What’s new about the Texas Democrats?

I started my coverage of the Texas Democratic Party Convention in Houston June 8-9 by interviewing a longtime political activist who is now a delegate from Fort Worth, but says he wouldn’t have gone near the Democratic Party when he began in 1960. “Neither John nor Dick” was their slogan as John Kennedy and Dick Nixon slugged it out for the presidency, Rios says.

But today, Rios says the Democratic Party is the major hope for Americans hoping to get jobs and keep or extend life-saving benefits such as health care and Social Security. After we talked, I decided to investigate the changes in the Texas Democratic Party.

Old timers remember when the Democratic Party of Texas was the party of reaction. This was true, they say, from before the Civil War until the 1960s. After the Voting Rights Act was passed (by Texas Democrat Lyndon Johnson), the Dixiecrats started voting Republican and the tiny progressive wing began to overtake the Texas Democratic Party. During the 1980s, the last of the ultra-reactionaries became Republicans and the more progressive wing completed its ascendancy.

No one is asserting that the Texas Democrats have transcended capitalism, but those who deny that there had been changes are mistaken. The election of working people and minorities is one of the most obvious changes. The first African American Congresswoman, Barbara Jordan, took office in the late 1960s. Minorities now regularly win federal and state offices in Texas. Nearly all of them are Democrats.

The largest caucus at the state Democratic convention was the Black Caucus. The second largest was the labor caucus. Other big ones were the veterans caucus, the women’s caucus, and the Stonewall Democrats (gay) caucus. Seniors had two caucuses of substantial size.

Just to put a punctuation point on this change in the state party, state leadership was chosen on June 9th. Gilberto Hinojosa is the new state chair. He is the first Latino, the first non-Anglo state chair ever. His vice chair is an African American woman.

On June 7, the major Houston newspaper published the headline, “Thousands of Democrats Come to Houston. Why Bother?” They referred to big-money Republican domination of state elections for the last 20 years. The answer to their question lay in the makeup of the delegation, the programs they selected, and the leadership they chose.

Photo: Jim Lane/PW