Friday, May 11, 2018

Can Progressives Win-- In Texas? Of Course They Can... But They Have To Overcome The DCCC First


The Texas runoffs are May 22. And as The Nation noted this week, "Insurgent populists are facing off against establishment picks in a series of high-stakes runoffs." D.D. Guttenplan wasn't deterred by a bunch of progressive defeats in Tuesday's primaries in Ohio, North Carolina and Indiana. (Exception-- Kendra Fershee won her congressional primary in West Virginia.). Maybe he thought there's more at stake in Texas--. and he should... because there is. Chances are, for example, that whomever wins the runoffs in TX-07 and TX-23 will be going to Congress. The awful DCCC picks in each-- Jay Hulings in TX-23 and Alex Triantaphyllis in TX-07-- were already defeated in the first round.

Guttenplan begins with the longest of long shots-- Rick Treviño, who miraculously beat the heavily backed and heavily financed Jay Hulings, to come in second in Round 1. Hulings, with help from the DCCC, the Blue Dogs, the New Dems and the San Antonio Castro Machine, spent $554,903 for the first round. Treviño, who was endorsed by Blue America, Our Revolution and Justice Democrats, spent $29,121. Treviño, wrote Guttenplan about the primary, "stood out from the Democratic field for his youth (he’s 33) and his Chapo Trap House rhetoric, describing Goldman Sachs as 'evil,' ridiculing corporate Democrats, and tweeting 'Neoliberalism fucking sucks.'" He told Guttenplan "I’m not a liberal-- I’m a lefty" and "My headquarters is in the cloud or whatever restaurant has good Wi-Fi."
Stretching west from San Antonio to the outskirts of El Paso and running south along the Mexican border, the 23rd Congressional District covers 58,000 square miles, making it bigger than the entire state of New York. It’s also one of the most flippable districts in the country, swinging from Republican to Democrat and back repeatedly over the last 12 years. The current incumbent, Will Hurd, a former CIA officer and one of three black Republicans in Congress, was reelected in 2016 by just 3,000 votes.

Most reporting on the March 6 primary tended to depict it as a two-person race between Gina Ortiz Jones, who served in Air Force Intelligence during the Iraq War and would be the first openly LGBTQ representative from Texas, and Jay Hulings, a former federal prosecutor who was in the same Harvard Law School class as Julián and Joaquin Castro, the twin brothers who dominate local politics. Hulings, who was endorsed by House minority whip Steny Hoyer, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Blue Dog Democrats, and End Citizens United [a front for the DCCC], raised and spent over $600,000. Jones, backed by Emily’s List as well as LGBTQ and veterans’ groups, raised more than $1 million, three-quarters of which came from PACs and wealthy donors, and spent about $700,000.

As for Treviño, he raised a little more than $40,000, including about $3,200 from himself. “I took out all my savings and cashed in my retirement. I took the 20 percent hit,” he says. “Hopefully I don’t twist my ankle or get sick, because right now I don’t have health care.”

Instead of the consultant-crafted mailings and TV ads deployed by his opponents, Treviño relied on shoe leather and gasoline, seeking out voters in places like the unincorporated colonias along the border, where some of the poorest people in North America live without basic services. “They’d tell me, ‘I vote every year, but nothing’s changed. We still don’t have paved roads.’ Most of them had never seen a candidate before. And none of them thought Medicare for All or the right to a living wage was a crazy idea.”

When the ballots were counted, Hulings’s $92-a-vote campaign bought him a fourth-place finish with 6,600 votes. Jones led the field with 18,000, at a cost of about $39 per vote. And Treviño, who spent just $29,000, came in second, making it into the May 22 runoff with a little over 7,600, at a cost of just $3.80 per vote. “There are no established laws of political science by which this should have been possible,” noted a San Antonio Express News columnist.

"Big wave coming-- get off the beach,” said seven-term congressman Charlie Dent (R-PA), explaining his decision not to seek reelection this year. If Dent is right, then anybody on a board has a chance of catching a wild ride-- perhaps explaining why some Democrats are putting so much time and effort into pushing other Democrats off the ballot. Maybe the real fear isn’t that voters in Texas and other supposedly red states aren’t ready for Medicare for All or a $15-an-hour minimum wage or tuition-free education at public universities-- but that they are.

The same poll that put Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke in a dead heat in his bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz also showed that Texans are a lot less conservative than the stereotype, favoring tougher gun laws, a process for DACA Dreamers to stay and apply for citizenship, and the legalization of marijuana possession-- all by considerable margins. Yet somehow, you never hear corporate Democrats being told, “Kid, this ain’t your night” so that a more progressive candidate can avoid an expensive primary fight over “minor policy differences.” Pragmatism “is a moral imperative,” preaches Jonathan Alter in the Daily Beast-- as if ignoring the urgent needs of the rural poor, or the criminalization of African-American men, or the terrible damage to our environment were some kind of higher wisdom.

Alter’s not alone. Lately, the airwaves and pixels have been full of centrist Democrats warning the rest of us to quit griping about health care or Wall Street corruption and take one for the team. That list includes the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which, having decided that it can do a better job of picking “winners” than the party’s own electorate, keeps putting its thumb on the scales in contested primaries across the country. And Hoyer, who was recently caught on tape pushing a progressive challenger in a Colorado congressional race to drop out. And Emily’s List, which picked sides in a race between two equally pro-choice women here in Texas-- while refusing to back another who was the only woman on the ballot in her district, and is now in a runoff against a former Republican. All this so-called pragmatism comes from the assumption that the parameters of practical politics are already fixed-- and as narrow as the space separating Andrew Cuomo from Chuck Schumer.

But what if that’s just plain wrong? For example, Alter’s claim that only candidates whose policies are acceptable to big donors can raise enough money to compete against the “mountains of cash” coming from Republican billionaires isn’t actually true. Ever since Howard Dean out-fund-raised all his competitors-- and all of his predecessors-- Democrats have known they don’t need to rely on corporate money to win. As pollster Stan Greenberg recently warned the party, if Democrats just keep talking about Trump or Russia, let the Republicans get away with tax cuts for the rich, and ignore the fact that for most people, wages still haven’t caught up with the cost of living, that big blue wave might not happen at all. “Momentum has stalled,” Greenberg warned, encouraging the party to refocus on health care and the economy because “Democratic voters are genuinely struggling… They remain in pain.”

What if the election of Donald Trump represents not merely a rightward swing of the pendulum, requiring Democrats to do little more than wait for the inevitable counterstroke, but a wrecking ball to politics-as-usual? What if the shape of the electorate is changing, making the kind of left-populist coalition the Bernie Sanders campaign never quite managed to put together a real possibility? Insisting we can’t win-- that young people or minorities won’t turn out to vote, that what divides us is more important than our shared knowledge that the system is rigged and our shared anger at those who rigged it-- is an old stratagem. But it may not be a winning one any more.

Just ask Laura Moser. A fifth-generation Texan, Moser is part of the surge of women who reacted to Trump’s election by deciding to run for office themselves. A longtime journalist and the founder of Daily Action, a text-messaging service that sends its 300,000 subscribers one concrete call to action every day, Moser had a national profile-- and Washington connections from her husband Arun Chaudhary’s years as official videographer in the Obama White House. Although Chaudhary’s consulting firm, Revolution Messaging, had done some work for Sanders in the 2016 primary, Moser herself had rung “hundreds of doorbells for Hillary” in Houston during the fall. She even cited Clinton as her inspiration for powering through a cold on the campaign trail in Texas’s Seventh Congressional District.

Then, just over a week before the March primary, the DCCC dumped a dossier of opposition research onto its website, attacking Moser as unelectable in a move that appeared designed to bolster one of her opponents, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. As The Intercept‘s Ryan Grim reported, Fletcher was backed by Houston megadonor Sherry Merfish, a longtime Emily’s List supporter who’d also bundled more than $250,000 for Clinton. Though both candidates are vociferously pro-choice-- Moser’s parents were active in Planned Parenthood, and her mother Jane organized the clinic defense during the 1992 Republican convention that Fletcher features in her own campaign literature-- Emily’s List came in hard on Fletcher’s behalf. Despite the attacks, Moser made it through to the May 22 runoff.

...Ironically, getting monstered by the DCCC precipitated a spike in Moser’s fund-raising; in less than a week, she raised more than $86,000. Besides falsely implying that she’d put her husband on the campaign payroll, the DCCC dug up a snarky Washingtonian piece in which Moser had written that she’d rather have her “teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than live in rural Paris, Texas. The DCCC press release left that last part out, making it sound like Moser was dissing her entire home state. The oppo researchers had even tracked down some insensitive comments she’d made as a 22-year-old freelancer after attending a gospel service in London. So Moser’s endorsement by the group Houston Black American Democrats in late April meant a lot to her.

The DCCC “tried to paint her as some kind of racist [and] totally misrepresented who she is as a person,” says Ginny Stogner McDavid, president of the Harris County AFL-CIO, which opposes Fletcher, citing her firm’s work on an $8 million lawsuit against the Justice for Janitors campaign. “Lawyers are the new Pinkertons,” McDavid continues. “Half a century ago, corporations hired Pinkerton operatives to break strikes. Now they just use lawyers-- Pinkertons with cuff links.”

Having Emily’s List against Moser hurt her, too. Not just because she’s a feminist who describes her support for Medicare for All as “a feminist issue,” but because the group’s imprimatur matters here. Norri Leder, a former Texas chapter leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told me, “The Emily’s List endorsement made me sit up and take notice. I don’t think they would endorse someone unless they thought she could win.” Incensed by Republican incumbent John Culberson’s vote to repeal the Obama administration’s rule preventing people with severe mental illnesses from buying guns, she’s volunteering for Fletcher.

In a district that Clinton carried in 2016, it’s hardly surprising that the Democratic primary would be competitive. But the nastiness of the race signals there’s more going on here than personal rivalry, though that may also be a factor. When I ask Fletcher if it’s true that her father and Moser’s were once law partners, she says they were, adding: “Laura was a couple of years behind me in high school.” (Wes Anderson fans will recognize their alma mater, St. John’s, as the setting for Rushmore.)

Both candidates are formidable women with extensive connections to Houston’s Democratic establishment. Fletcher’s campaign manager, Erin Mincberg, is the daughter of David Mincberg, former chair of the Harris County Democratic Party. Both are endorsed by Moms Demand Action and by CWA Local 6222. Moser is also endorsed by National Nurses United, the Harris County AFL-CIO, the Seafarers, the Teamsters, and the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Either would be an enormous improvement over Culberson, a Tea Party drone with a A-plus rating from the NRA who co-sponsored a “birther” bill in 2009 and opposes abortion, marriage equality, and the “liberal obsession with climate change.” Yet the turnout in the Republican primary, where Culberson faced token opposition, was 5,000 votes higher than in the seven-person Democratic slugfest.

One response to that cautionary note is that, to flip this district, Democrats need to give Republicans-- people who voted for Greg Abbott for governor-- somebody they don’t feel uncomfortable voting for. In other words, a rerun of the Jon Ossoff campaign in Georgia, with no need to change the “Panera Bread strategy” of ignoring economic inequality and the party’s own dependence on corporate donors. “Democrats are winning Harris County,” Fletcher told me. “We don’t need a new approach.”

Moser disagrees. “We have tried something over and over in Texas politics which is to run to the middle and to the right, and it’s not working,” she told the Houston Chronicle. “So why not stand firm for the values that we share?” Fletcher says she’s for defending DACA; Moser says she would have voted to shut down the government to force a deal. Fletcher’s website calls for “maintaining and improving the Affordable Care Act”; Moser is for Medicare for All-- the surest dividing line between Democrats who just talk the talk and those who walk the walk.

But it isn’t only Moser’s messaging-- which stresses the need to get big money out of politics, federal aid to rebuild Houston’s flood defenses, as well as health care and immigration reform-- that sets her apart. Fletcher’s running a campaign; Moser is building a movement.

“We started [the runoff] with 1,300 volunteers and created a grassroots structure around that,” says Josh Levin, the campaign’s field director. Relying on volunteers to “grow their own” teams for phone-banking and block-walking means that, win or lose, Moser is expanding the progressive base of the party. “We are planning to flip this district whether or not we make it through the runoff,” says campaign manager Linh Nguyen. “We regularly meet with the Democratic precinct chairs, helping them with digital organizing and advising on when to start GOTV [get out the vote] efforts.” It’s an approach that has already convinced one prominent Ossoff supporter, actor/activist Alyssa Milano. She’s backing Moser this time.

Thanks to years of GOP gerrymandering, any Democrat now faces an uphill fight in Texas. (Last December, the New York Review of Books blog ran one of the best analyses I’ve seen of the classic racist techniques of “packing and cracking” voting blocs. The writer? Laura Moser.) But that fact, and the results of this year’s elections, shouldn’t obscure what’s at stake-- in Texas and across the country. Despite what you may have read, this isn’t a fight “for the soul of the Democratic Party”-- an entity whose very existence, like other supernatural phenomena, is a matter of faith, not evidence.

What’s at stake here is power: Who has it, who gets it, and how they use it. Those who believe that “America is already great”-- perhaps because they themselves have done so well-- will never deliver more than gradual change. But as Jim Hightower, the veteran Texas populist, put it to me when I stopped by to see him in Austin: “People aren’t interested in incremental change. People are being fucked.”

Travelling the state in his role as a board member of Our Revolution, Hightower got a close look at what he calls “the culmination of a two-party duopoly doing nothing for regular people.” Reminding me that the 19th-century Populist revolt first caught fire just a few hours north, in Cleburne, Hightower says his group has endorsed 29 candidates in Texas-- of whom “17 won or made the runoffs.” Yet he worries that some of the current crop “are running for the wrong races. Running too high on the ballot.” After half a century in the fight, Hightower knows that our side needs some wins.

One of the most improbable could be gathering force just on the other side of town. When Mary Wilson first entered the campaign to unseat Lamar Smith, the climate-change denier who represents the 21st Congressional District, nobody paid her much attention. Though Smith, with ample backing from ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers, had done enormous damage as chair of the House Science Committee, he had also been repeatedly reelected by 20-point margins since first winning the seat in 1986. (Smith’s 2006 Democratic challenger, John Courage, was backed by Our Revolution in his successful race last year for a seat on the San Antonio City Council.)

Yet when Smith announced last November that he wouldn’t be running for reelection, the open seat drew a crowded field, including Derrick Crowe, an environmental activist and former Nancy Pelosi staffer backed by Our Revolution and (Nation) writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben. Already in the race was Joseph Kopser, a former Republican and West Point graduate backed (surprise!) by 
Steny Hoyer and other “national Democrats.” The DCCC promptly added the seat to its target list.

Here again, the primary coverage focused on Kopser and Crowe. Wilson, when she was mentioned at all, was described merely as the “fourth Austin Democrat in the race” or, more expansively, a “gay math teacher turned pastor.” (Although it’s been largely ignored, Texas has also seen a lavender wave this year, with more than 50 openly LGBTQ candidates running for office statewide.) Kopser, who spent over $800,000 in the primary, came in second with 14,787 votes, beaten by Wilson, who spent less than $50,000 for 15,736 votes-- or about $3 each compared to Kopser’s $54.

“Being first is not always easy,” Wilson told me when we sat down over pancakes in Austin. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told I’m going to hell.” Though her campaign office looks like a converted garage, Wilson seemed determined to prove “that caring for one another is really a viable political position.” Despite her political commitments, she still spends Sundays at the Church of the Savior, the pulpit she took up while teaching mathematics for 20 years.

“I come at this whole campaign from the perspective of people impacted by policies that favor the wealthy,” she continued. “My father worked at McDonnell Douglas, helping to build the Mercury capsules. He was a ‘drop-hammer guy’-- a union machinist. At 91, he has a pension and health care. Everyone who works hard deserves that.”

Last spring, Wilson spent days at the Texas Legislature protesting, testifying, and lobbying. “I testified against the bathroom bill. Got there at 7 am; testified at 9 pm. Afterwards, I said to myself, ‘I want one of those votes.’ This felt like the next step.”

“How do you make the House of Representatives reflect the country?” she asks. “Joseph’s not a bad guy. It’s just that we have a ton of guys like him already. I’ve been in courtrooms, jails, detention centers. How many people do we have in the House who’ve lived paycheck to paycheck? Or who have listened, as I have, to a 69-year-old woman say, ‘I got sick, lost my job, and now they’re going to evict me.’ If he wins the primary, there are progressives that will stay home.”

Wilson credits her victory partly to her message and partly to “being the only woman in the race in the Year of the Woman…. I can bring together the entire party, from Our Revolution to Hillary voters. The women who dominate the crossover vote will look at me and see the mom and grandma, and see someone who does the same things they do.” Although a spokesperson from Emily’s List told The Nation that “we hope to see Mary Wilson in the general election,” the group has yet to endorse her in the runoff against Kopser.
Goal ThermometerI've never talked with Guttenplan but all of the candidates he wrote about-- O'Rourke, Moser, Wilson, and Treviño-- can be found on Blue America's Take Back Texas Act Blue page. If you click on the thermometer on the right... you'll be there. All these grassroots candidates need the bucks, especially Treviño and Wilson, who have raised next to nothing and have especially difficult districts to win on the 22nd. No one says this is going to be easy, but anyone saying it isn't going to be possible was probably positive that Hulings was going to come in first, not fourth and that Triantaphyllis was a sure bet in Houston. And, by the way, the other candidates on the page the thermometer takes you to are great as well.


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At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's TX. Don't expect very much from those ... people. The DxCCs are the least of any progressive's problems there.

Only in a massive anti-red year.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Gadfly said...

Plus (as I also told him on Twitter), Guttenplan, like most national liberal pundits (and you) remain cluelessly enamored of Beto. Here's the reality:

At 12:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL. Laura Moser is now a progressive? Have you read her website? Her policy positions make her look like Nancy Pelosi's clone. If she's our great progressive hope then we are truly doomed.


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