A breakfast crowd of Harris County Democratic faithful cheered and clapped last week as touring national party chair Terry McAuliffe punched all the right buttons, most of them labeled with dollar signs.
For years Texas has been a cash cow for visiting Democratic presidential contenders, who sucked millions from Houston and Dallas contributors while providing little seed money to grow the next generation of local leaders. The result: Not one Democrat now holds office statewide or in Harris County.
All that's gonna change, declared McAuliffe. The self-made New York millionaire and friend of Bill Clinton looks something like a cross between hirsute Brit prime minister Tony Blair and flamboyant, fast-talking former Clinton adviser Dick Morris. A political child prodigy, McAuliffe became the chief fund-raiser for the Carter- Mondale campaign at age 22. He was Clinton's anointed choice to run the party, beating out former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson.
"The days of the national party not paying attention to Texas are over," McAuliffe told the gathering at a Gulf Freeway hotel. "I promise you today I'm going to provide the resources you need to do your job better next time around."
McAuliffe and Texas party chair Molly Beth Malcolm promised an October fund-raising sweep through the Lone Star State using former president Clinton as the money magnet. Equally important was a pledge to split proceeds 50-50 between the national and state party organizations.
"That's a huge thing," outgoing Harris County party treasurer Janis Kinchen said later. "When you have money in the field, you can support candidates like [Judge] Eric Andell, and you don't want to lose superb candidates like that. We will be able to do more fieldwork, more TV with the money."
After watering the grassroots crowd with the promise of cash, McAuliffe displayed the attitude that he claims has earned him the "most-hated Democrat" title in Republican circles.
"We won the election; they stole that election, and don't let anyone ever forget it," lectured the chairman. "I remind George Bush of that every day."
McAuliffe recalls a recent face-to-face encounter with the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and several Bush cabinet members in a back room before a speech.
"What do you talk to [Attorney General] John Ashcroft about for 30 minutes?" McAuliffe asked amid appreciative partisan laughter. After a few trips to the bar to get up the nerve, he approached Bush tentatively "because he doesn't really like me -- he calls me Public Enemy No. 1."
According to McAuliffe, he proposed a deal to Bush. He would quit harping on what happened in Florida if Bush would sign a true electoral reform bill.
"Well, folks, he took one look at me, and I doubt I'll ever talk to George again."
So far McAuliffe's tenure as national chair has been without visible rifts. He made peace with former competitor Jackson and then cleaned house. McAuliffe boasts he trimmed the party staff by a quarter, slashed consulting contracts ("very good people from Tennessee and Arkansas") and beefed up the number of women, blacks and Hispanics in top party positions.
"The days of the DNC being a presidential campaign committee are over," boasted McAuliffe. He described the new operation as a full-time, full-service and fully operational four-year campaign organization, dedicated to electing Democrats to local positions as well as to governor and senator.
Voter rights will be a key theme for the party in the next four years, says the chairman, pointing to a critical blunder made by the Gore-Lieberman campaign. The party made sure voters got to the polls but dropped the ball at getting them inside and making sure they understood the ballot.
"Huge mistake," says McAuliffe, vowing to eliminate the infamous ballot snafus in Florida as well as voter intimidation on Election Day.
"I promise you," he stressed, "we will not stand and allow when persons of color go to get a ballot, and are required to have three or more forms of identification, and I can walk in with a library card. Folks, we will never allow that to occur again."
He also pledged to stop the Florida Highway Patrol, "if they ever again do headlight checks on Election Day with roadblocks on the single road leading into the polling booths only in minority districts." Democrats have set up a Voters Rights Institute within the party, with a program to train poll workers to take voter complaints and provide assistance in casting ballots.
The new DNC is spending $10.5 million to upgrade computer and media capabilities. Next year a new national headquarters will have a computer- video network linkup with the local and state party.
"The Republican National Committee has facilities that NBC Studios would be proud of. We will be able to bring people in and hook them up on a satellite and beam them out all over the country every single day. We've got to do it, folks."
Two years ago Houston state Senator Mario Gallegos fired off a letter to national party leaders complaining that they were ceding the Hispanic vote to George Bush by failing to aggressively seek it. "I got Bush in my backyard, doing mail, TV, radio and all of this," complained Gallegos. "If Clinton comes in here one more time, part of that money has got to stay in Harris County."
McAuliffe is promising just that, with another $10 million project to pursue the Hispanic vote. While Harris County chair Sue Schechter is enthusiastic, others are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
Gallegos political consultant Marc Campos calls the promises of money sharing and minority outreach welcome, but notes that they are now just words.
"I don't want all the money to come in and they spend it all out in [Congressman] Ken Bentsen's district," says Campos. "They've got to go to where the party base is, and that's Hispanic voters. If they redirect their resources to where the new demographic shifts are, I'll be impressed. Right now, I'm skeptical."
Local treasurer Kinchen notes that the national party has pledged local support before but puts more faith in the new chairman to make good on them.
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"I have a feeling because of his marketing skills, the fact he is the ultimate salesman, that he actually may be able to do more," Kinchen says. "He's already started to do it in other states."
If nothing else, McAuliffe is providing comedic relief for victory-starved Texas Democrats. Toward the end of his talk, he pointed out that he had already selected July 19, 2004, as the start of the next Democratic National Convention.
Since the Republicans, as the party in power, have to go second, the chairman quipped, "I have pushed them up against the opening of the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece."
Unfortunately for the locals, restoring Texas Democrats to power is going to take a lot more than a scheduling conflict.