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At convention in El Paso, Texas Democrats share cautious optimism and dire warnings about November

A blue sign reads "Texas is the biggest battleground state."
Julián Aguilar
/
The Texas Newsroom
Texas Democrats wrapped up their 2024 convention in El Paso on Saturday. The three-day convention featured the party rallying their base while pushing back against what Democrats call a new level of Republican extremism.

Texas Democrats wrapped up their biennial convention in El Paso Saturday with a mix of hope and pragmatism about the party’s future in the Lone Star State, while also warning attendees that Texas could slip towards authoritarianism if Republicans remain in power for too much longer.

The three-day convention came as Democrats are trying to rally their base ahead of the 2024 election and turn apathy into action, even as the number of seats they hold in state and federal offices pale compared to their Republican rivals.

“We cannot let [Republicans] continue taking us down this dark path. We can’t,” said U.S. Rep Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, from the convention mainstage. “The decision and the choice could not be more clear.”

Escobar, a national co-chair on President Joe Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign, acknowledged some Democrats don’t share her anxiety about the state or country's future. Without directly acknowledging Biden's underwater approval ratings, she said it’s on party leaders to ensure voters don’t stay home in November.

“There are a lot of voters out there who don’t feel the sense of urgency that we feel, and we got to talk to every single one of them,” said Escobar. “We need to make sure that we don’t wake up with the same level of dread and horror that we woke up with the day after Donald Trump was elected.”

Part of the effort to bolster their ranks includes defeating Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in November. Cruz, a two-term member of Congress' upper chamber, faces U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, who called Cruz “the ultimate ‘Me’ guy” during a speech Friday night.

“No one is more self-serving, more disconnected from Texans, than Ted Cruz,” said Allred. “This is a guy who spends hundreds of hours podcasting because he thinks the sound of his own voice is more important than doing the work for Texas families.”

Outnumbered at the state Capitol

In Austin, Democrats represent only 64 of the 150 seats in the Texas House, and 12 of 31 seats in the Texas Senate. That has allowed the Republican majority to easily pass their priority legislation, including Texas’ near total ban on abortion, state-based immigration policies, easier access to guns and changes to voting laws. They’ve also promised to pass legislation next year that will funnel tax dollars to pay for private school tuition.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, is hopeful change will eventually happen – that is, if Democrats continue to work on their ground game and stay on message.

A piñata of a man wearing a suit with a red time.
Julián Aguilar
/
The Texas Newsroom
A Ted Cruz piñata seen at an evening event during the Texas Democratic Convention in El Paso.

“We didn’t lose this Democratic majority overnight, we’re not going to win in back overnight, but we’re going to be consistent,” he told The Texas Newsroom.

Addressing why he and other Democrats butt heads with Republican leadership, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Martinez Fisher said "It’s pretty simple: the governor thinks he’s God – I don’t.”

Despite being vastly outnumbered in the state legislature, Martinez Fischer told convention attendees he thinks Democrats will still have a voice – at least in the Texas House – when lawmakers reconvene in Austin next year. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has been slammed by members of his own party for appointing several Democrats as committee chairs and working with some members of the minority party on legislation. Phelan narrowly defeated his primary challenger, but at least two Republicans have said they plan to challenge him for his speaker role come 2025.

Martinez Fischer said Democrats will still have a say on who will be the next speaker.

“We have 64 reasons why we should be part of that discussion and it’s our hope and expectation that we’ll grow those [Texas House] seats this November,” he said. “We will have discussions with anybody that recognizes the value of the Democratic caucus.”

‘The elephant in the womb’

No issue was discussed more at the Texas Democratic Convention than access to abortion and the state’s near-total ban on the procedure.

“We know there is a MAGA elephant in our womb. That is denying us the freedom to access the health care services we need to thrive,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said Friday night. “There are too many people in our state who lack access to contraceptives, affordable reproductive care and products that are necessary to take care of themselves and their families. Texas can and must do better.”

In late May, the Texas Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit brought by a group of women who had medical complications while pregnant. The lawsuit sought clarity on when doctors could terminate a pregnancy when the life or health of the mother was in jeopardy.

The lead plaintiff in the case, Amanda Zurawski, retold delegates how she was hospitalized and nearly died after doctors refused to perform an abortion even though her daughter, Willow, would not survive.

"There are too many people in our state who lack access to contraceptives, affordable reproductive care and products that are necessary to take care of themselves and their families." — State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin

“The near-total abortion ban had gone into effect just two days after my water broke. Ending the pregnancy would have been an illegal abortion, and my doctor would be at risk of loss of her license and even jail time,” she said. “So, I was told to wait until I got so sick that my life was considered in danger.”

Zurawski, who’s now an activist and advocate, warned that state Republicans will go even further if given the chance.

“The court erased us from the opinion and refused to even acknowledge the harm and suffering that was done to us. But we will not be erased,” she said. “Meanwhile, the Texas GOP has endorsed a platform that gives full personhood to embryos and deems an abortion homicide. This means that under Texas law, my embryos have more rights than I do.”

Supporters of abortion access also teamed up with members of the LGBTQ+ community to push back against proposals Democrats say would marginalize some Texans even more. Planned Parenthood of Texas and the Texas Stonewall Democrats sponsored a “drag out the vote” party Thursday to champion LGBTQ+ rights, political representation and an increase in voter turnout.

“The key issue of this election cycle is absolutely a combination of abortion access in the state of Texas and LGBTQ freedom,” said Drucilla Tigner, the co-executive director at Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. “Every single event we do at Planned Parenthood – and every single event we do in support of the LGBTQ community – is about showing how important and how normal it is to be in spaces like this.”

Brigitte Bandit, a performer suing the state over its drag ban, was one of the performers at the event. Bandit sued the state after the Texas Legislature passed legislation to ban some drag performances in Texas. The law was eventually blocked in court.

The future of public education in Texas

Republicans will head back to Austin next year laser focused on passing legislation to allow public tax dollars to go toward private school tuition, what Democrats call a “voucher scam.”

The March primary and subsequent runoff elections saw several Republicans who didn’t support the measure, one of Gov. Abbott’s top priorities, lose reelection. That was due, in part, to Abbott’s revenge tour on the campaign trail where he targeted lawmakers who didn’t fall in line with his wishes.

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, praised the grassroots effort to defeat the legislation several times last year. But at the convention, she warned that math wasn’t in the opponents’ favor anymore.

“Abbott went scorched earth on his own party, taking out anti-voucher Republicans. And the result is that our anti-voucher coalition is now three votes behind,” she said. “To put it another way: We need to elect about three more Democrats to the Texas House to defeat vouchers and defend our neighborhood public schools.”

Access to guns in the Lone Star State

The convention kicked off in El Paso less than two months from when the city will mark the five-year anniversary of the day a white supremacist gunman drove from North Texas to El Paso to kill Hispanics. The massacre at a Walmart store killed 23 people and wounded dozens more.

David Hogg, a gun-control activist who survived the mass shooting in 2018 at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, told delegates and other party faithful that they can’t give up on enacting safer gun laws in Texas.

A makeshift memorial for El Paso Walmart shooting victims as seen in 2019. Signs of support include flowers and stuffed animals, candles, crosses and religious items.
Stella Chavez
/
KERA
A memorial in El Paso, seen here just days after the 2019 mass shooting at a crowded Walmart.

“Despite it being a Republican-led legislature, we raised the age to buy a gun [in Florida] to 21, and we passed a red flag law that can disarm people that are at risk to themselves and others, he said.

Hogg said opponents of stricter gun laws fall back on treating mass shootings as a mental-illness problem and not a gun problem. He said that narrative needs to change.

“The shooter in El Paso, yes, he was obviously mentally ill if you're going to go and do that. But ultimately, his motivations were not mental illness. It was white supremacy. It was hatred,” Hogg said. “Hatred is not a mental illness. It is something that is learned. And we got to stop using mental illness as a scapegoat to avoid talking about how these shootings happened.”

Immigration and Biden's new executive order

Most of the Texas Democrats at the convention were part of a bloc that railed against former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including those banning asylum claims for some migrants and forcing tens of thousands to stay in Mexico while awaiting their asylum hearings.

Just days before the convention began, President Biden issued an executive order that prevents migrants from making asylum claims when unauthorized crossings peak, as well as ordering the rapid removal of most migrants before they are allowed to seek relief in the United States.

“I hope that, if nothing else, it helps him – and by extension, this country – politically.” — Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke on President Biden's executive order on asylum

It caused outrage among some party faithful and advocacy networks in Texas, but several Democrats took a softer tone during their time in El Paso.

Martinez Fischer said the order was part of Biden’s reaction to Republicans in Washington killing a bipartisan bill that would have provided more resources to the border, sealed off asylum claims amid a surge in unauthorized crossings and increased efforts to combat trafficking of fentanyl and other illicit substances.

“I think what you see in the president's executive actions, you see a lot of frustration,” he said. “Republicans walking away. [The order] is not perfect. People aren't happy with it, but he recognizes it. If he has to wait for Republicans to come around, we'll be waiting a very, very long time. So, listen, you know, you take the good with the bad.”

After the executive order was issued, Escobar said she was disappointed but recognized why Biden did what he did.

“While I understand the administration is doing its best to navigate this challenge without adequate resources and appropriate legislation, I am disappointed that the focus today is only on enforcement,” she said.

El Pasoan and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who spoke at the convention on Friday, said Biden’s move only made sense politically.

“I hope that – if nothing else – it helps him and by extension this country, politically,” he said. “Practically speaking, as an El Pasoan, as a fronterizo, we know that limiting opportunities for people to legally seek asylum is just going to make this problem worse.”