Texas group seeks to map new road for Democrats

by Jim Parsons

Daily Cougar Senior Staff

Revitalizing a political party is an effort usually discounted as being doomed to failure, and often with good reason: Those kinds of efforts have not traditionally been met with encouraging results.

However, the Austin-based 21st Century Democrats are seeking to breathe life back into the Texas Democratic Party, a party that has frequently been referred to as "dead" in an increasingly Republican Texas. And the fact of the matter appears to have many political analysts bewildered: The group seems to be succeeding.

The 21st Century Democrats is an organization billing itself as a grass-roots organization with the goal of bringing the Democratic Party back to its traditional middle- and working-class voting base.

Armed with the "New Road Map Resolution," the organization has held several rallies across the state, and its supporters include former Lyndon Johnson staffers, current state legislators, the Texas AFL-CIO, and such political notables as Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, Attorney General Dan Morales and Comptroller John Sharp.

The New Road Map is a document the organization has asked the Texas Democratic Party to ratify and make the centerpiece of the 1996 Texas Democratic Campaign. The crux of the document is strengthening the middle class and offering it financial and personal security.

In addition, the group wishes to emphasize community safety and supports small businesses. Regarding education, the New Road Map asks for "a full commitment to the continued support of college student loan funding," as well as initiatives to ensure proper schooling for every child and adequate job training to help graduates find steady work.

The group also calls for continued support for Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, increasing the minimum wage and resolutions to maintain clean air, water and food.

The group is led by co-chairs Steve Gutow, a native of Dallas who has been involved in Jewish political concerns around the nation and now practices law in Austin, and Arthur Schecter of Rosenberg, who owns the Schecter & Marshall law firm in Houston and Galveston and has been active in fund-raising efforts for the Democratic Party.

"Our future is to build a grass-roots organization around mainstream issues," Gutow told the Austin Business Journal in March, "not to try to have our foot in every camp."

Schecter said, "Our job in the next three or four years is to expand opportunity, not bureaucracy. We need to continue the historic battle of the Democratic Party to truly empower people to make the most of their own lives.

"We must not allow ourselves to be defined by those who seek to destroy and turn the clock back."

Gutow responded to the critics who portray the Democratic Party as being concerned only with taxing and social programs, gay rights and affirmative action:

"Those groups all have some lobbyists that speak out real loudly," he said. "But what you wind up with is nobody speaking out comprehensively, cogently and consistently and saying, `Let me tell you what this party is about.' "

However, Roger O'Dell, a member of the Republican State Executive Committee from El Paso, said the 21st Century Democrats seem to be another attempt by the Democratic Party to misquote Republican stances on issues.

"I'll stand toe-to-toe with these guys and debate, and I'll win on the issues unless they are actually Republicans dressed differently on (some matters)," he said.

Lester Van Pelt III, communications director of the Republican Party of Texas, put it a different way: "The Democratic Party has become the minority party in Texas because it is a shrinking collection of radical, left-wing special interest groups," he said.

But Gutow staunchly defends his group as proving itself different from the Republicans and the Democrats. According to his plan, the Democratic Party will become centralized around issues common to all its constituent voters.

"We don't want to exclude anyone," he said, "(but) right now, we need to keep focused, and keep organizing."

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