Thousands of Democrats are heading to downtown Dallas Friday to begin their biennial political convention.
The goal of the two-day gathering is to energize and inspire up to 8,000 delegates, alternates and guests, hoping that they and others will turn out at the polls and elect a Democrat to a statewide office for the first time since 1994.
“We are lifelong Democrats, and we would like to see the state turn blue,” said Richard Ashford of Austin, explaining why he and his wife are first-time delegates at this year’s convention. “We hope to make some headway here.”
A key priority is promoting the two women at the top of the ballot this November — state Sens. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor.
Democrats heading to Dallas on Thursday were greeted by a series of anti-Davis billboards along roads into the city. The signs, sponsored by Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott’s campaign, question Davis’ ethics.
“As Democrats travel to Dallas … they will be forced to confront the reality of Sen. Davis’ unethical record,” said Matt Hirsch, communications director for Abbott’s campaign. “From her refusal to release her tax returns and client list, to profiting from taxpayer dollars and her ties to an open FBI investigation, Sen. Davis has shown she is out of touch with Texans and more interested in lining her own pockets than serving her constituents.”
Democrats brushed off the billboards and said they are focused on the endgame: breaking up what has essentially become a one-party system in Texas.
“At this convention, people will see a stark contrast between Democrats and Republicans,” said Manny Garcia, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party. “We are the pro-growth, pro-opportunity, inclusive ticket.”
Democrats will converge on the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center through Saturday for their convention, which comes three weeks after the Texas GOP gathered in Fort Worth.
Republicans drew national attention for a platform that took a harder stance on illegal immigration, supported openly carrying guns and called for “reparative therapy” to heal gays.
Dallas, some say, is the perfect place for this year’s convention.
“It’s appropriate,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “In a sea of red in 2010, there was one bright blue spot in this part of Texas — Dallas County.”
The theme of the convention is “A Texas Promise.”
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, will serve as convention chairman.
Key speakers tonight include Davis, Van de Putte, Hinojosa, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin and state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, who heads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
Other speakers during the convention are expected to include “rising stars” in the party, including U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and the party’s nominee for Senate, David Alameel.
“Together, we celebrate our Texas Promise — the fundamental value that where you start has nothing to do with how far you can go,” the convention website says. “It is our promise that Texas’ best days have yet to come, and everything we do today is in service of the next generation.”
Before they adjourn Saturday, delegates will approve a party platform, an outline of beliefs that candidates do not always follow. Many expect it to be similar to past platforms.
They will also pass rules to guide the party, likely endorsing the recent move of precinct conventions from primary election night to right before Senate district conventions convene. Officials have said the move is designed to make it easier for voters, so they don’t have to head to the polls twice on Election Day.
And they will choose their party leaders.
Hinojosa faces a low-key challenge from Rachel Barrios-Van Os, a party activist and unsuccessful candidate for the post in 2012.
In a statement announcing her candidacy, Van Os said she’s running to create an organized party and to expand it. “Once the people know we care about them and that we will fight for them, the voters will come back again to the Democratic Party,” she said.
Hinojosa said he hopes to win a second term.
“We want to come out of this convention united with a goal of winning in November,” Hinojosa said. “We want to show Texans that what we believe in is in line with what they believe is important for their families and Texans.”
Democrats in Texas haven’t won a statewide race since 1994.
But they did pick up a statewide officeholder last year when Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Larry Meyers of Fort Worth switched parties to run as a Democrat for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court.
This is the 19th Democratic state convention for Harriet Irby of Pantego.
The retired teacher began attending conventions in 1974 and has missed only one — in 1982, because she was sick.
“I’m here to see and help more young people get involved,” she said.
On the other hand, Shelia Bates of Dallas is attending her first convention.
“I want to learn more about what’s going on with politics,” she said. “I’m trying to get the right people in office.
“I just wanted to see what it’s like.”