Big Bend Democrats seek unity at fall forum on issues and advocacy

MARFA –– Local Democratic activists gathered at the Capri ballroom in Marfa Saturday for a “Fall Forum on Issues and Advocacy” — featuring candidates for local, state and national posts as well as panel discussions on issues from border security to women’s healthcare in rural Texas. The occasion also was intended to announce a new coalition of Democratic groups from Presidio, Brewster and Jeff Davis counties called “Big Bend Democrats.”

That theme of unity in the tri-county area was emphasized by the keynote speaker, Nancy Thompson, who founded Mothers Against Greg Abbott. “I’m going to give you an idea of what can happen when you’re able to rally people, and you’re able to get them in line,” she told the crowd of about 75 people. “Because when we work together, and we’re able to get in line, you can do amazing things.”

Thompson used the term “get in line” as a contrast to recent disunity and infighting in the Texas Republican party, something Democrats need to avoid if they are going to make progress at the polls. “Have you all ever tried to really, seriously organize Democrats?” she asked. “It’s like herding kittens. Right?”

Thompson related how her organization grew from her standing alone at the state Capitol with a marker-drawn sign to an organization with thousands of members who send barrages of texts to state lawmakers and produce commercials critical of Abbott’s policies. Coming up with the name was easy, but she didn’t realize what the acronym would be. “So, I wrote down one line in blue, one line in red, and it said, ‘Mothers against Greg Abbott.’ And then I took a look at what I put together. I honestly had no idea that the acronym was MAGA. “It was a total accident. And I thought, okay, either this is genius, or I’m going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Presidio County is one of a few rural counties in Texas that remains staunchly Democratic in an otherwise sea of Republican red, although many border counties — particularly in the lower Rio Grande Valley — remain Democratic blue. But in statewide races, Democrats haven’t seen a winner since Ann Richards left office after a loss to George W. Bush in 1994.

At least two candidates in attendance Saturday for 2024 races have a steep-hill battle ahead. Thierry Tchenko is running in a crowded field of 12 other Democratic Primary contenders for the U.S. Senate against Republican Ted Cruz. Tchenko, a nonprofit executive from Houston, said he’s already traveled to 60 counties to deliver his message that talk on the campaign trail isn’t good enough and that Texas needs leaders in Congress who will take action by filing bills and aggressively pushing for them. “We are running to create a new way forward for the state, that’s focused on serving everyday folks,” he said. “Because this state is going backwards instead of forwards.”

Katherine Culbert, primary candidate for Texas Railroad Commission, reminded the audience that the commission has nothing to do with railroads and instead regulates the oil and gas industry. Culbert, who is a consultant for that industry that specializes in pipeline safety and reducing environmental impacts, said more balance is needed between regulation and unbridled drilling. “We have a huge oil and gas industry, and it’s not going to go away, but it would be good if there was some sort of limitation and balance to it.” 

Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton, who announced his re-election campaign last week, told the crowd that although his official duties are mainly handling criminal and civil matters in the courts, he also has advocated for Presidio County getting more health services — including a grant he supported for a new rural health clinic in the city of Presidio, which will be part of the hospital district. The comments by Ponton, who wasn’t on the agenda, were notable because later in the afternoon, his challenger in the March primary, Marfa attorney Blair Park, moderated a panel on “Women’s Health in Texas Post-Dobbs.”

Park reminded the audience that “Dobbs” was the U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned constitutional rights for an abortion in the United States, with the Texas Legislature then rapidly passing laws that effectively ban abortion in Texas and threaten reproductive and potentially life-saving healthcare for women. Joining Park were Susan Hays, attorney, former candidate for state agriculture commissioner and co-founder of Jane’s Due Process; Dr. Christie Alexander, a physician living in Marfa; Lisa Kettyle, founder of the Big Bend Reproductive Health Coalition; and Randall Sarosdy, candidate for Texas Supreme Court Place 2. Park said there are “horrific situations that some doctors have been seeing in the ER where women come in having a miscarriage and [doctors can’t] give care, because the care that they would be giving them is technically an abortion.”

The panel outlined current Texas laws like the “bounty hunter law” that allows any citizen to sue anyone — for up to $10,000 and legal fees — who aids someone getting an abortion. Another law passed bans on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a point when many women would not even realize they are pregnant or are just discovering they are pregnant. Alexander said the impact of these laws has been devastating not only to pregnant women, but also to healthcare providers who fear being sued for giving medical advice or even being jailed for life for providing healthcare that could be considered an abortion. She’s said she’s seen the fear in her patients. “There were a couple of women who got pregnant and were afraid to even have the conversation about abortion.”

Kettyle said women come for support to the Big Bend Reproductive Coalition after the new Texas laws, and they are desperate for someone to talk to about their options. As a resource and support provider on reproductive issues, her organization realized that privacy was of the utmost importance. “Often what we’re hearing is, we’re afraid to talk to our doctor about this,” she said. “And they all had something similar, which is that they felt really alone. They didn’t know anyone in the Big Bend who had had an abortion. They thought they were the only ones. They were afraid to talk to people. From the beginning, we have really cared about being really private with people’s information, to be really delicate with people’s information, to really respect it.”

In a panel entitled, “Democrats on the Border,” speakers talked through recent legislation for “border security.” Panelists included Hays, Brewster County Precinct 2 Commissioner Sara Colando, Presidio County Chief Deputy Joel Nunez, and Presidio County Judge Joe Portillo. The group gave particular focus on the controversial legislation proposed in the recent Texas special legislative session allowing peace officers and state officials to jail and/or deport people suspected of being in the country illegally — something until now reserved under law for federal officers like Border Patrol agents. House and Senate versions of that bill failed to pass as the special session ended Tuesday, as did a bill funding $1.5 billion in border wall construction. The failures were primarily because of contentious relations between House and Senate Republicans, but Abbott immediately started a fourth special session Wednesday to address border issues and private-school vouchers, which also failed to pass.

Hays said Democrats need to be more proactive in their messaging about border issues. “As Democrats, I think oftentimes we get labeled as folks that want open borders and nothing else,” she said. “Whatever our campaign is, we have to talk about it so that you can value migrants while also having safe borders.”

The legislation allowing arrests and/or deportation was not only likely to violate individuals’ rights, but it would also be devastating to county budgets, several panelists noted. Nunez said Presidio County’s small jail with 112 beds — usually about half full — is not equipped for a large influx of inmates. “If we start enforcing federal laws, immigration laws, that jail will not be able to hold the number of people that we will arrest. So, it’s not realistic for us to be able to do that part of the job.”

Barbara Curry, a Fort Davis resident in attendance, said the information from all panelists was “both informative and scary,” while also encouraging. “We realize we’re not alone, that there are more like-minded people. Listening to them, I said, ‘Hey, I need to start getting involved.’” 

Alpine resident Cynthia McAlister agreed that the forum was “both highly enlightening and terrifying.” “There are a lot of strong minded and strong voiced people out there smart about the issues. And I’m interested in what more I can do to make Texas work better for Texans.”