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Rachel Barrios-Van Os discusses her bid for Bexar County Democratic Chair recently at her North Side home. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Candidates for Democratic Party Chair seek to heal the party

On the evening of November 5, 2002, Bexar County Democrats watched the election returns with faces longer than a Basset Hound's. Republican after Republican won; even the last Democratic hold-out, Henry Cuellar, who was threatening - miraculously - to dethrone incumbent Henry Bonilla in the 23rd District, lost his race after the Bexar County votes were counted.

In 2002, the Dems were pummeled, beaten, trounced, whipped, and throttled; in 2003, the GOP foisted on the electorate a redistricting plan - a power grab that favors the Republicans so strongly that, if it clears the courts, it could have probably unseated FDR. In 2004, a new Bexar County Democratic Chairperson will have to transform the party - which locally has become increasingly factionalized - from whiners into winners.

As of press deadline, three party operatives, schoolteacher John Courage, attorney Charlie Urbina Jones, and activist and mother of four Rachel Barrios-Van Os, are vying for the post in a pivotal presidential election year. (For coverage of Courage's platform, see "Filling the vacuum," November 26-December 3).

"It's the right time for the Democrats to reload, to reenergize the party," said Urbina Jones, 56. "There is a lot of bickering and infighting among different groups that have deteriorated the party. We're not going to agree on everything, but let's find what we can agree on."

Retired from the military, Urbina Jones ran unsuccessfully against Bonilla in 1998. If elected, Urbina Jones says he would consult with university academics to form a think tank that "would help us polish the issues that need to come forward," such as Medicaid. While plumbing collegiate corridors for political theories isn't a particularly populist approach, Urbina Jones is also looking to two City Councilmen, District 8's Art Hall and District 10's Chip Haass, to lead a grassroots party membership.

Secondly, Urbina Jones says, he would raise money - a lot of it. Well, not he, but his women's fund-raiser group he affectionately calls "Hell on Heels."

"Women above all cut through the smoke and are best at the fund raising and networking," he says, adding that during his 1998 Congressional race, 25 of 31 county chairs were held by women.

While the two other contenders for County Chair support presidential candidate Howard Dean, Urbina Jones favors General Wesley Clark. "A Clark/Dean or a Dean/Clark ticket would be formidable and a solution to many of the problems," explains Urbina Jones. "It would open the tent even wider and bring in a lot of people we've lost."

Although that pairing appears unlikely, Urbina Jones saw the strength of Dean's constituency at the candidate's August fund-raiser at La Villita. About 3,000 people attended the event, which raised more than $10,000 for Dean, yet Urbina Jones admittedly knew few of them.

"There were Greens, moderates, independents," he says. "There is a way to bring those people back."

Urbina Jones will have to appeal to the environmental arm of the party to snag many of those potential voters, many of whom abandoned the Dems for the Greens. "Protection of the water and forests are no longer far- fetched thoughts," he says. "We can't have a public policy of having corporations manage themselves on pollution."

The Dems are poised to attack Bush policies that have resulted in the loss of 3 million jobs, record budget deficits, increasing college costs, the war in Iraq, and expensive health care. These issues hit the middle-class hardest - a group of voters that is shrinking. "For the first time in 20 years, we have a situation where the Democrats can take back state offices and the presidency," says Urbina Jones, a San Antonio native. "I'm afraid the middle class and lower middle-class are beginning to disappear, and that will manifest itself at polls."

Like those hellions on heels that Urbina Jones refers to, Rachel Barrios-Van Os says she can raise money - on this late December evening she's hosting yet another Howard Dean party to add to the candidate's coffers - but she doesn't want to be relegated to that single role.

"We need stronger leadership in the Bexar County Democratic Party," says Barrios-Van Os. "We need people who aren't afraid to speak their minds."

Outspoken to the point of audaciousness, Barrios-Van Os, 40, is capitalizing on the Democrats' anger with the Bush administration.

"The Republicans have stolen our goverment," she says. "They're on top. They are pushing for a one-party nation and that is upsetting to me."

Her politics are inspired by her childhood spent on the city's South Side, when Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez judged her neighborhood's menudo cookoffs. She became politically active in high school. "I wanted to participate. I had a passion for workers and the community."

She met her husband, David Van Os - a 2004 candidate for Texas Supreme Court judge - on a picket line. And in 2000, she served as an observer in Florida during the presidential recount debacle.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," she says. "There were right-wing radicals screaming in my face outside calling me a 'baby killer.'"

Her support for Dean has introduced her to new party members, many of whom showed up one night for a shindig at her Bel Meade home. "There were 79 people, and 60 of them I didn't know. These are people who are willing to come to a stranger's house to mobilize and take back the office of the president that was stolen from us."

If Dean's verbal missteps cost him the Democratic nomination, Barrios-Van Os says she will support whomever gets the nod. "ABB `Anybody But Bush`, if necessary. I will work night and day for that candidate." •

Next week: Rudy Casias and R. Esmeralda Monreal de Mercado filed for the Democratic post after the press deadline. Their candidacies will be covered in the next issue. Also next week, two vie for the Bexar County Republican chair.

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