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Why State Conventions, Besides the Funny Hats?

Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune

Are political conventions necessary?

Texas Democrats are in Houston for their state convention. Texas Republicans are in Fort Worth for the same thing. The Libertarians are meeting this weekend near DFW Airport, and the Green Party is having its convention outside of San Antonio.

It’s actually easier to make the convention case for the Libertarians and the Greens, who use their gatherings to put people on the ballot, because they don’t hold primary elections.

The two major parties, on the other hand, held their primaries on May 29 and will sort out the remaining 37 contests in runoffs on July 31. The conventioneers don’t have anything to do with that, except when they vote back home.

They are at their conventions to elect the officers of their party, the executive committee members who meet periodically to handle party business, and to pick the delegates and others who will get passes and floor and voting rights at the national conventions this summer. Whether those conventions are still necessary is another open question, but this is about the state contests.

How many people does this take?

Is this a scam invented by the state’s convention and visitors bureaus and the rest of the travel industry?

Is it designed just to get some attention and publicity for the parties and candidates? To get the party faithful ginned up for the remaining five months of the political season? To make money?

And, as a selfish and personal side note, how is it that both of the political parties landed their conventions in the only two places in Texas with Major League Baseball teams, on a weekend when the Astros and the Rangers are, respectively, in Chicago and San Francisco? Do the teams know something we don’t? Do the planners want everyone to concentrate and avoid sports and other amusements?

State conventions don’t usually make news — other than the perfunctory official business stories — unless candidates say amazing things or partisans get into arguments.

Texas Democrats have historically made news with their intramural fights, where two caucuses take opposite positions and put everyone else in the party on edge, or when two or more groups contend to represent the same part of the party.

Texas Republicans almost always make news with their platform, which is full of specific programs and planks that spook candidates and other Republicans alike.

The Democrats have a long list of weird caucuses. The Republicans fly their colors in their platform. These are conventions, after all, for the most Republican Republicans and the most Democratic Democrats. They are fervent, like ham radio operators or model rocketeers, quilters or comic book collectors.

The conventions rally the faithful. Like those various and numerous rabid hobbyists, political people find comfort with members of their own herd. It’s not appropriate in most other settings to put on that vest with 57 different campaign buttons, that bowler with the red, white and blue sequins, or the old Ross Perot T-shirt.

And the conventions do give the partisans a chance to see many of the people on their ticket, like them or not. But not the big dogs: Mitt Romney didn’t schedule a visit to the Republican convention in Fort Worth. President Obama wasn’t planning a stop in Houston. Unless they’re looking for money, presidential candidates from both parties ignore us, assuming that the state will hand its electoral votes to whatever Republican gets the nomination. That’s been a safe bet for more than 30 years.

These can be risky places even for the locals. On Thursday, the audience at the Republican convention roared with boos when Gov. Rick Perry reasserted his support for Lt. Gov, David Dewhurst, who is facing former Solicitor Ted Cruz in a runoff in the GOP race for U.S. Senate. 

Tough crowd.

Soon, they’ll be gone. The Fort Worth Convention Center will get ready for real estate asset managers and then for a Jehovah’s Witnesses convention. Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center will get the State Bar and then a gun and knife show.

The delegates, energized and/or exhausted, will pack up the vests and funny hats and get to work on elections, safe in the knowledge that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves.

Ross Ramsey is managing editor of The Texas Tribune and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. Texas Weekly was a print-only journal when he took the reins in 1998; he switched it to a subscription-based, internet-only journal by the end of 2004 without a significant loss in subscribers. As Texas Weekly's primary writer for 11 years, he turned out roughly 2 million words in more than 500 editions, added an online library of resources and documents and items of interest to insiders, and a daily news clipping service that links to stories from papers across Texas. Before joining Texas Weekly in September 1998, Ramsey was associate deputy comptroller for policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's director of communications. Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin bureau chief. Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas.
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