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Democrats Still Dancing

Two years after the party’s hybrid primary/caucus system allowed Barack Obama to win more presidential delegates than Hillary Clinton, Texas Democrats voted at their convention this weekend in Corpus Christi to keep the controversial “Texas two-step.”

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Chalk up another Texas victory for Barack Obama. Two years after the state party’s primary/caucus combination allowed Obama to win more presidential delegates than Hillary Clinton, Democrats voted at their convention this weekend in Corpus Christi to keep the so-called “Texas two-step.”

“This is a great system, and this is the way we do it in Texas,” said Kendall Scudder, a Democrat from Huntsville who served on the state party’s rules committee.

The fervor of the 2008 election brought more than 2.8 million Democrats to the polls for the primary vote. Hours later, thousands of new Democrats showed up for the first time to Democratic caucuses, overwhelming party officials and wreaking havoc on the party’s primary election voting process. It also produced an unexpected outcome: Clinton won the popular vote, but Obama’s well-organized campaign drew more delegates because of the caucus results. Almost immediately, many in the Democratic Party began calling to change the system and even to abolish the caucus altogether, calling it discriminatory and undemocratic. Those calls for change sparked some of the most heated discussion at the party’s state convention in 2008 — and that tension over party control and its racial overtones resurfaced this weekend. “Everything is anti-minority when minorities try to rise up and get their fair share,” said Leroy Warren Jr., a Democrat from Collin County who supported keeping the two-step. “These shenanigans ought to stop right now.”

The hybrid primary-caucus system, the two-step, assigns delegates based on both the percentage of primary votes that candidates receive and on the number of supporters who turn out for precinct caucuses after the polls close. Thirty-five of the party's 228 total delegates are considered "superdelegates." They can pledge to whichever candidate they choose. Two-thirds of the remaining state delegates are chosen based on primary votes, and the rest are based on caucus turnout.

The roots of Texas Democrats' two-step process lie in efforts by the Democratic National Committee to increase diversity. In 1972, the party adopted diversity quotas and required proportional representation. After a series of reform efforts, the Texas hybrid system was first used in 1988. Until 2008, though, the process didn’t matter much, because the party had chosen its presidential nominee long before the Texas primary. Knowing that it mattered, Obama’s campaign worked to educate Texas voters about the caucuses and ensure that they showed up to support him.

The crush of backers for him and Clinton caused a host of problems, from voters waiting hours to sign in and show their support to widespread confusion about how the process ought to work and even lack of space to accommodate everyone who wanted to participate. “Our system was overwhelmed by those numbers,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “We were not ready for it.”

Opponents of the two-step process first proposed abolishing the use of caucuses to allocate delegates to the national convention at the Texas party’s state convention in Austin in 2008. Their proposal was voted down in favor of giving West time to travel the state with a committee appointed by party Chairman Boyd Richie to gather input on the two-step and whether it should continue.

After months of meetings across the state and an online poll, West’s committee recommended making a number of changes to make the two-step more secure and orderly. But they recommended keeping it.

West and other supporters of the two-step said it helps recruit new party activists and gets new Democrats involved in politics. “Eliminating this two-step process would be a disaster for the party,” Scudder said. Many of the convention attendees shared stories similar to that of Nova Phillips from Travis County. She said she had planned only to cast her vote for Obama back in 2008, but she wound up attending the caucus and eventually becoming a delegate to the state convention.

Some two-step supporters argued that the process keeps control of the party among the grassroots instead of among a select few party bosses. And contrary to what opponents say about the process, some minority Democrats said it gives them more say in the party operations — as evidenced by Obama’s victory. Some said Clinton supporters were just still smarting from the 2008 loss. Two-step opponents "don’t know shit about minorities” who for years fought for equal representation in the Texas Democratic Party, said Corretta Graham, a black Democrat from Corpus Christi. “We know the tricks people play,” she said. “It’s ill will and it’s not well thought-up, because you really don’t understand your own history.”

Opponents of the two-step process made a proposal that would have eliminated the use of caucuses for awarding delegates to presidential candidates. Instead, all of the delegates would be allocated based on the outcome of the primary vote. Making voters come back to the polls to exercise their full voting rights discriminates against military voters overseas, working-class voters and the elderly and disabled, they argued. “We all want to attract more Democrats to the party,” said Jared Hockema, a Democrat from Cameron County. “But I don’t think the way to do that is to put people through a rigmarole.”

In the end, the proposal to eliminate the caucus process failed overwhelmingly. Democrats at the convention voted 5,602 to 1,903 to keep the two-step process with some changes to improve technology and make procedures more orderly in the future.

It’s not likely the end of the two-step debate for Texas Democrats, though. Luis Vera, an attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, which sued over the process two years ago, said he expects more litigation over the fact that the process excludes military voters who are stationed abroad. Ryan Ray, a Democrat from Fort Worth who served on the rules committee, said he supports the two-step process but that changes to account for soldiers need to be made. Ray said he plans to work on a proposal for the 2012 convention to implement some sort of proxy caucus process. With Obama likely running without major opposition in 2012, it will be another four years after that before Texas Democrats really need to deal with the two-step again. “They’ve got six years to get their shit together,” Ray said.

The two-step vote was the most controversial point in the otherwise fairly staid biennial party rally. Democrats gave gubernatorial nominee Bill White a rock-star welcome, cheering him on to what they hope will be a victory that will end their decade-plus statewide election drought. "Let us go from this convention, staffing phone banks, knocking on doors and sending e-mails," White said, winding up his uncharacteristically emotive speech. "Lift up all who share our values, from the courthouse to the statehouse to the double-wide trailer Andrea and I will live in while the [Governor's] Mansion is rebuilt. Describe to friends and neighbors, from both parties, the simple choice we face in the governor’s race. Rick Perry is in it for Rick Perry. By the grace of God and with your help, I’m in it for Texas, for you."

Unwelcome visitors

There was, of course, a sprinkling of disruption.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner came to town with his “BTEC BILL” generator in tow, a symbol of allegations that White was, as he says, “profiteering” during Hurricane Rita by steering money to a company to which he had ties. Miner attempted to attend the convention on Friday morning and was asked to leave.

On Saturday morning, another group had to be similarly escorted out — but unlike Miner, they had repeatedly entered the hall to perform classical choral arrangements. It was a merry band of singing supporters of Kesha Rogers, the Democratic nominee for the 22nd congressional district. The party's executive committee has taken unprecedented steps to distance itself from Rogers, a Lyndon LaRouche devotee who campaigns on the need to impeach Obama and invest heavily in Mars exploration.

Rogers' very heat-tolerant supporters operated a booth outside the convention hall in the Corpus Christi sun and humidity. Party spokeswoman Kirsten Gray said she wasn’t aware that they had applied for a booth in the air-conditioned exhibition hall but that, regardless, an application didn’t guarantee a spot. The South Texas Tea Party applied for a booth and was turned away; Gray said she suspects that the Rogers campaign would have suffered a similar fate.

Gilberto Balero Michel, a Corpus Christi resident, was the sole picketer. He models himself on evangelist James Dobson of Focus on the Family. While no single issue was driving his distaste for the Democratic platform, he was especially disturbed by the “killing of babies.“ Dressed in heavy clothing, he was carrying a large sign and was outfitted with a sandwich board. He said the heat wasn’t getting to him. "I'm not here for a fashion show," he said.

A game of chicken

A number of Democratic celebrities graced the convention with their presence, but none as colorful as the “Rick Perry” chicken. First making its debut in an effort to crash a Perry campaign press conference in front of White campaign headquarters, an anonymous chicken-suited individual injected the campaign with a new spirit.

Democratic staffers are cagey on the details but say the original chicken suit was rented from Austin's iconic constume store Lucy in Disguise approximately 90 minutes before the counter-protest. It was worn by a male attendee of Austin state Rep. Mark Strama’s Campaign Academy on only his second day at the camp.

Since then, multiple people have donned a since-purchased duplicate suit. The one at the convention was provided by the White campaign.

And, you know, a convention without Farouk Shami would have been like a day without sunshine. He arrived in Corpus Christi fresh from a weeklong stint lecturing at Harvard University. He says he’s in the process of fulfilling the promises of his unsuccessful gubernatorial bid by opening a solar panel factory in El Paso, a furniture company in Laredo and a plastic manufacturing company in Brownsville. “I’m not a politician; I’m a businessman,” he said. “I keep my word.” 

Richie's riches

As expected, incumbent Chairman Boyd Richie was easily re-elected, sailing to victory over Michael Barnes, a schoolteacher from the Rio Grande Valley town of Edcouch.

Barnes was hoping to shake up what he views as a placid party establishment. "We know there's a drought in Texas in our activists, and we need to change that," he said in his address to the convention. On the subject of his opponent, he mused, "Boyd Richie is a great man from a small town. We need a great party from a great state."

Barnes was always an underdog, but he had his share of support. He surprised some observers by securing the endorsement of the Hispanic caucus. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough; Richie beat him with 5,891 votes to 1,555.

Richie may have had a secret weapon on his side in the form of his wife, Betty, a popular Democratic activist. She joined him on stage as he spoke to the crowd. Richie often says Democrats are getting a “two-fer” when they vote for him. At the convention, he explained his wife’s role more colorfully: “Roosters can crow, but hens deliver."

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Barack Obama Bill White Griffin Perry Rick Perry Royce West Texas Democratic Party