The Rise of the Texas Left

The Rise of the Texas Left

The 2020 elections will provide plenty of opportunities for the left to test its vision and build its infrastructure in Texas—from the city to the state level, from inside the Democratic Party and out.

DSA members help repair damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. (Houston DSA)

Almost a year has passed since Beto O’Rourke nearly unseated Ted Cruz in his 2018 Texas Senate bid, driving record levels of midterm voter turnout across the state. That surge helped sweep two powerful congressional Republicans from their previously safe suburban perches and put more than a dozen new Democratic legislators in the statehouse. For the first time since 2002—when Republicans completed the Rove revolution and wiped out the Democrats’ last vestige of power in state government—Texas’s downtrodden opposition party came within spitting distance of controlling the state House of Representatives.

The O’Rourke campaign’s biggest service to Texas politics was proving that statewide Democrats need not cater to a narrow swath of suburban moderates. O’Rourke traveled widely across the state. He flirted with support for Medicare for All and spoke forcefully on issues of racial and immigrant justice. He swore off PAC money and polling, opting instead for building a huge small-donor base and embracing a field strategy led by two top organizers from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. By no means was he a left-winger, but he was a different kind of Texas Democrat.

“Beto didn’t (and doesn’t) pass every progressive litmus test. But he’s pretty darn progressive. He ran way, way to the left of what the conventional ‘beg the Republicans to vote for us’ wisdom says works in Texas,” Zack Malitz, one of the former Sanders organizers who led Beto’s field program in 2018, said in July.

O’Rourke pulled in more votes than any Democrat in Texas history—including Obama and Clinton—by driving turnout in the major metro areas. The number of young people between eighteen and twenty-nine who cast ballots during the early voting period shot up 477 percent while the share of Latinx voters in Texas increased by 5 percent.

The big takeaway from O’Rourke’s campaign, Malitz told me, is that a Democrat can win Texas in 2020 with bold, progressive initiatives that energize an emerging electorate of new, young, and diverse voters largely concentrated in the state’s booming metropolitan areas.

He and other progressives will have a chance to test that theory in 2020 against John Cornyn, the state’s other Republican senator. Malitz and a small circle of activists have recruited Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a prominent organizer from Austin (who has also contributed to Dissent), to jump into the crowded Democratic primary. Having helped build up the labor advocacy group Workers Defense Project and launch Jolt, an organization aimed at mobilizing young Latinx voters, Tzintzún Ramirez has played a critical role advancing the state’s progressive movement.

Now, with Texas on the precipice of a potentially dramatic political shift, that movement could reshape its political future.

Democratic power in Texas has long been confined to the big cities of Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, blue dots in a vast sea of red. Each of these cities has its own distinct political profile, but they’ve all grown into booming metropolises with increasingly younger and more diverse populations. As a result, they’ve become fertile ground for a rising Texas left. Organizers are mobilizing a coalition of black, Latinx, and liberal Anglos to elect political allies and advance a broad range of progressive priorities.

The victories, though limited, are already piling up. Criminal justice reformers have successfully elected a number of reform-oriented district attorneys committed to fighting mass incarceration. A coalition of labor advocates has expanded workers’ rights in the big cities by securing mandatory rest breaks, fair-chance hiring, and, most recently, paid sick leave. The muscle behind these efforts is the Texas Organizing Project (TOP)—an ACORN-style community organizing group centered in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio—and the Workers Defense Project, a labor advocacy group that got its start organizing undocumented immigrants in the construction industry.

The Trump era has also generated new forces. There are now thriving Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapters across the state, filled with motivated young leftists, as well as bands of newly awakened activists in suburbia who found politics through groups like Indivisible and Swing Left. Meanwhile, young progressive Latinx organizers are working to ensure that the rapid growth of the state’s Latinx population—on pace to surpass the Anglo population by 2022—translates into both increased voter turnout and better representation within the Democratic Party.

Together, these form the makings of a nascent movement, albeit one still fledgling and fractured, and that contains ideological and strategic multitudes. But if they can coalesce, these forces have the potential to compete with—and perhaps even defeat—the state’s conservative machine.

It won’t be easy. Local advances have already provoked a vicious backlash from the GOP-dominated state government. Governor Greg Abbott’s favorite punching bag is the Democratic leadership in the big cities, which he blames for the creeping “Californication” of Texas. Republicans have used their power to aggressively stamp out any signs of progressivism in Texas, enacting far-reaching, anti-democratic statutes that limit the governing power of local municipalities.

The GOP’s anti-city agenda did recently suffer a rare setback. After Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio passed paid sick leave ordinances, Republicans in the state legislature pushed a sweeping bill that would ban any sort of local labor policies. Paid sick leave, however, polled well among most Texans. There was also significant backlash from LGBTQ activists concerned the bill would nullify local anti-discrimination ordinances. Shockingly, the measure died in the state house. Still, all three local paid sick leave ordinances are tied up in court after conservative activists filed suit, contending that the measures violated state minimum-wage law.

The GOP derives its statewide power from deep, unfailing support in rural Texas. In 2018, 43 percent of the total vote came from the state’s five biggest counties, where O’Rourke excelled. But Cruz won by maximizing turnout in the other 249 counties, especially the small rural ones, where the Democrats—to say nothing of the left—have failed to make serious headway.

It also isn’t clear that everyone in the Texas Democratic Party has arrived at the same conclusions as Malitz and other progressive organizers. MJ Hegar, a veteran who narrowly lost her bid to unseat a Republican congressman in a safe-red district, is also running to challenge Senator Cornyn, but with a middle-of-the-road, red-state Democrat approach. Royce West, an African-American state senator from Dallas, thinks the key to beating Cornyn is to emphasize bipartisan centrism.

Now that Texas is a top 2020 target for congressional seats, national Democratic Party operatives appear most concerned with courting the moderate suburban voters they believe are the key to further gains in Texas. And even while the big cities are now firmly blue, there remains a power structure comprised of establishment politicians, big business interests, and a wealthy elite that does not wish to see the status quo overturned.

To best understand the prospects for a progressive future in Texas, look to Houston, one of the nation’s biggest and most diverse cities. Its sprawling Harris County was once a swing county. Republicans dominated the suburbs with a white coalition of upscale country clubbers and conservative evangelicals while Democrats maintained a coalition of black, Latinx, and union members in the city’s poor and working-class neighborhoods. Election results ticked back and forth between the two parties.

The county has recently swung to the left, slowly at first, then decisively. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost to Obama in Harris County by a few hundred votes, though Obama won it easily in 2008. In 2016, Clinton won by more than 60,000 votes. Just two years later, O’Rourke beat Cruz in the U.S. senator’s home county by 200,000 votes.

The combination of record turnout in the city and unprecedented inroads in the suburbs brought O’Rourke close to defeating Cruz. But Democrats swept further down the ballot. Lina Hidalgo, a millennial Latina immigrant, ousted the moderate Republican county executive and now leads one of the country’s largest county governments. A slate of Democratic judicial candidates—including nineteen black women and one member of DSA—ran on a platform for criminal justice reform and swept the ballot, taking out every remaining Harris County Republican on the bench. The new judges then promptly enacted reforms to the county’s unconstitutional bail system, which Republican county judges had previously stonewalled.

The 2018 midterms were, in many ways, the culmination of the Texas Organizing Project’s long-term political strategy, which began in 2015 when the group helped elect Sylvester Turner, a progressive, African-American state legislator, as Houston’s mayor. From there, it turned its focus to electing Democrats to other important offices, including Harris County district attorney and county sheriff in 2016 and in 2018 and winning a majority on the county commissioner’s court. These victories got them seats at tables in rooms they’d previously been locked out of.

Groups like TOP have employed an inside-outside strategy, keeping public pressure on their elected allies to stay true to their promises on issues like bail reform, marijuana decriminalization, ending cooperation with ICE,  and community reinvestment. In less than a decade, TOP has transformed from a scrappy community organizing upstart into a powerhouse for black and Latinx communities.

But for Tarsha Jackson, and a growing contingent of local activists, that hasn’t been enough. Jackson, who is African American and a longtime TOP organizer, recalled a recent day when she drove around the city and observed the lots that had been vacant for years, the blue tarps from Hurricane Ike in 2008 still draped over the roofs of run-down homes. She saw inadequate drainage ditches, a stark lack of public services, and continued violence plaguing communities like Acres Homes, the historically black neighborhood where she grew up. “I was just like, we keep fighting the same fight,” Jackson said. “We are at the table talking to the city about the things that the community needs. They’re telling us that they’re going to do it. We’re knocking on doors, getting people elected, but yet we’re still faced with the same problems. Nothing is changing.”

As mayor, Turner has drawn criticism for abandoning his 2015 campaign promises and embracing moderation and caution instead. He’s headed into reelection in 2019 against a handful of challengers, though none from the left.

An invitation to sit at the table was not enough. As Jackson saw it, if they wanted change, it was time to bring the spirit of a community organizer to city hall. In February 2019, she stepped down from TOP and launched her campaign for a Houston City Council seat that includes Acres Homes, as well as some of the city’s other most underserved communities. Jackson is part of a new class of organizers-turned-candidates, emboldened by the progressive gains in 2018 and frustrated by the slow pace of change, who are running in Houston’s 2019 municipal elections. Ashton P. Woods, a leader of Houston’s Black Lives Matter movement, and Marcel McClinton, an eighteen-year-old anti-gun-violence activist, are both running for at-large city council seats. Together, they aim to upset the Bayou City’s political status quo and press Turner leftward.

“That’s how we are going to change things. We have to get someone in office who is not afraid to speak up and challenge the systems or just somebody who’s going to be the advocate for the community on the inside,” Jackson said.

It’s an uphill battle for grassroots campaigns in Houston, especially in a crowded election cycle with lots of candidates. Those with connections to city hall and the political establishment tend to get the money, endorsements, and get-out-the-vote resources that can swing the outcome of races.

Jackson’s own race is filled with more than a dozen candidates—some of whom have deep pockets of support—and Jackson knows that she’ll have to fight for every vote. It was a big disappointment when she learned that one of the frontrunners, a small businesswoman and community advocate, won the coveted endorsement of the Communications Workers of America local, which comes with campaign money and resources.

She hopes to make up for that with the same sort of people-powered politics that she helped develop at TOP. At the end of the day, Jackson believes, people in her community don’t care about endorsements and political connections. They’re tired of career politicians. “They want somebody that they know is going to get out there and fight,” she said. “They want to see your war wounds, your scars. They want to see your receipts. And I have receipts.”

On a late June night, Audia Jones addressed a crowd of dozens of mostly black Houstonians for a spirited town hall event on the urgent need for radical criminal justice reform. Jones made the case for ending nearly all prosecution for marijuana possession, for ending cash bail, and for dramatically strengthening community oversight of prosecutors and police.

A millennial black woman, a practicing lawyer, a working mother, and a card-carrying member of the Houston DSA, Jones is also running to become Harris County’s next district attorney.

Her campaign is a part of a larger reform movement that has successfully elected allies to district attorneys’ offices overseeing some of the country’s biggest cities, from Philadelphia to Chicago. But Jones has found herself at the vanguard, taking on a Democratic incumbent who just four years ago was herself lauded as a liberal champion of reform.

Since her election in 2016, Kim Ogg, the sitting district attorney, has been criticized by criminal justice advocates for failing to make good on her promises. Voters gave Democrats a majority on the county commissioner’s court and a slate of reformist judges in 2018. But with control of the Harris County purse strings and the bench, reformers have increasingly found Ogg’s office out of step with the political moment.

Jones hopes to tap into the mounting sense of frustration. “We can’t keep waiting for a superman to make promises and get in there and then not do anything,” she declared. Through the policies that it sets, the district attorney’s office can be “gatekeeper for whether we live or die,” Jones said. Her campaign’s very existence demonstrates just how much the conversation around criminal justice and mass incarceration has shifted, and how the accompanying political movement has become stronger and more aggressive.

In 2016, Jones was working as a rank-and-file prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney’s office—an office historically responsible for more death sentences than in any other Texas county. Jones saw firsthand the role district attorneys play in the system of mass incarceration. So she was excited when Ogg, a top prosecutor from the office, ran and won an upset race on a progressive platform that had support from TOP. By unseating the incumbent Republican, Ogg became the first Democrat to hold the office in nearly forty years.

It was a groundbreaking moment for criminal justice reformers in Texas and paved the way for successful TOP-backed efforts to elect reformer district attorneys in major urban counties like Bexar and Dallas, and in suburban Houston’s Fort Bend County, in 2018.

Jones quickly became dismayed by Ogg’s leadership inside the district attorney’s office. Despite promising to advance bail reform, Ogg ordered her prosecutors to pursue big bond amounts for certain defendants charged with minor offenses. Ogg also requested more than $20 million from the county to hire 100 more prosecutors, a request which was ultimately denied. Critics have accused Ogg’s pretrial diversion program of being racially biased. Jones has likened the program, which requires paying monthly fees and doing community service, to convict leasing. In August, Ogg’s backslide accelerated when she threw a last-minute wrench into a crucial proposed federal settlement to dramatically overhaul the county’s troubled bail system because, she claimed, it was overly deferential to defendants and handcuffed the DA’s authority.

“I think what made it so hurtful is that she made those promises and [did] just the opposite,” Jones told me.

Eventually, Jones became fed up. She left her job in the DA’s office in December and committed to bringing real change to the office. She launched her campaign earlier this year with the intention of challenging Ogg from the left.

Jones was inspired to join Houston’s DSA chapter after watching Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset Joe Crowley, the high-ranking Democrat and Queens incumbent. “This is the first time I’ve actually ever seen anybody run with their heart. And I think that reached across to so many people,” Jones said. She hopes to bring a vision of democratic socialism to one of the country’s largest prosecutors’ offices.

Given the dramatic political shift in Harris County, the district attorney’s race will likely be settled in the Democratic primary. Looking at the resistance that reformers faced in deep-blue areas, like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Tiffany Cabán in Queens, Jones knows it’ll be an uphill battle against the city’s Democratic establishment.

“I would absolutely expect the establishment to want to maintain the status quo,” she told me. “I don’t expect anything different. We haven’t seen anything different. But again, that’s why I’m running.”

But it’s not clear whether backlash from the advocacy community has extended into the base of Democratic primary voters that backed Ogg four years ago. To win, Jones will need to make a convincing case for ousting an incumbent district attorney that can both activate a new bloc of voters in the primary while also appealing to more traditional primary voters.

Jones will have help getting her message out from the Real Justice PAC, a group that has worked to elect progressive district attorney candidates around the country, including in San Antonio and Dallas in 2018. Malitz, the former Sanders and O’Rourke organizing wiz, helped found the group with the aim of replicating the grassroots campaign model on a local level.

Progressives have largely focused on pushing the state’s biggest cities to the left for years now, while hundreds of miles to the south, the Democratic strongholds in the Texas borderlands have stagnated politically. But that just might be starting to change.

Danny Diaz, a thirty-two-year-old school administrator and progressive activist in the Rio Grande Valley, spent the 2018 election cycle trying to overhaul the way politics works in the poor and heavily Hispanic region that borders Mexico along Texas’s southernmost tip. For generations, the Valley’s political system—which essentially operates under one-party Democratic control—has been plagued by a kind of corruption perpetuated by anemic voter turnout. So Diaz launched a get-out-the-vote group called Cambio Texas. It was a way to make an end-run around the party’s machine, which is heavily dependent on the politiqueras, who are paid by candidates to wrangle votes. Instead, Diaz and millennial Latinx organizers set out to change the paradigm of Valley politics by reaching out to new and nonvoters in areas that are generally ignored. “There’s a political establishment [here] that benefits from low-voter engagement,” Diaz said.

Fueled in part by Cambio’s efforts, O’Rourke, who also eschewed the politiqueras, doubled turnout in Hidalgo County, the Valley’s largest population center, and elsewhere throughout the region. But Diaz’s efforts haven’t stopped there.

Perhaps nobody embodies the stodgy politics of Texas’s border Democrats more than Congressman Henry Cuellar. He has represented the state’s 28th Congressional District, anchored by the bustling border city of Laredo, since 2004. From Laredo, the district jaggedly cuts up north to the outskirts of San Antonio and south, along the border, to the western outskirts of the Rio Grande Valley.

Though he represents a deeply Democratic district, the Blue Dog Democrat is one of the most conservative members of his party. Cuellar is staunchly pro-gun and anti-abortion. He is an ally of the private prison industry, which operates several immigrant detention facilities in South Texas. His campaign coffers overflow with corporate PAC money.

After the newly launched Justice Democrats helped Ocasio-Cortez win the Democratic primary in 2018, the group scanned the country for other Democratic incumbents who appeared out of step with their districts. They chose the conservative Cuellar, who is cozy with Republicans—he was close with George W. Bush and donated to a GOP congressman facing a tough challenge in 2018—as their next target.

Justice Democrats hired local organizers, including Amanda Elise Salas and Rick Treviño, and set out to recruit a progressive who could take down Cuellar. Salas and Treviño both cut their political teeth in 2018: the former as a Beto volunteer and voter-registration organizer in nearby McAllen, the latter as a DSA-backed Berniecrat who lost an underdog Democratic primary bid in Republican Will Hurd’s neighboring district. By early summer of 2019, they had found their candidate: Jessica Cisneros, a twenty-six-year-old Laredo native, immigration lawyer, daughter of Mexican immigrants, and a former intern in Cuellar’s office.

Cisneros officially launched her campaign in June with an ambitious platform that includes Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, immigration reform, and a wholesale rebuke of Cuellar’s corporate conservatism. Shortly thereafter, Danny Diaz was hosting a Cisneros campaign event that was live-streamed on Facebook from his home just outside McAllen in the southeastern part of Cuellar’s district. Cisneros waded through a crowd of enthusiastic new supporters—one had already updated his T-shirt listing the names of the Justice Democrats–aligned squad of congresswomen (“Alexandria & Ayanna & Ilhan & Rashida”) to include her name. All four won their seats slogging it out in contested primary races set in urban blue districts to the north and northeast. Could a progressive like Cisneros join their ranks from a far-flung border district?

“The thing we’re hearing every single day is: We feel neglected,” Cisneros declared in a speech. “People aren’t paying attention to us down here. And that’s because Henry Cuellar isn’t representing us. He’s representing those corporate interests.”

To Diaz, this was precisely the type of campaign that could energize young Latinx voters and tip the scales of power along the border.

“The argument from Cuellar is that this isn’t New York. But he hasn’t really had a real organized challenge that has taken [a message] to the people. Cuellar argues that voters in his district are conservatives. Well, we don’t know that. It’s going to be tested. There may be more progressives or liberals than you think,” said Diaz, who later left his job to become Cisneros’s campaign manager.

While the progressive movement in Texas has picked up speed, its early forays into electoral politics have been marked by several defeats. Our Revolution, the organization that emerged from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, waded into the Texas primaries with several endorsements, but nearly every single congressional candidate in a competitive primary lost to the establishment candidate. The two Democrats who beat sitting congressional Republicans in the Houston and Dallas suburbs ran and won as moderates, not Sanders-style progressives, and have since joined the corporate-aligned New Democrat Coalition.

That’s the strategy the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is likely to pursue again in 2020, but it’s not necessarily the only one that will work. Mike Siegel, an Our Revolution candidate, won his 2018 primary in a gerrymandered district that stretches from Austin to Houston, but it wasn’t a target for the DCCC. Siegel ultimately lost but managed to cut down the margins significantly against the Republican incumbent Michael McCaul. Siegel is running again, and this time the district is a top priority for national Democrats. He’s already attracted two challengers, including Shannon Hutcheson, a corporate lawyer who has raised lots of money and fits the DCCC mold.

Progressives suffered another defeat in Dallas during the spring 2019 municipal elections. City councilor and insurgent mayoral candidate Scott Griggs and the city council’s progressive incumbent Philip Kingston were easily defeated by a business-backed coalition seeking to push back against the left. Griggs and Kingston were leading troublemakers in city hall and had been key to getting the Dallas City Council to approve a paid sick leave ordinance, joining the ranks of Austin and San Antonio.

While Griggs and Kingston weren’t perfectly aligned with the local DSA chapter, which helped lead the push for paid sick leave, the democratic socialists still rallied behind the two Dallas candidates. The loss stung, but it was a critical learning experience. “It reminded us that we needed to build a stronger framework to support our political allies,” said Kristian Steffany Hernandez, a leader in the North Texas DSA chapter.

Texas leftists, she added, need to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and organize accordingly. Movements are not built with expensive top-down campaigns, slick TV ads, or glossy mailers. It takes smart, sustained organizing, and lots of it.

The 2020 elections will provide plenty of opportunities for the left to test its vision and build its infrastructure in Texas—from the city to the state level, from inside the Democratic Party and out. It is quite possible that the state is on the cusp of a major political transformation. The two big questions are when that will happen and what it will look like; if the left can successfully mobilize a new and progressive electorate, then it will be able to influence the answers.

Justin Miller covers politics as a reporter at the Texas Observer. He has also written for the American Prospect, the Intercept, the New Republic, and In These Times.