A Democratic Outlook
By Chris Bell
Mon, 01/07/2008 - 10:30am
It’s funny what you end up recalling from a long statewide campaign. You have literally thousands of conversations along the way and there’s no way to remember all of them, but some stay in your mind as if they took place yesterday.
One such brief conversation occurred very early in the exploratory phase of the race for governor. It was late September of 2004 and my good friend, Claudia Stravato, had organized a series of events in Amarillo. She was one of the first to encourage me to consider running statewide, so I asked her to help me test my message outside of Houston.
The last event that day was a gathering of the local Democratic club at the downtown library. It could not have been any better attended; they had to bring in extra chairs and there were still people standing.
It was one of those great nights when everything seems to go just right. There was a tremendous feeling of excitement in the air. The Democratic Party was coming off a great national convention in Boston and while the polls were still close, it looked very much like John Kerry was destined to win that November. The crowd laughed and cheered and seemed most excited when I told them I felt very confident about our chances for a Kerry victory.
After the speech, a lot of people approached to wish me well. One older gentleman shook my hand and said, “I hope you’re right. If Kerry doesn’t win, it will take the wind out of all of these people’s sails.”
I guess what he said stuck with me because I didn’t agree with him. Of course I knew people would be disappointed if John Kerry lost but I figured even if that happened, most folks would soon get up from the mat and be ready to fight another day. As my exploratory effort began in earnest following the 2004 election, I would learn just how wrong I was and how right the gentleman in Amarillo had been.
And the loss of wind was not restricted to the Texas Panhandle. Democratic sails had emptied all across the Lone Star State. As I got on the phone early in 2005 seeking to build support for 2006, I encountered one discouraged Democrat after another. Having lost all recent statewide races and now having once again lost the presidency, most were ready to throw in the towel. One friend who had always been terribly committed and active in the Party told me that he was so depressed, he wasn’t even going to read the newspaper anymore and wasn’t going to have anything to do with politics whatsoever. While he may have been a somewhat extreme case, his feelings weren’t very out of line with much of what I was hearing on a regular basis: Most Democrats had simply given up.
I share all of this to illustrate how incredibly far we have come in just a couple of years. The difference between then and now could not be starker and I, along with many others, could not be any more optimistic about the future of the Democratic Party either here in Texas or across the country. What happened?
Well, as I often said out on the campaign trail, the cure for what was ailing us was victory, and one part of our state that had enjoyed some but not a great deal of Democratic success seemed to understand that very clearly. Dallas County Democrats had won a few recent county-wide races; so instead of giving up, they came into 2005 and 2006 ready to work their tails off.
Since I was constantly traveling throughout the state, I was always looking for signs of life and excitement. It would be unfair to pretend that Dallas was all alone but from very early on in the cycle, one could sense a very different atmosphere there. Meetings of Young Democrats would be standing room only, it seemed like every other person you met was running for judge or some other office, and there was always a feeling of confidence among the Party activists.
I’ll never forget the last weekend of early voting in Dallas County, what they called “Super Sunday.” Local candidates had fanned out across the city to visit a number of different churches and buses were parked at some of the larger ones, waiting to take people to the polls. When we showed up at one of the early voting sites, the line went on for almost six blocks. It was a very warm October day and most folks were still in their church clothes but despite the long wait to vote, no one was leaving. Meanwhile, every local television station was there to cover what was happening; imagine what a positive message that must have sent to Democrats who watched the news that night.
The rest is history, of course. Dallas County Democrats won every single race in 2006. Meanwhile, six Texas House seats were shifting from Republican to Democratic hands and both the United States House and Senate were going from R to D.
People in Texas woke up after the 2006 election and realized a new day had dawned. Gone was the skepticism and despair which had driven us to our lowest point. People all across the state were ready to fight another day.
Nowhere has the awakening been any greater than here at home in Harris County. Shortly after the 2006 election, after seeing the successful effort in Dallas County, a committee was formed to try to recruit judicial candidates since that had been so difficult in the past. There was no need for a recruitment committee. People were lining up to run for judge in Harris County and now there will be contested Democratic Primary races for a large number of benches. We also have great candidates for every other county office.
The Harris County Democratic Party’s Johnson Rayburn Dinner had attracted 300 or so people in 2006. In 2007, over 800 people purchased tickets and the ballroom was packed to the gills. I was honored to have been asked to emcee the event and for weeks thereafter, people were telling me they had seen me there. What was so encouraging was that I don’t think many of the people telling me that had attended a Democratic event in years.
For those who think that sort of evidence is questionable, think again. One of the Texas counties that dramatically increased Democratic performance in 2006 was Collin. I vividly recall a July 2006 rally in Plano. It was a Saturday and they were experiencing yet another 100-plus degree day in that famous bastion of Republicanism. I braced for a disaster. Well, more than 600 people showed up that day to hear Senate candidate Barbara Ann Radnofsky and me and the room was on fire in more ways than one. A political reporter from the Dallas Morning News couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
So when folks tell you that all the excitement swirling around the Democratic Party today won’t translate into big change come November, don’t believe them. That’s how change happens in political parties. We had to hit bottom before we could start building back up. And people were going to have to see a real chance for success and get excited before the pace of the building process would dramatically increase.
Even the news media, usually the last to realize major political shifts, seems to see what is happening. The tone of the stories being written as the 2008 election cycle gets underway is completely different than what we have seen in recent years. The Republican Party is no longer being treated as invincible and the newfound optimism of Democrats is being reflected.
And, of course, the Republican Party is doing everything it can to help us along the way. Speaker Tom “Absolute Power” Craddick continues to provide us with great fodder and now that Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal has e-mailed his way to retirement, people see yet another hypocritical Republican falling off his moral high-horse. Republicans now have knives out for each other like never before and seem quite intent upon destroying themselves from the inside out. Let’s not get in their way.
It will not be easy to completely recapture majority status in Texas and it won’t all happen in one election cycle. But 2008 holds great promise for Democrats if we can maintain the excitement we now see all around us. In other words, our sails are now full of wind. Let’s keep them that way.