Texas Democrats gathered Thursday for their state convention determined to seize a dramatic, emotion-charged moment in which the eyes of the world are on Texas and the state’s Republicans find themselves divided, on the defensive and unusually muted.
“It has been said that evil triumphs when man is silent; evil triumphed on Texas soil and (Lt. Gov.) Dan Patrick was silent,” Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, said at a news conference with Lupe Valdez, who is challenging Gov. Greg Abbott, setting the tone for the biennial gathering, taking place at the Fort Worth Convention Center through Saturday.
Patrick “had several days to search his soul as to what to do about this crisis on the border and he chose to spare his political neck rather than spare these families and young children from the trauma and horror that they experienced,” said Collier, who had been the party’s candidate for comptroller four years ago. “Only after the immediate crisis passed did Dan Patrick say anything. This is the very face of cowardice.”
“Dan Patrick proves again and again that he is not cut from the same moral fiber that Texans are,” Collier said. “He doesn’t share our values of compassion and empathy. Dan Patrick is just simply not one of us, and he is not fit to lead.”
Valdez offered a similar critique of Abbott as a leader more attuned to any potential outcry from President Donald Trump and his supporters than the anguish playing out on the border.
“Did he not hear the crying of the children?” Valdez said. “Where is the Texas heart? We need to go back to who we are as Texans, as Americans, as human beings.”
The vivid visual and aural crisis of children being separated from their parents because of the Trump’s zero tolerance policy toward illegal border crossings provoked outrage that Democrats hope might gain them a hearing with some Texans who usually vote Republican but might be unsettled by what they’ve seen in recent days.
Patrick didn’t comment until after Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to end the practice of separating children from family members when they are detained for illegally crossing the border. Patrick, who led the Trump campaign in Texas, said he supported the president’s executive action. He called on Congress to act on a more permanent solution.
Abbott also refrained from criticizing the president. On Tuesday, the governor sent a letter to the members of the Texas congressional delegation saying the “separation of children from their families at the border is tragic and heartrending,” and that it was up to Congress to “mend the broken immigration system.”
“You sought your office to do big things,” Abbott wrote each of the Texas senators and representatives. “This is your moment. Seize it.”
“It took him over two months to say anything. It took more than 2,300 children to be separated (from their parents) for him to speak up,” Valdez said. “He proved yet again to be Trump’s puppet.”
On Wednesday, Austin attorney Justin Nelson, the Democrat challenging Ken Paxton for attorney general, said that if he were attorney general, he would have sued the Trump administration to end the zero tolerance policy. In a written statement, Paxton said that while separating families was “never a desired outcome,” the “Trump administration is following the law.”
Most Texas Democrats opposed the policy of separating parents from children, but a plurality of Republicans support it, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey, conducted June 8-17, released Thursday.
But Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, which conducts the poll, said that while 56 percent of Texas Republican men support the policy, only 36 percent of Texas Republican women do.
“This particular manifestation of the immigration issue is clearly galvanizing for Democrats and induces lots of ambivalence among Republicans,” Henson said. “Republicans are very divided by the events of the last few days, both the zigging and the zagging on the part of the Trump administration and the threading of the needle of the responses by statewide Republican officials.”
Even before this, Henson said, “this is looking like a cycle where Democratic fortunes seem to be improving. It’s not a perfect setup, they’re still underdogs, but there are signs that Beto O’Rourke is running a strong campaign and is going to be a more competitive candidate than we’ve seen in several cycles.”
O’Rourke, a three-term Democratic congressman from El Paso who is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, led a protest march Sunday on a detention facility for immigrant children in Tornillo.
The next day, Cruz announced he was introducing emergency legislation to keep children with their parents as they wait for their asylum claims to be heard, and to double the number of immigration judges to speed the process.
“I was shocked by Cruz. He’s such a hard-liner,” said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs who is affiliated with the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas. “He didn’t have to do it. He could have just kept his mouth shut.”
For Valdez, DeFrancesco Soto said, it is a question of whether she can use the issue to place the same kind of pressure on Abbott.
“She has the attention of the nation,” DeFrancesco Soto said.