hang together.

“He was there to say, 'You have to continue on whether I’m there or not,'” recalls Rodriguez. “We just have to kind of realize that there are major issues we were able to block before, but it’s going to be much more difficult. The only way to do it is to stick together as much as possible.”

Going on without him, however, will be difficult. Blustering in his gold chains and bolo ties, Dunnam often took to the back microphone to raise precisely timed points of order that would derail a Republican member’s bill (think of 2003’s tort reform debate), made weapons of longstanding House rules to force reluctant opponents into uncomfortable compromises and led negotiations on behalf of his caucus with the insurgent Republicans of 2009 that led to the takedown of then-GOP Speaker Tom Craddick.

“He knew the rules of procedure like no one else,” says state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio. “He knew how to slow down the process so that the chair couldn’t shove legislation through. He also had the theatrical skills of a pastor who could capture people’s attention and instill fear in a group that outnumbered him.”

If Craddick centralized power and authority and ruled with a heavy hand as GOP leader, some Republicans and moderate Democrats suggest that Dunnam, in style and approach, was his progressive counterpart. Now he’s gone, allowing a new sort of leader to take the reins at a perilous time, as Democrats try to feel their way back into the legislative game.

It appears, at this point, that their titular leader will be state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who chaired the Democratic Caucus last session, even though Dunnam was still largely calling the shots. “Jim sort of had to develop the role,” Farrar says. “Now several of us have been through it. I’m glad we’re not going to have to learn it from scratch like Jim did.”

The first test of Farrar’s leadership in 2009 came when Democrats notoriously “chubbed,” asking a long series of inane questions about each bill that came up for a vote, slowing down the legislative process to such a near-halt that voter ID legislation, which Democrats believe will disenfranchise their electoral base, didn’t make it to the floor before sine die. It was Farrar who handed out chubbing assignments.

This time around, her philosophy is simple: Let the Republicans hang themselves on the difficult votes coming next session. “I don’t want to say it’s going to be an easy exercise, but they’re gonna do our work for us,” she says.

“No one expressed real interest in [leading the caucus] right now, and she has, so you gotta hand it to her for wanting to do it,” Rodriguez says.

For some Democrats, sticking together means the policy-versus-politics choice tilts heavily in favor of partisanship. State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, argues that the lifeblood of a political caucus is unity against the opposition, as congressional Republicans have demonstrated for the last two years in Washington, D.C. “Republicans are going to view the election as an ideological mandate, just as Democrats did in ’06 and ’08," Strama says. "But what those elections really said is that voters want to see more pragmatic consensus-building to find solutions. That is not something that a caucus would agree with in either party.”

But what happens if you lead and no one follows? As decisions about who will lead the caucus get finalized, Villarreal is working a parallel track, trying to make a case for pragmatism and thoughtfulness about the direction of the party. Perhaps sensing a lack of support, he withdrew himself from consideration for a leadership post this week, instead opting to lead by doing. “The best thing for us to do between now and the coming session is to be less focused on jockeying for positions and more focused on getting organized,” Villarreal says. “None of it matters if we’re not organized.”

To that end, the six-term lawmaker says he’s spending the next few weeks on building out a communications plan so that all the members rapidly get on board with various themes and talking points. The plan will also include leveraging research to “hold accountable the Republicans every time they overreach,” he says.

Villarreal, Farrar and others acknowledge that, in Dunnam's wake, the structure of the opposition party will change. Minority groups — the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Legislative Black Caucus — and leaders on individual issues will likely step up. “Nobody’s gonna play Jim Dunnam the way the Jim Dunnam did,” Villarreal says. “There are going to be different actors offering their brand of leadership, whether it’s individually in small groups or as a large collective.” Names like state Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio; state Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth; state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas; and state Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, are being thrown around by insiders.

And Democrats do count among their ranks some wonks who could be more-influential voices of opposition. State Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, has long been the party's deepest thinker on public education, while state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, and state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, know the ins-and-outs of health and human services issues. A caucus without a strong political leader may give the minorities and the wonks a chance to shape and sharpen the opposition's message when their priorities come under attack.

Of course, how aggressively they’re attacked depends on the majority party, which itself is split between hard-right, no-compromises conservatives and a more-pragmatic-but-still-conservative wing led by Speaker Joe Straus. "I'm encouraging the Democrats not to go the bomb-throwing route and to be healthy and reasonable," says state Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who chairs the House Republican Caucus. "I know you could just back out of the process and sit there and lob bombs. But we're not gonna just run over people. Let's be civil and don't go that route and keep the Legislature the collegial place it's always been. If they get into bomb-throwing, then the only way is gonna be to run over them."

If there are detonators in Farrar's office, they're out of sight for now. Instead, thick binders full of reams of paper on various subjects — children’s health insurance, higher education, immigration — are stacked precariously on wooden chairs. She and her colleagues are studying up for the 140-day slog. But she continues to keep her phone close. Members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus meet today. The full caucus will meet Dec. 20.

If there’s unease about the larger party's direction, its likely leader isn’t showing it.

“When you’re fewer, people have to step up,” Farrar says. “There's a whole new slew of talent that maybe didn’t get to play in the majors before because the slots were occupied. Now you’re going to see them.”

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