Tarrant County Democrats prepare for leadership change

Posted Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- Texas Democrats battling to turn the state blue soon will have a new warrior joining them on the front lines.

After five years of leading the fight in Tarrant County -- one of the most Republican communities in the country -- Democratic Party Chairman Steve Maxwell said he plans to step down from his post in April and let precinct chairmen choose his replacement.

"The challenge is always going to be that Tarrant County continues to be a Republican county, bucking the trend of other urban counties in Texas," said Maxwell, a Fort Worth attorney who said he needs to devote more time to his law firm. "My successor will have to understand that and see what can be done to bring the county over to the Democratic column."

Political observers say this local leadership change comes at a pivotal time, as key races will be on the ballot next year and the Republican-leaning state could be close to at least turning purple.

"Tarrant County is the only urban county in Texas that is not blue," said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. "The rest have become Democratic -- Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso. Tarrant County is the last of the red [urban] counties."

Republicans say they hope it stays that way.

But both sides note that next year, Texans will cast ballots for statewide office holders as well in some local races expected to be hotly contested, such as the continuing battle for state Senate District 10, now represented by Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis, who fended off a well-financed challenge last year by then-state Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth.

No matter who is at the helm of the local Democratic Party, some say it's highly unlikely that Tarrant County will change color anytime soon.

"Tarrant County is far and away the least likely to turn blue this decade," said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. "One could go as far as to say that the day Tarrant County turns blue is the same day Texas turns blue."

Among the names of potential candidates that have been mentioned to replace Maxwell: Dick Abrams, an active Democratic fundraiser; Randy Daniels, a Democratic organizer; Lee Henderson, a former Fort Worth City Council candidate; Marshall Hobbs, a former Fort Worth City Council candidate, pastor and professor; Deborah Peoples, a public relations consultant; and Bishop Kenneth Spears, pastor of the First Saint John Church in Fort Worth.

Making strides

Maxwell won his first race to lead the Tarrant County Democratic Party in 2008, after then-Democratic Party Chairman Art Brender stepped down.

Observers say strides have been made in recent years in the local Democratic Party.

Maxwell said he's pleased with the work he's done, from boosting grassroots involvement to reorganizing the county, not to mention seeing victories such as Democrat Wendy Davis being re-elected to state Senate District 10 in 2012 and Democrat Marc Veasey being elected to represent the new 33rd Congressional District.

"The best part of this job is getting to know all of the people that take such an interest in the process and get involved," Maxwell said.

But after about five years, Maxwell said the party needs a change.

"This is the kind of job where it's good to have new blood every few years," said Maxwell, 62. "I do this for the sake of bringing a new face and new voice to the party. It's part of the process."

Maxwell also said he needs to spend more time focusing on his law work.

In this volunteer post, he generally spends 40 to 50 hours a week on Democratic Party work and perhaps 20 hours a week at his job. Once he steps down, he said he will be able to spend more time at work each week, spend more time with his family -- and still be able to help the party.

"I need to get back to my law practice, which has suffered," he said. "I will still be involved in party activity, just not so many hours a week."

Maxwell recently told the Tarrant County Democratic Party's executive committee that he will soon step down as county chairman. His formal resignation likely will come in late April. Precinct chairmen will choose Maxwell's replacement to serve out the rest of the term, which ends in May 2014.

This is also how the Tarrant County Republican Party chose a new leader in 2011, after then-Chairwoman Stephanie Klick resigned to run for office herself.

Republicans chose Jennifer Hall to lead the party, and she was elected to the post last year.

"I don't think changing the person leading the [Democratic Party] will make it go blue," Hall said. "I know they are working hard on that, and we are working hard to keep it red."

But she said she will be watching to see who the Democratic precinct chairmen choose to lead the party.

"I think it will be interesting," she said. "Next year will be a big year in Tarrant County. We will have the Senate District 10 race again. I know we will be looking to take the seat back again.

"It will be a busy year here in Tarrant County."

'A matter of time'

Former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, a Democrat who represented Tarrant and Dallas counties in Congress for more than 25 years, said his party has been making progress locally, and he hopes to see that success grow.

"The progress hasn't been as quick as it was in Dallas County," said Frost, an attorney. "Tarrant County has lagged behind, but that doesn't mean it won't happen.

"Clearly voters in the state are moving in the right direction, but it takes time, organization and a lot of hard work," he said. "It's a matter of time."

One of the first steps, observers say, is reaching out to more potential voters, involving them and making sure they are registered to vote -- especially in key demographics.

"If the GOP continues to alienate Hispanics, and Texas Democrats prove capable of registering and mobilizing the primarily inactive Hispanic electorate, then it is quite conceivable that Tarrant County could turn blue at some point during the next decade," said Jones, of Rice.

Another strategic move should be fielding quality candidates up and down the ballot -- including in areas such as judicial races, many which have not been competitive for years.

"They call it 'running for office,' but people don't run unless they think they can win," Riddlesperger said. "Why would they take this on if they can't win? If Tarrant County becomes competitive, you'll see Democrats coming out of the woodwork to run for office -- all offices.

"It's just not to that point right now."

A wide gap

Last year, more Texans voted in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary, with more than 1.4 million ballots cast for GOP presidential candidates and 590,164 ballots for Democratic presidential candidates, state election records show.

In Tarrant County, 88,016 votes were logged in the Republican primary, and 30,549 were tallied in the Democratic primary.

Some say last year's election isn't a fair measure of party support, because President Barack Obama didn't face a significant challenge.

On the other end of the spectrum -- which some also say isn't a fair marker of party support -- nearly 3 million Texans voted in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, a rare and historic race when Texas' vote mattered because the party's presidential nominee had not yet been chosen. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigned throughout the state.

That same year, more than 1.3 million Texans turned out for the Republican presidential primary, with most giving their support to John McCain, records show.

In Tarrant County, 199,644 votes were cast in the Democratic primary and 100,836 were cast in the Republican primary, records show.

"It is very possible that in some future years Tarrant County will become much more competitive," said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. "I don't know if it will turn blue, but perhaps purple."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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