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Pulling the Democrats' Dance Card

Two years after Democrats’ complicated presidential primary process — the “Texas Two-Step” — had voters across the state frustrated and outraged, party officials will continue to wrangle this weekend over the fairness of its election system.

Two years after Democrats’ complicated presidential primary process — the “Texas Two-Step” — had voters across the state frustrated and outraged, party officials will continue to wrangle this weekend over the fairness of its election system.

The Texas Democratic Party’s state convention gets under way Friday in Corpus Christi. There will be the usual speeches from candidates like gubernatorial hopeful Bill White, debate over the party’s platform and voting to determine party leaders. But one of the biggest fights of the weekend could come when party officials revisit a two-year-old discussion of the system Texas Democrats use to award delegates in the presidential primary election process. “That is a big problem the Texas Democratic Party has to consider, because it could very well be facing another lawsuit,” said Luis Vera, attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens. “It’s just a matter of time.”

More than 2.8 million Texas Democrats came to the polls in March 2008 to vote in the presidential primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It was the first time in decades that the party’s presidential candidate hadn’t already been chosen by the time the Texas primary rolled around. The excitement of the race drew thousands of new voters, who discovered the Democrats’ arcane system for awarding delegates to presidential candidates. The two-step process assigns delegates based on both the number of primary votes candidates receive and on the number of supporters who show up at precinct caucuses after the polls close. Two-thirds of the party's 193 state delegates are chosen based on the votes and the remainder based on caucus turnout.

After the polls closed, about a million Democrats across the state deluged local caucus meetings, sometimes lining up for blocks and staying late into the night, to show support for their candidate. Party officials were overwhelmed and unprepared. In the end, Clinton won the popular vote in the Texas primary, but Obama’s well-organized campaign drew more delegates from the caucus process. Questions about the fairness and implementation of the process abounded. “This tremendous enthusiasm and tremendous turnout showed the flaws in the system,” Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie said in the months following the primary.

Newly active Democrats and even some longtimers called for overhauling the system and even eliminating the caucuses altogether. Richie appointed state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, to launch a statewide hearing process to make recommendations for improvements. West and his committee held hearings from El Paso to Nacogdoches, and they polled Democrats online. In the web poll and at the hearings, many Democrats told the committee the process was too complicated, wasn’t well regulated and that it wasn’t representative of the voters’ decisions. In the online poll results, just 28 percent of those who responded favored keeping the current system.

The committee released its recommendations in 2009. The suggested fixes were minimal, things like changing caucus locations, making the rules clearer and using technology to speed up the caucus process. West’s committee did not recommend abolishing the caucuses. “The data shows that most people disagree with the method of conducting caucuses… rather than disagreeing with the system in general,” the committee wrote. Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirsten Gray said that since the 2008 primary election, only minor, mostly administrative, changes have been made to the process. West did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Those changes were not enough for many Democrats, though. And they’re planning to challenge the system again at the state party convention this weekend. “The current system decreases the voting strength of people who cast a ballot in the primary but who do not or cannot return to caucus at the precinct conventions,” said Scott Cobb, a state convention delegate from Austin.

Cobb and other opponents of the caucus process say it discriminates against minority and working-class voters and the elderly and disabled, who may be able to vote at the polls but would not be able to return later the same day for caucus meetings. They’ve started a website called The system, they say, is also unfair for soldiers and others who cannot be in Texas on primary day to show up at the caucuses. “A new system with all the pledged delegates allocated based solely on the results of the primary would be fairer and more inclusive,” Cobb said.

The party has already lost a lawsuit over the primary caucus process. In 2008, LULAC sued, charging that the two-step system and the way the party allocates delegates diluted representation in districts with large Hispanic populations. A panel of three federal judges in 2009 refused to dismiss the lawsuit and suggested the party’s process should be reviewed by the Department of Justice to ensure it didn't violate the Voting Rights Act. “All we want is what’s fair,” said Vera, the LULAC attorney who tried the two-step case. “We’re not asking for anything that’s unfair.” Despite the lawsuit and calls for change from within the party, Vera said he expects the fight to continue until or unless party leadership changes. “It’s just a fight trying to get rid of it; change is not easy,” he said. But if there aren’t changes to the system, Vera said the party could face another lawsuit based on claims that the system discriminates against soldiers stationed overseas.

Those who support the caucus system argue that it encourages participation and helps the party develop grassroots support. When voters come back after the election for the caucus, they can get involved in choosing their local party leadership and deciding who gets to go to party conventions.

Ironically, the two-step process was born out of efforts by the Democratic National Committee to increase diversity. Before 1972, the candidate who won a majority of the primary votes got all the presidential delegates. In 1972, though, the party adopted diversity quotas and mandated proportional representation. After a series of reform efforts and changes, the hybrid primary-caucus system was adopted in 1985, and it was first used in 1988. It was designed to ensure equal representation among urban and rural areas of the state, and until the fervor of the 2008 election, the process seemed to have worked.

“Some feel we should leave the process as is, and some feel it needs to be changed,” said Rose Salas, a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee from Houston. “It’s very, very hard to gauge as to what the outcome could possibly be.”

Salas is on the temporary rules committee that will begin discussing the two-step process and proposed changes to it Friday. Salas said the committee has already received a number of suggestions, including doing away with the caucus system of awarding delegates. She expects the discussion could get pretty contentious. “I’m always prepared for any type of discussion,” she said. “I don’t ever assume anything is going to be smooth sailing.”

Flipping the Bird

Heading into Tuesday’s special Republican runoff in Senate District 22, former Sen. David Sibley, the favorite, said the big question would be the size of the turnout. High turnout, he figured, would bode well for his chances.

Turn out voters did — but for Sibley’s opponent, Brian Birdwell, a political novice with a personal narrative apparently compelling enough to put him over the top. The race was not close: Birdwell won with 58 percent of nearly 25,000 votes cast.

Birdwell was working in the Pentagon on 9/11 and suffered severe burns when terrorists crashed an airliner into the building, a story he told and retold on the campaign trail. After a lengthy recovery, he now earns his living as a public speaker and, with his wife, operates a nonprofit called Face the Fire, which combines Christian ministry with fundraising for burn victims and their families.

At this point, Birdwell has only won the right to serve out the remainder of outgoing Sen. Kip Averitt’s current term, which ends in January. Averitt resigned from the Senate in March, citing health problems. He dropped his re-election campaign even earlier but was obligated to remain on the ballot and managed to win the primary without lifting a finger. That means he’s still the Republican nominee for SD-22 in the November general election.

When Averitt withdraws his name, as he says he will, his replacement will be chosen by a group of local party chairs that is expected — but not obligated — to choose Birdwell. Averitt’s exit will also open the door for the Democrats to choose a nominee — which they failed to do originally, believing Averitt would be an unbeatable opponent — to fill their currently empty slot on the ballot.

Before the results were known, Averitt expressed fears that Birdwell might be declared ineligible to serve. Through the special election campaign, Birdwell was questioned about whether he met the constitutionally mandated five-year residency requirement that would have allowed him to run in the district. That's because he voted in a Nov. 7, 2006 election in Virginia. No one mounted a legal challenge to Birdwell's residency during the special-election campaign, but Averitt worries that if he drops out and Birdwell replaces him as the GOP's general election nominee, the Democrats would contest his residency and win, effectively snatching the seat.

Birdwell says his residency is not an issue. “We’ve taken all the right actions,” he said. “It’s been thrown out there as a means to potentially cause voters concern they should not have.”

In April, a retired appeals court judge issued a declaratory judgment that Birdwell did indeed meet the five-year state residency requirement. But when the Waco Herald-Tribune put it to legal experts, they questioned the ruling, citing the fact that only one side of the case — Birdwell's — was represented.

When asked if it was a misstep to not include other parties in that process, Birdwell said it wasn’t. “Had any of the candidates — the three in the original race or my opponent in the runoff — decided, they could have gone to the courts at any time,” he said. “They chose not to.”

In the meantime, Birdwell’s triumph represents yet another victory this year for the no-compromise wing of the Republican Party. Birdwell’s central attack against his opponent is that in his post-Senate lobbying career, Sibley donated repeatedly to Democrats. Asked if his lobbying job may have hurt him, Sibley said, “It hasn’t helped." In fact, it looks like it hurt enough to negate the backing of some heavy hitters: former President George W. Bush; U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis; Reps. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, and Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie; and, of course, Averitt.

Birdwell is confident he’ll be able to similarly withstand Democratic opposition in November, should that happen. “We stepped up and took on a former state senator, very well respected, [who] had a lot of name recognition, and we won,” he said. “So we’re ready for whatever the next challenge is.”

It’s On

With his anti-immigrant, pro-life rhetoric agenda in tow, Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, made his bid to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus official this week. Berman, who said Straus was party to a group of GOP “henchmen” in the Texas Legislature’s lower chamber, filed paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission on Tuesday.

“Some of the reasons I filed have to do with the fact that the election of the speaker last year was a sham,” Berman explained. The “sham,” he said, was that Straus, R-San Antonio, and some of his fellow members deceptively choreographed a plan to oust former Speaker Tom Craddick and appeal to moderate Democrats in order to have one of their own ascend to the position.

“He had been in the House for a year and a half at that time. They went to 60-plus Democrats, and in order to get their votes, they promised them three things,” he said. The promises came in the form of three bills that wouldn’t make the House floor for a vote: those with language on “illegal aliens,” pro-life legislation and voter ID.

Straus didn’t appear fazed by the allegations and denied he ever made any arrangement with Democrats at any time. He also defended his actions last session during the infamous “chub” session initiated by Democrats to prevent voter ID from making the House floor — which Berman also harped on to defend his intent to oust Straus.

“The speaker pro tem traditionally runs the local calendar,” Straus said. “And what I think [Berman] is conveniently forgetting is, the [Republican] caucus met repeatedly during those five days and the caucus unanimously agreed that we would handle that situation by allowing the Democrats to continue on,” he said.

Straus said he has and will continue to garner growing support from the Republican members of the Texas House, and said Berman’s claim that he has the backing of a dozen or so like-minded Republicans is a bit of a stretch.

Berman, however, points to the November general election as key to securing the votes he needs to get elected, effectively ending what he asserts is Straus’ deal-making.

“If we have 83-plus Republican seats in the House next session, and I think we are going to have more than 83-plus, and we vote in caucus as you usually do to elect your speaker, we don’t have to promise Democrats anything,” he said.

Straus doesn’t deny that the party will continue to grow under his leadership — and has already, after Rep. Chuck Hopson switched parties and joined the GOP this year. That could likely help Straus cement his re-election.

“I am proud that the Republican majority is expanding, and I expect this year to be a good one for our party,” he said. “I am very confident that I have an overwhelming majority of support in the House of Republicans and will continue to be focused on leading the House in way that’s respectful of all members,” he said.

Bring Out Your Vote

Harris County has a voting problem, and Fred Lewis aims to do something about it.

The ethics reform lobbyist and campaign finance lawyer has launched a new nonpartisan voter registration drive that targets what he calculates are the 600,000 unregistered voters there, out of about 2.3 million eligible. His team wants to sign up 100,000 of them — all in time for the November election. He sat down with The Texas Tribune last week to talk about his latest project, Houston Votes 2010, which he hopes will get at least 50,000 new people to the polls.

Part of what makes Lewis believe he can meet that ambitious goal is the success of a similar effort administered in 2008 by the Texans Together Education Fund, a grassroots community outreach program he chairs that registered 24,000 low-income residents. Of those voters, 65 percent actually cast a ballot.

Texans Together will also finance the new effort, which it estimates to cost about $600,000. About a third of that money has been raised. Lewis says its two-pronged approach — canvassing homes and setting up storefront booths — positions it for success as well.

For Lewis, the demographics of the state’s most populous county make it the perfect laboratory for a voter registration project. As the home of an international port, Harris County attracts immigrants from all over the world. Voter disengagement, measured by voter registration levels, is always higher in multicultural, moderate-to-low-income areas, with high mobility rates, all characteristics of Houston's older suburbs. And more Hispanics and Asian-Americans — two of the groups least engaged — live there than in any other county in the state. According to 2008 census data, only 38 percent of Hispanics voted in Texas, compared to an average of 50 percent nationwide. Only in Arizona is that number lower. And in Harris County, Lewis says, Hispanics vote in even smaller numbers. Based on his research, Hispanic voter turnout there was in the “low 20s,” and, he says, even fewer Asian-Americans vote in Harris County than Hispanics.

Lewis is adamant, too, that the drive is “strictly nonpartisan,” though it’s taking place in Harris County — home of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White — and aimed at traditionally Democratic segments of the populace. He challenges the notion that low-income and minority groups are "monolithic in their views.” And he stresses that Houston Votes won’t be working with partisan groups or their adjuncts, though they have partnered with other nonpartisan organizations like the League of Women Voters, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and the National Urban League.

When talking about the importance of the project, Lewis circles back to the future ethnic makeup of Harris County. At approximately 66 percent minority, Harris County is one of the most diverse counties in the country, and according to Lewis, census numbers show that will grow to 80 percent by 2020. If those predictions bear out, it could mean that a significant portion of the population will withdraw from the voting process, which to Lewis underscores the importance of such registration drives.

"Texas is going to be diverse. That is over,” Lewis says. “The question is, how are we going to address it."

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

Although two polls out this week show different results in the governor’s race, the trend is similar. After last month’s Rasmussen poll showed Gov. Rick Perry leading the race by 13 points, the latest Rasmussen poll narrows Perry’s lead to 8 points. Public Policy Polling, meanwhile, released a poll showing the race to be a dead heat with each candidate garnering 43 percent of the expected vote.

The governor’s race will be in full swing next week after the Democrats hold their convention. Bill White is ratcheting up his rhetoric against Rick Perry, accusing him of being a part-time governor while living high off the taxpayer’s dollar. After obtaining the governor’s official schedule for the first five months of the year, White lashed out at the governor’s sparse schedule of official events and lavish lifestyle in his taxpayer-funded rental home. Perry continued to accuse White of profiting from an investment in a company used to provide generators in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita while he was mayor of Houston.

Controversial remarks from U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, momentarily overshadowed the flap over the oil spill — Barton got into hot water when he characterized the newly created BP escrow fund as a “shakedown.” Although his motive was partisan in nature, his own party was not willing to stand with him, and he was forced to apologize while backtracking on his apology to BP. His standing as ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee was even called into question, although it appears he will ultimately survive the debacle.

Democratic candidate for Attorney General Barbara Ann Radnofsky published a seven-page brief detailing why she thinks Texas should file suit against Wall Street firms that, according to her, caused the financial crisis. Radnofsky called on Attorney General Greg Abbott to file a complaint by September, when the statute of limitations comes into play. Abbott’s office claimed it was investigating allegations against Wall Street firms but declined to take definitive action now.

As expected, Texas shows big population increases in 2010 census data being released. Of the top 10 fastest-growing cities in the nation, Texas claimed four, including the No. 1 increase in percentage of population gain. Frisco topped the chart with a 6.2 percent increase, followed by McKinney with a 5.5 percent increase. Round Rock and Lewisville also made the top 10, with 3.4 percent and 3.3 percent increases, respectively.

With those census numbers comes the inevitable redistricting battle. In preparation for next year’s redrawing of the maps, the House Committees on Redistricting and Judiciary and Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence met in San Antonio to prepare for the task to come. Texas is expected to gain three or four congressional seats as a result of the growing population, and lawmakers say they’re going to do their best to avoid the bitter and protracted battles of the past.

Texas Democrats have their own version of a surprise primary winner, a la South Carolina. The 22nd congressional district was a three-way race for the Democratic nominee, and the party-backed candidate, Doug Blatt, finished second to 33-year-old Kesha Rogers, a self-styled activist in the Lyndon LaRouche Youth Movement. According to her website, she supports the LaRouche political philosophy, which includes a push for the impeachment of Barack Obama. Democratic leaders have disavowed any support for Rogers and the district has been omitted from their online list of congressional races.

Outgoing state Representative Tara Rios Ybarra has been charged in the Medicaid fraud case plaguing South Texas. Ybarra was taken into custody after three counts were filed against her for participating in a kickback scheme of Medicaid referrals to Gary Morgan Schwarz, an oral surgeon in McAllen. Three other dentists were also accused of participating in the scheme, and Schwarz was indicted for submitting fraudulent claims to Medicaid.

Quotes of the Week

Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra, D-South Padre Island, reacting to her arrest and indictment on charges of Medicaid fraud, in the Rio Grande Guardian: "I am shocked, surprised and disappointed at the allegations made against me. I have devoted myself to my dental patients and to following high ethical standards in my professional capacity as a dentist for 12 years. I would respectfully ask that people not rush to judgment until all the facts are disclosed.”

Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, on why the Democratic members of the Texas Legislature are intent on fighting voter ID, in The Dallas Morning News: “When you start doing research, you realize a lot of people don't have an ID, especially the least among us, and I think it's terribly important to protect their voting rights."

Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, on why he will challenge House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, for the position next session, in The Texas Tribune: "Joe Straus and his 10 henchmen stand for nothing — about the only thing they stand for is personal gain.”

David Cozad, little-known Democratic opponent of U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, to The Texas Tribune on the possible fallout over Barton's apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward: “I may be the only freshman Democrat in Congress next year.”

Retired Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, to The Texas Tribune as he briefly considered a return to the Texas Senate: "I really don’t want to go back."

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that filed a complaint Tuesday pressing the Texas Ethics Commission to require Gov. Rick Perry to provide itemized reports of his dealings with the Governor's Mansion: "The law requires politicians to disclose every expenditure so the public can see if they are spending campaign money on their own, personal creature comforts."

A passage from Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri's remarkably detailed official bio that was posted on the party website and has since been edited: "In high school, despite being the second smallest player on his squad he played freshman, sophomore, and one game of junior varsity football for the Memorial Mustangs until he was forced to choose between attending debate tournaments and continuing playing football."

Former President Bill Clinton, while endorsing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White against Gov. Rick Perry, quoted in Politico: “The American people will be watching this election closely. Texas voters have an opportunity to send a message in support of mainstream leadership to people throughout this country."

Contributors: Julian Aguilar, Brandi Grissom, Reeve Hamilton, Ceryta Holm, David Muto and Morgan Smith

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