HOUSTON — Texas Democrats, trying to compete in a state that overwhelmingly favors Republican candidates for executive, legislative and judicial offices, elected their first Hispanic chairman Saturday.
In a reflection of the state’s burgeoning Hispanic growth and the party’s longtime success with Latinos, delegates overwhelmingly elected Gilberto Hinojosa as the next party chairman. He will replace outgoing chairman Boyd Richie, who announced in April 2011 that he would not seek another term after six years on the job.
Hinojosa successfully breathed some life into the sparse crowd on the convention floor with a fiery speech before the delegates cast an overwhelming majority of votes in his favor.
In a hoarse but booming voice, Hinojosa, who has served as a Brownsville school trustee, state district judge, justice on the state's 13th Court of Appeals and Cameron County Judge, lambasted Republicans for proclaiming Democrats as un-American for their efforts to expand health care, uphold voting rights in Texas and fund public education.
“This is a war, folks. This is a war that the Republicans have waged on our families in Texas and all across America,” he shouted from the stage. “We are a compassionate people. We don’t believe in pulling up the ladder after we reach the top.”
Then touting his Latino roots, the judge offered a the crowd a rallying cry in Spanish.
“Yo no quiero que me den nada, nada más pónganme en donde hay: (Don’t give me anything. Just give me the opportunity to get it.)” he said. “That is what America is all about. That is what our Democratic Party is all about. Those are our values and, damn it, don’t question my patriotism.”
The theme was consistent: Democrats are down but don't want to be counted out.
Their judicial candidates got a little time, including Keith Hampton, who's running against Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He said he can win the race, but only if he can get enough money to remind voters about the story of Michael Wayne Richard, who was executed when his lawyers missed a court deadline for a last appeal. They blamed Keller, who told them the court closed at 5 p.m. and refused to accept the filing. She got a "public warning" from the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct. Hampton thinks voters will pick him over the incumbent if they connect the story and her name, and is trying to get Democratic financiers on board, so far with no luck.
He told the delegates that Democratic judges can win in presidential election years if they've got flawed Republican opponents. Now, he said, everything is in place but the money.
Former state Rep. Paul Sadler, who's in a runoff with educator Grady Yarbrough for the party's U.S. Senate nomination, echoed that, calling Hampton an obvious choice if voters know anything about the candidates. But they have to know, and that takes money.
"We've been lulled to sleep by superwealthy candidates and by a few wealthy supporters," he said. "If I could write my own script, it would be a million voters each giving $10."
For a candidate without the money to advertise, the gathering in Houston was useful, he said.
"Everybody's here in one place," Sadler said. "That's the advantage of holding a convention. I tell people that running for Senate in Texas is an exercise in driving eight hours and speaking for four minutes."
Sadler didn't weigh in on the Republican runoff between David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz, saying he has no idea who will win. But he said Dewhurst is qualified to be a senator because he has served in office, while Cruz, in his view, is not. "If you've never served in office, we don't know what you're going to do," he said. "You don't know what you're going to do."
The most endangered Democrat in the Texas Senate this election year is probably Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and the Democrats gave her some time in the spotlight. She said her biography — a single mother at 19, living in a trailer park, working through junior college, college and Harvard Law School — wouldn't be possible under the policies of Republican officeholders.
Many of the candidates, officeholders and delegates at the convention were talking about the party's political viability and the torrent of news stories asking whether the Democrats are competitive any more in Texas.
"When I hear what's going on at the Republican convention, it doesn't sound like the best of times to me," said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. "It sounds like that party has been pulled farther to the right and away from the mainstream, away from where everyday Texans are."
He pointed to Dallas County, which flipped from the GOP to the Democrats over the last decade, as an example. And he said the Democrats need to keep putting up decent candidates and they'll eventually win.
"We're ready to lead. We have the candidates and, in some cases, superior candidates," Anchia said. "When parties dominate, they get complacent, a little bit sloppy."