Letter from Washington — From the March 2017 issue

Texas is the Future

Can Democrats reconquer the Lone Star State?

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There was, however, still another question to answer. Why were those 4 million people declining to vote? TOP embarked on a series of intensive focus groups, which were largely financed by Amber and Steve Mostyn, a pair of progressive Houston claims attorneys. (Their string of lucrative settlements included some with insurance companies who had balked at paying claims for Ike-related house damage.) Year after year, the Mostyns had loyally stumped up hefty donations to middle-of-the-road Democrats who doggedly pursued existing voters while ignoring the multitude who sat out elections all or most of the time. When TOP asked these reluctant voters about their abstention, the answer was almost always the same: “When I have voted for Democrats in the past, nothing has changed, so it’s not worth my time.” There was one telling exception: in San Antonio, voters said that the only Texas Democrat they trusted was Julián Castro, who ran for mayor in 2009 on a platform of bringing universal pre-K to the city, and delivered on his promise when he won.

“There’s this misunderstanding that people don’t care, that people are apathetic,” Goldman told me. “It’s so not true. People are mad and they want to do something about it. People want fighters that will deliver real change for them. That’s why year-round community organizing is so critical. People see that you can deliver real impact, and that you need the right candidates in office to do it, and connect it back to the importance of voting. It’s the ongoing cycle. We see winning the election as only the first step toward the real win, which is changing the policies that are going to make people’s lives better.”

Beginning with the 2012 election, TOP canvassers — volunteers and paid employees working their own neighborhoods — were trained to open a doorstep interview not with statements about a candidate but with a question: “What issue do you care about?” The answer, whether it was the minimum wage or schools or potholes, shaped the conversation as the canvasser explained that TOP had endorsed a particular candidate (after an intensive screening) because of his or her position on those very issues. These were not hit-and-run encounters. Potential voters were talked to “pretty much nonstop for about eight to ten weeks leading to the election,” according to Goldman. “They got their doors knocked three to five times. They got called five to seven times. They signed a postcard saying, ‘I pledge to vote.’ They circled which day they were going to vote on a little calendar on the postcard, and we mailed those postcards back to them. We offered them free rides to the polls. We answered all of their questions, gave them all the information they needed, until they cast a ballot. And what we saw was that the Latino vote grew by five percentage points in Harris County in 2012.”

Two years later, Texas Democrats nominated Wendy Davis, a state senator, as their candidate for governor following her filibuster against further restrictions on abortion rights. Her stand brought her national attention, a flood of campaign money, and the arrival of out-of-state Obama operatives who vowed to boost minority registration. Yet she lost by 20 percent to Greg Abbott and scored comparatively poorly with Latinos. Meanwhile, in the same election cycle, TOP and its allies blocked a bid by business interests to privatize the public-school system in Dallas. A year later, the organization helped to elect Sylvester Turner, a black Democrat, as mayor of Houston.

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