Letter from Washington — From the March 2017 issue

Texas is the Future

Can Democrats reconquer the Lone Star State?

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Republicans have ruled Texas since 1995, gaining absolute control in 2004 thanks to an unblushing exercise in gerrymandering that drove Democrats from their last bastion in the state House of Representatives. Their years in power have been marked by an increasingly aggressive push to the right. Governor George W. Bush was succeeded by Rick Perry, the overseer of more executions than any governor in modern American history. Perry was followed in turn by Greg Abbott, an ardent proponent of fetus funerals and eager assailant of public-school funding. In 2015, he put the Texas State Guard on alert, spurred by a right-wing conspiracy-monger’s warnings that an upcoming U.S. Special Forces exercise might be cover for an Obama plot to invade and occupy the state.

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His own convictions aside, the personally affable Abbott may deem such measures wise in order to protect his flank against Dan Patrick, the aggressively conservative and highly ambitious lieutenant governor. A former talk-show host and sports-bar owner so avid for publicity that he once underwent a vasectomy on live radio, Patrick won the 2014 primary election by running to the right of the incumbent, a Republican already viewed as an extreme conservative. Unsurprisingly, he is now a vehement crusader against such looming threats to the republic as immigrants, sharia law, and transgender bathrooms.

“Patrick’s going crazy over the bathroom issue,” Bill Sadler, the longtime host of a weekly salon of politicians and journalists at his Houston restaurant, told me. “Every business organization in the state is trying to get him to shut the hell up, but he won’t do it. He’s our Donald Trump. He’s the nicest guy in the world — I’ve played poker with him — but put him in front of a microphone and he just goes crazy with Trumpisms.” Citing Patrick’s formerly indulgent attitude toward immigrant workers in his sports bar, whom he treated “like he was their daddy,” Sadler saw the lieutenant governor’s fulminations as pure opportunism. “It’s a political thing — the hypocritical, two-faced son of a gun.”

Once upon a time, of course, Texas was a one-party Democratic state. It produced and consistently reelected such political giants as Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, not to mention Wright Patman, the twenty-four-term populist congressman who once enquired of Federal Reserve chairman Arthur Burns at a hearing: “Can you give me any reason why you should not be in the penitentiary?” But those days are long gone, along with the rural and working-class white Democrats who could be relied on to pull the lever for the ruling party. The last governor the Democrats managed to elect, in 1990, was Ann Richards, given to such feisty pronouncements as her reference to the elder George Bush being born “with a silver foot in his mouth.” Richards eked out a slim victory among a coalition that included white suburban voters — but lost her reelection bid to the younger George Bush in 1994, ushering in an age of darkness for Texas Democrats.

That pall has spread across the country at an accelerating rate, as more and more statehouses and governors’ mansions fall under Republican occupation. Yet Texas, after leading the country in a slide to the right, might now be showing us the way out.

Amid the happy lawyers, journalists, and other movers and shakers at the victory parties, one group of seventy-five men and women, who had arrived on a chartered bus, stood out. Most of them were Latinos, like Petra Vargas, a Mexican-born hotel worker who had spent the day walking her fellow immigrants to the polls. Others were African Americans, such as Rosie McCutcheon, who had campaigned relentlessly for the ticket while raising six grandchildren on a tiny income. All of them wore turquoise T-shirts bearing the logo top. Not only had they made a key contribution to the day’s results — they represented a new and entirely promising way of doing politics in Texas.

The Texas Organizing Project was launched in 2009 by a small group of veteran community organizers. Michelle Tremillo, a fourth-generation Tejana (a Texan of Mexican descent), grew up in public housing in San Antonio, where her single mother worked as a janitor. Making it to Stanford on a scholarship, she was quickly drawn into politics, beginning with a student walkout in protest of Proposition 187, California’s infamous anti-immigrant ballot measure. By the time she graduated, the elite university had changed her view of the world. “I always knew I was poor growing up, and I even understood that I was poorer than some of my peers that I went to school with,” Tremillo told me. What she eventually came to understand was the sheer accumulation of wealth in America and its leveling effect on the rest of the population: “We were all poor.”

Both Tremillo and her TOP cofounder Ginny Goldman, a Long Island native, had worked for ACORN, the progressive national community organization that enjoyed considerable success — registering, for example, half a million minority voters in 2008 — before becoming a target of calculated assaults by right-wing operatives. By 2009, the group was foundering, and it was dissolved a year later.

In response, the activists came up with TOP. Goldman, who was its first executive director, told me that TOP was designed to focus on specific Texan needs and realities and thereby avoid the “national cookie-cutter approach.” The organization would work on three levels: doorstep canvassing, intense research on policy and strategy, and mobilizing voter turnout among people customarily neglected by the powers that be.

Despite Houston’s international cachet as the headquarters of the global oil industry, the Johnson Space Center, the Texas Medical Center (which employs more people than the entire United States coal industry), Rice University, and other dynamic manifestations of power and prosperity, many of its neighborhoods are more evocative of the Third World than the moon landings. Open ditches, often choked with garbage, line the streets of poor districts such as the Third Ward, Acres Homes, and Sunnyside. Thanks to Houston’s zealous rejection of zoning in any shape or form, industrial sites, including the huge Valero refinery in the Manchester district and the abandoned CES Environmental Services plant in South Union, a cemetery of toxic chemicals, sit just across backyard fences. It was in these neighborhoods that TOP found its constituency, and its first campaign.

A year before the organization’s founding, Houston had been hit by Hurricane Ike. As the storm roared across the flat expanse of the city, it cut an especially devastating swath through the poorer neighborhoods, damaging thousands of houses and stripping the roofs off many. The city handed out blue tarps as temporary protection against the elements. Months went by, and then years, and people were still living under the tarps. The city had access to $151 million in recovery funds (an initial tranche was quickly spent elsewhere), but Annise Parker, the mayor at the time, had earmarked that cash for fixing developer-owned apartment buildings.

“The developers were well organized,” observed Tremillo. But municipal authorities soon discovered that previously powerless people were getting organized, too. Securing the city’s master list of 2,000 applicants for disaster relief, Goldman mobilized them to put pressure on the obdurate mayor in meetings and demonstrations. She also enlisted the support of key outsiders who had a veto on how the money was spent, and in December 2011, she finally negotiated a settlement that totally rebuilt the houses.

It was a masterful and successful campaign. Yet it left the power structures in the city, the county, and the state undisturbed. The TOP founders and their colleagues, including another Stanford graduate, Crystal Zermeno, a Tejana math whiz whose mother grew up sleeping on the floor, began to ponder ways to change that. Might it be possible to mobilize enough voters to elect progressives to statewide office? For non-Republicans in Texas and elsewhere, the most galling aspect of recurrent electoral defeat has been the persistent failure of supposedly natural allies, specifically Latinos and African Americans, to show up at the polls. For years, Democratic officials and commentators had cherished the notion that natural growth in the minority population, which rose from 20 percent to nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population between 1985 and 2015, would inevitably put the party back in power. Yet these designated agents of change seemed reluctant to play their part. As I was incessantly reminded in Houston, “Demographics are not destiny.”

The problem has been especially acute in Texas, which produced the lowest overall turnout of any state in the 2010 midterm elections. Three million registered African-American and Latino voters stayed home that year, not to mention the 2 million who were unregistered. The result was a state government subservient to the demands and prejudices of Republican primary voters, and unrepresentative of the majority in a state where almost one in four children lived in poverty, 60 percent of public-school students qualified for free or subsidized lunches, and the overall poverty rate was growing faster than the national average. Following the crushing Republican victory in 2010, TOP launched an ambitious project to discover, as Zermeno put it, “who was not voting, and why.”

Digging deep into voter files and other databases, Zermeno confirmed that Texas contained a “wealth of non-voting people of color.” Most of them were registered, but seldom (if ever) turned up at the polls. The problem, she noted, was especially acute with Latinos, only 15 percent of whom were regular voters. In her detailed report, she calculated precisely how many extra voters needed to turn out to elect someone who would represent the interests of all Texans: a minimum of 1.1 million. Fortuitously, these reluctant voters were concentrated in just nine big urban counties, led by Harris.

Ever since the era of Ann Richards, Democrats had been focusing their efforts (without success) on winning back white swing voters outside the big cities. But Zermeno realized that there was no reason “to beat our heads against the wall for that group of people anymore, not when we’ve got a million-voter gap and as many as four million non-voting people of color in the big cities, who are likely Democrats.” By relentlessly appealing to that shadow electorate, and gradually turning them into habitual voters, TOP could whittle down and eliminate the Republican advantage in elections for statewide offices such as governor and lieutenant governor, not to mention the state’s thirty-eight votes in the presidential Electoral College. In other words, since the existing Texas electorate was never going to generate a satisfactory result, TOP was going to have to grow a new one.

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