Democracy is messy. It doesn't have to be sloppy.
Three takeaways from the 2018 Democratic Party of Texas Convention.
Thousands of delegates from more than 250 Texas counties converged on Fort Worth, Texas in late June for the Democratic Party state convention and as the idiom goes, the devil is in the details.
We all agree that this is a critical time in American politics. The Republicans, under the direction of U.S. President Donald Trump and Fox News, appear to have unfettered access to the tools necessary to destroy the foundations of American democracy.
And if the Democratic National Committee seems hopelessly reactive, nowhere is its struggle more apparent than in its sputtering ability to inspire voters.
The American people are hungry for change, desperate to take the reins of power from the raging cadre of sociopaths and demagogues who currently hold them. But is the Democratic Party strong enough, focused enough, organized enough to lead the people in this crucial fight for the American soul?
If the Texas Democratic Party convention held in Cowtown is any indication, the answer is yes. The Democratic Party is full of talented, driven people with sincere commitments to the American people and American democracy.
But, while the will and wherewithal are there, the way is rife with gullies.
As a first-time delegate from Bexar County, I got to see firsthand how the state Democratic Party conducts its business. And let’s just say there is room for improvement. Below are three revelations that in my humble opinion hamper the party’s effectiveness:
New to the game, I was surprised to learn that the party honors an old “gentlemen’s” agreement that, although not codified in party rules, makes the election of the party’s vice chair the responsibility of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, an official party caucus. The party’s chairperson is selected at the General Session.
It’s confusing, but this is how it was explained to me: Apparently, the state Democratic party leadership was historically lily white and male. Clearly, there was a need for diversity. Under the gentleman’s agreement, one delegate explained, the black caucus would vote for the state party’s vice chair, ensuring African American representation at the top of the party. If an African American ran for and happened to win the chair position, then… well, I’m still not clear about that. But, as luck would have it, a black male candidate did run for chair this year. But the black caucus still voted on the three black female candidates.
I became more confused when a female Hispanic candidate ran for vice chair but did not address the black caucus. She did address one of the Hispanic caucuses that I attended. The chairman of that caucus urged its members to vote a strategy that neither or I nor caucus members quite grasped. “Trust me,” said the chair.
The agreement seemed to be straining relationships, which seemed contrary to its goal. A delegate who asked not to be named alleges that, under the agreement, the responsibility to elect the vice chair was supposed to switch between the black caucus and the Hispanic caucus every two years. This source alleges that the black caucus failed to relinquish the responsibility as agreed and that this year it was supposed to be the Hispanic caucus’s turn to pick the vice chair. There is no way to test the truth of those claims because - and this is important - it’s not in the rules.
This year, three highly educated, accomplished African American women vied for the vice chair seat and in the humble opinion of this delegate, any one of them could win soundly against any candidate just by following party rules.
There were also mumbling about similar gentlemen's agreements regarding urban/rural representation. I had already learned from the racial agreement that no amount of questions on my part would clarify those agreements, and since I couldn’t consult the rules for guidance, I didn’t bother.
VERDICT: HOT MESS. Abolish all gentlemen’s agreements and follow the rules.
…So, do we really need to hear 30 speakers repeating the same talking point?
I joined about 30 other delegates from across the state on the resolutions committee. Our job was to review 100 resolutions adopted at county conventions and decide if they should be adopted by the Democratic Party of Texas. We completed 40. We did not even look at 60.
Yes, it was a rewarding experience. Yes, the chair of the committee, Vicky Vogel, did a remarkable job of moving forward briskly without sacrificing substance. (In fact, she and other executive committee members had already done a lot of the heavy lifting before the convention, editing and culling the hundreds of resolutions sent to the state party executive committee in May.) Yes, I learned a lot and met some incredible people. But we were given less than five hours to complete a job that required double that.
VERDICT: LESS TALK MORE ACTION. The party should allot more time to administrative and governing tasks and less time to speakers with nothing new to add to the discussion.
The effectiveness of any gathering depends on its members knowing – and following – rules of order. I admit it can be highly entertaining watching a hapless parliamentarian struggling to manage delegates who endlessly repeat themselves, hold on to the floor despite having nothing to say, react to every motion as a personal affront, or speak in whispers from the back of the room when it’s their turn to address the assembly.
But it’s not good governing. Given that so little time was available for truly substantive work, it became painful to watch how valuable time seeped away from convention business because delegates didn’t know or follow the rules.
In the resolution committee, some delegates’ only contributions to the process were sarcastic comments before they left the committee about an hour after it started. Maybe they thought the committee was going to be more of a gabfest than what it turned out to be and decided they would rather be doing something else.
But as far as I know, there is no way to rate their performances or keep them from joining another committee in the future. And something tells me that there are many Democrats who would enjoy the intellectual exercises and challenges of serving on a party committee. The Democratic Party just doesn’t know who they are. That’s a wasted opportunity.
VERDICT: LEARN THE RULES OR STAY HOME. The party should train its delegates in effective parliamentary procedure and encourage more participation at the county level to allow delegates to gain experience to make better use of valuable time.
So, those are my observations. The party is great, but it can do better.