Hey, political junkies. I'm at the Texas Senate District 14 (more or less Travis County) Republican convention and it's dragging on so I might as well take advantage of the free wireless provided by the Austin ISD to put some notes out about the experience of attending a district convention. Special thanks to the folks from Americans for Prosperity who got bored and abandoned their booth in the convention hall, unwittingly providing me with a comfy place to sit down and share my thoughts.
So, how did I get here? Most people who haven't been through the process have no idea how one gets involved in the convoluted process through which the parties pick their candidates and set their platforms. You go and vote in your primary or in a caucus and you think that's all there is. That's really just the beginning. After you vote in the primary some of the most motivated voters get together and hold a precinct convention.
Attendees at the precinct convention vote to select delegates who then go to a regional convention, in this case broken down by Senatorial districts, which is why I'm at the Senate District 14 convention right now. Our precinct convention had an impressive turnout. In 2006 there were three of us at the convention. This year there were more than two dozen, which is a big step forward for our largely rural district. Of course, the Democrats had even more, but the growth we showed was very encouraging.
Here at the district convention we pick another set of delegates who get to go to the state convention, and at the state convention they will pick our state's delegates to the national convention this summer. In addition to picking delegates each of these conventions votes on resoultions which ultimately get passed up through the process in hopes of finding their way into the party platform, which is symbolically very important because it gives a sense of where the party body politics stands on the issues and ought to be taken to heart by candidates, even if the resolutions include no absolute compulsion to enact legislation down the road.
I don't guarantee that all the district conventions around the country are just like this one, but there are going to be a lot of basic similarities and even Democrat conventions will be structurally similar. Ours may be a bit unusual, because we're representing a Republican minority in an overwhelmingly Democratic district within a state which is equally overwhelmingly Republican. Every statewide elected official in Texas is a Republican. All but one elected official in this district is a Democrat. A very weird political situation. I knew this before the convention, but it was really driven home to me on the drive over here when it took 45 minutes to get here from my house which is all of four miles away because my route took me by the Texas Exposition and Heritage Center where the Democrats were holding their convention with so many attendees that traffic from every direction was blocked by endless lines of cars and by pedestrians who had parked miles away and walked to the convention.
I have to admit it was pretty intimidating, but our Republican turnout isn't exactly embarassing. We've got double the numbers that turned out for the 2006 convention and that includes lots of first-time participants. Many of the new delegates were brought here by their interest in Ron Paul, but for the most part they're sticking around and taking it seriously and deserve some credit for that.
2:43 PM: What Happened to Lunch Breaks?
So, you may wonder why my first entry beyond the initial introduction comes at almost 3 p.m. It's largely because it took us about six hours from the 9 a.m. start of the convention to actually get beyond the first procedural rules debate and move on to the meat of the convention.
What held us up was a very real, but ultimately futile, debate over the apportionment of delegates for the state convention. It should have been clear from the very beginning that there was no equitable solution to the problem, but a lot of people were very unhappy so the debate got dragged out to the bitter end over a period of over five hours before we had even elected the permanent officers of the convention.
The heart of the problem is how the state party decided to assign delegates to the various districts. They used as their basis the votes which were cast for Governor Rick Perry in the 2006 election. The problem is that it was an election with very low Republican turnout where many Republicans voted for other Republican candidates but chose not to vote for Perry who had lost a lot of support as a result of his endless shilling for toll road construction which a great many Republicans opposed for a variety of reasons. Voters were offered two independent gubernatorial candidates in that election as well, so that drew away even more votes from Perry.
The end result of all this is that in a district with 196 precincts we were assigned only 164 delegate slots. That means that some precincts were guaranteed not to get any delegates to the state convention at all. In fact, because some precincts were much larger than others and got as many as five delegates based on voting population, we ended up with 95 small precincts who were mathematically excluded from having delegates. The way the math worked out, the only chance those small precincts had of any representation at all was if their delegates were selected for one of 32 at-large slots by the nominating committee. Not surprisingly some people were unhappy.
The dissatisfaction with this state of affairs came largely from many of the first-time delegates, especially Ron Paul followers who saw themselves being disenfranchised because the delegate slots were going to be assigned by an administrative committee which no one had voted for and appointed by the convention chairman. Even worse, the at-large delegate slots could be assigned to anyone including extra delegates from the large precincts which were already well represented.
The natural suspicion was that the nominating committee would be dominated by insiders and they would pick their cronies as delegates and leave the newcomers out in the cold. It's a reasonable concern, but to be fair, the nominating committee was set up with some representation for the Ron Paul supporters, including prominent local libertarian-leaning Republican and candidate for County Tax Assessor, Don Zimmerman. Most of those who were upset were unaware that they had an advocate on the committee, so debate got pretty heated.
The focus of the debate was on a minority report submitted by Robert Morrow who differed with the rest of the rules committee on how the problem of inadequate representation should be dealt with. The majority plan was to select the at large delegates from anyone available. Morrow's proposal was that the apportionment should be changed slightly with 36 at-large slots specifically reserved for delegates from the small precincts selected by the nominating committee.
Debate was heated and some delegates were unruly and really angry. At one point the Sergeant at Arms had to be sent over to threaten some people with expulsion. There were three microphones set up and dozens lined up at each to ask questions and make statements and generally express a great deal of dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, the rules committee chairman didn't explain the situation very well so there were a lot of questions and it took a long time for people to realize that there was no "fair" solution to the situation and that delegate slots could not possibly be allocated to satisfy everyone because the situation we were given by the state primary system was the problem and nothing we could do would change that. Even the minority report proposal wouldn't solve the problem because it replaced underrepresentation of the small precincts with underrepresentation of the larger precincts.
Not surprisingly, with the larger precincts having more delegates, the majority report was eventually adopted and the minority report was just barely voted down. The reason the process took so long was that it took a roll-call vote and several procedural voice votes to resolve the issue. Some of the dissatisfied delegates walked out after the final vote, but it was heartening to see that many Ron Paul supporters remained and I hope they'll keep working within the party to generate positive change.
More than five hours later, with the delegate crisis resolved, we've now moved on to short speeches from our various candidates for office while the nominating committee works on selecting the at large delegates in another room.
4:33 PM: Nero Fiddles as the Committees Drone On and On
Once we resolved our procedural differences to universal dissatisfaction, all the fine candidates for local office began making speeches in the main hall/basketball court. But the real business pf the convention was happening in two noisy and overcrowded back rooms where the nominating and resolutions committees were meeting.
The committee meetings seemed to be where the excitement was, so that's where I headed. What exactly was going on there was hard to tell despite my keen reporter's senses, because the nominating committee room was closed to observers and the noise was so oppressive in the resolutions committee meeting that I could barely hear what was going on.
I did get to talk to some of those who met with the nominating committee and got the scoop a bit after the fact. First off, they kept about 110 people waiting to be interviewed for the 32 slots which were available. They kept them waiting for almost an hour while going over the credentials of prior applicants who saw the committee during the week before the convention. Then they called them in four at a time to meet with four-man subcommittees where each candidate had 30 seconds to speak. By the accounts of those I talked to, the interviewers seemed to represent a breadth of factions and perspectives and they gave people a fair hearing, but the rumor was that only a handful of slots were being made available at the convention and most had been assigned to those who applied in advance. The vote on the nominations is coming up, and there are likely to be objections of all sorts raised.
I spent some time at the resolutions committee meeting, despite the overwhelming noise in their meeting room which was essentially a converted stairwell with all the fine acoustic features you'd expect. It was hard to tell what people were proposing, but I know at least some of them were unhappy with the reaction they got and stormed out. One fellow made a very rational suggestion to change a proposed resolution for pulling out of the UN to a more moderate wording to withhold troops or money from UN projects which were not of benefit to the US. One very angry hard-money fan made an impassioned by largely incomprehensible attack on the Federal Reserve and the expanded powers of banking regulation which have been proposed for it. I even got my two cents in, with a quick suggestion that they strike a resolution in favor of posting the Ten Commandments on government property. I was not well received to say the least. When I told them that I didn't like my tax money being spent to promote a document which was at least 40% in violation of the separation of church and state the tension was palpable. But it was nice to at least pipe up and have my say.
Of course, we'll really have our say in a few minutes, when the two committees finally emerge and present their nominations and resolutions to the convention (the half of us who haven't left in despair or out of exhaustion). I'm bracing myself for debate into the wee hours.
6:28 PM: Rumors, Religion, and Recriminations
I bet that after the last report you thought I'd be reporting on some meaningful votes by now. No such luck. The committees are still deliberating, which has given me a chance to talk to some folks from neighboring precincts who are a bit more clued in than I am on the local political scene. While I've been worrying about national politics they've been in the local trenches witnessing some very dirty deeds that flew right by me. Now most of these are Ron Paul folks, but they're also genuine Republicans who want the party to change and improve and move forward with or without a Ron Paul candidacy, so I take their reports fairly seriously.
The big scandal of the convention is what appears to be a concerted effort by elements of the convention leadership to squeeze newcomers and nonconformists out of the process. The chairman of the convention is a fellow named Dr. Joe Pojman who is a member of the Legacy PAC, which is an ultraconservative, religious-right organization with a pretty scary agenda. He's been running things with a pretty heavy hand, applying Roberts Rules somewhat selectively, and shutting down anyone who doesn't march in step with his agenda. Particularly troubling have been his outright attacks on the Ron Paul Republicans who are trying to desperately to get a fair hearing at the convention. Before the convention he sent out emails, direct mailings and made phone bank calls to try to make sure that every blue hair turned out ready to do battle with what he calls "renegade Republicans". One postcard which he sent out to his supporters reads:
Our platform is under attack! A new angry, populist group has taken over several precinct conventions. Many of them do not believe government has a role defending traditional marriage or protecting the sanctity of innocent life. Many are opposed to our fight against Islamic extremism. They want to take over our state convention and strip delegates away from our presidential nominee. Legacy PAC will equip you to defend our platform at the upcoming SD convention!
Inviting loyalists to attend strategy meetings so they can work together to disenfranchise enthusiastic party neophytes is really unappealing – like making the party into a private club for the morally righteous. There are some ethical questions surrounding this campaign of exclusion. At the least it's not terribly Republican and doesn't fit with the 'big tent' traditions of the party. It may be unethical, as some have claimed that resources from the non-partisan Texans for Life PAC may have been used in the campaign. Obviously his behavior is contrary to the best interests of a party which desperately needs new blood and new ideas. It particularly troubles me that several people I talked to confirmed overhearing him essentially declaring war on the Ron Paul faction and promising to crush them.
To me it's all somewhat inexplicable. That the religious right should object to Ron Paul makes very little sense. Paul is as pro-life and pro-Christian as you can possibly get, and while his followers may be a more diverse group, plenty of them follow right along in his footsteps. I wouldn't think common ground would be that hard to find, and this kind of hostility can only be bad for the future of the party. In fact, it might destroy whatever future the party has.
7:45 PM: Chicks and Chickens Coming Home to Roost
So I went out to the BigAss EcoTruck and drove down the road to bring back some yummy KFC chicken for folks from our precinct delegation, and when I got back my prime blogging spot had been usurped by someone giving away a rather intimidating selection of Jack Chick comic booklets. So I moved over to the now abandoned table of our friends at the East Austin Republicans. As I left I snagged a copy of Chick's classic denouncement of the satanic influence of the tooth fairy and Easter Bunny, Fairy Tales?, for my future reading pleasure.
As we dined the committees finally returned with their results and they read the endless list of nominee and alternate names. I didn't mention it, but I was picked as our precinct's one alternate earlier in the day, so I got to have my name read. With the alternate number of 112 I've probably got a 50/50 shot at being seated as a delegate if I go to the state convention in Houston. Apparently by that point a lot of delegates are discouraged and the most dogged alternates get picked to fill their spots.
Objections began almost as soon as the list of delegates and alternates was read. The Ron Paul supporters had come up with the quixotic strategy of moving that each of the almost 100 at-large delegates and alternates be debated and voted on separately with a roll call vote. Based on the roll call vote we had earlier in the day that process would probably take the next three or four days, so that proposal was not well received. But as it turned out that proposal was not the actual proposal, just a convenient misinterpretation of it from the convention chair, and in the confusion he managed to get it voted down and shut down further debate and additional motions and basically ram things through to a vote on approving the at-large delegates and the alternates.
Then followed a series of confused and somewhat pathetic attempts to fill a small clutch of unfilled or vacated alternate seats by various means proposed by enthusiastic but naive neophytes, including an attempt to get a spot for some strangely dressed guy who attempted to get seated under a pseudonym and was then forced to reveal his real name, which consisted of five or six unpronounceable consonants, and then had his offer to serve voted down for his trouble. Ultimately the renegade faction caught on and after a number of unsuccessful attempts to vote people into the unfilled spots in some sort of equitable way they realized that whoever they shoved up to a microphone first could just ask for and get one of the empty slots by acclamation, so that worked out fairly well for them, probably assisted by how tired and increasingly irritated most of the convention was getting.
By now it was getting late and the hall was getting less and less full, when we finally got to the report from the resolutions committee…
10:35 PM: Send in the Goons!
So I'm home now, the convention having wrapped up right around 10 p.m. in a conclusion which was both sudden and dismaying. As I mentioned before, everyone was getting tired by about 8:30 when the resolutions committee finally showed up with the fruits of their labor. I've got to give them credit. They did a difficult job and came up with what were generally improvements on the original slate of resolutions. We ended up with nothing which was embarrassing and most of the resolutions were better written and made more sense than they did when first offered to them.
That having been said, things began to fall apart pretty quickly once they offered their report. It started when someone on the far side of the hall from us stood up at one of the microphones and entered a motion to adjourn before the resolutions had even been presented. Then there was a barrage of motions and questions and attempts to offer last minute minor amendments to the resolutions, and it became clear that some elements on both sides had just had enough.
The Ron Paul delegates. Strike that. We're now calling them 'Renegade Republicans', as they were referred to in one of the attempts to demonize them which issued from the poison pen of Dr. Pojiman — and they've even embraced it and made themselves bumper stickers. It's a much more positive and broadly applicable term, so I think it's got legs.
Anyway, the renegades – who had suffered from organizational problems all along – began to fall apart and broke into two factions arguing over whether it would be better to just give up and go home or whether the resolutions mattered and ought to be heard out. Their squabbling was interspersed with attempts to introduce amendments to the resolutions, culminating in one which would have endorsed a prohibition of any use of torture by the US government. Attempts to get it discussed kept getting interrupted by a creepy little woman in an oversized pink coat who had seized control of one of the microphones and refused to give it up, while mocking and harassing the harmless latter-day hippie who proposed the amendment. The chairman then ruled the amendment out of order because it didn't attach clearly to an existing resolution. Then with dozens waiting to propose other amendments the chairman cut off further discussion and called for a vote on the resolutions. With everyone tired and fed up they passed pretty much as written. That done, before anyone could catch their breath, someone moved to adjourn a quick vote came and it was all over except the recriminations.
Some observations and tidbits of information came to me as we packed up and headed out. It turns out that the efforts of the Legacy faction (as they were calling the religious righters associated with the Legacy PAC) was far more organized and insidious than I had realized. In addition to Dr. Pojman's pre-convention smear campaign – which turned out to be more vicious and pervasive than I had initially realized – they actually had goons walking the convention floor, wired for sound and listening in on the planning sessions and conversations of the Renegades and reporting them back to their leaders so that anything the Renegades attempted to do could be countered before it even started. No wonder they seemed so frustrated and disgruntled. Oh, and pink coat lady was put at the mike on the convention floor as a shill to move things along. Pojman's high-handed behavior at the podium while running the convention was irritating, but what was going on behind the scenes was far more reprehensible.
The Renegades came into this process eager to bring change and new ideas to the Republican party, and willing to work within the system if they were given a fair shake. Many of them were suspicious of the establishment, prone to calling everyone 'neocons' and eager to find a conspiracy. Some of us assured them there was nothing to fear and that we'd welcome them because the party needed new blood and had always claimed to be a 'big tent'. But what went on at this convention and probably at others around the state and the nation provided the worst possible confirmation that all of their fears were real. There really are small-minded, bigoted elements in the GOP with no scruples and a screwed up system of values who put their own petty agenda and egomania above the welfare of the party. The party needs new blood to be strong and grow, but screw that. When people come to us offering their votes and their support, we'll drive them away because they don't pass the religious litmus test of a self-righteous minority.
The behavior of the Legacy group at this convention made me ashamed to be a Republican, and as far as I'm concerned the need to purge them or at the very least curtail their access to any positions of power is long past due. They are a net liability and if allowed to carry on as they did here in Austin they will marginalize and ultimately destroy the party.
Despite all of this, I think that the Renegades did manage to capture maybe 20% or more of the delegate positions and maybe a higher percentage of the alternates, which is pretty impressive and a tribute to their enthusiasm. It does raise some questions about the whole convention process, since they're probably actually represented out of proportion to their actual turnout in the primary election. It leads me to suspect that the two extremes came out of the convention overrepresented at the expense of the rest of the more mainstream core of the party.
In a final touch of irony, towards the end of the convention, news filtered in from another neighboring convention that it went exactly the other way, with the Renegade faction seizing control and apparently shutting down the religious right faction there pretty effectively. I look forward with dread and fascination to see what happens when the factions meet again at the state convention.
On the way home I drove by the Democratic convention site and discovered that despite their enormous turnout and all of their internal strife they had wrapped up before we did. An unconfirmed source (the convenience store clerk down the block) told me they had turned out 12,000 people for their convention, and I find it credible. But it's also troubling, because the chaos and infighting at our convention was not the behavior of a party ready to fight a foe which is more organized, more unified, and has a groundswell of popularity which we can't match. Very discouraging in what it promises for the future of this nation.