Fort Worth playing key role in plan to turn Texas ‘blue’

Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent

Tarrant County, one of the state’s leading Republican strongholds, is becoming a hot-bed of Democratic political activity as ground zero for Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial campaign and a major front in Democratic efforts to paint the state blue. Battleground Texas, created to bolster Democratic fortunes in red-state Texas, has re-located senior staff to Tarrant County to work alongside the Davis campaign team. Jenn Brown, Battleground’s executive director, shares office space in the south Fort Worth building where Davis has based her statewide campaign headquarters, a Battleground spokesman confirmed Sunday.

“Team Wendy” has been operating out of the decades-old building at 219 South Main Street for several weeks but Davis proclaimed her campaign headquarters officially open for business on Saturday, telling hundreds of energetic volunteers that she is prepared to prove skeptics wrong and march to victory in 2014. “When I ran for the State Senate in 2008, pundits from all across the state said there was no way we would win, and obviously we did,” the two-term state senator told the crowd. “And though we may hear the same thing from pundits in this race, we know we’re all going to work hard and win this election.”

Davis, a former Fort Worth city council member whose political career is deeply rooted in south Fort Worth, said she wanted to plant her campaign headquarters in her hometown instead of the state capital of Austin, a traditional base for statewide campaigns. “Tarrant County is going to be an incredibly important part of what we’re trying to achieve in this race,” Davis said. “Fort Worth is my home, and of course, I’m going to run a campaign from my home.” The last time that Fort Worth served as the statewide headquarters for a major gubernatorial candidate was in 1962, when future Gov. John Connally, who was then the legal counsel for legendary oilman Sid Richardson, waged his Democratic primary campaign in Cowtown before shifting his political team to Austin.

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Fort Worth attorney Tom Schieffer, a Bush administration diplomat and the brother of long-time CBS network anchor Bob Schieffer, ran for governor as a Democrat in 2010 but operated his state headquarters out of Austin, the former candidate told the Business Press. With the approach of the 2014 election year, the combined presence of a marquee political campaign and the broadening Tarrant County focus by Battleground Texas helps fuel state Democratic efforts to muscle into what is considered the last major urban county controlled by Republicans. “The fact that they’re working out of Tarrant County is just an added advantage because of the importance of Tarrant County statewide,” said Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. “When Tarrant County turns blue, then every large urban county in the state is blue.”  

The State Democratic Party and allied groups have targeted Tarrant County as a cornerstone of their strategy to begin recapturing statewide offices after nearly two decades of defeats by Republicans. Democrats haven’t won a statewide office since 1998 although the party got a boost last week when Texas Criminal Appeals Court Judge Larry Meyers of Fort Worth, elected as a Republican in 1992, switched parties to run for the Texas Supreme Court as a Democrat. Battleground Texas was created by veterans of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign to engage thousands of volunteers into a statewide effort to make Texas more competitive politically.

The organization began operating in an obscure office in Austin but has since shifted senior staff members, including Brown, to Fort Worth as part of its effort to expand statewide, said spokesman Ellis Brachman. Helping electing Davis as the first Democratic governor since Ann Richards left office in January of 1995 is a fundamental element in the organization’s long-term strategy. “Battleground Texas is working hand-in-hand with the campaign,” Brachman told the Business Press on Sunday. “We are working to help make Texas competitive for Democrats across the state.” Battleground Texas was founded by Jeremy Bird, who served as national field director in Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Brown, a Californian, served as Obama’s field director in the crucial state of Ohio, overseeing a staff of more than 600. As executive director for Battleground Texas, she oversees strategy and manages the day-to-day operations, according to the organization’s Website. Brachman confirmed that Brown as well as other senior staff members are now based in the Fort Worth building that also serves as Davis’ headquarters. Brown could not be reached for comment.  

“My understanding is that the entire command center for Battleground Texas is located in the Wendy Davis campaign,” said Hinojosa. “Obviously, if your focus as Battleground Texas is on getting Wendy Davis elected you want to be in the same place where the candidate’s operation is.” Hinojosa said state Democratic executive director Will Hailer is “on the phone” with Brown “almost every day, if not every day.” Davis launched her campaign for governor in early October after amassing national political stardom following her Senate filibuster against a Republican-led abortion restriction bill that Gov. Rick Perry later signed into law. Two polls in late October and early November showed her trailing Attorney General Gregg Abbott, the likely Republican nominee – one by six percent and another by 15 percent. But Davis and supporters believe the Democratic candidate can forge a winning campaign with a statewide coalition similar to the diverse network of voters that helped her win two Senate races in a district once considered overwhelmingly Republican.

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Speaking to reporters following the opening of her campaign headquarters, Davis expressed a “little bit of disagreement” with Houston Mayor Annise Parker, a Democrat, who recently suggested that Davis may be facing “an uphill battle” in trying to win the governor’s office in a traditionally red state. “I believe the votes will be there for new leadership in this state,” Davis said. “Yes, Texas has been voting red but Texas is capable of voting for a different kind of leadership.” Davis said she helped select the three-story building that serves as her headquarters. The building was constructed early in the last century as a hotel and is among a block-long row of vintage structures that figure in the resurgence of the south side. On Saturdays, vendors gather on the block to present an eclectic mix of merchandise in the Southside Urban Market. Davis said she has a deep-rooted personal attachment to the south side, which encompasses Stage West, the theater created by her late father Jerry Russell, and neighborhood attractions such the Paris Coffee Shop. 

In the building at 219 South Main, the atmosphere is what communications director Robert “Bo” Delp describes as “incredibly fast-paced,” with a campaign team composed of hometown veterans from Davis’ previous political battles in Tarrant County as well as new faces. The campaign manager is veteran Democratic strategist Karin Johanson, who was hired after a nationwide search and came aboard about six weeks ago. Johanson has been engaged in Democratic politics for nearly three decades and was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006. She later managed Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s successful 2012 campaign in Wisconsin. Another key figure is J.D. Angle, the Fort Worth consultant who helped shape Davis’ two Senate victories in 2008 and 2012 and has been a Davis adviser since her city council days. His older brother, Matt Angle, is director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political action committee, and assists the Davis campaign as an informal adviser.

Others include deputy campaign manager Terrysa Guerra, who served as campaign manager in Davis’ 2012 race; Delp, an East Texas native who served as assistant press secretary for the Environmental Protection Agency, and Press Secretary Rebecca Acuna, former communications director for U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego of Alpine. Johanson, who has a reputation for winning tough races, said the campaign is “pretty revved up” and has been sponsoring a series of “Christmas parties” that serve as an organizing tool to bring together activists and volunteers. “That kind of energy translates into activity and then it translates into votes,” she said.

In a brief interview while observing the headquarters open house on Saturday, Johanson described Davis as “a great candidate” and disputed assessments that Davis’ candidacy is a long-shot. “You really do have a situation where you have a unique candidate, you have an attorney general that’s not that well known,” she said. “He’s not better known that she is. I mean, that’s a fact.” Asked about the differences between the Davis campaign and some of her other campaigns, she described Texas as “unique,” adding, “ Texas has a unique way of looking at things, a special pride in itself that is as strong as any state if not stronger. In Texas, there’s a good chance if you say what are you, they’d say ‘Texan.’ ”

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And Johanson added, she has found Fort Worth to be a “big city with a small town warmth.” “It’s great to be here,” she said. “It’s a great community and her home. She has so much support here.”