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Dem convention shone a spotlight on Texas’ emerging bench — beyond the Castros and O’Rourke

The Texas Democratic Party hopes a new crop of young politicians signals a deepening bench of future leaders.                    Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune
The Texas Democratic Party hopes a new crop of young politicians signals a deepening bench of future leaders. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

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The speaking turns may have been brief and the spotlight not as bright, but Texas Democrats got a glimpse at their national convention this week of their emerging bench — beyond, notably, the usual suspects.

While names like Beto O'Rourke and Julián and Joaquin Castro continue to dominate the conversation — and O'Rourke had two roles in the convention — the virtual gathering also put on display at least four Texas Democrats who could have bright futures, too, either in 2022 or further down the line.

There was Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the 29-year-old leader of the state's largest county, who appeared in video montages Monday and Thursday nights. There were U.S. Rep. Colin Allred and state Rep. Victoria Neave, both of Dallas, who spoke Tuesday night as part of a 17-person keynote address showcasing the party's rising stars nationwide. And there was U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, who announced the Texas delegate count for Biden on Tuesday night while delivering a solemn reminder of the 2019 Walmart massacre in her home city. The next night, Escobar appeared in a compilation video about women's suffrage.

The pared-down online convention meant the Texans may have not gotten as much time — or overall prominence — as usual, but for politicos watching closely, their inclusion alone was notable.

"As we know, for the last two decades, it's been slim pickings for Democrats in Texas," said Keir Murray, a Houston Democratic strategist. "I think Allred, Neave, Hidalgo — some of these up-and-comers who are likely not familiar at all to audiences outside their respective districts — even within the state of Texas is my guess — does show a sort of young and growing bench in the state of potential candidates who may move on to do bigger and better things in the future."

The emergence of such rising leaders speaks to an obvious truth in politics, Murray said: "Winning is what creates stars." Neave unseated a Republican in 2016, while Allred and Hidalgo took out GOP incumbents in 2018, and that same year, Escobar won the election to replace O'Rourke in the U.S. House.

None is actively entertaining plans to run for higher office, but they are part of a new wave of talent that is giving state Democrats hope that they no longer have to tie their fortunes to a singular figure like a Castro or O'Rourke. Plus, while the Castros have undoubtedly spent years helping the party, they have repeatedly passed on one of its greatest needs: running statewide.

The November election could give rise to another class of newly ascendant Democrats. If the state House flips, for example, there would be a Democratic speaker who would appoint a host of fellow Democratic colleagues to chair committees, giving them platforms most have not been able to have under GOP leadership.

"I think there’s lots of opportunity for our next generation to step into new roles when in the past we’ve been told it’s not our time," Neave said in an interview. "I think we need to include as many different voices at the table as possible. That includes people who have been in the trenches for years already to new voices from the younger generation."

The state party emerged from the convention pleased with the Texas representation in the lineup after its chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa, raised objections beforehand that no one from the state had a major primetime speaking slot to themselves.

“The Texas Democratic bench is strong and Democratic leaders across the state are coming from all generations," the state party's executive director, Manny Garcia, said in a statement for this story, expressing pride in Neave, Hidalgo, Allred, O'Rourke and Escobar for their roles in the convention. "A new Texas majority is emerging and Texas Democrats from all generations are leading the charge."

Some of the state's highest-profile Democrats concluded the convention on a similarly confident note Thursday evening. During a convention pre-show with Julián Castro, U.S. Senate nominee MJ Hegar and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, O'Rourke said he has "never seen the Texas Democratic Party this strong and this organized and this well-funded for the fight that is before us."

Speaking at the end of the event, Hinojosa emphasized about how far the party has come over just the past three years — and recalled a time when the Castros were the only prominent officials the party had to lean on.

"When I first started working in the party, we had no people working for us, we're losing our lease, we had no money in the bank and I couldn't get anybody to return our phone calls — but the Castro brothers did," Hinojosa said. "When we needed to have fundraisers and we couldn't have anybody that would want to come and help us do the fundraisers, both of them would show up, using their own dime."

Whatever happens in November, the 2022 election holds plenty of opportunities for ambitious Democrats, with most of the all-GOP statewide elected officials up for reelection. Gov. Greg Abbott has become an especially enticing target given his handling of the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic, and neither O'Rourke nor Julián Castro has ruled out running against him.

For the other rising stars, the 2018 election still looms large. The National Republican Congressional Committee is targeting Allred, and his challenger, Genevieve Collins, claimed as the convention began Monday that he was getting a primetime role because the party was "nervous" about his reelection prospects.

While Neave's district is no longer the battleground it once was — she won reelection in 2018 by double digits — she said she is taking nothing for granted.

And after that? "That would be up to the voters," Neave said.

Alex Samuels contributed to reporting.

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