A Texas Tiff Over the Dems Debate

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Rick Gershon / Getty

Supporters cheer on Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton at the Don Haskins Arena at UTEP University, February 12, 2008 in El Paso, Texas.

When it comes to Texas politics, Austin is the liberal hole in the largely conservative donut, a decidedly Democratic city that relies on politics to fuel the local economy and feed the social ether. So ever since it was announced that Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would hold a presidential debate on the campus of the University of Texas on February 21, the city has been abuzz with anticipation and excitement. That infectious enthusiasm, however, quickly turned to disappointment after debate organizers announced the event would be closed to the public.

No one had expected the state's primary to mean much when the Texas Legislature declined to join the Super Tuesday lineup a year ago. Lone Star political junkies resigned themselves to the conventional wisdom that the race would be over by the time March 4 rolled around. But with many now arguing that Hillary Clinton's chance at the nomination hangs in the balance, Texas Democrats are enjoying the limelight and energized after years of enduring Republican dominance at the statehouse. The cry for tickets went up within minutes of the announcement on February 11, but organizers initially responded that there would be no general admission seats and tickets would be reserved for the University of Texas, the Texas Democratic Party, the Obama and Clinton campaigns, and debate broadcasters CNN and Spanish language network Univision.

The not-so-public debate prompted local media blogs to explode with angry and dismayed postings. A history teacher declared her disappointment since she had hoped her high school students might be able to attend the historic event. A University of Texas student wrote that this was why many young people were estranged from the political process, Obama's huge crowds notwithstanding. Why call it a "public" debate at all, another poster asked?

The debate will be held in the gym of the Recreational Sports Center on the UT campus, one of the university's smaller venues, which seats only between 1,000 and 3,000, according to CNN. By contrast, in September of 2006 Senator Clinton delivered a moving eulogy at Gov. Ann Richards memorial service in the nearby UT Erwin Center, which holds up to 17,000. A spokesman for CNN said the smaller gym offers a more intimate setting that is suitable for television.

But that has not halted the criticism, particularly among Obama's legions of supporters — the Illinois Senator attracted a crowd of 22,000 in a downtown rally on his first visit to Austin a year ago, and in November some 3,000 Obama supporters attended a fundraiser at a popular Austin musical venue. For grassroots organizers like Ian Davis with Texans for Obama, the issue has become "an absolute nightmare." His phone is ringing all day long as enthusiastic Obama supporters want to know why they cannot attend the debate. "It could have been a golden opportunity, but it's become a colossal headache," Davis said. His friends and counterparts in the Clinton campaign and in student organizations are telling him they share his pain as they also take the heat. "Everyone is getting slammed," Davis said. "This is supposed to be a fair, transparent populist party."

UT officials have tried to tamp down the fire by saying many students will be in the debate audience and a campus drawing for tickets is being organized. Late on Wednesday, the Texas Democratic Party announced it was freeing up 100 tickets for the "public" that would available through a website drawing. The total number of tickets available to the party has not been finalized, according to state party spokesman Hector Nieto, but there are no plans to increase the number of tickets in the public drawing. Winning tickets are non-transferable and will be split between Clinton and Obama supporters, with a few set aside for undecided voters. While Austin Democratic party officials said they had received a huge volume of angry calls, Nieto declined to characterize the calls to the state organization. "Obviously we have received a significant number of calls and have seen increased interest," Nieto said.

"A hundred tickets for the public? Sheesh, I'd have better luck trying to score tickets to an Austin City Limits taping," a person with the tag OreganoO posted on an Austin American Statesman blog. "Why couldn't they have picked a larger venue? Answer: the elite want it to feel intimate and clubby. When we see the televised debate, the seats will be full of pols, fat cats, and smug insiders who earned their seats Lord knows how, while the hoi polloi — the people this party once claimed to serve — clamor on the sidewalk for a glimpse of the candidates."

Anyone who does not score a debate ticket is welcome to pay $50 to attend a screening party hosted by the Texas Democratic Party at the Austin Hyatt Hotel, state party officials said, and they have dangled the possibility that the candidates might drop by after the debate. But many grassroot supporters say they cannot afford the $50 admission fee. "I don't understand the mentality to charge money like that — I mean we are the party of the people," Davis said. "I don't want to be critical and I know they have tough decisions to make.. .but this is almost like a rookie mistake." Davis said the furor over the debate is temporarily turning people off, but he expects they will be there on Election Day for their candidates.

Meanwhile, Texans for Obama is organizing a debate watching party at one of the city's legendary political watering holes. Over 400 self-styled Obamaniacs have signed up so far to gather at Scholz Garten, an old-style German beer garden near the capitol. It is a mythic place for Texas liberal Democrats — Davis said his activist parents hung out there 30 years ago — and many of the state's legendary progressives have gathered under the old pecan trees to weep in their beer and berate conservative Democrats and, later in the state's history, Republicans. It is the spot where in 1972, back in the days when they were anti-establishment foot soldiers in the George McGovern campaign, the young, long-haired Bill Clinton and his bespectacled law student wife Hillary drank beer and talked passionately about politics. Almost four decades later, many of their friends will be amongst the Democratic power players who get one of the exclusive seats at the debate nearby.