Friday, February 24, 2017

Can Democrats Take Back The Sunbelt-- Starting In Texas?


A few days ago we looked at why South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford has the political leeway to publicly denigrate Trump. For one thing, his coastal district is npt Trump territory. Rubio beat Trump in the primary there and Hillary won the largest county in the district (Charleston). Yesterday a poll of South Carolina voters showed that Trump's unpopularity nationally in mirrored in South Carolina. "Despite winning South Carolina by a double-digit margin in November's election, President Donald Trump is receiving the same lukewarm approval marks in the Palmetto State as the remainder of the country... A new Winthrop University poll released Thursday found that South Carolinians give Trump a 44 percent approval rating, nearly identical to his latest average of national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.

One of the most widely discussed thought pieces in political circles this week has been Andrew Cockburn's controversial piece in Harper's, Texas Is The Future-- Can Democrats Reconquer The Lone Star State?. Remember, statewide the Texas Democratic Party has been all but moribund for decades. The last Democratic governor was elected in 1990. And Lloyd Bentsen, he last Democratic senator, was first elected in 1970 (and reelected in through the 80's).

Yesterday a higher up at the DCCC asked me if I thought a Democrat could win Ted Poe's seat (TX-02) in 2018. It's a very white, very gerrymandered suburban district north of Houston, although it includes Rice University and Montrose, the center of Houston's LGBT community. Overall, though, the district is probably the reddest part of Harris County. Harris County went narrowly for Obama in 2012, but TX-02 was landslide territory for Romney. He took the district 62.9% to 35.6%. In November, Hillary's margin over Trump countywide was not narrow. She wiped him out in Texas' biggest county-- 707,914 to 545,955. TX-02, though, isn't quite there yet. True, Trump's number's cratered in comparison to Romney's (Romney's 62.9% turned into a 52.4% win for Trump), but he still beat Hillary in the district by nearly 9 points. So, 2018 is unlikely to be the end of Poe. What I suggested is a clear 2-cycle strategy to build a candidate this cycle and take out Poe in 2020. That kind of thinking has been anathema to the DCCC since Rahm was chairman. I doubt if Ben Ray Lujan has the vision to see it through.

Meanwhile, though, there were 3 Republican-held congressional districts where Hillary did win in November-- TX-07 (John Culberson's Harry County seat), TX-23 (Will Hurd's heavily Hispanic south Texas district where the DCCC blew an easy win by nominating a wretched corrupt conservative), TX-32 (Pete Sessions' uber-gerrymandered district from Highland Park and University Park in north Dallas, up through Richardson and Garland. And there are 5 other districts trending towards the Democrats: TX-24 (Kenny Marchant's in the suburbs north of Dallas/Ft. Worth), TX-22 (Pete Olson's Sugar Land and Pearland district south of Houston), TX-21 (Lamar Smith's Austin/San Antonio corridor district), TX-10 (Mike McCaul's Austin/Houston corridor district) and TX-03 (Sam Johnson's district in the suburbs north of Dallas up through Plano and McKinney). Trump won Texas. A new poll out this week, shows him struggling with voters statewide:

Cockburn kicked off his article on election night in the Heights neighborhood of Houston. "Unlike the rest of the country," he wrote, "Houston Democrats had a full-scale Republican rout to celebrate. The party had swept the polls in Harris County, the vast region encompassing Houston, arguably the nation’s most diverse city (as locals never tire of repeating). With 4.5 million inhabitants, the county is more populous than half the states in America. Now Harris voters had elected a Democratic district attorney-- a very powerful post in Texas law enforcement-- for the first time in thirty-six years. The Democrats had also captured almost every other slot on the ballot, including the tax assessor’s office, which oversees voter registration: a crucial win in an age of Republican voter suppression... Clinton trounced Donald Trump by more than 160,000 votes in a county that Barack Obama had carried by fewer than a thousand in 2012. While others in the defeated party were subsiding into melancholy, hand-wringing, and consolatory tales of Russian hackers, the county’s newly elected sheriff, former Houston police sergeant Ed Gonzalez, was assuring supporters that he would defy any orders to round up undocumented immigrants. Across the street, the new D.A., Kim Ogg, promised her exuberant audience a progressive agenda: 'We’re going to have a system that doesn’t oppress the poor.' Voter endorsement of such progressive positions, well to the left of anything Clinton promoted during her message-lite campaign, was all the more dramatic in this reddest of red states."
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.

...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.

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... 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.

...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.
Goal Thermometer Yes, Texas and the Sunbelt are part of the future of the Democratic Party. But giving up on blue collar workers in the Midwest is something only people as stupid and desperate as Pelosi's DCCC would seriously consider. Not to take anything away from Cockburn's analysis, I believe the very first post-Trump local election was for a west Davenport, Iowa state House district. Hillary won that district 52-41%. Monica Kurth, the progressive Democratic candidate who won it a month ago took it in a landslide-- 72% to 27%, an early warning to Iowa-- and national-- Republicans that anger and revulsion towards Trump and his neo-fascist regime, towards enablers like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and GOP-controlled legislatures, are going to spark electoral backlash that the Republicans are utterly unprepared for. I hope by next year the DCCC is. Meanwhile, Blue America has endorsed our first Texas congressional candidate for the 2018 cycle, Tom Wakely, who plans to complete what he started in 2016, replacing anti-science Trump surrogate Lamar Smith. Please consider giving him a hand by tapping on the thermometer on the right.

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At 7:47 AM, Blogger VG said...

Howie, thanks for this excellent piece.

I hope everyone will click through and read the Harper's article in its entirety. It's well worth it.

I did so initially b/c I saw the name "Zermeno" in what Howie quoted, and wondered who that person was.

This is who she is: "The TOP founders and their colleagues, including another Stanford graduate, Crystal Zermeno, a Tejana math whiz whose mother grew up sleeping on the floor...."

And, Howie, thanks for this broader view:
"Yes, Texas and the Sunbelt are part of the future of the Democratic Party. But giving up on blue collar workers in the Midwest is something only people as stupid and desperate as Pelosi's DCCC would seriously consider."

At 8:05 AM, Anonymous ap215 said...

Yes great piece Howie i'll pass this along & i know there will be alot of skepticism about oh the Dems can't do this it's Texas & all that & their points are valid & understandable but even in the most unlikely scenarios we have to give it a try it's been so long since the Dems have won Texas & we're due to turn this state blue so let's do this.

At 9:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Ds, as currently formed, cannot turn TX blue until it is 65% nonwhite... if even then.

The foundation of TX politics since the civil war is racism with a large dollop of (white only) elitism on top, due to oil.

This is why they were true blue until after LBJ passed civil and voting rights lege (they weren't all that happy about Medicare/Medicaid either b/c they help blacks). As LBJ famously presaged, paraphrasing, "now all southern whites will be republicans for a generation", where he was only wrong about the duration.

So the swap of ruling parties in TX only happened because the parties swapped the racism badge.

If TX is ever to become blue again, racists must be far outnumbered by legal, registered, active voters who are not racists. That means nonwhites must far outnumber whites.

However, this may take quite a while. And if the democraps continue with their overt corruption and chronic betrayals of issues important to non-billionaire latinos, blacks and Asians in the interim, they will fail to get votes from the nonwhites. With the exception of blacks, who have a pavlovian thing with democraps, the rest are far more discerning than the average D voter. They won't stand for a charade of a pretense like stupid white leftys.

Any wavelength change anywhere, in the short term, due to this admin being singularly horrible, will be transitory. Democraps may capitalize in 2018, even in 2020 if drumpf/pence/bannon/miller last that long.

But democraps serve only big money. And 2 years of that will be met with more and more permanent apathy, just as it did in 2010.

i.e: "...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..."

Obamanation and democraps were so focused on serving their donors, they lost 15 million total voters in the 2010 midterms. These people didn't switch. They stayed home. Nothing to vote FOR.

At 2:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear anon at 9:24

I just typed a long comment to you supporting many of your points, along with my own voting history. I am now totally frustrated b/c somehow in the process of "proving I'm not a robot" I hit some wrong key, and the comment disappeared. I can't figure out how to recover it. I should have followed my usual procedure of copying and pasting my comment to a separate file.

It was a long comment, and I doubt that I will be able to reconstruct it. I did not have kind words to say about the D's.

But, my closing point was more or less as you say: that the D's have to have to give people something to vote FOR.

At 4:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

2:12, ty. I've had my own issues with publishing comments here, so I get it.

I imagine that there are a lot of us who have been paying attention (in my case, since '60) who have seen the same things and can connect dots.

I remained more optimistic about the general direction the usa would follow... until Nixon's re-election. At that point, I overcame the blind optimism that my mom, bless her, instilled in me. At that point I realized that voters were morons, whites were pretty much evil and the money was starting to gain too much weight. It's all gotten a lot worse since. And democrats sold their souls in about '82 to remain relevant (meaning still drinking at the trough) and THAT meant that people's issues would become inconvenient to them.

And here we are...

At 7:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Can Democrats Take Back The Sunbelt-- Starting In Texas?"

Can they? It is within the realm of possibility. It would take until the day after the Sun goes Nova.

Will they? No way! Their entire experience is to surrender before the fight begins and be the supine bootlickers the GOP desires.


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