Letter from Washington — From the March 2017 issue

Texas is the Future

Can Democrats reconquer the Lone Star State?

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It was just such cases, multiplied thousands of times and brought into sharp, horrifying relief by the death of Sandra Bland, that made criminal-justice reform the centerpiece of TOP’s agenda in 2016.1 Among Harris County candidates, the leading proponent of reform was Kim Ogg, the Houston defense attorney and former prosecutor who was elected as D.A. in November. Like most of the other candidates, Ogg faced a grilling by a roomful of TOP members before the organization gave her its endorsement.2

1 As criminal-justice reform became a national issue, funding from outside groups began flowing into Texas, and some, such as the Open Philanthropy Project, invested in TOP’s nonpartisan organizing and public-education efforts. Full disclosure: my daughter Chloe Cockburn directs criminal-justice grantmaking for Open Philanthropy.
2 Another candidate, Maria Jackson, running for reelection as a judge, had jailed Rosie McCutcheon in 2008. McCutcheon nonetheless voted to endorse her. “I thought she’s changed,” she told me.

Sitting in a coffee shop in the Heights a few weeks after her victory, Ogg agreed that she had been lucky in her opponent, incumbent D.A. Devon Anderson, appointed in 2013 by Rick Perry to succeed her deceased husband. Though advised by Dan Patrick’s favorite political consultant, Allen Blakemore — the “Darth Vader of Texas politics,” according to Ogg — Anderson appeared to go out of her way to step on political land mines. Most notoriously, she refused to apologize for jailing a mentally ill rape victim to ensure that she would be on hand to testify against her attacker. When this came to light during the campaign, along with the news that the victim had been attacked while locked up, Anderson stoutly defended her decision. “She said she would do it again, if necessary,” Ogg recalled in wonderment. Toward the end of the campaign, Anderson resorted to personal attacks on Ogg, who is gay. (“She called me a lesbian for the last three weeks.”)

When we spoke, Ogg was full of praise for TOP, especially for its work highlighting punitive sentences for low-level misdemeanors, and she appeared committed to changing the system. Indeed, when we met for coffee, she was on her way to the office to fire thirty-seven of Anderson’s prosecutors. I asked her what would happen if state authorities directed Houston police to arrest undocumented immigrants, a likely Republican demand. “We’ll deal with that when we get there,” she answered diplomatically. Yet she went on to suggest that the county “could easily be in the front line” when it came time for local governments to resist such state or federal mandates.

Harris County is by no means the only arena in which TOP and its allies scored convincingly in 2016. East Dallas County, a band of suburbs to the east and south of Dallas, comprises House District 107 in the state legislature. Despite a Latino and African-American majority, Republicans have been carrying the district for years, albeit with narrow margins. This time, however, thanks to an intense registration and organizing drive by TOP and other groups, including labor unions, Victoria Neave, the Democratic candidate, ousted her Republican opponent by 836 votes.

“The interesting thing about that race,” Amber Mostyn told me, “is that the Republicans spent around a million dollars. There was no more than three hundred and fifty thousand dollars spent on our side, and no television — the Republicans probably spent half a million dollars on TV. Our campaign was focused on getting folks to turn out, and we knew that a lot of them don’t have time to watch a bunch of TV. They’re working two jobs, they’re not engaged in the political process anyway, so if they see a commercial, it means nothing to them. But Victoria Neave was out talking to people, TOP was out talking to people, labor was out talking to people — it’s the one-on-one engagement that makes the difference.”

It seems fair to say that the strategy deployed in this race (and in others discussed in this article) is the precise opposite of that adopted by Hillary Clinton’s team in 2016. Rather than asking voters what they actually cared about, the Clinton campaign and its associated super PACs spent $1.2 billion, much of it on TV commercials, and relied on Ada, a computer program, for key decisions, while remaining ignorant of what was happening in the real world. For example, around ten days before the election, members of the service-employees’ union in Iowa, where Clinton was clearly a lost cause, set off in a convoy of buses to campaign in Michigan, where the Democratic candidate’s lead appeared to be ebbing. According to Politico, Clinton headquarters in Brooklyn ordered the Iowans to turn around and go home. Their model still showed Clinton winning Michigan by five points. They therefore insisted that the S.E.I.U. foot soldiers would be better employed in Iowa, where they might delude Donald Trump into thinking that he was in trouble and thus force him to divert resources from elsewhere. Yet Michigan was indeed slipping away, a fact that Clinton apparatchiks could easily have discovered had they taken the slightest interest in communicating with anyone who could tell them the truth.

In contrast, TOP devoted energy and resources to ensure immediate feedback from the streets. Senior campaign managers took time to accompany canvassers on their rounds, with the aim of hearing for themselves whether their tactics needed to be tweaked or replaced. Meanwhile, all canvassers carried iPods and instantly entered the data they gleaned from their doorstep interviews. “We’d look at the numbers every evening,” explained Zermeno, “to see if there were any trends. Then, in the morning, when the canvassers all came in, we’d ask the questions. Did we change the rap? Are you guys hearing something? Then we could tweak the message on the spot.”

“Demographics are not destiny,” Craig Varoga remarked to me at the end of a long conversation. “But demographics with hard work and smart decisions are destiny.”

In a post-election memo, Zermeno discussed the various victories and near-victories scored around the state. “In the deep red South,” she wrote, “this election demonstrated what we’ve believed about Texas for many years: Texas is the future. . . . Sí se puede.” Yes we can.

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