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Texas gets attention in race for Democratic National Committee chair

Eleven candidates for Democratic National Committee chair are set to attend a forum in Houston on Saturday ahead of a February election.

Signs at the Texas State Democratic convention in San Antonio on June 17, 2016.

The race for Democratic National Committee chair comes to Texas on Saturday, shining a spotlight on a state whose party leaders are looking to exert more national influence after a promising election cycle.

The ever-growing field — 11 candidates as of last count — is set to descend on Houston for the second of four regional forums before the DNC elects the chair a month from now in Atlanta. The event is coming at an opportune time for Texas Democrats, who not only have one of the biggest voting blocs on the Democratic National Committee but also presided over a rare bright spot for their party nationally on Nov. 8.

"If a candidate starts with the just the tired old, 'We need to get those working-class people in Michigan or Ohio,' I have to stop them and say, 'Wait a minute. Texas did better percentage-wise for Hillary Clinton than" some traditional battleground states did, said Glen Maxey, a DNC member from Texas who is undecided on the race. "Nothing was spent in Texas, and yet we were moving the ball closer than in either of those states."

"Do we go into it with a little more clout? Yeah," Maxey added. "We are the biggest trending-blue state." 

Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez has been among the candidates putting an emphasis on Texas' role in the future of the party. On Friday, he rolled out endorsements from a half dozen prominent Texas Democrats, including three DNC members: state party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, state Sen. José Rodriguez of El Paso and Celina Vasquez, founder of Texas Latinas List.

"Texas can’t simply be an ATM machine for Democrats from elsewhere who are trying to raise money," Perez said in an interview Friday. "I think Texas is already turning blue, and what’s amazing has been that the progress has been made without any meaningful help from the DNC." 

Perez is also talking up his time in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he helped fight Texas' voter ID law. He has proposed creating a unit within the DNC that would be dedicated to protecting voting rights. 

Texas Democrats got an early look at the race last month, when the whole field — there were five candidates at the time — came to Austin to address the State Democratic Executive Committee. Perez had just announced his candidacy, shaking up a race that until then had been trending in favor of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.

On Friday, Ellison picked up the support of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, whose chair, Gene Collins, said in a statement that "African American voters across the country and in Texas, are deeply concerned about the direction of the Democratic Party and want to ensure that the base of the Party is represented." The group, along with state Sen. Borris Miles, was set to host a reception for Ellison on Friday night in Houston. 

"We have to compete everywhere," Ellison said in a statement Friday. "While states like Texas are getting bluer and bluer with demographic shifts, we can speed that up if we actually invest here. I’m talking about strengthening the state and local parties through increased funding and help with technology, daily talking points, rapid-response research, and developing organizing plans. When our state parties are strong, Democrats can win in the South.

The field has only grown since the SDEC meeting in December. Among the latest entrants is the sole Texan in the race: Jehmu Greene, a political commentator and media strategist who grew up in Austin as the child of undocumented immigrants. 

"I've always understood what Ann Richards said: A woman's place is in the dome," Greene said in an interview Friday, referring to the former governor's campaign slogan. "I feel very strongly that the Democratic Party needs to be invested in states where our base is growing — even if the impact is not going to be immediate." 

Some candidates are urging a focus on Texas as part of a broader southern strategy, mindful that it was not the only traditionally red state in the region where there were glimmers of hope on Nov. 8. In Arizona and Georgia, for example, President Donald Trump won by narrower margins than Mitt Romney did in 2012. 

"It’s very, very important that we get the national party to understand that they have to invest in the South," said Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "It’s the best place for growth for the Democratic Party."

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