‘If Texas votes how it looks, we win’: The grassroots effort behind Texas’ progressive movement

"People say, ‘Oh there’s something in the water,' but we’ve been organizing for nearly a decade."

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 06: A pedestrian walks past Austin City Hall, an early voting center, on March 6, 2018 in Austin, Texas. Democrats are seeing a large increase in voter turnourt compared to last year. CREDIT: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 06: A pedestrian walks past Austin City Hall, an early voting center, on March 6, 2018 in Austin, Texas. Democrats are seeing a large increase in voter turnourt compared to last year. CREDIT: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

Ahead of Tuesday’s primary elections in Texas, early voting numbers seemed to predict an abrupt sea-change for progressives: the nation’s first primary in 2018 saw a 105 percent uptick for Democrats in Texas, with only a 15 percent uptick for Republicans. At least 465,245 Democratic early votes — a 50 percent increase from 2014 — indicated the primaries could be a shocking reversal in a deep-red state.

As numbers were finalized Wednesday morning, that enthusiasm met with reality: Republican voters still far outpaced their Democratic counterparts on primary day by more than half a million votes. But for progressives across the state, the strong turnout signaled a creeping phenomenon.

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While some of the movement stems from a reaction to politics in Washington, activists say it’s also the result of years of dedicated grassroots organizing.

People say, ‘Oh there’s something in the water,'” Brianna Brown, deputy director for the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), told ThinkProgress. “But we’ve been organizing for nearly a decade.” 

Brown, whose organization works to help low-income and working families in Texas with an emphasis on communities of color, said she was hesitant to call high early voter numbers a “wave” in response to recent national policy decisions. “We’ve been tilling the soil, we’ve been in it for nearly a decade doing this work. Every year we get bigger. I think it’s less of just sheer momentum, more that our work is paying off,” she said. 

Like many activists, much of Brown’s work in Texas has centered around elections. Voting has historically posed an obstacle for progressives throughout the state, which has some of the lowest voter turnout in the country. Advocates argue that’s due to multiple factors, including gerrymandering, hardline voting restrictions, and general apathy in a state broadly seen as solidly conservative. But many think that reality will change if voters show up.

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Texas is not a Red state, it’s a non-voting state,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Vincent Harding told ThinkProgress via email. Pointing to staggering early voting numbers for Democrats, Harding indicated the party expects to make gains in November. “Don’t underestimate Texas,” he said.

The election of President Trump sparked progressive momentum across the country, but in Texas, that effect has been amplified by a wave of controversial policies at the state level. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has ushered in a wave of legislation targeting immigrants, communities of color, and LGBTQ Texans, as well as people seeking reproductive health care in a state where lawmakers have already limited abortion access to an astonishing degree.

Those crackdowns have been met with a firestorm of resistance. Last summer, activists across the state came together to protest a special session of the Texas State Legislature. The effort united organizations and movements, many of whom coordinated protests throughout the session, targeting legislation like SB4 — a bill cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities — and a controversial “bathroom bill” aimed at transgender and gender non-conforming Texans.

In the months since the session ended, that energy hasn’t waned. Austin became the first city in the South to mandate paid sick leave in February, the result of intensive efforts and organizing by a coalition of organizations and lawmakers. But nothing is easy for progressives in Texas, where even victories are often met with cynicism. In the weeks since the ordinance passed, activists and lawmakers have been dogged by questions over whether the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature will move to pre-empt the sick leave policy. 

That attitude, Austin City Council Member Greg Casar told ThinkProgress, is part of the problem.

In this work since the Trump election, in fighting for police reform, in fighting SB4, in fighting for paid sick days, I keep being told success is ‘unlikely,'” he said.

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Casar, a former labor organizer, sponsored the paid sick leave ordinance and has long pushed for reforms on a state and local level. Speaking to the idea of a “blue wave,” he argued the more important issue is engagement.

“Our perspective on the ground is this is just what we have to do. It’s our job. Whether it’s a ‘blue wave’ or not,” Casar said. “I can’t tell you what is likely to happen, but now when I walk into a restaurant or grocery store there are people who don’t usually participate in politics — people of color, working class folks — who stop me and ask questions. They care.”

Texas is increasingly a metropolitan state defined by its progressive, left-leaning cities, which in turn are dominated by communities of color, especially the state’s large Latinx and Black populations, Casar said. Low voter turnout and interest has hindered those areas in the past, something Casar argued activists and policymakers need to change. Now, he said, that seems to be happening.

If previously unengaged groups are more involved in politics these days, it’s likely due to the efforts of activists like Brown. TOP, she said, has worked to engage communities of color in the voting process by drawing attention to the outsized impact elected officials have on the lives of many Texans who feel left behind.

Black families in the state are concerned about inequalities within the criminal justice system, while many families with mixed immigration status fear raids and the potential deportation of loved ones, Brown said. The system is “brutal to communities of color, to poor folks. Elections [historically] weren’t motivating people, but these issues were.”

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Using those issues as a launchpad, TOP pushed for the election of Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg in 2016. Ogg is widely considered one of the more progressive prosecutors in the country.

Activists are hoping to repeat that success in 2018. Their efforts aren’t exclusively partisan in nature — many advocates emphasized that they planned to hold elected officials accountable regardless of political party — but for Democrats, their cause is being helped along by a wave of fresh faces.

A record number of LGBTQ candidates are running for office in Texas, with many candidates of color, women, and young people also seeking higher office. More and more Texans are seeing candidates who look like them, have similar experiences, and understand them — and that’s boosting candidates’ efforts considerably, said Delma Catalina Limones, statewide press secretary for the Texas Democratic Party.

“What we think is that everyone who votes right now is important,” she told ThinkProgress. “Texas is a very diverse state. The future of the Democratic party runs through Texas.”

At the federal level, politicians are starting to take notice. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried Texas by double digits. Four years later, Trump managed only 52 percent in the state, while Hillary Clinton flipped three Texas districts. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told CNN’s Manu Raju on Tuesday that he was concerned about that uptick in Democratic voting numbers.

“The extreme left is energized and angry, and it makes it all the important for conservatives to show up in November,” Cruz said.

What’s happening in Texas is arguably a phenomenon unique to the state, but it also has national implications. The kind of work Brown’s organization does for local communities can be replicated elsewhere, argued Asya Pikovsky, who works with the Center for Popular Democracy Action.

“Groups like [TOP] are demonstrating how to win power in red and purple states: focus on city elections, lean into progressive principles, and mobilize voters who have long been marginalized by fielding candidates who can effect real change,” Pikovsky told ThinkProgress. “We should expect to see the same dynamic repeated over and over again this year as organizers find new ways to leverage local elections to win far-reaching national change.”

While Democrats didn’t get the primary they had hoped for on Tuesday, it set the board for historic possibilities come fall. Despite its staggering Latinx population, Texas has never sent a Latina to Congress, but at least two candidates — current Houston state Sen. Sylvia Garcia and former El Paso Judge Veronica Escobar — are poised to be the first to represent the state in Washington after November.  Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, too, is headed for a run-off election in May. If she wins, Valdez, the state’s first Latina and first openly gay sheriff, will face Abbott for the governor’s mansion in the fall.

All of this is proof to activists that organizing is paying off.

In 2018, folks are feeling the pain. But they know there is something to be done,” Brown said. “Voting is a thing they can do. You can make an impact. The thing is, Texas is a state of color. We live under apartheid conditions. The state government does not espouse the values of the people, it does not look like the people. We are on this quest in Texas for a democracy that looks like us. Through local elections, we can do this.”

Added Texas Democratic Party press secretary Limones, “If Texas votes how it looks, we win.”