Texas Democratic Party leadership election roiled by accusation that a candidate shoved a staffer

Witnesses say Kim Olson pushed the party’s top staffer during a bus tour in 2018. Olson denies the allegation.

The race for Texas Democratic Party chair is being roiled by allegations that a challenger, Kim Olson, shoved the party’s top staffer during a bus tour in 2018.

Olson denies the allegations, which her opponent, incumbent Gilberto Hinojosa, has publicly amplified and used to argue she is unfit to lead the party. Thousands of delegates to the state party convention in July will elect the next chair, who is responsible for raising money for the party and leading its messaging.

The controversy came to a head late last month at a meeting of the State Democratic Executive Committee, the governing body of the state party, at which Olson supporters unsuccessfully urged the party to remove proposed resolutions posted on its website, including one that condemned Olson over the alleged incident. The resolution, which was submitted at a county convention, also called on her to drop out of the race.

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Olson responded by calling the allegations false and asking a separate Democratic group, Texas Democratic Women, to condemn the author of the resolution.

The allegations date back to the fall of 2018, when Olson, who was at the time running for agriculture commissioner, joined a bus tour with other statewide Democratic candidates. During an event in Killeen focused on veterans, Olson got upset because she was not seated more prominently as a veteran herself, according to four Democratic campaign and party staffers who said they witnessed the incident. Olson is a former Air Force colonel, but the organizers had been trying to seat all candidates in ballot order to maintain consistency throughout the tour.

After the Killeen event, Olson angrily confronted party staff on the bus, according to the four people. The executive director at the time, Crystal Perkins, intervened and sought to address the dispute, but Olson remained angry and shoved Perkins, causing her to fall backward, the witnesses said.

The four people declined to comment on the record because they are still involved in politics and concerned about retaliation by Olson. Perkins declined to comment for this story, but after Hinojosa had publicly raised the allegation in December, she confirmed to The Texas Tribune at the time that Olson had shoved her.

Hinojosa brought up the allegation in late December while responding to Olson’s charge that he was misogynistic for referring to her as “this woman” in a newspaper. He apologized for not being more careful with his language, but he added that he believes “that a Democratic nominee for Agriculture Commissioner who in 2018 physically assaulted the Executive Director of the TDP (who is a woman) and verbally assaulted a staffer (who is an Asian American woman) because of a seating arrangement at an event, has no business leading our Party.”

“These are untrue and unsubstantiated allegations, never subject to any court action, designed to damage my reputation and part of an orchestrated slander campaign,” Olson said in her recent letter to the Texas Democratic Women board. Olson added that there are “numerous individuals, all reputable former state-wide candidates who were on the bus and can attest the events alleged did not occur.”

Asked for the names of those candidates, Olson’s campaign referred to Joi Chevalier, the nominee for comptroller at the time. Chevalier has endorsed Olson’s bid for state party chair.

“I was on the campaign bus that day, and I don’t recall anything like the type of allegations being made, nor subsequently heard anything like that in the intervening years,” Chevalier said in a statement. “It’s hard to imagine any circumstance where Col. Kim Olson would engage in the type of activity being alleged.”

Hinojosa is facing challenges at the state party convention from Olson as well as from Carroll G. Robinson, head of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats. Both challengers are arguing it is time for a change as Democrats’ hopes of turning the state blue keep coming short, especially in the 2020 election. Hinojosa has held the job since 2012 and made his reelection bid official during the recent SDEC gathering.

The resolution that upended the recent SDEC meeting was authored by Kassandra Elejarza, president of the Texas Democratic Women. She submitted it at her Hidalgo County convention earlier in March, and it condemns Olson over the alleged incident and calls on her to withdraw from the race.

“Any violence in the workplace and at any political event is abhorrent, intolerable, and unacceptable,” the resolution said.

At the SDEC meeting, which Olson attended, there was at least one motion proposed with the aim of removing the anti-Olson resolution from a website that hosts resolutions submitted at the county level. Party rules say such resolutions “shall be entered into the state party online submission system.” None of the efforts to take down the resolutions was successful.

But there was quickly a fallout from the meeting. One SDEC member from San Antonio, Robert Vargas, sent out an open letter to Olson saying “the fact that your team tried to silence the voices of those who have raised allegations is extremely disconcerting.” Vargas said he stood with Elejarza and Perkins, and he pressed Olson to respond to the allegations herself.

One of the SDEC members involved in the motions, Glenn Melancon, responded with indignation, saying he is “not, nor have I ever been, on anyone’s ‘team’ except the Texas Democratic Party.” Melancon said he does not plan to endorse in the chair race. Another SDEC member who spearheaded the motions, Kay Parr, has endorsed Olson.

In her letter to the Texas Democratic Women board, Olson said Elejarza’s conduct was “unprofessional, showed extreme lack of judgment and was malicious.” Elejarza declined to comment other than to say she is not supporting anybody in the chair race at this time.

This story comes from our KHOU 11 News partners at The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.

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