Democratic convention to focus on fall upsets June 18, 2004 By R.G. RATCLIFFE and JOE STINEBAKER Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle EXCERPT Much of the platform planning session was spent on the issue of capital punishment -- a new section of the platform. The proposal recommends "a temporary moratorium (on) executions" until a Texas Capital Punishment Commission can be established to study the state's death penalty system. Texas Democrats gathered in Houston for their state convention Thursday, with a focus on rallying the troops for some upsets as last year's bitter redistricting battle plays out in the November election. "The thing that comes out of our convention is a call to arms," said state Democratic Chairman Charles Soechting. Soechting said Democrats are buoyed by the fact that President Bush's popularity numbers have fallen as the conflict in Iraq has continued. He said that creates the possibility that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry can defeat Bush, and it also may shorten Bush's coattails in Texas races, notably for the state and U.S. House. One of Kerry's former rivals for the nomination and a potential running mate, U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, is scheduled to speak to the convention as it officially opens tonight. U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who has remained in the race for the presidential nomination even though Kerry apparently has clinched it, is scheduled to speak Saturday. The Texas Democratic Party hasn't carried the state for a presidential candidate since 1976, and has lost every statewide office and control of the Legislature. "Our tide will turn when we get a few unexpected wins," said Democratic political consultant Dan McClung. In an effort to define themselves before November, Democratic officials spent Thursday morning and afternoon refining the party's proposed platform. The 30-page document says the party "will steadfastly and vociferously oppose those who choose to rule instead of governing in the best interests of the people, who arrogantly abuse power for short-term gain to the detriment of the best interest of our state and nation." Much of the platform planning session was spent on the issue of capital punishment -- a new section of the platform. The proposal recommends "a temporary moratorium (on) executions" until a Texas Capital Punishment Commission can be established to study the state's death penalty system. As members of the advisory platform committee continued to tinker with the section in an effort to make it more restrictive, committee co-chair, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, of Houston, tried to ensure that the party didn't come off as anti-death penalty. "We've had situations where DNA evidence has turned convictions around," he said. "And no one wants a person who shouldn't be to be put to death by accident. But clearly, this doesn't weaken capital punishment. We support the use of capital punishment, with protections." Glenn Smith, who managed the unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial bid of Democrat Tony Sanchez, said Democrats have hit "rock bottom" in terms of state elections. But Smith said the party enthusiasm for rebuilding is the best it has been in years. "I haven't seen the level of energy at the grass roots since the Ann Richards campaign in 1990, and it's being done without a leader," Smith said. Richards, the state's last Democratic governor, was elected that year but defeated in 1994 by Bush. "People are looking for ways they can contribute to a Democratic national victory," Smith said. "There's a new pragmatic approach." But Texas GOP spokesman Ted Royer said the Democrats remain on a "path to irrelevance." "The Democrats are just not on the road to recovery," he said. The November election represents the final skirmish in one of the biggest political battles between the Texas parties, over congressional representation. Democrats came out of the 2002 elections with a 17-15 majority in the state's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives. U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, took advantage of Republican control of the state Legislature to push through a redistricting plan to give the GOP a gain of seven seats. A pair of Democratic legislative walkouts last year slowed the process down, but the new maps were approved after three special sessions. U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall of Rockwall switched to the GOP party early this year. And U.S. Rep. Jim Turner, D-Crockett, decided not to seek re-election after the redrawn maps left him without a district. TEXAS DEMOCRATS OFFICIAL CONVENTION: June 17-19, Houston. Caucus meetings and selection of national convention delegates. Other: • 2004 state Democratic Party platform • Harris County Democratic Party / other local party groups But the Democrats are hoping for upsets in races featuring incumbents Martin Frost of Dallas, Chet Edwards of Waco, Max Sandlin of Marshall, Nick Lampson of Beaumont and Charles Stenholm of Abilene. "Some of these congressional races may well be decided because Bush didn't run as well as DeLay and some of his demographers thought he would," McClung said. "The good news is going to be a few state representative districts, a few congressional districts and a lot of hell because of congressional redistricting." Soechting, the state chairman, also has high hopes for these races. "We're going to be highlighting out state representatives. That's where our real races are this year," Soechting said. "The congressional races are a way of punishing the Republicans." But the congressional districts are drawn to favor the Republican candidates. And Vice President %@!#$& Cheney recently campaigned in Texas to help raise money for Lampson's opponent, former Houston Judge Ted Poe; Edward's opponent, state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth; and Sandlin's opponent, former Tyler Judge Louis Gohmert.