A New Era for the Travis County Democratic Party
After years of infighting and a tumultuous election in March, the TCDP must now proceed as one
Just after 11pm on the night of this year's primary election, Dyana Limon-Mercado announced to a crowd of advisers and supporters gathered at the South Austin Third Base that local attorney Anne Wynne had just called to concede the race for chairperson of the Travis County Democratic Party.
"I'm in shock," Limon-Mercado exclaimed, "so I really don't have eloquent words prepared. I also wasn't planning to give a speech either way, because I was just going to be like, 'Fuck all this shit. I'm ready to go to bed.'"
The race for the position, which is responsible for fundraising and ultimately getting Democrats elected into public offices throughout the county (and driving turnout for statewide races), had been particularly close. Early voting had her up by one percentage point. By the end of the night, she had increased that lead to two. The underdog planning to close the night by saying "fuck all this shit" ousted the onetime appointee of Ann Richards, who'd been recruited to run by some of the most influential members of the party.
Such support likely would have carried Wynne to victory in any other year. But the circumstances that led to this year's election were rather unprecedented, and Limon-Mercado ran a campaign that would ultimately reel in a consequential string of endorsements from those beyond the typical kingmakers.
"Truthfully, I could not have done this without Our Revolution," she told supporters, "without Young Democrats; without the Tejano Democrats; without my core group of volunteers. Without every single group of people who I think in this community have felt marginalized for a long time."
Then she said what had been on the mind of all those groups: "Even though the Democratic Party was our party, we didn't always have the voice and the representation we wanted. This campaign was won because of grassroots power, word of mouth."
An Unenviable Position
The two dissimilar candidates didn't arrive at March 6 in a vacuum. The events that made their contest possible began to fall into place in September of 2015, when Jan Soifer resigned from the position to pursue a campaign for the 345th District Court. (She was elected the following year.) On the surface, Soifer was a successful party chair: In her two years, she amassed $1.1 million in donations, and helped shepherd in a vice chair position and several full-time staffer positions, so that the party – which generally shrunk during off-election years – could benefit from constant staffing.
But when she resigned she acknowledged the challenge she had just faced: "When I decided to run for this position, I knew that it was a challenging, unpaid position, but I never guessed just how much work it would be. ... It certainly has demanded much more work than I expected – but it has been an honor to serve our party."
Soifer told me this summer that she doubts she would have been able to do the work she did had she been at a different point in her life. Her children were grown; she and her husband had a stable law practice. There were days when her party duties didn't end until late at night and only then could she begin on her day job's work.
And Soifer benefited from several moments that temporarily sparked the party during her brief tenure, including the Wendy Davis filibuster and a partnership with Battleground Texas. "There were exciting things happening, and it was a year when people were really motivated to help," she said.
Shortly after Soifer announced her resignation, Vice Chair Vincent Harding beat out political operative Sylvia Camarillo in a special election. Though Camarillo vowed to challenge Harding again in the March primary, she eventually reneged, and Harding won a full term unopposed.
Harding wasn't a typical choice for party chair. The employment and ethics attorney had spent most of his time within the party as secretary, a neutral position where he wasn't championing favored candidates, and he relished the freedom that accompanied that status. He is also black – only the second black man to be TCDP chair – and at 28 was the youngest person to ever hold the position. "I know that I stand on the shoulders of giants," he wrote in a statement announcing his ascension, "and I am committed to opening doors for those who will follow me."
Trouble in Paradise
Those remarks marked the beginning of a tumultuous, three-year tenure marred by party infighting and discontent. Harding came into the role promising a reorientation of the party, and took seriously his job as an independent arbiter. But the ethics-above-politics mentality didn't jibe with party stalwarts, and helped exacerbate the growing tensions.
It was with that reputation Harding waded into the first test of his brief term, in January of 2016, during the primary campaign for district attorney. At the time, the favorite to succeed Rosemary Lehmberg was longtime Assistant D.A. Gary Cobb – in fact, for a while, he hadn't even drawn a challenger. But defense attorney Rick Reed eventually jumped into the race, and when he did so he alleged that Cobb's candidate application had both violated a number of state election codes and included signatures from several members of the TCDP staff (Reed believed party members should not endorse candidates in a primary), and that Harding failed to "properly review" the application.
Harding told Reed that the oversights wouldn't push Cobb's name off the ballot, and the situation eventually settled itself: The courts allowed Cobb's candidacy, and he was later defeated by Margaret Moore. (Reed withdrew on election day.)
The 3rd Court of Appeals sided with Harding in Reed's lawsuit, but it unearthed hard feelings that Cobb had been allowed to continue at all. Harding contends he was doing his best to navigate a difficult legal question on the fly and was concerned with keeping the seat in party hands.
"That was my honeymoon," he remembered wryly. "Having someone run against you and then getting sued."
Harding's troubles would not end there. Party insiders grew bitter about his handling of the 2016 coordinated campaign, particularly the Fourth Street space he'd rented as its headquarters, which earned criticism both for its location and lack of air conditioning. Some grew demoralized at what they perceived to be a lack of organization at the management level. Those party insiders complained that Harding had stopped listening to their suggestions, and worried his staff wasn't experienced enough to handle complex campaigns.
Harding drew further scorn last June when he declined to endorse a call for Rep. Dawnna Dukes' resignation from the state House. He justified his decision in a Statesman op-ed, citing an unwillingness to take action against "a duly elected state representative on the spot without community notice or input." He also noted that the party had never asked a candidate to resign in such a manner, and hesitated to set that precedent with a representative like Dukes, a long-respected member of Central Texas' African-American community. "Austin should rise to the occasion and show that diversity not only can unite a community but is the fuel to defeat bigotry," he wrote. "Let's move beyond internal disagreements and focus on serving the entire community."
Today Harding acknowledges: "Some of the decisions I made people did not agree with." But he believes he did his best to fulfill his campaign promises by raising ethical concerns when he saw them. And his tenure was not without its bright spots. Harding was successful in engaging with the party's grassroots wing, made progress on immigration, workers' rights, the battle with Uber and Lyft to maintain local rideshare regulations, and pushed the party to make bold statements on police brutality and oversight. He takes pride in the robust voter turnout in the 2016 general election, which topped 65% within the county.
Still, by the spring of 2017, Harding decided he wouldn't run again. Though he'd raised about $1 million, the same amount as Soifer, he began to struggle with fundraising the longer he went into his tenure.
Harding had told his closest confidants, but hoped to keep the news private until he wrapped up a couple of community initiatives. But the news leaked. And all of a sudden, in September 2017, weeks before he was ready to announce his decision, Harding was getting calls from people across the county who knew his plans and had already conferred with Rick Cofer, rumored as the next consensus candidate. Harding announced his resignation via email on Sept. 28. The next day, Cofer launched his own campaign.
Cofer immediately lined up an impressive array of supporters that included current and former City Council members, state elected officials, and a slew of Travis County bigwigs. He was a known quantity within the party, a veteran of UT's University Democrats, and a former legislative staffer who'd worked as a prosecutor for both the county and district attorneys.
Cofer's ascent to the party chair was hailed as an inevitability. And it may have worked out that way, had news not begun to swirl that Cofer had been accused of multiple incidents of chauvinistic behavior during his time at the county attorney's office. Cofer withdrew his candidacy in late October, having been asked to leave by at least one ally within the Travis delegation: state Sen. Kirk Watson, a onetime party chair himself. "I certainly told him [to step aside]," Watson told me. "I felt like, based on what I was hearing, that he would not be able unite the party under the circumstances. And I didn't like what I was hearing."
Cofer announced his withdrawal in a statement that did not acknowledge any rumors, but instead appeared to attribute the decision to the fact that there were "several strong female candidates waiting on the sidelines.
"The very best thing I can do for our party is to step aside for incredible women leaders," he continued.
Party Secretary Bianca Garcia and former Central Health Board Member Rosie Mendoza were two of the names quickly considered. But neither came forward to run. Instead, Precinct 428 Chair Mike Lewis announced he would step in. The Bernie Sanders supporter painted himself as an outsider and reformed Libertarian who had devoted himself to progressive politics in the wake of Trump's election, and sought to energize others within the county in that same vein.
But Lewis' campaign was even briefer than Cofer's; a website eventually tied to local political players at GNI Strategies revealed embarrassing Facebook posts Lewis had made in the past, when he was perhaps more Libertarian than progressive. Even more alarming was a crude post he'd made about the rape allegations brought upon Bill Cosby. He apologized for those remarks, and said his journey from conservative to progressive had been long and arduous.
But the damage had been done, and he announced he'd ditch the race just as the party elites were beginning to draft Wynne. In December, Lewis filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission alleging that GNI's Jovita Pardo used an unregistered political committee to attack his candidacy on behalf of Wynne. Pardo later said her actions fell within state guidelines, and Wynne denied knowledge of the PAC.
Two Formidable Candidates
The prospect of Wynne's candidacy was growing more popular among TCDP insiders, however, and Watson, who still plays an active role in local circles from his perch up at the Lege, began fielding calls from local Democrats who sought some form of stability. In Wynne, who state Rep. Celia Israel considers a "political mom," they had their rock.
But Watson et al. didn't know at the time that Limon-Mercado had been considering a run of her own, thanks to the prodding of a number of the party's periphery players, including her boss at Planned Parenthood Votes, Yvonne Gutierrez, and former Precinct 126 Chair Daniel Segura-Kelly. Limon-Mercado, the deputy executive director for Planned Parenthood Votes, with no close affiliation to party insiders, said she watched the field unfold with skepticism.
"Just the optics of it looked strange, right?" she recalled to me this spring. "We sort of had this chosen person who stepped down for not really clear reasons, and they said it should be a woman of color. But then somebody like Mike Lewis steps up, and then people have questions about Mike Lewis' sort-of-Democratic credentials.
"And I think there were a lot of people, myself included, looking around like, 'Surely someone's going to fix this. Surely somebody's going to do something about this.' We have got to be able to do better in Travis County in 2018, just after the year we've had as Democrats. Coming off of the Trump election, the year of Resistance, everything we've been building toward, the real meaningful conversations I've felt like we've had in the Democratic Party. And this is what we get? These two candidates?"
A Bold Vision
By the second week of November, Limon-Mercado and Wynne both announced their campaigns and had the field to themselves, and the party eventually ended up with what many had said they initially wanted: a chance for a woman to hold the role. And in the two candidates they had a choice of ideals to address concerning what type of woman they wanted leading the party.
In Wynne they had a longtime ally with deep connections to some of the party's most enduring members, who promised to use her decades of political experience to bring back the type of blockbuster fundraising that the party had been missing for the past half-decade; in Limon-Mercado, a young, Latina outsider who promised to balance a party thirsty for that fundraising with attention shown toward the local communities desperately seeking organizational engagement. Sustaining members would grow through her outreach, she said, which meant the party wouldn't have to struggle when elected officials tightened their budgets, as often occurred during Harding's tenure.
Soifer told me she approached both women during the campaign to warn them of what they were getting into. And Limon-Mercado, who campaigned while pregnant and just had her second child last week, heard those warnings from many more people than just Soifer, but she told me she believes it's important the job not be limited to attorneys with vast resources, which has been the case for as long as most can remember.
"As a working-class person in the community, also as a parent, as someone who's involved in the grassroots – if this position is inaccessible to me because of the time commitment, how many other people are we leaving out of the conversation?" she asked. "How much other talent are we leaving at the door?
"Instead of talking about how demanding it is, and how people like me don't have the time to be involved, why don't we create a better system that allows us to be involved?"
94,491 people voted in the TCDP chair election in March: 45,864 for Wynne, 48,627 for Limon-Mercado. Neck and neck, the results made clear that the party was still divided.
But there are at least signs the Travis County Dems are making strides toward unity. Travis County Democrats have, at least publicly, begun to make overtures of reconciliation. Watson told me he's enjoyed "getting to know the new chair," and said he's invited Limon-Mercado to participate in his traditional Twitter town hall at the state convention this next weekend in Fort Worth. "We are developing what I consider to be a really good working relationship."
Watson isn't the only one embracing the "stronger together" theme in the wake of a tough election. Party insiders still sour about the results have been nudged privately by more moderate voices to embrace Limon-Mercado and the change she represents. The state senator said he's "encouraged by the number of ideas that she has, and the fact that she is as ready to hit the ground running and get it done."
That support is also showing in the party's fundraising efforts. U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett recently signed his name to an email recruiting new sustaining members, and in it he alludes to the need for unity.
"Following some hotly contested races this year, including the race for our County Chair, we need to come together to take on Trump and his Trumpettes," he wrote. "After meeting with Dyana, our new Chair, to discuss her plans for what our local party can achieve, I have written my own check as a sustaining member.
"We cannot let primary race differences divide us in November. Contributing now can help ensure the Democratic wave does not dissolve into a ripple."
Harding for District 1: Outgoing Party Chair Enters City Race
While Austin City Council races are nonpartisan, much of the same ideological jockeying occurs when it comes time to fill the dais. Leaders in District 1, which is currently represented by outgoing Council Member Ora Houston, who announced on Wednesday that she won't seek re-election, spent much of the spring drafting outgoing Travis County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Harding to run. And on Wednesday, Harding announced that he plans to file for candidacy. He joins a crowded field of candidates, including Natasha Harper-Madison, Mariana Salazar, and Lewis Conway Jr.
"We are at a pivotal moment, 90 years from the 1928 plan, in the middle of a land development code rewrite," Harding said last week when he revealed his plans to me. "At a time where we are consistently one of the Top 10 places to live, we are also one of the most economically and racially segregated cities in the country and ... a third of our black and brown children are growing up in poverty."
Harding declined to assess the district's current leadership, instead focusing talks on economic advancement and transportation. He said he'd support the long-discussed Capital Metro Green Line and workforce solutions to bring "middle skill" jobs (those that don't require a bachelor's degree) to the area. Harding believes his experience at City Hall (he was a member of the city's Board of Adjustment) and its inner workings will go a long way toward making those ideas a reality. "I believe I have the skill set to work with people on many different sides of the issue," he said. "At the same time, while being a coalition builder, I also have the courage to stand up and do what's right and take whatever heat."
This story has been updated to accurately reflect that Daniel Segura-Kelly is the former Precinct 126 chair, not the former Precinct 46 chair.