June 15, 2003
Grassroots activism

So yesterday Rob, Ted, and I spent five hours in a big meeting room at the University of Houston attending a "Grassroots Political Conference" given by the Billie Carr Institute and sponsored by the Harris County Democrats, the Harris County Democratic Party, and Congressman Nick Lampson. I wasn't quite sure what I was getting into, but I can say I'm glad I went.

The session opened with brief lectures by Richard Murray, Bob Stein, and Steven Klineberg, who does the annual Houston Area Survey. They spoke about demographics and voting trends, with the dominant theme being that both Texas and Harris County are becoming majority non-Anglo and that this will have an effect on state and local politics in the near future. All of them agreed that while these trends favor Democrats, and that they expect Harris and Dallas Counties to become Democratic counties within the next couple of election cycles, there are things Democrats can do to accelerate that change.

In that regard, Stein had what was surely the most interesting single data point. He discussed a study that attempted to determine what kind of effect efforts to make voting easier (early voting, voting by mail, etc), and get-out-the-vote efforts by each party, had had on turnout. In the end, only a combination of extended early voting hours in conjunction with a GOTV effort by Democrats had any measurable positive impact on turnout. Every other combination made at best a negligible difference. Interestingly, the extra votes came mostly from Hispanic voters between the ages of 18 and 35. File that one away for future consideration.

Klineberg, whose Houston Area Survey really is a treasure trove of useful data, made several worthwhile points:

- The natural-resources economy, which drove Texas through the 20th century, will mean very little in the 21st century. It's all about knowledge now.

- There are huge disparities in educational achievement across different racial and ethnic groups. (See Figure 10 on this page for the data.) Hispanics, who are both the youngest and fastest-growing segment of the population (see here and here) are also the least educated and in gravest danger of being left behind in an economy in which blue collar work is not a path to the middle class.

- Traffic and the economy are currently the "biggest problems facing Houston today" (see Figure Three for a long-term chart), but "quality of life" issues such as air pollution and park space are creeping up on there as well. As Klineberg notes:

In the "knowledge economy," corporations and individuals are freer than ever before to choose where they would like to live. Long-neglected quality-of-life issues (such as air and water pollution, sprawl, mobility, aesthetic appeal, urban amenities, and downtown revitalization) are turning out to be critical determinants of economic success for cities in the twenty-first century.

Again, Democrats are better placed to benefit from these trends, but again, the question of when and how much is largely up to them.

The most interesting thing (to me, anyway) to come out of Murray's talk came during the Q&A session. I submitted a question asking his opinion on the upcoming Mayor's race. He considers Orlando Sanchez to be the favorite, with a "40-45% chance" of winning, but believes that Bill White will beat Sanchez in a runoff if he makes it that far. If White falls prey to the Chris Bell/George Greanias problem, Murray said, Sanchez will beat Sylvester Turner in the runoff. (As an aside, he said that Bell would have beaten either Sanchez or Brown straight up in 2001.)

Next up was Peter Cari, the Political Director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who spoke about what the national party is doing in preparation for the 2004 campaign. It was very gratifying to hear him say things that liberal bloggers and their commenters have been saying all along, things like the Democrats need to stand up, be tough, and fight back. "We have to make a fist and punch these guys", he said, a sentiment sure to bring joy to the hearts of Atrios, Kos, and countless others. He was one of many to snort and bray about Tom DeLay, including making DeLay the next Newt Gingrich, an idea that brings joy to my own heart.

Rep. Nick Lampson, one of the sponsors of this event, gave a brief but amazingly fiery speech after Cari spoke, the sort of rafter-rattling pep talk you wouldn't expect from a fiftyish buttoned-down white guy from Beaumont. I got a chance to shake his hand afterwards, and told him he was the first political candidate I'd ever given money to (back in 1996, when he ousted the execrable Steve Stockman from the 9th CD). I also asked him if the national party is working to keep Senators Eddie Lucio and Ken Armbrister from supporting redistricting, and he assured me that it is.

There were some other speakers, who weren't quite as interesting to me, and a couple of panels, one featuring other activist groups like Planned Parenthood the Bay Area New Democrats, and one about media relations, but the best response of the day was to Rick Brennan of the Harris County Young Democrats. (Aside: I note with some sadness that I am officially too old to be a Young Democrat. But at least I'm young at heart.) Brennan spoke about how opposition to the war galvanized young people, and got a standing ovation for saying that "There shouldn't be a Green Party. We need to bring them home."

We all had things to do that evening (I promise, Ted, I'll write a review of last night's Mister Sinus Theater event at the Alamo Drafthouse), so we didn't stay for the post-session social event, which was a 50th anniversary celebration of the Harris County Democrats, but all three of us felt like we got something out of the experience yesterday. There's going to be a followup event on August 2, which I won't be able to make due to a prior commitment, but if anyone wants to know more about it, drop me a note.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 15, 2003 to Local politics | TrackBack