In a city fond of festivals – from Austin City Limits to Pachanga Fest – the just concluded Texas Tribune Festival stands out as the most successful event of its kind. Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith calls it 'Woodstock for Wonks': three days of peace, politics and policy on the UT-Austin campus, featuring a who's-who of Texas politicos.
"It is a South-by-Southwest of ideas," Smith says. "We have our own rock stars. Wendy Davis was Bruce Springsteen."
Indeed, State Sen. Davis drew a huge crowd to hear her keynote interview with Smith on Sunday. The Fort Worth Democrat became a national figure this year in the wake of her filibuster of an anti-abortion bill, and she's been considering a run for Texas governor. Smith did his best to get Davis to declare early (she's said she'll announce her plans on October 3), but nothing doing; she did, however, make news nonetheless, promising that a Davis administration would not raise sales or property taxes, and calling for a "Texas solution" to Obamacare.
Republicans made news as well, notably Texas First Lady Anita Perry. Asked about her position on abortion rights, Perry reaffirmed her personal opposition to abortion, but acknowledged "I see it as a woman's right; if they (other women) want to do that, that is their decision, they have to live with that decision. You know, just like its a man's right if he wants to have some kind of (pause) … procedure." Perry's husband is currently weighing his options for another presidential bid in 2016.
Upcoming races provided the backdrop for many of the panels at Tribune Fest, including the forthcoming knife-fight among the four prominent Republicans vying for the Lt. Governor's seat; all four were at the festival talking up their conservative credentials on issues ranging from gun control to immigration.
But underlying much of the conversation was the changing political face of Texas, or as Senate Democrat Jose Rodriguez put it, not "whether" demographics would turn Texas from red state to blue, but "when." "I am convinced that's going to happen sooner rather than later. … I think that if Wendy Davis declares that she's gonna run for governor, you will see a tremendous ground swell."
Acknowledging the enormous demographic shift underway, Attorney General and GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott told festival-goers that the challenge for the Republicans is to win over more Latino voters and convince more Latino candidates that "it's safe" to run for office under the Republican banner.
One of the most prominent examples of the sort of politician Abbott has in mind, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, spoke at TribFest via teleconference on Friday. Cruz was one of a handful of politicos who had to cancel in-person appearances at the Festival due to weekend business in Washington. That didn't seem to put much of a damper on the proceedings, however, which saw attendance up 50 percent – over 2012 – underscoring the fact that in just three years, the Texas Tribune Festival has established itself as more than just one of the most important events on the political calendar in Texas, but a much-watched model for improving the quality of bipartisan conversation.
Still a burning question remains: if Davis is the Springsteen of Texas politics, as Smith suggests – who's Abbott? We're all ears.