Breathing life into the party

You'd have to be living under a rock not to know that the Democratic Party--particularly in Texas--has big problems.

From lowly constable positions to the highest elected office in the state, Democratic candidates took a drubbing in the last general election.

Taking their cue from such successful political initiatives as the Christian Coalition and United We Stand America, a bunch of prominent Texas Democrats --from state Land Commissioner Garry Mauro to former Dallas Appellate Judge Barbara Rosenberg--want to shore up their party by devising a unifying set of Democratic principles and policies.

Still in the embryonic stage, the solution they've come up with is an organization called 21st Century Democrats of Texas, which sounds like a cross between a real-estate company and a mutual fund. Based in Austin, the organization will be open for business in about a month.

Asked if he'd heard of this group, Chris Wilson, executive director of the Texas Republican Party, said, "Yes, it's something out of Jurassic Park, isn't it?"

Actually, Wilson didn't know anything about 21st Century Democrats, but conceded--albeit facetiously--that it's a good idea.

"I think it would be great if the Democratic Party came up with a set of values and ideals that it stood for--which didn't include sticking their finger in the wind on a weekly basis," Wilson said.

Shortly after the November election, Garry Mauro called fellow Democrats around the state and made a suggestion. "Instead of spending $2 million in three months by giving it to a political consultant, I said let's build a grassroots campaign for the '96 election," the commissioner explained. "Let's really articulate what Texas Democrats stand for."

Almost everyone he spoke to liked the idea. "Most political consultants spend their time talking to the press and sending out direct mail, because it's fun," Mauro said. "They don't knock on doors and talk to real people. Well, this effort is about real people."

As early as Christmas, Mauro knew who he wanted for the job: Steve Gutow, a former Dallas lawyer who's had experience creating a political organization from whole cloth.

Four and a half years ago, Gutow moved from Texas to Washington, D.C., to become the first director of the newly created National Jewish Democratic Council, which stressed a need for Jews to be involved in the Democratic party. Under Gutow's stewardship, the council has grown to 17 chapters nationwide with 6,000 members.

Meeting with Mauro and others over Christmas vacation, Gutow warmed to the idea of 21st Century Democrats of Texas. Last month, he agreed to take the job. He will be moving to Austin by the beginning of July to launch the organization, to which monied Democrats around the state have pledged more than a million dollars.

"Many people perceive the Democratic party as having a difficult-to-pin-down set of policies, rather than cogent ideas and ideals," says Gutow. "I want to talk to Democrats around the state and find the issues that define us and make us different from Republicans."

In general, Gutow says, the Democratic Party views "goverment as a useful tool, but not a panacea, in making sure opportunities are prevalent for everyone in society, that compassion is a part of government, that we're forceful about public education and combating crime."

How those principles translate into a cohesive mission statement and public policies that unite the party is another matter.

"Is it an impossible dream?" asks Barbara Rosenberg, who is now in private legal practice in Dallas. "I'm very hopeful we can all sit down and give up our individual interests in favor of looking at the whole."

Mauro agrees. "There are literally tens of thousands of people out there who say, 'I don't like what the Republicans are doing, but I'm not sure I'm a Democrat.' We want to give them something to stand for. We know what the principles are, but we don't know how we're going to say it."

The Texas Republican Party's Chris Wilson isn't so sure the initiative will work.

"Everyone knows the Democratic Party has become obsolete," he says. "They are defenders of the status quo. In fact, any group that puts the 21st Century and [the] Democratic Party in the same phrase is being far too optimistic. That's a throwback to the '60s and a product of taking too much acid. Was I sarcastic enough for you?

"Seriously, though, it would be good for us if they clearly define who they are and the differences between us. Because right now, they don't stand for anything.

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Ann Zimmerman