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Texas Democrats Elect Their First Hispanic Chairman

Marjorie Kamys Cotera for Texas Tribune
June 9th, 2012: Newly elected Chair of the Texas Democratic Party Gilberto Hinojosa.

Texas Democrats, trying to compete in a state that overwhelmingly favors Republican candidates for executive, legislative and judicial offices, elected their first Hispanic chairman Saturday.

In a reflection of the state’s burgeoning Hispanic growth and the party’s longtime success with Latinos, delegates overwhelmingly elected Gilberto Hinojosa as the next party chairman. He will replace outgoing chairman Boyd Richie, who announced in April 2011 that he would not seek another term after six years on the job.

Hinojosa successfully breathed some life into the sparse crowd on the convention floor with a fiery speech before the delegates cast an overwhelming majority of votes in his favor.

In a hoarse but booming voice, Hinojosa, who has served as a Brownsville school trustee, state district judge, justice on the state's 13th Court of Appeals, and Cameron County Judge, lambasted Republicans for proclaiming Democrats as un-American for their efforts to expand health care, uphold voting rights in Texas and fund public education.

“This is a war, folks. This is a war that the Republicans have waged on our families in Texas and all across America,” he shouted from the stage. “We are a compassionate people. We don’t believe in pulling up the ladder after we reach the top.”

Then touting his Latino roots, the judge offered a the crowd a rallying cry in Spanish.

Yo no quiero que me den nada, nada más pónganme en donde hay: (Don’t give me anything. Just give me the opportunity to get it.),” he said. “That is what America is all about. That is what our Democratic Party is all about. Those are our values and, dammit, don’t question my patriotism.”

The Democrats heard fiery speeches from U.S. Reps. Al Green, Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee — all from Houston, then short pitches from a lineup of Democrats challenging incumbent Republicans.

The theme was consistent: Democrats are down but don't want to be counted out.

Their judicial candidates got a little time, including Keith Hampton, who's running against Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He said he can win the race, but only if he can get enough money to remind voters about the story of Michael Wayne Richard, who was executed when his lawyers missed a court deadline for a last appeal. They blamed Keller, who told them the court closed at 5 p.m. and refused to accept the filing. She got a "public warning" from the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct. Hampton thinks voters will pick him over the incumbent if they connect the story and her name, and is trying to get Democratic financiers on board, so far with no luck.

He told the delegates that Democratic judges can win in presidential election years if they've got flawed Republican opponents. Now, he said, everything is in place but the money.

Former state Rep. Paul Sadler, who's in a runoff with educator Grady Yarbrough for the party's U.S. Senate nomination, echoed that, calling Hampton an obvious choice if voters know anything about the candidates. But they have to know, and that takes money.

"We've been lulled to sleep by superwealthy candidates and by a few wealthy supporters," he said. "If I could write my own script, it would be a million voters each giving $10."

For a candidate without the money to advertise, the gathering in Houston was useful, he said.

"Everybody's here in one place," Sadler said. "That's the advantage of holding a convention. I tell people that running for Senate in Texas is an exercise in driving eight hours and speaking for four minutes."

Sadler didn't weigh in on the Republican runoff between David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz, saying he has no idea who will win. But he said Dewhurst is qualified to be a senator because he has served in office, while Cruz, in his view, is not. "If you've never served in office, we don't know what you're going to do," he said. "You don't know what you're going to do."

The most endangered Democrat in the Texas Senate this election year is probably Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and the Democrats gave her some time in the spotlight. She said her biography — a single mother at 19, living in a trailer park, working through junior college, college and Harvard Law School — wouldn't be possible under the policies of Republican officeholders.

Many of the candidates, officeholders and delegates at the convention were talking about the party's political viability and the torrent of news stories asking whether the Democrats are competitive any more in Texas.

"When I hear what's going on at the Republican convention, it doesn't sound like the best of times to me," said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. "It sounds like that party has been pulled farther to the right and away from the mainstream, away from where everyday Texans are."

He pointed to Dallas County, which flipped from the GOP to the Democrats over the last decade, as an example. And he said the Democrats need to keep putting up decent candidates and they'll eventually win.

"We're ready to lead. We have the candidates and in some cases, superior candidates," Anchia said. "When parties dominate, they get complacent, a little bit sloppy."

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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.
Julian Aguilar covered the 81st legislative session for the Rio Grande Guardian. Previously, he reported from the border for the Laredo Morning Times. A native of El Paso, he has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Texas and a master's degree in journalism from the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas.