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Eager for a statewide breakthrough, Texas Democrats will soon decide who will lead their party

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Eager for a statewide breakthrough, Texas Democrats will soon decide who will lead their party” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa is facing two challengers for reelection at the party’s convention this weekend, a race that is serving as a referendum on Democrats’ pace of progress in a still-red state.

Hinojosa has held the job for a decade, but his opponents, Kim Olson and Carroll G. Robinson, argue it is a time for a change, especially after the disappointing 2020 election. Hinojosa says he has expanded the party immensely since he took over in 2012, placing it on the cusp of statewide victory in November.

“The margins that we have gone from when I took over to where we’re at now have got us in a trajectory of flipping the state within a very short period of time, including this election cycle,” Hinojosa said.

But Hinojosa’s critics say they are tired of moral victories and promises that a major breakthrough is near.

“We need to win, and losing and pretending to win doesn’t help the people we say we represent as Democrats in the state,” said Robinson, chair of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats.

Hinojosa’s fate will be decided by the thousands of delegates gathering in Dallas for the biennial convention, which runs Thursday through Saturday. In addition to electing party leadership, delegates will also update their platform and hear speeches from dozens of elected officials, candidates and activists. The lineup includes national party chair Jaime Harrison and the statewide slate, led by gubernatorial contender Beto O’Rourke.

The convention comes at a time of mixed emotions for Texas Democrats, who had hoped for a historic breakthrough in 2020 but came up short in virtually every race they targeted. The next year, they watched as the state swung to the right through a series of red-meat legislative sessions, and then the GOP-led redistricting process reduced the number of competitive down-ballot races in November. But they have been newly galvanized by the Uvalde school shooting in May and the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade — and O’Rourke has been consistently polling within several percentage points of Gov. Greg Abbott despite a tough national environment for Democrats.

It is against that backdrop that the chair candidates are arguing over who is best positioned to lead the party forward. Neither challenger denies that Hinojosa has grown the party from the shell it was in 2012, drawing national attention and investment.

“I think he deserves credit, absolutely, and he is absolutely correct, but he has been at this for a decade,” Olson said in an interview. Anyone who has ever worked in an organization, she added, knows when a leader “has taken the organization as far as it can go, and I think that was 2020.”

Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, was the 2018 nominee for state agriculture commissioner and unsuccessfully ran for a Dallas-area congressional seat two years later. In her bid for Texas Democratic Party chair, she has garnered the support of nearly 70 county party leaders, including in some of the state’s biggest counties, like Tarrant and Fort Bend.

But Hinojosa has maintained the support of most of the state’s most prominent Democratic officials. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner more recently endorsed Hinojosa, expressing confidence that he would help bring the Democratic National Convention to Houston in 2024.

Olson has raised over $100,000 for her chair campaign since she started exploring a run last October, according to records with the Texas Ethics Commission. At the same time, Hinojosa has raised $16,000 and got a $30,000 bank loan in April. Robinson has not reported any fundraising.

Olson is promising to improve the party’s messaging, finances and turnout. She sought to emphasize her fundraising ability Wednesday with the announcement that she has received over $1 million in commitments to the party if she is elected. (Hinojosa responded to the announcement in an interview later Wednesday, saying his record proves he is already capable of bringing in that type of money.)

Olson, who is from Palo Pinto County, has support among rural Democrats. Among her endorsements is The 134 PAC, which advocates for Democratic growth in the 134 counties west of Interstate 35.

“The messaging that the state party and the national party puts out basically kills us in rural Texas, and I think Kim understands rural people,” said Jon Mark Hogg, the political action committee’s founder. “She understands the types of issues that are of concern to folks in rural Texas. A lot of times those issues are different.”

All the candidates agree that Democrats do not need to win rural Texas but cut more into Republicans’ wide margins there. Robinson said the party needs to listen more to local elected officials in rural areas about how they won and what their messaging was. Hinojosa said the party has already gotten to work since the 2020 election, hiring six regional managers who work closely with rural party groups.

It was shortly after the 2020 election that Hinojosa’s chairmanship looked most in peril. A sizable chunk of the State Democratic Executive Committee — 38 out of 108 members — sent him a letter urging major changes within the party after what they called an “electoral failure” in November. He assembled a committee to study what went wrong, and it later released a 29-page report that concluded Democrats were “beaten in the turnout battle” and hurt by their decision to suspend in-person campaigning amid the coronavirus pandemic, among other things.

Celina Vasquez, a Texas member of the Democratic National Committee who has endorsed Hinojosa for reelection, said she was among those who had asked him to overhaul the party after the 2020 election.

“I have to tell you that every single issue that we asked about, he listened and he came through,” said Vasquez, citing the regional managers as an example. “He’s been there and he’s taken the hits for the Democratic Party, and we need to continue to have a fighter who’s not going to crawl away or leave us hanging when the fight gets tough.”

Not everybody agrees that the party has made enough changes since 2020. Olson and Robinson both say the party’s voter file — known as VAN — is still in desperate need of repair.

“If you are targeting the wrong voters,” Robinson said, “you are losing.”

And rural Texas is not the only part of the state where Democrats have pressing challenges. Republicans are newly targeting South Texas in November, and they scored an early victory in a June special election where they flipped a congressional seat in the region. Olson suggested it reflected poorly on Hinojosa, who is from Cameron County, because it was in his backyard. At the time, he downplayed the meaning of the victory because the winner will get to serve only for several months and the district is more favorable to Democrats in November due to redistricting.

If anyone is going to figure out the “secret sauce” for Latino voters this election cycle, Vasquez said, it would be Hinojosa.

While they say they respect one another, there is little love lost between Hinojosa and Olson. After he referred to her as “this woman” in a newspaper interview last year, he apologized for not being more careful with his language — but quickly pivoted to saying Olson “physically assaulted” the party’s executive director in 2018. Four campaign and party staffers told The Texas Tribune they witnessed Olson shove the executive director in a frustrated moment during a bus tour in 2018. Olson has denied it.

In any case, much larger issues are looming as delegates head to Dallas, especially when it comes to abortion and guns. Hinojosa has especially worked to tap into Democratic outrage over the end of Roe v. Wade, emerging as a vocal advocate for local Democratic officials to refuse to prosecute abortion cases.

Whatever happens at the Dallas convention, though, Texas Democrats are set to have another spirited debate about their future in two years. Hinojosa has said his next term, if elected, would be his last.

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