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Texas Democrats have worked for months to prove that their home “is the biggest battleground state” in 2020. But as their party’s national convention kicks off Monday, some in the state say they’re frustrated that they aren’t getting the representation they deserve.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the convention is happening mostly virtually and has been pared down to eight hours of prime-time programming spread across four nights. Still, some of the state’s top Democrats have raised concerns — or have been openly critical — about the lack of a high-profile speaking slot devoted solely to a Texan.
“I think it’s completely unfortunate and misguided,” said state Rep. Julie Johnson of Carrollton. “The fact that they have neglected Texas in terms of the speaker lineup for the DNC is Exhibit A of their lack of commitment to electoral politics in Texas, which is very frustrating for those of us down-ballot in Texas.
“I feel like we’re on the cusp of real opportunity to secure Democratic gains in our state, and it would be really great if the DNC would step up and demonstrate leadership and a commitment to Democratic success in Texas politics.”
Johnson and other state Democratic officials said they would have liked to see a prime-time speech by either Beto O’Rourke or Julián Castro, two of the state’s best-known Democrats. Instead, the two are expected to be featured in a panel with other former 2020 presidential candidates.
To be sure, there will be Texans featured in prime time. Organizers announced Sunday that U.S. Rep. Colin Allred and state Rep. Victoria Neave, both of Dallas, would be among 17 “rising stars” in the party who will jointly deliver the keynote address Tuesday night. (It was previously reported that Neave would have a role in the convention, though it was unclear what exactly it would be.)
In any case, the Sunday announcement came after state party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa had spent recent days lobbying organizers to give Texans more prominence in the event. He called the inclusion of Allred and Neave a “step in the right direction” but was not fully satisfied.
“We are proud to have Allred and Neave as keynote speakers in this convention,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “Still, there are several more speaking slots that should have been awarded to our remarkable list of Texas leaders.”
When organizers unveiled an initial prime-time speaker lineup last week that did not feature any Texans, Hinojosa made his displeasure known, telling KXAN that “somebody messed up ... and they need to fix it.” He was not alone in throwing an elbow at the national party as it became clear no Texans would get a big speaking opportunity.
“Does the DNC and the national Democratic Party get how important Texas is?” O’Rourke said in a Dallas TV interview that aired Sunday, responding to a question about the lineup. “The short answer is no. They’re not going to ride to our rescue, there’s no cavalry coming to help us at the end of the day. Texans have to win Texas, but that’s the way it’s always been, and I'm great with that.”
In a statement for this story, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Convention Committee, Tim Carroll, said the committee “is excited to have a dynamic lineup of Texans who will help unite America behind Vice President Joe Biden’s vision for the country.”
While Allred and Neave will speak in prime time, a few other Texans are expected to make brief appearances throughout the convention. There is the panel with Castro and O’Rourke, but also a 30-second video from U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville, and U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso is expected to announce Texas’ delegates for Biden.
Organizers revealed Monday morning that Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo will be among five participants in a conversation that night with Biden about racial justice.
Not every Texas Democratic official is frustrated with the lineup.
“As far as I know, there’s quite a few Texans participating because you’ve got me, Julián, Beto, Victoria Neave and Escobar,” Vela said. “Can you imagine if they lined everybody up to speak for five minutes for six hours over three days? It would be boring as hell.”
Still, supporters of O’Rourke and Castro see a meaningful difference between relegating them to a panel with former rivals and giving them a solo speaking slot before the widest audience possible, especially when some of the other ex-candidates are receiving the latter. On social media, each Texan’s fans have taken to using the hashtags #LetJuliánSpeak and #LetBetoSpeak.
As for Castro, he and his fans have focused on Latino representation in the lineup. The prime-time programing features solo speeches by at least three Latinas: U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico.
In an MSNBC interview over the weekend, Castro said he sympathized with organizers who had to figure out a slimmed-down program due to the pandemic. But he said he would “be lying to you if I said that I am not disappointed that there aren’t more Latinos and Latinas generally speaking on that program, and that there’s not a Native American, not a Muslim American.”
“You think about the beautiful coalition that has become the Democratic Party over the last few years — I’m not sure right now it’s fully represented on that stage,” said Castro, who saw firsthand how helpful a prime-time solo speech could be when he delivered the keynote address one night at the 2012 convention.
Texas Democrats will nonetheless get to hear from big names like Castro and O’Rourke during delegation programming hosted by the state party. Castro and O’Rourke, for example, will join Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, and MJ Hegar, Texas’ U.S. Senate nominee, for a panel Thursday evening before the final night of the convention, when Biden speaks.
In at least one case, Republicans have been happy to stoke the drama surrounding Texans and the lineup. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who chairs President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign in Texas, mischievously coopted the #LetBetoSpeak hashtag on Saturday.
“Totally agree the @DNC should #LetBetoSpeak. His ‘Hell yes,’ promise to take away our guns will help us run up the score for @realDonaldTrump in Texas!” Patrick tweeted, referring to O’Rourke’s advocacy for a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons in his 2020 campaign.
To be clear, the convention is not always about elevating speakers from battleground states as much as they are about other aims, such as rewarding loyal supporters or showcasing the past and future leaders of the party. This year’s lineup does show some overtures to states that Democrats want to win, though — both Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin have prime-time solo speeches, for example.
The 2016 convention featured solo speeches by at least three Texans: U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, as well as Lupe Valdez, then the Dallas County sheriff.
In spotlighting Allred and Neave, the convention is boosting two key endorsers for Biden ahead of the Texas primary, which he won as part of a Super Tuesday rout that set him on path to the nomination. Neave was the first state representative to endorse Biden in September 2019, while Allred quickly threw his support to Biden in January after the candidate Allred previously backed, Castro, ended his campaign. Days after endorsing Biden, Allred went to Iowa to campaign for him along with two other members of Congress who flipped their seats in 2018.
It was unclear if Allred or Neave would use their speaking opportunities to tout Texas’ battleground potential. In a tweet Sunday, Allred hewed closely to the advertised theme of the 17-person keynote — the next generation of Democratic leadership — saying, “Young people have always been at the forefront of progress in this country, especially in the last four years, and we will be key in healing the soul of the nation this November.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Julián Castro's name.