Maxey Goes Statewide?
Is an openly gay Austin liberal the answer to rebuilding the state Democratic Party?
Can an openly gay Austin liberal lead the Texas Democratic Party into the 21st century? That depends on which of the party's delegates show up to vote at the state convention June 8-10 in Fort Worth, where former state Rep. Glen Maxey hopes to capture the party's chairmanship over his leading opponent, Young County lawyer Boyd Richie; and a third candidate, San Antonio lawyer Charlie Urbina-Jones.
At first blush, a party loyalist might be inclined to believe Maxey can't possibly win the chairman's post. Richie enters the race with an inside edge: he was a state party executive committee member before his recent ascension to interim chair, a post he assumed with the early departure of former chairman Charles Soechting. Richie also has wrapped up key endorsements from Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, and state House leaders such as Jim Dunnam of Waco and Garnet Coleman of Houston.
There could be other factors in play to work against Maxey. While his sexual orientation may be a nonissue in Travis County, it could be a huge issue for delegates in rural and suburban corners of the state. Insiders also point to Maxey's reputation for having a long memory he doesn't easily forget slights as a possible knock against his candidacy. Additionally, Maxey's recent reputation also hangs on two high-profile campaigns that failed miserably at the polls the uphill fight last year to defeat the statewide marriage amendment; and, locally, the clean-water, clean-government proposition election earlier this month, which failed to gain communitywide traction and splintered the enviro/progressive community in one of the nastiest family feuds in recent history.
Then again, there were plenty of naysayers who said Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate, could never win his bid to chair the Democratic National Committee, and he went on to beat a handful of other national candidates, including former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost (who's now a Richie backer). Maxey, who served as state director for the Dean campaign, credits the DNC chair for teaching him the value of building a party at the local level, precinct by precinct. That's what he intends to do if he wins the state-party post.
In an interview shortly after the city election, on the same day a Statesman editorial blasted his handling of both the statewide and city campaigns, Maxey acknowledged some hurt feelings over the daily's sharp admonitions but tried to brush off the criticism nonetheless. "I won't let the outcome of two proposition elections mar my history," he said. "I have a record of doing some amazing things in the way of organizing elections and voters, and in building organizations."
Three weeks later, Maxey mingled with supporters at a fundraiser for his chairman's race. Asked how he was faring since the bruising loss of the city propositions, Maxey shrugged. "Ancient history," he said. Of course, the Dem chair hopeful had by then switched gears to concentrate on his bid to lead the rebuilding effort of the hobbled state party. Some of the locals who turned out for the Maxey fundraiser included elected officials, such as state Reps. Eddie Rodriguez and Elliott Naishtat, district court Judge Gisela Triana, Court-at-Law Judge Nancy Hohengarten, and newly elected Justice of the Peace Raul A. Gonzalez, who is considered an up-and-comer among young Democratic leaders. Also in attendance were lawyer D'Ann Johnson, consultant Celia Israel, and Matt Curtis, aide to Mayor Will Wynn.
"This is not something I thought I would do a year ago," Maxey told the crowd of 60 or so party faithfuls gathered in the Travis Heights home of Susan Toomey Frost (no relation to Martin). But he said he kept thinking back to his travels across the state as part of his grassroots work with Democracy for Texas. Whenever the talk turned to organizing and rebuilding the party, he said the locals would always ask the same question: "Shouldn't the party be doing that?"
Maxey paused and looked around the room. "This race is about the existence of our party." Party activists on the local level, he added, "are yearning and praying for somebody to give them some kind of structure that is meaningful, that endures."
Still, not everyone agrees that the success of Democratic candidates is entirely dependent on the strength of the state party, as demonstrated by the recent victories of Austin Rep. Donna Howard and Houston Rep. Hubert Vo, the latter of whom narrowly defeated longtime veteran Republican Rep. Talmadge Heflin in 2004. "I consider the state party to be at its best when it's almost wholly irrelevant, which it currently is," said Kelly Fero, an Austin political strategist who helped engineer the victories of Howard and Vo. Fero, who worked briefly for the state party under Soechting, went on to explain his theory about the party's irrelevance: "In Texas, the political environment has traditionally been candidate-driven, not party-driven," he said. "The rise of the Republican Party here has changed that somewhat, but the decline of Democratic fortunes over the same period has only strengthened that tradition."
Maxey agrees that Democrats are starting to gain strength in voting numbers, with or without the party's help. But while local and legislative candidates may benefit from that tradition, he believes statewide candidates would have a better shot at winning if they had the backing of a stronger state party. "We need a party that allows statewide candidates to run for office without having to build an infrastructure for their campaigns," he said. "Right now, Chris Bell and [U.S. Senate candidate] Barbara [Ann] Radnofsky have to go county to county to create an infrastructure. My goal is to rebuild the nuts and bolts of the organization."