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Abortion, guns and vouchers: Texas Democrats convene in El Paso to sound alarms over GOP policies

<br>A Texas Democrats sign hangs on a podium at a Democratic watch party following a Texas primary election in Austin.
Eric Gay/AP Photo

A Texas Democrats sign hangs on a podium at a Democratic watch party following a Texas primary election in Austin.

Texas Democrats will look to rally their base and push back against what they call a new level of Republican extremism at their convention this week in El Paso.

Support for abortion rights and public schools will be major themes of the three-day gathering that kicks of Thursday. Texas’ Republican leadership has vowed to pass legislation in 2025 that will allow public funds to be used for private-school tuition. The convention also comes less than a week after the Texas Supreme Court unanimously rejected a challenge to the state’s extreme abortion law.

The party is working with a disadvantage. A Democrat hasn’t been elected to statewide office in three decades, and don’t hold a majority in either legislative chamber. Yet, they’re still defiant.

“Texas Republicans have repeatedly shown who they are. They are a group of MAGA extremists hellbent on stripping away women’s rights,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said earlier this week. “Our message to voters in this: Texas Democrats are the party of freedom.”

The party platform that delegates will vote on during the final day of the convention will include IVF protection, public education funding, and anti-private school voucher programs, according to party spokesperson Brigitte Bowen.

Former Ariz. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and gun-control activist David Hogg are also included on the party’s featured list of speakers, a hint that access to guns in Texas will be an issue Democrats will address.

The issue of gun control is an especially visceral issue in the West Texas city hosting the convention. In two months, El Paso will mark the five-anniversary of when a white supremacist gunned down 23 people and injured dozens at a local Walmart. He said his massacre was motivated by a desire to ward an “invasion of Texas” by Hispanics.

Though Texas Democrats haven’t won a statewide office since the 1990s, they are hopeful a new rising star will break that streak.

Among the featured speakers in U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, who is challenging two-term U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. Polling shows it’s another uphill battle for Democrats as Cruz holds a commanding lead in most polls.

Though the convention could further motivate die-hard Democrats within the party, that energy won’t change the political make up of Texas as a whole, said Jon Taylor, a professor of Political Science and the chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“What is it going to accomplish other than just act as a three-day pep rally? It's not going to spark a major get-out-the-vote movement,” he said. “You're not going to get whatever the platform is unless Hell freezes over and somehow the Democrats captured the state House.”

The border and immigration

Texas Democrats have been united and unwavering in their criticism of state-based immigration enforcement laws and actions championed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other GOP leaders.

They include the multi-billion-dollar enforcement effort called Operation Lone Star and legislation that would allow local officers to arrest people suspected of being in the state illegally. The law, Senate Bill 4, is currently on hold following a challenge in court.

But the convention comes just days after President Joe Biden announced an executive order that some members of his own party have called a throwback to the extreme measures on immigration championed by former President Donald Trump.

The order prevents migrants from making asylum claims when unauthorized crossings peak, and orders the rapid removal of most migrants before they are allowed to seek relief in the United States.

The election-year policy comes as support for Biden’s handling of border security and immigration continues to plummet. While Republicans call the order political theater, Democrats have also criticizedthe move as inhumane.

“It would fundamentally change our asylum laws without any new protections for Dreamers or other immigrants who have paid taxes, raised families, and contributed to our nation’s prosperity,” U.S. Rep Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said in a statement. While Castro praised Biden’s past policies, he added this order “is the wrong approach and goes too far."

Escobar, who is the co-chair of the Biden/Harris reelection committee, said she too was disappointed.

“While I understand the administration is doing its best to navigate this challenge without adequate resources and appropriate legislation, I am disappointed that the focus today is only on enforcement,” she said.

The Texas Democratic Party hasn’t released a statement in response to the president’s executive order, but it’s expected to be a topic of conversation during the convention.

Abortion

The biennial meeting comes on the heels of a huge legal loss for abortion rights proponents.

Last week, the state’s top court rejected a lawsuit brought by a group of women who had medical complication while pregnant and sought clarity on when doctors could terminate a pregnancy when the life or health of the mother was in jeopardy.

Focusing on the issue, the list of convention speakers includes former state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Fort Worth Democrat who unsuccessfully attempted to filibuster a 2005 abortion-restriction bill.

The message at the convention will include a stark warning on the issue, said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso: Congressional Republicans aren’t content with abortion bans and want to target access to contraception and in vitro fertilization.

“The very dark vision that Republicans have for our country and for the women of our country is essentially to take away all of our reproductive rights,” she said.

Drag shows and golf

Though outnumbered in Texas, the minority party is still looking to have some fun in the West Texas town of El Paso.

Planned Parenthood of Texas and the Texas Stonewall Democrats are sponsoring a “drag out the vote” event on Thursday to champion LGBTQ+ rights, political representation and an increase in voter turnout.

In between workshops, floor speeches and platform voting, the party’s partner events also include a golf tournament sponsored by the El Paso Democrats, a late-evening happy hour at a border-themed brewery and an AAPI reception hosted by the Asian American Democrats of Texas.

A complete schedule of the convention can be found here.

Copyright 2024 KERA

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom