Looking Back-- Moving Forward... A Guest Post From TX-21 Progressive Democratic House Candidate Tom Wakely
I was a 2016 Democratic Party candidate for Congress. I ran against thirty-year Republican incumbent, Lamar Smith who is the climate change-denying chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Even though I am an independent voter (by that I mean I have voted for Greens, Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats) Bernie Sanders drew me into filing to run as a Democrat. I figured if he could do it, so could I. Big mistake-- more on that later.
When I spoke to Howie a few weeks ago to thank him and Blue America for their support of our campaign against Lamar, I told him people were urging me to run against Smith again, in 2018. I told him when I made a decision to run or not to run another congressional race I would let him know. Well, I made my decision this past week and I am a 2018 candidate for Congress. When I told Howie this, he asked if I would mind writing a guest post for his blog on why I am running again and why I think I can build on last cycle to win this cycle.
First off, let me talk a little about my experience running a congressional campaign here in Texas. As I have already mentioned I decided to run because I finally saw a candidate running for President who lived and breathed a progressive agenda-- Senator Bernie Sanders. Not only did I want to be a part of a Sanders Presidency I knew he would need women and men like myself in Congress who would support and fight for progressive values.
The first step was to file with the Texas Democratic Party to run in the 2016 primary. I had my choice, either collect 500 signatures (which I did) or pay a filing fee of $3,500 dollars. I was told by the State Party that if I wanted access to the Texas VAN (Voter Activation Network), the online database that would allow me to organize information about voters and volunteers to ensure that I was targeting the right voters and turning them out to vote, it would cost me $4,000 dollars. However, if I paid the filing fee instead of submitting signatures, the VAN would only cost me $500. I chose the later option.
When I went up to Austin to pay my filing fee the State Party official who took my cashiers check just started laughing as he walked off, saying something to the effect that I was a fool for deciding to run against Lamar Smith. I yelled something back at him. He turned around and we would have gotten into a physical fight if my buddy who was there with me hadn’t stepped in-between us. Not only was this dip-shit who took my check a State Party official he was also a former State Representative. Such began my journey with the Texas Democratic Party.
Over the course of the next several months, I traveled throughout Texas Congressional District 21, which is larger than the State of Connecticut. I spoke to Democratic Party Clubs in San Antonio, in Austin, in Kerrville, in Fredericksburg, in New Braunfels, in San Marcos. Everywhere I went I was very clear to everyone I met that I supported Sanders for President. My primary opponent was equally as clear-- he supported Clinton. I was pumped and looking forward to riding Bernie’s coattails all the way to Washington. I followed Sanders campaign staff around the district as they organized voters. It was an exciting time. Adrenalin kept me going day and night.
Half-dozen primary debates later, Election Day was finally here. I won my Texas primary campaign, Bernie lost his. However, there was still hope that Senator Sanders could pull a rabbit out of his hat and win the Democratic Party nomination for President but as the weeks/months past, that hope faded. Today, we all are paying the price for the Democratic Party’s failure to nominate Sanders and we will continue to pay dearly as long as Trump is President.
Anyway, now that the primary was over, it was time for me to get down to putting together a campaign. First up, was hiring staff, problem was we did not have any money. In addition, because I am a strong believer in the public financing of political campaigns, I refused to spend time raising money. My position then as it is today is this-- I am who I am and this is what I stand for. If you like what I am saying you can go to our campaign website (or to the (Blue America page for progressive House candidates) and donate but I will not call people to ask for money.
Much to my surprise five people, all Bernie supporters, signed up to work as campaign staff. From the beginning, they all knew money was going to be an issue and that I could not, would not promise to be able to pay them but if and when money came into the campaign, they would be first on the list to be paid. For the next nine months, this small core group worked their asses off with little or no pay. It was a hell of ride for all of us.
Next, I needed to gain access to the Texas VAN. Unfortunately, the person I needed to talk to was the very same dip-shit who took my check for the filing fee. I swallowed my pride and called him. He was never in the office and when he finally did get back to me he told me I was mistaken, the $3,500 filing fee could not be used to offset the $4,000 price for access to the VAN. I was livid, to say the least but what could I do?
What I did do was reach out to my primary opponent to see if he could help. Turned out he had purchased access to Texas VAN for the primary and offered to give us his log-in ID and password so our campaign could use it and use it we did. For the next 90 days we used the VAN, compiled voter lists, contacts; it was great tool for a struggling campaign. Then in mid-July, we lost access to the VAN. Seems the Texas Democratic Party discovered we were using another candidate’s access and they then unceremoniously cut us off. Ouch!
For close to a month we were left without access to any voter files. Fortunately, for us though we were to raise a little money in the meantime and we subsequently purchased the voter files through NationBuilder. Which by the way is a much better campaign vendor than NPG VAN-- remember them, the same folks who cut the Sanders campaign off from his voter files. Well, our campaign finally got back up and running; next on our agenda was preparing for the Texas State Democratic Party convention. However, it was a waste of time and money for us. Not only did the State Party not let me on stage to speak to the delegates, they did not let us speak at any of the official events.
Anyone see a pattern here?
In the end, we did the best we could with the amount of money we had. On reflection, I guess we accomplished a few things. We promoted a progressive agenda. We received more votes than any other candidate who has every run against Smith and we did that by spending less than fifty cents per vote. Which brings me back to the question Howie asked, why I am running again and why do I think I can build on last cycle to win this cycle?
First off, of the 10 counties that make up District 21, the majority of them are rural and that’s where Smith really beat us. The Republicans have done a hell of a job with messaging as far as these rural communities are concerned. They’ve convinced rural voters to vote against their own economic self-interest time and time again and for that I grudgingly congratulate the Elephant in the room. Now whether the Democratic Party can ever win back these folks is still an unanswered question. I know Bernie can but I don’t see anything on the horizon that tells me the Democratic Party nationally or the Texas State Party can. I guess we will have to wait and see who is going to be elected Chair of the DNC.
Secondly, we have already put together a strong campaign of volunteers. We have met people from here to there. Building on what we have already accomplished puts us within striking distance of Lamar. A swing of 35,000 voters is all that it will take to win this Congressional seat.
A thousand years ago, when I was a young man, I remember playing pool inside the Crystal Pistol, a bar here in San Antonio. The fellow I was playing against was a political organizer from New York. He told me that things would only change if things got so bad that people would finally get up off the couch and do something about it. A Trump Presidency might just be the catalyst that I and so many of us have been waiting so long for and for that I grudgingly congratulate the Donkey in the room.
Almost everyday now Lamar Smith makes the news. Whether it is his telling us all that if we want the truth, we should get it from President Trump as he is the only one telling us the unvarnished truth. The earth is dying and Smith continues to deny the reality of climate change-- as a Christian Scientist I’m sure he believes we can just pray it away because it is just an illusion like the illusion of cancer or Hepatitis C that racks so many of our bodies. However, Smith is neither a Christian nor a Scientist. Rather he is a Vietnam War draft-dodging hypocrite; a homophobic, xenophobic, islamophobic, taco-truckophobic, conservative who has lived off other people’s taxes his entire adult life.
Thousands are organizing in District 21 to unseat not just Smith but Trump. Mom’s Clean Air Force is working tirelessly to recruit organizers in every zip code in District 21. Indivisible 21 is growing it’s membership base daily. Populism is once again on the rise here in Texas and we believe we can tap into this anger, this frustration. The days of centrist politics is over, Hillary’s defeat proves that. As the old saying goes, the only thing in the middle-of-the road is a dead armadillo and it is stinking to high heavens.
Blue America has endorsed Tom again and there are strong rumors that Lamar Smith doesn't want the headache of having to campaign against him again. There's also a Replublican extremist, Matt McCall, who doesn't think Lamar Smith is far right enough and he's eager to mount another primary challenge against him. With all the anger Trump, Ryan and Lamar Smith are arousing, 2018 is likely to be a good year for Democrats. And with a new and improved crew at the DCCC-- Steve Israel and Kelly Ward are finally gone-- there's even a chance of some institutional help for Tom. A chance. Meanwhile, please consider contributing to his campaign by tapping on the ActBlue thermometer on the right, which will take you to the page with all the House candidates Blue America has endorsed for 2017 and 2018-- a list that's more about quality than quantity at this point.