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In Philadelphia, Van de Putte on Front Lines of Effort to Unify Democrats

As co-chair of the high-profile Rules Committee, former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte had her biggest turn in the political spotlight since suffering back-to-back political losses in 2014 and 2015.

State Sen. and Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor Leticia Van de Putte at the Democratic state convention on June 27, 2014.

PHILADELPHIA — Shortly before Bernie Sanders spoke Monday night here at the Democratic National Convention, delivering a speech that aimed to unify his party, he encountered an increasingly familiar face backstage: Leticia Van de Putte. 

The former state senator from San Antonio and firm Hillary Clinton supporter had co-chaired the Rules Committee where Sanders' backers had strove to change how the party selects its presidential nominees. 

"He looked at me and he said, 'It’s time to move on,'" Van de Putte recalled. "Two minutes later, he’s onstage.” 

For Van de Putte, it was a moment of common cause at a convention rife with reminders of intra-party division and thrown off balance by the leaking of a trove of emails from party officials. 

The party gathering in Philadelphia marked Van de Putte's biggest turn in the political spotlight since suffering back-to-back, crushing losses in 2014 and 2015, first in the lieutenant governor's race then in the San Antonio mayoral election. That experience was still fresh in her mind as she spent time in Philadelphia working with Sanders and his supporters, often in the role of peacemaker.

"I know that hurt," she said in an interview Tuesday. "I know what it's like, not once but twice, to have that level of defeat — nothing on his level," though. 

The bulk of Van de Putte's work as co-chair of the Rules Committee occurred as the DNC was rocked by a leak of emails showing it was less than partial in the nominating process, validating the suspicions of Sanders supporters. The fallout ultimately claimed DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who said Sunday she will resign at the end of the convention. 

Throughout the turmoil, Van de Putte grew close to DNC vice chair Donna Brazile, who has been selected to serve as interim chair through the November elections. It was Brazile who had dropped in on a meeting of pro-Sanders members of the Rules Committee and apologized for the emails, easing some of the animosity that could have complicated Van de Putte's job. 

"I really needed somebody there," Van de Putte said. "I am not a DNC officer, but because of the email leak, I needed somebody with authority to profoundly apologize, even though I did."

The intra-party drama reared its head again Tuesday at the daily Texas delegation breakfast, where Sanders supporters caused an uproar after voicing condemnation of Clinton. It was not long before Van de Putte was on the stage, recalling what Sanders told her the night before, acknowledging she is "no stranger to defeat" and urging the delegation to come together.

"Too much is at stake," she said, "and we have to win."  

The Rules Committee's key accomplishment out of the convention is its plan to develop a "unity reform commission" that will look at changes to the nominating process that many Sanders backers saw as unfair. Their biggest source of frustration was the party's superdelegates, unelected delegates made up of party leaders and elected officials who can vote for whomever they want at the national convention.

Among the commission's charges is reducing the influence of superdelegates by requiring that most of them vote based on the results of the nominating contest in their state. In the eyes of Sanders supporters, such a proposal would make party elites more responsive to the will of the voters they often represent. 

The commission will have from after the election until Jan. 1, 2018, to complete its work. The 21-member panel will have co-chairs who are Clinton and Sanders allies, and it will be made up of nine members picked by Clinton, seven by Sanders and three by the DNC. 

There remains skepticism about how effective that commission will end up being. Its proposals will face final approval by the full Democratic National Committee more than a year from now, when the intensity of concerns about the nominating process raised by Sanders supporters could have had died down.  

The commission nonetheless won the endorsement of the Sanders campaign, which said it could "reduce the number of superdelegates by some two-thirds." In a statement, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver called the commission a "tremendous victory for Sen. Sanders' fight to democratize the Democratic Party and reform the Democratic nominating process." 

"We’re trying to explain as much as we can — because this is coming from Sen. Sanders himself — that this is a great win," said Jacob Limon, a member of the Rules Committee from Texas who had served as Sanders' Texas state director. "To think about how far we came 15 months ago — to think we could have changed the DNC rules this significantly — is pretty impressive and I think pretty significant."

Van de Putte's work reached its culmination Monday afternoon, when she took the stage here at the Wells Fargo Center after a rocky start to the convention that included loud booing at the mere mention of Clinton's name. Yet as she spoke, the mood inside the hall took a turn for the positive. 

“We’re going to open up our Democratic process so that the grassroots always has a seat at the table," Van de Putte said to cheers. "We’re going to ensure that our party hears every voice and empowers every person with the chance to contribute."

Superdelegates in Texas overwhelmingly supported Clinton, who beat Sanders in the state's March 1 primary by more than 30 points. Among those superdelegates is state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, who said he would not have been affected by efforts to diminish the influence of superdelegates but nonetheless believes the proposal "makes sense." 

"Leticia is very skilled at bringing people together," Anchia said of Van de Putte's work on the Rules Committee. "She did that in the Texas Senate, and I’m confident that she’ll do that as part of the unity commission." 

Van de Putte was an early supporter of Clinton's campaign, making her allegiance clear ahead of a rally Clinton held in October in San Antonio. Yet Van de Putte's backing of Clinton did not attract nearly as much scrutiny as that of her co-chair Barney Frank, the former congressman from Massachusetts, whom Sanders unsuccessfully sought to oust from the panel, saying he could not perform his duties "fairly and capably while laboring under such deeply held bias." 

Philadelphia is not the first time Van de Putte had a high-profile role at a Democratic National Convention. She co-chaired the gathering in 2008, when another historic nomination happened — that of the first black president, Barack Obama. 

Back then, Van de Putte was among a group of Democrats heading into the convention — and in some cases, leaving it — holding firm in their support for Clinton. "My heart and soul had been in Hillary Clinton's campaign," Van de Putte recalled, noting that she ultimately came around to help elect Obama, an evolution she likened to what Sanders supporters are currently going through.

Nowadays Van de Putte helms a high-powered consulting firm in San Antonio with Hope Andrade, the former Texas Secretary of State — and a Republican. Asked what's next for her, Van de Putte all but ruled out another campaign but promised to stay involved in the same cause that had brought to Philadelphia. 

"I don't see public office for me," she said in an interview after the contentious breakfast. "But I do believe in Hillary Clinton and I do believe in the folks that you saw in this room, so I'll be helping out, one call at a time." 

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