By Hillel Aron
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AUSTIN, TEXAS — Had Lupe Valdez bet on the Kentucky Derby, chances are she would’ve let it ride on 50-1 longshot Giacomo . . . and won bigtime. Valdez knows how to beat the odds. As a triple threat — female, Latina, lesbian — she’s overcome a lot more than the historically Republican voting population of Dallas County, Texas, who ceded the sheriff’s seat to Valdez, a Democrat, in last fall’s election. But her ability to win one for the blue team deep in red territory is what packed the tent at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, where roughly 2,000 Deaniacs, lefties and aspiring grassroots politicos gathered last weekend, in near-100-degree temperatures, for DemocracyFest 2005. The three-day slate of speeches, pep rallies and campaign-management workshops was hosted by the local chapter of Howard Dean’s Democracy for America.
The former federal border agent’s against-all-odds speech during the Saturday-morning “Turning Red States Blue” forum set the tone, and was in tune with “The Live Music Capital of the World” — itself a blip of blue in a sea of red. “I had a group of rookies who had never run a campaign,” Valdez said. “We were called the Under-financed, Under-organized, Under-managed Underdogs.”
Valdez and her team may have lacked experience, but their approach made electoral politics sound simple: Identify your voters, find something in common with them, and reach out to the decision makers. “In your area, it may be what they call the guys with the pickups and the guns in the back,” she said. “For us — we figured out that it was the women.”
She was proved right when, two weeks prior to the election, Valdez’s opponent made the mistake of outing her as a lesbian. Instead of returning negative fire (“Women don’t do things that way,” she told her campaign director. “That’s why you guys lose,” he replied), she targeted those very women “decision makers” with the message that said she wasn’t going to stoop down to her opponent’s level. Valdez won by more than 18,000 votes, in a county that had a victory margin of only 300 in the prior election, proving that partisanship is not always a match for striking the right emotional chord.
Discussions ranging from “The DeLay Factor” to ways in which the left can reclaim a moral foundation were presided over by the likes of spitfire columnist Molly Ivins, California Democratic Party deputy chair Richard Jacobs, and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the guy behind the political Web log Daily Kos. When festival-goers — predominantly baby boomers and senior citizens from across the country — weren’t gleaning insight, they were stuffing their tote bags with decks of playing cards featuring Bush in drag and smaller-than-normal pennies meant to signify the dwindling economy. The predominantly white crowd seemed to have made the pilgrimage to this sweltering locale more to be counted as part of the Dean “movement” than to change the world. Maybe a discussion about the lack of minorities attending DemocracyFest 2005 should have been on the agenda.
Later that day, Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., looking like a bodybuilder, wearing a skintight T-shirt and sporting a massive tattoo on his bicep, got a standing ovation. Jackson, full of his father’s brio, had them eating out of his hand talking about electoral reform. He listed among his priorities a Voting Rights Amendment, the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the passage of a bill that would do away with the Electoral College.
Jackson admonished Democrats that while Republicans always run on the same message (small government, less taxes, strong defense) no matter who or where, Democrats wait for each presidential candidate to provide a trickle-down theme, which varies from election to election. Also, he said, Dems are almost always on the defensive. He cited Social Security, an issue Democrats initiated only to have Republicans co-opt it to confuse the American people into thinking it was their issue, as an example. Now, he said, Democrats can’t differentiate between good and bad amendments, an inability that in turn has deflated their confidence in the Constitution and their willingness to fight for basic human rights.
Jackson suggested that a starting point for turning things around would be to unite the special interests into a “more perfect union,” built around a strategy of fighting the Republicans’ bogus wedge-issue amendments on gay marriage, etc., with human-rights–oriented amendments of their own. He didn’t say whether this would call for more or less taxes, government or defense.
The promise of a tasty brisket sandwich, live Texas blues and a money shot of Howard Dean drew the sweaty, fatigued crowd to Stubb’s BBQ that evening. Even with the sun down, it was still as hot as Dean’s recent comments that the GOP is “pretty much a white, Christian party,” that Republicans “never made an honest living in their lives” and that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay should go back to Houston and await jail time.
While these remarks sent some party bigwigs (and presidential hopefuls?) scrambling for cover, DemFesters didn’t seem to mind. Dean took the stage to rock-star cheers and chants of “Howard . . . Howard . . . Howard!” While speaking, he swatted away the gnats buzzing his head as if they were Joe Biden’s or New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s whiny protests that Dean didn’t speak for them.
Dean did offer that Democrats don’t need to criticize Bush anymore, because Americans have finally figured him out. “Now, we need to say what we would do differently, because we’re not going to win without a positive agenda.”
His agenda included a laundry list of reforms related to election procedures, campaign financing, the budget process, pension, defense, education, health care and the environment. “These folks don’t believe in facts,” he said. “They don’t believe in science. They need to go back to where they came from. We need to have grownups running America again.”
Before rushing off to catch a plane, Dean encouraged everyone to actually get out and run for office — on any level. The following morning, the workshops designed to teach potential candidates how to get started turned cranky when it came time to deal with such minutiae as parsing demographics and projecting voter turnout.
Nobody said it wouldn’t be hard, or mundane, to take back America.