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Messing with Texas: Lone Star Democrats hopeful despite long odds

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Being a Democrat in Texas takes patience these days. Republicans have locked up all statewide offices and the state's popular governor, George W. Bush, is leading the GOP national ticket.

To top it off, the national Democratic Party has turned a jaundiced eye on the state's pockets of poverty and pollution while Bush runs for office.

But the 231 delegates and 32 alternates representing the Lone Star State at the Democratic National Convention were cheefully showing the flag from a corner of the Staples Center convention floor as party's quadrennial gathering opened Monday in Los Angeles.

"Texas is a proud state," said state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, co-chairman of state delegation. "We have many beautiful and great things in our Texas. But Texas can also say that we are not perfect, and it is the Democrats that are trying to correct some of the problems that have existed in the past."

For weeks, the campaign of Vice President Al Gore has been highlighting the state's shortcomings during five years under Bush's administration, particularly the persistent poverty in rural areas and a reported nine-figure shortfall in health care and criminal justice spending in the state budget. The criticism occasionally rankles, but Democrats say much of those flaws are the same ones they have pointed out for years.

"Some of it might have been a little exaggerated in some cases," Barrientos said -- particularly the Gore campaign's implication that the state budget is running a deficit. Otherwise, he said, "The facts have been there."

Despite setbacks in the past few years, rumors of the party's demise even in a state as conservative as Texas are exaggerated, said Molly Beth Malcolm, the Texas delegation's co-chairwoman.

Democrats in Los Angeles also see it as their mission to refute Bush's claims of credit for some of the improvements Texas has seen.

Barrientos said he offered the same tax break Bush touts on children's clothing, medicine and school supplies in 1997. It failed with no Republican support.

"Bush? Not a peep," he said. But by 1999, when Bush was a presidential candidate, is passed with Bush's aid.

Bush has repeatedly touted Texas' record on education, citing a recent RAND Corporation study that showed great improvement in Texas schools. Meanwhile, Texas Democrats tend to attribute that progress to Bush's two Democratic predecessors, Mark White and Ann Richards, and to billionaire Reform Party founder Ross Perot.

"They teamed up together in 1985 and began to put those reforms in place, and the last major education reform was in 1993 under Gov. Richards," Malcolm said.

Delegate Billie Don Payne, a Teamster from Longview, said Gore still has a good chance of carrying the state despite trailing Bush in Texas by a wide margin. "After this convention, he's going to turn it around," Payne said. "He's not going to carry Texas with a big majority if he does carry it."

But while Payne said Gore still has a fighting chance in Texas, others had a less optimistic view of the Democratic contender's chances.

"South Texas will definitely vote Gore, but I think the chances of him carrying the state are slim," said state Rep. Miguel Wise, who represents a district along the Mexican border south of San Antonio. But he added that Democrats made gains in the last state elections, "So (Bush's) coattails aren't as long as some people think they are."


Monday, August 14, 2000

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