Let's Hope Dallas County Democratic Party Is Not a Window on 2018

In Dallas County, elected judges are like crows on the phone wires.  Whenever the county flips its party identity, judges just hop to the other wire.
In Dallas County, elected judges are like crows on the phone wires. Whenever the county flips its party identity, judges just hop to the other wire. b isberg/Shutterstock
Let’s not you and me try to answer the question of whether 2018 will see a huge, biblical, roaring, wrathful, tsunami-sized day of reckoning for Republicans in which they will be abraded from the surface of the earth. For the sake of conversation, we’ll take that as a given.

And just for grins, let’s also assume the Republicans see it coming. So if we’re right, what should Democrats be doing to get ready?

The choices might include, for example, hunkering down, digging in and ammo-ing up because Democrats know that Republicans will be all-in and desperate, ready to fight for life and death, and it’s going to be bloody and bad. In that case, Democrats would be extremely wary. That’s one way the Democrats could go.

The other way they could go — and this brings it home to our Dallas County Democratic Party — is just drinking. They could have their feet up. They could be watching hog-hunt videos and telling knock-knock jokes. In other words and in the case of our local Democratic Party, this could be business as usual.

How would those of us who are not active in the Dallas County Democratic Party know which way it’s going — super-vigilance or the knock-knock jokes? Here’s an example. Pretty much the sole job of the local party is to get candidates on the ballot. The process for doing that does not change.

People who want to run for office in the Democratic primary elections in March have to produce a requisite number of signatures on petitions, then apply to the Texas secretary of state to be included on the ballot. Their applications to be on the ballot have to be signed by the chairperson of the county Democratic Party.

Maybe people in the Dallas County Democratic Party have just been drinking with their feet up, watching hog-hunt videos and telling knock-knock jokes.

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A big part of the process is about signatures. The petitions that candidates present for themselves have to be vetted to make sure there hasn’t been any hanky-panky with the signatures. Then the applications the candidates send to the state must bear the signature of the chairperson of the county party.

To someone looking in from outside the process, the whole thing may look like a bunch of bureaucratic overkill, but it’s not. You have seen all the attention paid to allegations of vote fraud in recent election cycles. Some people think it’s a real deal. Some people don’t. But everybody knows it’s a real item of contention.

All of this signing and vetting and attention to detail in the paper trail is a way to create a bulletproof process that will withstand allegations and challenges. It’s not unlike the chain-of-evidence principle in criminal matters: You go through steps and keep everything super-straight because you know if you don’t, somebody will use every little slip-up against you.

Then we take all of this attention to detail and carefulness under ordinary circumstances and imagine what we would need to be doing now, with a bloody biblical tsunami approaching. Let's imagine we are the chairperson of the Dallas County Democratic Party.

We know that the other side fears it’s going to be abraded from the surface of the earth. We know they are flat hoping we will get run over by a bus. We know they are scouring us for every leak, loophole and penny-ante goof-up they can use to slow us down until the bus gets here.

What would it mean about us and our party, the Democratic Party, if we were to screw up the signatures on 128 ballot applications, including all of our top-name candidates, and, by the way, screw them up in a fashion that invites allegations of forgery? I ask, of course, because that is exactly what Dallas County Democratic Chairwoman Carol Donovan has done, enabling Dallas County Republicans to sue to have all 128 candidates disqualified by the state.

And yes, I agree, we will keep our shirts on about this because we know that the courts, if it gets to that, are not going to rub out 128 legitimate Democratic candidates because of one stupid mistake. Well, maybe 128 stupid mistakes. At least we assume that. If we ever saw a desecration of basic democracy that monumental, I’d say it might be time to toss some suitcases in a wheelbarrow and start walking toward Canada.

The 128 candidates are not going to get kicked off the ballot. The candidates have proved themselves properly through the petition process, and one person’s sloppiness is not going to be enough to throw an entire election. That’s not even the point.

The point is this: With one of the most important elections in the history of the republic looming, Dallas County Democrats can’t wake up early enough in the day to get their business done properly. Meanwhile, the rest of the Democrats in the nation had better hope Dallas County is not a droopy canary in the Democratic coal mine.

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National Democrats had better hope the Dallas County Democratic Party is not the sick canary in their coal mine.
Carol Donovan for Dallas County Democratic Party Chair
When Republicans spotted the problematic scrawls where Donovan’s John Hancock was supposed to be on the ballot applications and filed suit, local Democrats howled like scalded dogs. This was the worst form of perfidy, they screamed. It was, they said, a sign of desperation among Republicans. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins even called on Republican leaders to do the decent thing and get the suit yanked.

The lawsuit calling for all 128 candidates to be banned from the ballot could be pulled, of course, because at some point, wiser Republican heads are going to foresee that the suit will not prevail. But that won’t mean anybody’s being decent. When this lawsuit craters, the Republicans will be out nights slashing Democrats’ tires. This is not going to be a big year for decency.

I don’t know which depresses me more — the mistake itself, whatever it was, or the howls of outrage over getting caught. The Democrats should know they are going to get caught for every single nit that can be picked. If Republicans had their way, they wouldn’t allow anybody outside the Park Cities to vote in the first place. Hand them a ham sandwich, they will indict it.

You may not know the history here. Dallas County was straight Democratic from the end of the Civil War to 1976 because the Republicans freed the slaves. In the mid-1970s, Texas Republicans finally succeeded in a years-long campaign to shed the onerous mantle of liberation and win over the white identitarian vote instead, and Dallas County went solidly Republican.

By 2006, an increasingly minority voter base in Dallas figured out that consistently electing white identity judges and officials was a gigantic screw-job for nonwhites. Dallas County flipped straight Democratic. Again.

In all of this, the only significant number of countywide elected officials affected by the change and truly in play have been judges. Each time the county swings from one alignment to the other, all of the judges squawk once, flap and hop over to the other side en masse like crows on a telephone wire. Some older elected officials in the county have undergone trans-party identity procedures more than once.

In all of this history, neither party has gained much experience at real political battle. The county organizations watch the judges, and whichever party has got them on its wire this time goes out and squeezes the plaintiffs’ attorneys for money, more like a dairy farm than a political organization.

Each time the county swings from one alignment to the other, all of the judges squawk once, flap and hop over to the other side en masse like crows on a telephone wire.

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That’s exactly what this snafu with the signatures shows us. At this particular seam in the fabric of time, the Republicans have every reason for feeling intense about things, and the Democrats do not. And, man, do they not. Do they ever not.

If I were a Democrat in another place far away from here, I would want to convince myself that Dallas County has a weird history and is sort of a one-off with no hard-wired connection to the national party. But because I am here and not far away, I have a hard time doing that.

I just keep thinking of 2008. Dallas was in the rare and entirely anomalous position of being important in a national presidential primary. Barack Obama swept in with an army of young, disciplined, whip-smart, high-tech operatives, the likes of which the county had never seen. Hillary Clinton came here and put together a local campaign team of every leftover, soon-to-be-indicted, old-school party hack in the county. And she won the county.

Those basically are the same people who run the Dallas County Democratic Party now. This deal with the bad signatures is a window on how they will operate in the days ahead because it is a window on how they have always operated. I spend half my time wondering, “Why us?” and the other half hoping it’s just us.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze