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Texas Democrats Aim For A Bright Future


We've got a series going this week, Texas 20/20, bringing into focus the politics and demographics of a state where the Latino population is growing fast. Texas is a Republican stronghold, and has been for years. Still, the rising number of Latinos offers Democrats an opening. This morning, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports on the current state of the Democratic Party.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: It's not easy being a Democrat in Texas. You're like an armadillo crossing a six-lane superhighway, running as fast as you can from the Republican 18-wheelers coming at 70 miles an hour. Most of the time, you're road kill. But last week, a tiny ray of hope peeked from behind the curtain of political irrelevancy, an attempt to derail one of the nation's most restrictive abortion bills, Democratic Senator Wendy Davis took to the floor in a desperate filibuster.

And as she spoke hour after hour, thousands of women from around the state began to fill up the Capital to stand with Wendy Davis.


GOODWYN: Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst tried in vain to get control of the chamber, but it was like trying to legislate inside a tornado. As the last seconds of the legislative special session wound down to midnight, thousands of women inside the Capital took up the count.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Five, four, three, two, one.


GOODWYN: It was as good a moment as Texas Democrats have had in 20 years. San Antonio State Senator Leticia Van de Putte played a key role that day.

STATE SENATOR LETICIA VAN DE PUTTE: Continuing that fight was a symbol of we're not buried. We're not going down. And it was the public that came to Wendy's rescue.

GOODWYN: But what happened next is emblematic of the Democrat's situation in Texas. Just when you think you've crossed the highway, here comes another GOP truck. The next day, while Democrats were celebrating their modest win, Governor Rick Perry simply called another special session. This time, the Republican legislature will pass their abortion bill, and splat will go the Democrats again.

Still, there are objective reasons for them to have hope long term, and their names are Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso and Mayor Annise Parker's city of Houston.

MAYOR ANNISE PARKER: The big cities in Texas are Democratic islands in the big red sea, and those Democratic islands are growing. Yes, we've had a long walk in the wilderness, and I don't think we're out of the wilderness yet.

GOODWYN: But now, the Democratic organizing effort called Battleground Texas is proposing to change all that, using the same kind of organizing effort that twice elected President Barack Obama, former Obama organizers are coming to Texas for the long haul. Mayor Parker wants to believe...

PARKER: Battleground Texas is saying they will bring the resources into Texas to do the work that needs to be done. Show me the money.

GOODWYN: Parker is a political realist. Nearly 40 percent of Houston's population is Hispanic, but they currently comprise just 12 percent of the vote. Solving this Latino turnout problem is the pot at the end of the Democratic rainbow, the donkey holy grail. Parker says nothing's going to change unless the Democrats organize Hispanics full time, not just around elections.

PARKER: Part of that is age. The Latino population here is very young. Part of it is citizenship, and part of it is simply generational.

GOODWYN: But Parker says the Democrats are advancing on the Texas GOP.

PARKER: The gains by Democrats are not because we are doing such an amazing job of organizing. It's because the Republicans charge farther and farther and farther to the right until they drive themselves off the edge of the cliff.

GOODWYN: A study of Texas demographics and voting patterns by the Houston Chronicle concluded the state will be a tossup by 2024, but that's 11 years from now, a lifetime in politics. Anything could happen. Jason Stanford is a Democratic political consultant and liberal columnist. Stanford says no way are Texas Democrats going to wait that long before making it competitive.

JASON STANFORD: It's just work. Good lord, you know, when someone went to the moon, they called Texas. I'm not daunted by the size of the task. I'm daunted by an endemic sense of pessimism among Texas Democrats. We think we can't because we haven't.

GOODWYN: Jason Stanford, Wendy Davis and the Castro brothers from San Antonio, Leticia Van de Putte and Annise Parker, they are the next generation of Texas Democrats. They're heir to a political heritage that traces from Governor Ann Richards through U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough back to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, not to mention a lanky, backwater politician known for his arm-twisting savoir faire called LBJ.

These young Democrats say they're ready to fight. They better be, because they're going to get one. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

MONTAGNE: Later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the Texas 20/20 series takes a look at the Texas Republican Party. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.