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Local Government

How Dallas Democrats Are Destroying Themselves

The old guard is holding back young leaders.
By Eric Celeste |

Not long ago, Terri Hodge, the ex-con, was leading a breakout discussion at table No. 3 at a meeting hall in the Cedars. The strategy talk in early January was part of a biennial get-together to discuss tactics on how to “empower Democrats in the North Texas region.” Specifically, Hodge was giving advice on the art of “Building Better Vote-by-Mail Results,” according to the day’s agenda. What this political jargon means is that the former state representative was explaining to volunteers and activists—and, as it turns out, at least one mole—how to get more votes in ways other than the party putting forth better candidates.

“Remember,” Hodge told the group, according to my mole, “the elderly and the disabled are excellent sources of mail-in ballots. Don’t overlook them.”

In a post-Trump landscape, when Democrats all over the country are trying to harness progressive zeal, the Dallas County Dems still seem like a party that has no idea how to remake itself and take advantage of that enthusiasm.

There is nothing untrue or illegal about this statement. Everyone deserves a vote. Just because there have long been allegations in Dallas County of Democratic operatives filing mail-in ballots without the consent or full understanding of elderly or disabled voters, that doesn’t make statements like Hodge’s suspicious. Nor does the fact she’s an ex-con, since she was convicted of tax evasion, not voter fraud. Nor does the fact that allegations of mail-in deception have long followed her. Nor does the fact that her old assistant was once indicted for “helping” a blind person fill out a ballot. The charges were dropped, after all.

Highlighting Hodge, someone with what you could at best call a checkered past, is not illegal, but it is indicative of a fundamental flaw in the Dallas County Democratic Party. The party’s inclusion of Hodge—and, worse, its blundering, cornered-animal defense of her—illustrates the party’s slavish devotion to old-school Democrats who have strutted and fretted their hours upon the stage, and from whom we should hear no more. In a post-Trump landscape, when Democrats all over the country are trying to harness progressive zeal, the Dallas County Dems still seem like a party that has no idea how to remake itself and take advantage of that enthusiasm.

Case in point: Dallas County Democratic Party Chair Carol Donovan thinking it necessary to defend Hodge’s role as a party-supported strategist when her inclusion became public. (More on that mess in a minute.) And that was followed by several party loyalists taking to social media or comments sections to point out that Hodge pleaded guilty to tax problems, not to anything unlawful regarding mail-in ballots or political chicanery.

That is a lawyer’s argument, though. As the feds noted when Hodge pleaded guilty in 2010, the U.S. District Court sentenced her at the “high end” of the sentencing guidelines because the judge “noted that while Hodge pleaded guilty to a tax offense, the Court did not view this solely as a tax matter. The Court further noted that Hodge was in a position of trust and her actions constituted an abuse of that trust.” When you’re trying to galvanize your party after a stinging national defeat, that’s not the sort of person you turn to when training your troops.

“The Dallas Democratic Party is the same as its counterparts in many big cities around the country, but it seems particularly bad here,” says someone who has worked extensively in Democratic political circles in Dallas for over a decade. “They rode the Obama wave, the city became very blue, and the party didn’t have to work hard to win elections. That’s one reason it didn’t develop a system to vet talent. Now all the talent is young and hungry and wants to respond to the post-Trump world with smart, grass-roots action. Meanwhile, Dallas County Democrats are defending people like Hodge. It’s going to be ugly until it gets worked out.”

That was an opportunity for a forward-looking Dallas County Democratic Party to step up, cancel Hodge’s appearance, and profess to be as concerned with doing the right thing as are its volunteers, activists, and supporters.

The background for this is playing out in the newspapers right now, headlined by the John Wiley Price trial. Jim Schutze, the Dallas Observer columnist and longest-tenured chronicler of Dallas politics, predicted this six years ago with a column titled “Democrats! Are You Going to Let John Wiley Price Run Your Party? Really?” Now Price is on trial, and the same dynamic Schutze mentioned—local Dems enabling the “old” and “weak” southern Dallas political machine, ignoring the “smart, sophisticated black and Hispanic people who could be brought along into leadership”—continues.

Schutze updated this take with a look in February at the new minority faces of Dallas politics. The article focused heavily on District 100 State Representative Eric Johnson, the whip-smart West Dallas politician recently named to co-chair the Dallas County Democratic legislative delegation, replacing the old guarder Helen Giddings. Schutze mentioned that Price and his Democratic leadership were dying, while Johnson and a slew of young Turks should be considered the face of the party’s future in North Texas.

Schutze is not wrong about the “should.” But he made it sound like it’s inevitable. I would say there is still too much stubborn resistance to those young, smart Dems taking over—mostly because it threatens the livelihood of party hacks. At least I hope that’s the reason, because at least that one makes sense. Worse would be if they really can’t see how much the party needs to change to be successful.

Consider this story:

After D Magazine’s FrontBurner blog broke the news (by linking to the agenda) about Hodge’s inclusion in the daylong gathering, State Representative Johnson shared the blog post on his Facebook page, and Johnson in turn called out party leadership, saying Hodge shouldn’t be representing the party. Granted, Johnson took Hodge’s seat. He has an interest in making sure she looks bad. He was also right to be offended.

That was an opportunity for a forward-looking Dallas County Democratic Party to step up, cancel her appearance, and profess to be as concerned with doing the right thing as are its volunteers, activists, and supporters. At worst, the party should have kept its mouth shut and taken the public scolding. Instead, Donovan, the party chair and a lawyer, sent an email to Johnson threatening, in my reading, to sue him if he didn’t delete his Facebook post.

“Please understand that I am a huge supporter of the First Amendment,” Donovan wrote. “However, as a fellow lawyer, I know you agree that misleading and/or incorrect information should not be distributed. … If the post is not deleted this week, I will understand that you elected to deny my request, and I will be required to take whatever action is necessary to protect and defend the DCDP.”

There’s no need to belabor the ham-fisted idiocy of such a request. Let’s just agree it was ham-fisted and idiotic. Johnson’s response, on that same Facebook page, was pretty straightforward and appropriate: “I will not be threatened or bullied by anyone, and certainly not by my own local party chair. … We’ll see what the politburo tries next since I didn’t relent.”

Look, this sort of asinine behavior by the local party—defending the indefensible, attacking smart new leaders, covering for their cronies—isn’t exclusive to the party’s elders or to southern Dallas. The hacks and consultants who’ve sucked at the Dallas County Dem teat for decades respond this way all the time. Example: after I wrote last year about the great work the Latino Center for Leadership Development was doing in grooming smart, young politicians such as State Representative Victoria Neave and Dallas ISD school board trustee Jaime Resendez, the old guard Latino Democrats made sure to register their strong disapproval. They were smart enough not to do so in writing, however.

It’s tempting to dismiss such contretemps as insignificant. Don’t. These skirmishes are the death rattle of a broken machine that can’t compete in a world filled with younger, better-educated blacks, Latinos, and women who demand accountability from their political party as they fight for progressive policies.

So how does the party save itself? It would be a long, slow, tough process, one that demands the party take a hard look at itself. Democrats I talked to are of course reluctant to speak out, but there was one primary suggestion they all mentioned: new leadership. When the next party chair election is held next year, they believe the Dems must elect a young progressive, preferably someone of color, someone with no ties to well-known political families, someone who would look at the speaker list for a party-sponsored event and say, “Let’s start by crossing off the ex-cons.”

Write to [email protected].

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