Every incipient strongman needs a crisis, and newly elected Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Dan Ramos walked into a ready-made SNAFU when he was sworn in May 4: The disappearance last fall of at least a quarter-million in 2008 primary-election funds owed the County. His response to the economic and political fallout has been to take the reins, rules be damned.
Last Tuesday's confab should have doubled as a County Executive Committee meeting, where Executive Council members and a new secretary could be appointed. But Ramos abruptly adjourned the meeting with an ayes-only vote, and encouraged everyone to head to the Cadillac Bar, where gubernatorial candidate Bill White was expected. Longtime Party member and Precinct Chair Ian Straus said written notice of the meeting was not sent to members, so you could make an argument that it wasn't an official gathering, but the Executive Council appointments had been on Ramos's agenda. “When people pointed that out, he said he'd hold another meeting another time,” Straus said. The CEC has already voted to hold a meeting the first Tuesday of June, but they rely on Ramos to set the location and send out the notice.
In the ensuing week, Ramos has informed the Budget and Finance Committee that he doesn't recognize its authority, and told the QueQue that he's looking into the status of the Executive Council, which recommends Budget and Finance Committee members to the CEC. “At this point, I don't know how legal `the Executive Council` is,” Ramos said. “There's some people that claim to be the Executive Council, but I don't see any provisions for that in the rules of the party.”
The Banking & Finance Committee is one of the few party mechanisms that exercises direct control over the Chair's actions, by setting a budget that he's required to follow. Committee members D'Mitri Kosub and Chris Forbrich were particularly alarmed when Ramos removed the party's Secretary and Treasurer from the operating account May 6, making him the only person with direct access to or knowledge of the party's finances.
“Whether or not he's living within the budget, we have no way of knowing,” Kosub said.
Ramos told the QueQue that due to the “relaxed policy of the Texas Democratic Party,” he is empowered to “recommend” individuals for more than 400 vacant precinct-chair seats. But other CEC members say Ramos has asserted that he can appoint them, and there has been back-and-forth between the Bexar County and state parties about the scope of Ramos's authority. Kirsten Gray, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, confirmed that TDP's political director sent an email May 6 to Ramos clarifying that the CEC is the only entity that can appoint precinct chairs to fill vacancies between elections.
Political consultant and organizer Gina CastaÃ±eda says Ramos is just a little rough around the edges, but that his priorities are in the right place. “We're going to come back to our grassroots leaders, which are our precinct chairs,” she said. “They're the heart of the party.” Ramos confirmed that CastaÃ±eda will be in charge of running the Party's campaigns, which they plan to bring under one roof at their new far Southwest-side headquarters by cutting out the independent consultants -- whose MO, Castaneda says, is “How much can I make off the party?” -- and bringing the various Democratic clubs under its wing. “The Party was being actually torn to pieces,” CastaÃ±eda said.
In the wake of their successful runoff defeat of former Party Chair Carla Vela â?? who wasn't deterred from a run at the County Clerk's office by the scandal she left Ramos â?? several local clubs, including the Northwest Bexar Democrats, are working to run their own coordinated campaign for the upcoming general election. Chair Jacob Middleton says his club already has $50,000 in the bank for the election campaign, and is installing additional lines for phone-banking at their offices. They plan to campaign for candidates such as Congressman Ciro Rodriguez “as hard as we can.”
“The environment is not necessarily very favorable for Democrats,” he said, “so we need to work harder and smarter.”
Christian Archer, the man behind our two most recent mayors' victory parades, is part of the coordinated-campaign movement. He says it's too early to talk about long-term plans, but they do plan to raise money and share resources. “We're just making sure it's a coordinated effort and that every nickel spent is spent wisely,” he said.
County Judge Nelson Wolff was one of several Democratic elected officials who pledged last fall to raise money to replace the missing primary funds, but the offer was put on hold when Ramos unexpectedly beat longtime Henry Cisneros ally Choco Meza. Wolff says his concerns right now are GOTV for the general election, and making sure that the parties hold a joint primary next year. “Everything fell apart after Choco lost,” Wolff said. “There's no confidence there now.”
But Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, who donated $8,000 under interim Chair Roberto Flores to retire some of the Party's outstanding debt (including a five-figure judgment for back-due rent), is taking a wait-and-see attitude. Ramos has been in office a mere week, he said. “Not only that, you're inheriting quite a mess.” He said he expects Ramos to call a meeting soon with elected officials and other interested individuals to report on the Party's financial status and his get-out-the-vote strategy.
The financial picture at the moment is not so bright. The Party's project budget through June shows an almost $10,000 shortfall, and interim Chair Flores submitted a final bill for that 2008 primary to the state in late April. That total is $376,844, 25 percent of which will be covered by the state. The County will bill the Party for the remainder. “Anecdotally we know the money's missing,” Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said, “but we haven't sent them a bill yet.” (Flores and Cheryl Novak “should be commended,” she added. “They've done a fantastic job.”)
And if the Party can't pay? By law, Callanen can't refuse to hold a primary, even for a deadbeat party, and the Bexar Dems wouldn't be alone in their overdue status. Since the post Bush v. Gore electronic-voting mandate, she said, counties have become the go-to shop for primaries, but the money still flows through the parties. “I do know just from going to conferences, that larger counties are often left holding the bag,” she said. “Counties are not statutorily allowed to lend money, but that's in essence what's happening.”