At 8:30 Saturday morning, the dining room at the Luby's on N.E. Loop 410 was already full of the party faithful. It was the first meeting of the North East Bexar County Democrats following the March 2 primary, and the first order of business after the usual agenda protocol was Dan Ramos, new Bexar County Democratic Party Chair.
As folks filled their coffee cups, checked the precinct map, and snacked on pastries, immediate past chair and County Clerk candidate Carla Vela settled into a seat, defiant red nails clutching a plate bearing a large cinnamon roll. Judge Michael Mery â?? one of several incumbents who unexpectedly lost to a primary challenger â?? shook hands and kicked off the meeting with a thank-you that drew a heartfelt standing ovation. Immediately prior to Mery's farewell, Northeast Bexar Dems Chair Scott Nelson introduced the VIPs, which included a dozen officeholders and candidates, and told the crowd they needed to focus on Democratic turnout, which was notably lower than Republican numbers.
Then Ramos, a small bear of a man with a full beard, took the mic. Ramos beat long-time operative and Henry Cisneros ally Choco Meza 59 percent to 41 percent, and he was not there to offer balm to a party burned by last fall's theft of more than $200,000 in 2008 primary funds owed to the County. (Former Treasurer Dwayne Adams, a Vela pal and would-be business partner, is suspected of taking the money.)
“We're going to see if what `County Judge` Nelson Wolff said on the steps of the courthouse is true,” Ramos said, alluding to a promise by Democratic officials to raise funds to fill the hole left by the theft. “I heard he made that pledge because he didn't think I was going to win.” (In fact, the Express-News reported the next day that Wolff says the deal is on hold; read on.) “There's plenty of money in Bexar County,” Ramos assured the audience. “What there has not been is integrity and trustworthiness.”
Ramos had visited the party offices last week, he added, and heard that precinct packets not picked up after the primary election would be tossed, “a third-degree felony.” Taking another shot at the party leaders he believes have it in for him, he reminded the members that “Your County Executive Committee is the only authority that runs the party â?¦ I'm just your servant.”
Vela snorted quietly into her coffee.
When a party member questioned the significance of the precinct paperwork and Ramos's interpretation of the election law, he retorted “I'm not going to quibble with you â?¦ that's why we had a lot of problems under your `tenure`.”
A gasp and loud murmurs of disapproval filled the room, and Ramos departed.
As the meeting turned to relatively mundane business â?? will Bill White's campaign take over the lease payments for the San Antonio Area Progressive Area Coalition offices? â?? one elected official lamented Ramos's debut. “He insulted a longtime party volunteer, and then left,” she said, shaking her head, incredulous. But, she added, she's not sure the party matters like it used to. “Candidates really have to do it for themselves.”
NO QUARTER (OR DOLLARS)
County Judge Nelson Wolff agrees that candidates have to work beyond the local Democratic Party to win elections, but he said, it's “a little naÃ¯ve to think that an indictment and a financial mess wouldn't be derogatory.”
Wolff says he'll meet with Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, and others later this week to chart a course. He'd like to talk to incoming Party Chair Dan Ramos, too, who has issued public challenges in the press, but hasn't picked up the phone. Concerns that need to be addressed before they would move ahead with plans to replace the lost funds include Ramos's vision on issues such as the joint primary, which he's opposed in the past.
“What we're going to have to get straight is financial management,” Wolff said. “ Who can come in that we have confidence they can manage the money?”
Ramos has done little since the election to allay concerns that he will be a divisive force. In a phone call Friday with the QueQue, he indicated that he's looking to settle old scores.
“I ran before, and I was cheated. And I ran again and I was cheated, and I'm taking those cases to the FBI,” Ramos said. Certain established Bexar County Democratic Party fixtures, he said, “are now out of a job, because they will never extort any more Bexar County candidates.” He'll also be suing Compass Bank for “negligence” over the stolen Party funds, but not with Democratic donor and trial attorney Tim Maloney (who writes a column for this paper). “No, no, hell no,” Ramos said. “He's not qualified to do that type of work.”
The former Kelly Air Force Base machinist and union organizer says the results in his primary election were “a referendum â?¦ on Henry Cisneros, Leticia Van de Putte, Nelson Wolff, and the other co-conspirators on our Commissioners Court.”
The QueQue observed that Tommy Adkisson and Paul Elizondo (whom we might term a super-incumbent, now that his tenure is trans-generational) won their primaries handily. But Ramos has a message for the Precinct Four commissioner, too:
“The toll-road people saved Tommy. He's either gonna have to straighten out or I'm gonna get an opponent after him.”
Ramos's election may mean the restoration of at least one pre-Vela Party official: Former Party Treasurer Fernando Contreras, whom alleged thief Dwayne Adams unseated in 2008, served as Ramos's campaign treasurer. But if Ramos can't get Wolff's team of elected officials back on board, there may be little to manage.
“The party's in deep trouble, I guess,” said Wolff of that potential outcome. “At some point the County has to take some legal action.”
One longtime donor told the QueQue that local clubs such as the North East Bexar County Dems could step in to fill the void. Jacob Middleton, chair of the Northwest Democrats, says that "Personally ... I fear for the Party,” but that his group is very strong right now, and just held its most successful Superbowl fundraiser yet.
Ramos takes office May 3.