Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
The race to chair the Texas Democratic Party is heating up early as the state's Democrats contemplate their future after a disappointing 2020 election — and ahead of a challenging 2022 election.
The current state party leader is Gilberto Hinojosa, who has held the job since 2012 and has indicated he is not going anywhere. But that has not stopped early interest in the race, which will be determined by delegates to the state party's biennial convention next summer.
Kim Olson, the former candidate for agriculture commissioner and Congress, announced Sunday she is running to lead the party, saying the "promise of a Blue Texas has so far fallen short of expectations." Meanwhile, Carroll G. Robinson, chair of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, is considering a campaign for the job and plans to make an announcement in January. And other names have been discussed as potential candidates with still several months to go before the election.
The stakes are considerable. Texas Democrats have been regrouping after a 2020 election during which they thought they were poised for their biggest breakthrough in recent memory, but they came up woefully short. As they have been licking their wounds, they have had to stare down a daunting 2022 election, with a national environment that is not in their favor and state Republicans using the redistricting process to cement GOP majorities in Austin and Washington, D.C.
"We need a course correction because what we are doing has not yielded a statewide win. Period," Olson said in an interview.
She launched her campaign with some 250 endorsements. The endorsers feature 35 county party chairs, including from some of the most populous counties in the state — Tarrant, Denton, Fort Bend and Galveston. The list also includes several members of the State Democratic Executive Committee and a host of Democratic candidates from 2018 and 2020.
Hinojosa was on the hot seat after the 2020 election. A group of State Democratic Executive Committee members wrote him to demand change at the party, and he assembled a committee to do a "deep dive" on what wrong that November. The party released an autopsy in February that concluded Republicans beat them in turnout and partly blamed Democrats' underwhelming results on their decision to suspend in-person campaigning because of the coronavirus pandemic.
At the same time, the state party has been rebuilding its organization chart after the departure of its top two staffers in January.
Publicly, Hinojosa has not given any indication that he is ready to step aside.
"While I sincerely respect anyone who seeks office inside or as a nominee of our Party, I believe I still have much to contribute towards our shared goal of turning Texas blue and I intend to accelerate my commitment to that goal in my role as the Texas Democratic Party Chairman," Hinojosa said in a statement for this story. "Ultimately the delegates will decide, but because we all share the same goal and stand united in this fight to win back the soul of our state, I believe I will continue to have their support."
Olson has been the most visible potential candidate for state party chair so far, announcing an exploratory effort in early October and traveling the state since then.
A retired Air Force colonel who broke barriers as a female pilot, Olson made a name for herself politically with her fiery 2018 challenge to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, which she lost by 5 percentage points. She ran last year to flip the 24th Congressional District, which was being targeted by national Democrats, but lost in a primary runoff.
Olson is leaning on that experience to pitch improved infrastructure for candidates across the state, as well as more support for local party leaders like county chairs. Similarly, she said the state party should be more mindful of how messaging can vary in different parts of Texas. For example, she noted oil-and-gas jobs are often some of the best-paying jobs in the Rio Grande Valley, and Democrats need to be able to explain to voters there how their job fits into the transition to a more environmentally responsible future.
One of Olson's priorities is expanding the party's reach into rural Texas and helping narrow the gap with Republicans who have long run up the score in those areas. Olson, who is from rural Palo Pinto County, said Democrats need to release the "GOP death grip on our rural areas."
"Rural Texas has not been given the attention that’s needed in order to win statewide or federal races," said Nancy Nichols, an SDEC member from East Texas who supports Olson. "Col. Olson recognizes the power that’s wielded in the rural counties, and she’s going to the rural counties. She has been going to the rural counties. She has friends and following in the rural counties … and that’s really critical."
It is not just outreach, though, in Olson's view. She said Democrats need to be more proactive in their messaging instead of getting "rocked back on our heels" by Republican wedge issues, such as the GOP's determination in 2020 to tie Democratic candidates to the "defund the police" movement. She pointed to the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that Biden recently signed into law as an example of an opportunity to go on the offensive against Republicans versus reacting to whatever their latest attack is.
Robinson, meanwhile, has been credited with helping rebuilding the state Coalition of Black Democrats in recent years. He has long been involved in Democratic politics and the legal community in the Houston area, where he has served as an at-large City Council member and Houston Community College trustee. He teaches law at Texas Southern University and once was general counsel to the state party.
Robinson said the state party needs to do a better job providing an "overarching message" for candidates to run under, particularly in places like East Texas and West Texas.
"Democrats need to put together a multiracial, multigenerational, multi-regional coalition across Texas to win statewide races and take back the Texas Legislature, and literally, we've got to do it in 2022, 2024, and we've also got to get ready for the 2030 census and redistricting cycle" that follows, Robinson said.
In addition to Olson and Robinson, the speculation about the state party chair race has included the party's vice chair, Carla Brailey. However, Brailey said Friday she is not looking at running for state party chair at this time and instead is considering a run for lieutenant governor. The filing deadline for that race, which already includes at least three Democrats, is Dec. 13.
Patsy Woods Martin, the former executive director of Annie's List, which works to elect Democratic women in Texas who support abortion rights, said she thought about running for state party chair earlier this year but is dedicating herself to fundraising for gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke.
Manuel Medina, state chair of the Tejano Democrats, acknowledged in an interview that there has been speculation about whether he would run for state party chair, but said he has not considered it and will support Hinojosa for another term.
Despite the discussion about replacing Hinojosa, he still has plenty of allies who appreciate how far the party has come under him.
"I feel like the party is much better off than it was when he took over, that it's grown in terms of resources and impact," said Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO. "While there's challenges, to be sure, he's had a clear vision, and for working people, he's really incorporated our voices into the vision."
Medina, a former chair of the Bexar County party, said Hinojosa has proven he can raise money and build infrastructure to help Democrats make more inroads in Texas.
"At this point, I think it's all in our best interest to stay on the path the chairman set," Medina said.
Medina suggested Democrats' major shortcoming in 2020 — eschewing in-person campaigning — was because of a "national strategy" and not the fault of Hinojosa. While that strategy might have been enough to get Joe Biden elected president, Medina said, "in states like ours, block walking would've made all the difference in the world and led to a Democratic majority in the state House."
A new generation?
Whoever runs, the race is bound to be shaped by questions about who is best positioned to lead a party that continues to see its future in young people and people of color. In the near term, that is especially relevant as Republicans make a serious push next year across predominantly Hispanic South Texas.
Olson, who is white, said she is "a smart enough woman to hire what I'm not" and promised to appoint party officers who "will not look like, sound like or be me." She is also said she is committed to ensuring a man of color is elected vice chair. (The vice chair position is required to go to someone from the opposite gender of the chair, and while they do not formally run as a ticket, they can choose to do so.)
Activists are well aware that the next leader will have to articulate how to bridge various generations within the party.
"We need to have a long and hard look at a leader who is going to recognize the issues of the present, the capabilities of the future, while still being respectful of the people who've been doing the work for a long time," said Jen Ramos, an SDEC member from Central Texas who helped organize the letter to Hinojosa after the 2020 election. "For me, I think, with this chair race, it's one, what is the definition of winning for our chair candidates, and two, how are we going to accept our weaknesses as much as our strengths as we move into the next election and post-redistricting."
To some Democrats, the conversation about Hinojosa's future is broader than the 2020 election debacle and more of a natural outgrowth from his nearly decadelong tenure. Over the same period, the Republican Party of Texas has seen five chairs.
André Treiber, a Texas representative on the Democratic National Committee, said "a lot has happened" at the state party over the past 10 years, both ups and downs, and the "longer you're in these kinds offices, you're gonna stack up more people who feel strongly about it." He said he has talked to people who have "very, very, very strong feelings" on both sides of the debate over whether Hinojosa is the best person to chair the party going forward.
"It's certainly enough that I'm very, very confident that a lot of party positions will be highly contested at the convention," Treiber said. "[It's] just kind of the nature of things as Texas gets more competitive, as we get more national investment. I think that makes people tune in more."
Disclosure: Annie's List and Houston Community College have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.