DALLAS — Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte shared the spotlight at the Texas Democratic Party convention on Friday night, promising to change the direction of the state, ripping their Republican opponents and imploring Democrats to break the GOP’s two-decade grip on state government.
Davis attacked her Republican opponent, matching his attacks at the GOP convention in Fort Worth earlier this month, and talked fighting insiders in Austin.
“I’m running because there’s a moderate majority that’s being ignored — commonsense, practical, hardworking Texans whose voices are being drowned out by insiders in Greg Abbott’s party, and it needs to stop,” she said.
Davis spoke about her background, her kids and her grandmother, all as a way of establishing her Texas roots and values.
She talked about what she would do if elected, promising full-day pre-K “for every eligible child,” less testing in public schools, less state interference with teaching, more affordable and accessible college. She also implied she would end property tax exemptions for country clubs as part of property tax reform, and end a sales tax discount for big retailers who pay on time.
She took some swipes at her opponent, too.
“Unlike Greg Abbott, I’m not afraid to share the stage with my party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, my colleague, mi hermana, Leticia Van de Putte,” she said. When the audience hooted, she cautioned them: “Now you guys don’t clap too much or Greg Abbott will sue you.”
The insider slam on Abbott was woven into Davis’ nine pages of prepared remarks. “You see, Mr. Abbott cut his teeth politically as part of the good old boys' network that’s had their hands on the reins for decades,” she said. “He’s been in their service and their debt since he ran for office, and as a judge and a lawyer, he’s spent his career defending insiders, protecting insiders, stacking the deck for insiders and making hardworking Texans pay the price.”
Davis said Abbott accepts large contributions from payday lenders “and then clears the way for them to charge unlimited interest rates and fees.” She blasted him for taking contributions from law firms that handle bond deals approved by the office of the attorney general, and for saying state law does not require chemical companies to reveal what they are storing in Texas communities.
“He isn’t working for you; he’s just another insider, working for insiders,” she said.
Van de Putte, who spoke immediately before Davis, promised not to back down from the fight against Dan Patrick, her opponent for lieutenant governor. She said she would instead fight to “put Texas first.”
When she ran for student council president in junior high, she said, she was told she could not run because she was a girl.
“Well I did, and I won,” she said.
She said that lesson remains relevant now. “I need to run, not just because I am a girl, but because I want the responsibility. Because I know what needs to get done. And I know I’m the right person for the job.”
“I ain’t in it for the show,” she said. “I ain’t no pushover. I ain’t no East Coast liberal. I ain't no West Coast Democrat. This grandma’s name is Leticia San Miguel Van de Putte from the barrio, and I am a Tejana.”
She spent a large portion of her address criticizing Patrick’s Senate voting record — sometimes, she noted, he was voting alone — against investments in roads and water as well as in favor of more than $5 billion in cuts to public schools in 2011.
“Patrick offers a vision of Texas with less opportunity than the generations that came before us,” Van de Putte said. “He would be the first politician to leave Texas with less for our children.”
She included a boisterously received dig at Patrick that referenced Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s famous put-down of Dan Quayle in their 1988 vice presidential debate.
Recounting her first nervous encounter with Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock as a newly elected House member, she said, “Now Bob Bullock was a lieutenant governor. And I have a message for Dan Patrick. I knew Bob Bullock. Bob Bullock was a friend of mine, and Dan, you are no Bob Bullock.”
Davis and Van de Putte’s speeches were the climax of the first day of the Democratic state convention. Party leaders were hoping for a show of unity and enthusiasm. They were helped by a slate of speeches designed to fire up the convention center crowd.
The crowd got its first round of hot, steaming rhetoric from Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, introduced as a man with “a mustache the size of Texas. He referred to “the Texas Tea Party — or, as it is officially called, the Republican Party of Texas.”
The Democratic chairman painted the GOP as out of touch and “caught up in bigotry and pettiness.”
“Texans are ready for a change, and it’s a change Texas Democrats are ready to deliver,” he said.
Hinojosa encouraged the assembled Democrats to imagine reaching the end of Election Day and turning on Fox News — “just for the heck of it” — and “watching Sean Hannity declaring Texas for the Democrats.”
“Dallas County is a solid blue county,” state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, told the crowd to loud applause, surrounded by nearly a dozen of the county’s elected officials. And he went through a list of issues he said were evidence that elections matter.
“You know that if Wendy Davis had been governor of the state of Texas, the voter ID bill would not have passed,” West said.
Democrats, he said, would not have cut education spending in the 2011 legislative session had they been in control. He added that Davis would sign legislation — vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry — on equal pay for women.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker told the delegates she was told to start speeches with a joke, “but you have already seen the Republican ticket.”
But, she said, “it is not a very funny joke.” She said Democrats need to out-think, out-work and out-organize the Republicans. “We will not win with just the people in this room,” she said. Democrats will have to bring in independents, conservatives and others who haven’t been voting, she added. “We are going to win by walking, talking and voting.”
She said Democrats should be able to give three good reasons why they’re Democrats when they’re talking to voters. “We are a party of faith, we are a party of family and we are a party of freedom. We want to be able to live out our lives without unfair government interference,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, told the delegates he wishes politics worked like professional basketball. “Why can’t we trade Ted Cruz to Massachusetts for Elizabeth Warren?” he asked.
Castro said his view of the Democrats from the stage where he was speaking offered a look at the state’s diversity, a theme that recurred in the Democrats’ remarks throughout the evening. “As I look out into the audience, this is a rainbow-looking group,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. “We will represent what this state is all about.”
“I’ve met a lot of immigrants, and nobody ever told me they came to Texas for its low corporate tax rate,” Castro said.
Castro said the Republicans are no longer the party of Abraham Lincoln, with the Emancipation Proclamation, or Ronald Reagan, with his immigration reforms that included amnesty, or even of Kay Bailey Hutchison, for whom Dallas’ convention center is named. “This is the party of Ted Cruz,” he said, getting a loud boo from a crowd that nearly filled the hall.
“If you want to see the faces of the new Texas, just look at our children,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio. “This year alone, the number of Latino Texans turning 18 will outnumber Anglos by 40,000.”
He stood out as a partisan even in a room full of partisans, lashing the Republicans in a harsh address that ended with a whooping and applauding crowd of delegates. He called the GOP’s three top nominees unfit for office. He derided the other Party’s platform on immigration. “Wait a minute,” he said. “GOP. That just stands for 'gringos y otros pendejos.'”
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, took a dig at Republicans’ leadership on public education, saying that Abbott’s response to school districts' suit challenging the current school finance system was to try to remove the presiding judge.
“This isn’t as good as it gets,” he said repeatedly during his critique of the GOP’s direction of the state.
“Texas is great,” he said. “And Texas can be even greater. It’s time to elect Wendy Davis governor of Texas. And it’s time to elect Leticia Van de Putte lieutenant governor of Texas.”
Despite the rousing rhetoric on display Friday, Democrats head into the general election season at a crossroads. Davis and Van de Putte make for the party’s best-known set of statewide candidates in 12 years. The convention, as luck would have it, falls as the party faithful remembered the anniversary of Davis’ filibuster of an abortion restriction bill that made her a nationally known name.
The women still trail their Republican rivals by double-digits in the most recent polling conducted by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune. With the anniversary celebrations earlier in the week and the headliner speeches at the party’s convention, they now have a four-month opportunity to try to turn that around.