Fort Worth, TX – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Texas Democratic Party Chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm was elected in 1998, the same year her party was wiped clean from statewide offices.
Molly Beth Malcolm, Texas Democratic Party Chairwoman: What I think happened over the last decade is while Democrats were in the Legislature and they were working with the Republicans that were over there, the Republicans began to organize and jump out and pretend and take credit for things that they weren't doing.
Sprague: Some Democratic strategists privately say the Party took its voters for granted and did not organize well enough to publicize its message. Still, as 7000 party enthusiasts descend on Fort Worth, Malcolm insists there's a silver lining.
Malcolm: Even though we did lose those top of the ticket races, we took back a Senate seat from an incumbent Republican. We kept the Texas House, and we kept our entire congressional delegation. The Texas Democratic Party is rebuilding, and we are going to have a great statewide ticket to run in 2002; and what we've done for this year is to focus on legislative races.
Sprague: Most Democratic operatives will tell you the most important race is Senate District 3, in East Texas. That seat is being vacated by Republican Drew Nixon. The latest campaign finance figures from the state indicate Democrat David Fisher has outraised Republican Todd Staples by nearly a three-to-one margin. If the Democrats capture this seat, they'll win back control of the Senate. And that's got more than just face value.
Russell Langley, Tarrant County Democratic Party: As you know, the census is happening. And when we have a census, the Voting Rights Act demands that you redistrict.
Sprague: Russell Langley is the executive director of the Tarrant County Democratic Party.
Langley: And so in the next session of the Legislature, all of the lines for both the State House and the State Senate and for the congressional districts are going to be redrawn; and so the Republicans and Democrats alike are very concerned about who's going to be in charge of which chamber and who's going to be drawing those lines.
Sprague: The Democrats' other big race is Congressional District 5, which includes parts of Dallas and East Texas. Regina Montoya-Coggins is trying to oust incumbent Republican Pete Sessions from that seat. But the Democrats have practically folded their hand in a bid for a U.S. Senate seat. Their candidate, Gene Kelly, has raised less than $5,000 in his bid to oust Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson. And many observers speculate he won the primary because he shares a name with a famous entertainer. Again, Molly Beth Malcolm.
Malcolm: We made a business decision just like any good business does: you look at the issues, you look at the races, you looks at the money that's available, and you determine where your priorities are.
Sprague: So this weekend's convention will be something of a pep rally for candidates like Regina Montoya-Coggins and David Fisher. But Russell Langley says don't expect much substantive debate over platform issues.
Langley: We really actually have a large deal of agreement coming into this convention about what the platform ought to be. We hope people have a good time, because that means they're going to go home and work a little harder for the election.
Sprague: The Democrats are also laying the groundwork for the 2002 elections, and the convention is an opportunity to float names for possible statewide candidates. Dallas Attorney Ken Molberg is a senior member of the Democratic State Executive Committee.
Ken Molberg, Democratic State Executive Committee: Right now, I would think that the two persons who are talked about most in the political circuit are John Sharp, the former longtime comptroller in Texas who ran for lieutenant governor, and Paul Hobby, who ran for comptroller.
Malcolm: I promise you, there are numerous people who are going to be running on our statewide ticket.
Sprague: Again, State Party Chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm.
Malcolm: I don't want to throw any names out there myself today because--but I think you're going to see them. Some of them are already in office legislatively. Some of them are mayors of major cities. One of them might be your own Dallas [mayor] over there.
Sprague: And another is former Democratic Party Chair Bill White, who is co-hosting a major fundraiser on Saturday. Although party operatives are downplaying the significance of White's role in the fundraiser, other Democrats believe the event indicates White is testing the waters for a 2002 campaign. That election cycle will likely be the true test of efforts to rebuild the Democratic Party at this weekend's convention. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.