Texas’s New Ground Game

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For the past four decades, Texas has been a reliably red state. But that means that Trump’s nine-point victory last fall was less stunning and discouraging to the state’s left activists compared to the shock of Trump’s sweep in historically blue northern states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which many Democrats had assumed were safe bets in presidential races.

Oddly, though, while conservatives tighten their grip on all three branches of federal government, it’s never been a better time to be a left-wing organizer in Texas: now the trench-warfare tactics local activists have been honing have a chance to become a national model for mobilizing the opposition to Trumpism. The Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a gritty grassroots network linking three rapidly browning cities—San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston—has fought and won enough local battles to demonstrate the value of seeding incremental progressive wins on the neighborhood level in order to build a grassroots people’s movement. And they know better than to take anything about Texas for granted.

For TOP’s communications director Mary Moreno, giving people a reason to believe voting still makes a difference in a politically predictable state starts with talking about them, not their vote.

“When we show up at people’s doors, we found that if you ask them, ‘What would you like to see changed in your neighborhood and in your community?’—that it really does help start a conversation,” said Moreno, as we drove to a union get-out-the-vote event in downtown Houston a weekend before Election Day. “Whereas if you show up with a slate of candidates, they might not be inspired,” she continued. “They might be like, ‘I don’t like politicians’. . . and they’ll shut the door. But if you ask them about issues, they always care about that. . . . It’s like they’ve been waiting for someone to ask them, ‘What would you like to see changed?’”

Despite Texas’s history as a fortress of conservatism, Houston organizers have been building a progressive local base through street-level advocacy. In last year’s demographically and ideologically polarized election season, they presented a fresh opposition to a political atmosphere rife with racial invective and media spectacle.

TOP launched in 2009 as a grassroots operation, inspired by ACORN’s Alinskyite community-organizing model, to build localized power in underrepresented, working-class black and Latino communities. Over the years, through its three city branches, the group has built a support base of more than 120,000 people across Texas. A staff of a few dozen has campaigned alongside unions and neighborhood groups on affordable housing and fair wage campaigns; protested for criminal justice reform with the national coalition, Color of Change and the local chapter of Black Lives Matter; and advocated for immigrant-friendly local ID cards for undocumented youth and parents threatened with deportation, and the transgender migrant community. For the election, TOP partnered with voter outreach initiatives of local unions and Latino community groups in order to secure allies in local office.

As Election Day approached, TOP’s three branches canvassed hard in districts known for low turnout through home visits, phone banking, and by offering rides to polling sites. Although nationally, Texas predictably went for Trump, the mostly black and Latino voters mobilized by TOP helped deliver its cities for Clinton, and more importantly, score its most important victories locally. In Houston’s Harris County, Kim Ogg became the first Democratic district attorney in thirty-six years; she promised to end the systematic jailing of those with low-level drug charges. And the new county sheriff, Ed Gonzales, has been vocal about overturning harsh immigration enforcement policies that have spurred the mass detention of undocumented immigrants.

Yet in pushing for progressive local candidates, TOP approached the election as a vehicle to advance a budding people’s movement, regardless of who won on November 8. “We always express to the members that the elected officials and ultimately campaigning politicians work for them,” Constance Luo, TOP’s voting drive coordinator, told me. “It’s never the other way around . . . so raise your voice, flip the paradigm of power, and make them work for you.”

Harris County’s traditional blue streak lies in its union-oriented working-class base. TOP’s labor ally, the Harris County Central Labor Council, made its usual get-out-the-vote drive on early-voting weekend with a team of beefy men in trucker caps, armed with tablets displaying addresses of fellow union members.
The mobilization started with a booming send-off in the cavernous union hall with interfaith consultant Reverend Ron Lister: “If you walk these streets, then keep in mind, that you are creating a new Houston! A new Texas, a new United States, a new world, a new spiritual consciousness. Let us pray . . . Protect each worker from pit-bull dogs, Doberman pinchers, Chihuahuas, and anything else . . . Empower us, strengthen us. This is our vote right now.”

But while Houston’s union base seemed reliably loyal, labor support for Clinton tumbled nationwide compared to Obama in 2012, with many defecting to Trump. TOP’s other voter drive that day centered on more promising terrain a few miles away, on a neat green patch known as Moody Park. There, a blaring Mariachi band serenaded the ditch-strafed working-class enclave, and families clustered around a sizzling taco grill astride a life-sized Trump piñata (pointedly stuffed with nothing but hot air) outside the polling site. The community gathering, organized by TOP in collaboration with a Latino-focused mobilization campaign named Tacos & Votes, aimed to make early-voting week a festive civic ritual in Houston.

Observing neighbors and activists celebrating the early vote, Beatrice, a seventy-seven-year-old homeowner whose Mexican-American family goes back generations in Texas, remarked, “This one is awful, this year. . . . It’s not really about politics. It looks like it’s about personality.” She had voted early, all Democrat as usual. Of the two leading candidates, she said, “I wish there were another choice.”

A retiree from a clerical job with an oil company, Beatrice empathized with the economic frustration roiling in the charged political atmosphere; she chafes at Houston’s rising cost of living and her thinly stretched fixed income. But the ascent of Trump’s “build the wall” demagoguery alarmed her, the daughter of a Second World War veteran. Immigration, she observed, had “never been an issue anywhere I’ve gone, because we’re all native Texans.”
“Where are we gonna end up? That man is weird in the head,” she said of Trump, but “so many of the things he says is what they want.”

Who exactly “they” are, though, was actually in play in Harris County and other battleground territories of the otherwise red state. Though Texas remains a Republican bastion, the “browning” of the southern electorate has been driving some cities leftward, as Latinos and other voters of color tend to favor Democrats, and are steadily turning swing states like Nevada and Colorado purple.

Texas is roughly 38 percent Latino, but according to recent election data, fewer than half were eligible to vote, compared to nearly 80 percent of the state’s white population. Of those eligible to vote in 2012, fewer than half actually cast a ballot. Still, while Texas ranks only twenty-third in the country in statewide Latino voter eligibility, this demographic constitutes over a quarter of eligible Texas voters. And since 2012, estimated Latino voter registrations rose by about 530,000, apparently spurred both by targeted voter mobilization efforts and a general growth in population.

Following several weeks of knocking on doors, distributing bilingual voting guides, and shuttling about 2,000 early voters to the polls, TOP’s data analysis showed Harris County’s Latino turnout during early-voting week, from October 24 through November 4 in 2016 was double what it had been in 2012. Some 155,000 registered voters TOP contacted across the county reported voting early.

Pre-election surveys indicated that immigration was the top issue driving Texas’s Latino voters. In the United States as a whole the overall Latino turnout was 13.1 million to 14.7 million, up from 11.2 million in 2012. An estimated 79 percent voted for Clinton—but her overall support was at lower rates than the turnout for Obama in 2012, and still not enough to turn key swing states.

TOP’s “ground game” is directed more toward strengthening local civic culture by organizing black and brown voters—historically the most underrepresented groups in local and state politics—than it is to winning elections. In Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas, the organization has run campaigns designed by its membership, including post-hurricane home rebuilding, legislation setting fair-wage standards for local firms, and cleaning up neighborhood pollution. TOP uses electoral organizing to amplify street-level organizing work in order to influence local officials.

TOP sees local officials as key to its broader program for criminal justice reform, which in turn helps alleviate social distress in their communities. After helping turn out a slim margin of victory for Houston’s democratic mayor last year, TOP hopes a more progressive law-enforcement approach will lead the city to redirect public funds away from jails and courts and into programs for community revitalization. TOP has pushed for the restoration of Sunnyside, a historically black community that has for years suffered chronic poverty and unsustainable housing costs. The community coalition behind the plan demands that public services and infrastructure be “provided equitably in low-income neighborhoods of color, at the same levels they are provided to privileged neighborhoods of whites.”
TOP’s vision for Sunnyside is the kind of place Tarsha Jackson, a middle-aged black woman with a tough smile, would have liked to raise her son. Jackson traced her reluctant politicization to the early 1990s, during the first Clinton administration. She first got entangled in a spate of traffic violations, she said, and then spent years cycling through the courts, trapped by the fines and fees that are routinely imposed on poor residents of color. By the time she emerged from the legal mire, Jackson, a former bank agent, recalled that her young son, a special-needs student, entered the criminal system himself. What his school deemed “misbehavior” ended up bouncing him from juvenile detention to adult prison. She considers her son, who is finally getting out of prison, as being “raised by the state.”

Years ago, Jackson noted, “When I was fighting for my son, I didn’t know the responsibility of the District Attorney and the County Judge.” As a survivor of the criminal justice system, she focuses on “educating the community [so] they start connecting [the elections to] the issue that I’m having in my neighborhood, and my schools are shutting down, and then we don’t have no sidewalks. . . . The reason I’m here is because I want to make sure that people know that they do have a voice.”

TOP’s voices rang out across Houston from its phone-banking headquarters on Halloween afternoon in 2016. Political director Tarah Taylor, dressed as a comic superhero, stood before tables of callers and a Trump piñata festooned with epithet-filled sticky notes and explained a controversial ballot referendum. The proposal was to redirect Houston school district funds, marked as “excess” property tax revenues, back into state coffers under a scheme to redistribute resources to poorer districts. Though it sounded like a fair funding measure, activists dismissed it as a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul stopgap. Despite the district being deemed “property rich,” Houston schools have suffered with impoverished classrooms and deep budget cuts.

Callers should urge a “no” vote, Taylor said, to show that “the legislature has to figure out how to fund education, be it the rainy-day fund, taking money from border patrol, whatever they got to do. They need to put a priority on Texas children, and not try to . . . make homeowners pay for it.”

As they punched through their phone lists, the callers marked the poll rides they arranged by ringing miniature red cowbells. A few days later the proposition was defeated by over 60 percent.

Rosemary Escalante, a middle-aged sandy-haired retiree, was recruited to the bank from the other end of the line. A call from a TOP campaigner during a previous voter drive drew her curiosity and led to a visit to the office. Soon, she was attending meetings and joining protest rallies, inspired by TOP’s campaigns for criminal justice reform. It was a big change from her previous job processing warrants for the Houston police department.

“My total way of thinking [before] was that yes, I’m activating the warrant, but it wouldn’t be issued if he was a good boy, so he’s getting what he deserves,” Escalante said. “But I wasn’t seeing the entire picture. If you don’t have money, you’re treated differently.” As she’s become more involved with activism, she says, “I’m seeing it from the other side, and how some of the laws are so unfair to certain people.”

The law wasn’t just unfair to Miguel Fuentes, it downright ignored him. The Mexican-born Houstonian represented Texas’s newest and most precarious voting bloc on the Saturday of early-voting week at the Moody Park polling site. When he showed up to vote early, however, he discovered his name had been purged from the registration list. Fuentes, who said he has been a citizen since the early 1990s, was shocked when he was told his name had been scrubbed automatically during a routine screening of the registration rolls, just because he had not voted in the recent federal elections. (Controversy erupted in 2012 when reports emerged of a statewide purge of voter rolls under a seemingly arbitrary plan to cull supposedly erroneous records of “dead voters.”)

The disputed delisting of voters was one of a number of polling mishaps in the election. A few weeks before the election, a court order suspended Texas’s new voter-ID law, which civil rights groups argued were discriminatory to blacks and Latinos, and would potentially disenfranchise some 600,000 people statewide. But the first days of early voting were marred by reports of polling machine mishaps and widespread complaints from some high-Latino precincts about voter harassment and intimidation. Trump stoked these anxieties with baseless, fear-mongering allegations about “voter fraud” by undocumented immigrants.

With nationwide outreach efforts, civil rights activists went into overdrive, fearing that Latino voters could be deterred from voting in tight districts. Even as projected Latino turnout in southern states appeared to be surging, particularly in Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida, complaints of voter deterrence and logistical mishaps kept rolling in. A nationwide voter survey ahead of the election indicated roughly four in ten Latino voters facing obstacles, including being unable to locate their voting locations.

“That’s the way to suppress voting in the community. . . . My citizenship is for life, it’s not for every four years,” Fuentes said sternly as he called, seemingly in vain, a voter hotline outside the polling center. He eventually resigned himself to the possibility that his ballot had been legally stolen.

“The system’s kind of corrupt for me,” he said. “I don’t want to give up. But the thing is, you try to suppress us, it’s gonna make us bigger. . . . This is attacking our community.”

With an untold number of voters like Fuentes reportedly blocked or obstructed at the polls, Trump’s electoral win seems even more absurd. But for TOP, it mattered more that Fuentes remained politically defiant despite his disenfranchisement. Each individual voter they mobilized mattered more than any single ballot cast, for any candidate.

After the election, Luo said TOP’s major electoral achievement was to turn Harris County bluer than ever, up and down ballot, by sweeping local offices. In the wake of Trump’s victory, activists were readying their defenses on a familiar frontline, having battled anti-immigrant state and city legislators for years.

“Right now, more than ever, our members and the wider Harris County [and] Texas community in general realizes how important it is to stay united,” Luo said. “Because really, we’re not just fighting against one man. The target itself is never just one person, President Trump. It’s multiple targets. . . . Texans are ready for the fight.”

Omar Perez’s fight was never about elections, really; the clean-cut twenty-six-year-old Mexican immigrant and former teacher has temporary deportation reprieve under the Obama administration’s “Deferred Action” program for undocumented youth. On the campaign trail, Clinton had promised to renew the measure if elected; Trump has vowed to repeal the program and ramp up deportations while building his “wall” with Mexico.

As Election Day drew near, Perez’s fate hinged on the election even though—and, in fact, precisely because—he had no direct say in the race. But he could join TOP’s canvassing team to turn out his community’s vote instead.

On his poll-driving rounds on the only Sunday of the early-voting period, Perez recounted that he had been surprised to hear many local voters denounce Trump not so much because of his racial animus, but because they resented his wealth and arrogance. Yes, racism was a factor, but “subconsciously, they know that it’s a class issue, in a way.”

Trump sought to “use fear and ignorance, so these poor white people can blame other poor minorities for their problems, when in reality it’s not the minorities that are the problem,” he continued. “It’s the ones on top—the wealthiest of the wealthiest . . . What should matter is that we’re not treated equally. . . . We need to unify.”

His last pick-up of the day was the rumpled cottage of an eighty-six-year-old Mexican-American man, who ambled with a cane down the poll line at his local community center. A member of Houston’s New Deal–era working class, the former factory worker said he had lived in his neighborhood for about half a century, each year stubbornly voting Democrat. That same political sensibility was finally turning Harris County blue, up and down the ticket, with the help of younger residents like Perez, who are committed to staying put, with or without a vote.

“I feel more involved than any other citizen. . . . The Latino vote, they don’t know how much power they can have,” he said. “It’s like a sleeping giant, and we’re waking that giant up.”

This story originally appeared in 12/20/2016 in Dissent Magazine.

Future of Texas politics in the hands of Hispanic electorate

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It felt surreal to Dania Amezquita, 19, when she cast her first vote.

Nervous, she carefully clicked through her ballot on an early-voting day in November at the City of Pasadena Municipal Court. She voted a straight Democratic ticket.

“I thought, ‘I hope I did make a difference,'” the Houston-born Mexican-American said.

Amezquita represents the next wave of Hispanic voters in Texas who could turn the state into a battleground. The demographic is destined to become a political power as its population continues to expand rapidly, making Democrats optimistic that they can build on successes seen this election in counties like Harris – where Hispanics make up an estimated 41 percent of the population.

President-elect Donald Trump’s 9-percent win margin in Texas was the state’s smallest in 20 years. Analysis shows Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton outperforming President Barack Obama’s 2012 results, including in Texas’ biggest cities – Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin.

Democrats also gained about 560,000 voters statewide when comparing this presidential election to 2012 while Republicans gained about 113,500. In Harris County, which turned solidly blue, Democrats gained 121,000 voters while Republicans lost roughly 40,000 voters.

The Office of the Texas State Demographer says Hispanics will be the largest demographic in Texas by 2020 and will outnumber the white population 2-1 by 2050. About 46 percent of the Hispanic population in Texas are eligible to vote, which equals an electorate that ranks second in the nation, according to the Pew Research Center.

“A lot of the groundwork that’s been done has been to engage in these minority communities,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “The trends show positivity for us and a hope that we can achieve better success statewide.”

At the same time, Texas Democrats face an uphill battle, according to Joshua Blank, manager of research and polling at the Texas Politics Project, a University of Texas political research and analysis group. Republicans, after all, control the majority of Texas’ government, and most of the state’s counties – by far – turned red again in this year’s election.

“Everybody understands trends, but trends won’t make things competitive overnight,” Blank said. “You also have to look at how much Hispanics will vote for Democrats, and that’s not really known. It’s not as if the Hispanic vote will be uniformly Democratic. The reality is that many Hispanics in the state have grown up in a political culture that is Republican.”

Tom Mechler, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, agreed, saying “our challenge is with messaging. For way too long, we have let the Democratic Party control the messaging for minorities. Our job is to get the minority community to see that our values match up with theirs.”

‘Regardless of Trump’

Amezquita felt that it was her civic duty to vote. She also believed voting could be a way for her to represent the interests of friends and family who didn’t or couldn’t vote. She says voting has meaning to her because of the sacrifices her parents made.

Blanca Amezquita, 42, migrated to the U.S. from Guanajuato, Mexico in 1996 with Dania’s father, Jose Amezquita. Blanca, who was undocumented, eventually gained her citizenship in 2010 through her marriage with Jose because he was already a citizen. The two settled in predominantly-Hispanic Pasadena, where Dania grew up in a small house shadowed by the white smoke from one of the area’s oil refineries.

She graduated from Pasadena High School in 2015 and registered to vote then before enrolling at San Jacinto College, also in Pasadena, where she’s a full-time student and hopes to eventually enroll at the University of Houston. An avid book reader, she aspires to be an educator.

Her parents later divorced, and her father, who lives in North Dakota, has worked in construction for years. Her mother, still bound by a language barrier, stocks shelves at a Pasadena Walmart. At home, Amezquita has been able to influence her mother and step brother to care about politics. They’ve shared a common interest in immigration and social issues that align with the Democratic Party. Amezquita’s mother hadn’t participated in elections before, but Tump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric piqued her interest.

Amezquita and her mother bonded over the pessimism they felt toward the Republican Party. The two went to vote together at the Pasadena court.

“I would have voted regardless of Trump,” Amezquita said. “But the things he was saying did motivate me more.”

Growing participation

Amezquita’s mother was visited in the weeks prior to the election by a member of the Texas Organizing Project, a non-profit that advocates for Hispanic and black communities in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.During this past election, TOP canvassed almost daily from around September to Election Day to reach 354,000 of the county’s black and Hispanic voters who, based on county information, were unlikely or inconsistent voters. TOP’s records say 152,000 of those individuals early-voted in this year’s election, with the total still to be determined.

TOP’s work has yielded success for Democrats in Texas’ major counties, especially in Houston, Hinojosa said. But the party must now be able to spread the efforts to Texas’ many suburban and rural areas if it’s going to reach its goal, he added.

At TOP, the plan is to first build Democratic strongholds using people like Amezquita before expanding.

“We need to first take advantage of the gains made in the counties (Democrats) won and double down there and keep these policies and positions in place,” said Crystal Zermeno, TOP’s director of political strategy. “It will take us time to see where else we will need to be.”

The challenge for Democrats will be battling a low Hispanic voter turnout that has plagued the state for years.

Thirty-nine percent of eligible Hispanic voters in Texas turned out in 2012. This year’s results have not been calculated, but early-voting figures suggest there was an uptick in Hispanic turnout statewide, though calculations can often be derived from Hispanic surname counts, which aren’t fully reliable.

Still, there are encouraging numbers: The Hispanic share of the overall Texas vote has risen by 47 percent since 1996, according to the U.S. Census.

Amezquita said most of her friends support Democratic ideas, but she has one friend whose parents are here illegally who still supported Trump.

And that doesn’t count the people she knows who have no interest in politics or voting. She tried talking to them, mostly to no avail.

“I hope the people that I know that didn’t vote can see that they could have influenced the election,” she said. “I want people to understand how important it is.”

Caring about elections

The direction of the state could depend on the policies Trump puts in motion during his presidency and how they influence elected officials to act here. But because he’s promised tough immigration laws while speaking offensively toward minority groups like Mexicans, Democratic leaders like Hinojosa hope the president-elect’s actions speed up Hispanic participation in Texas’ elections.

Amezquita doesn’t rule out a political future for herself. But first she wants to get those around her to participate. She’s thought about beginning a club or organization to turnout votes.

She says she cares about elections because their outcomes, especially locally, directly affect her life and the lives of her family and friends.

She’s anxious for a future where Hispanics are the political strength of Texas.

“It makes me feel special knowing what Hispanics can do in this state,” she said. “It would be really nice if we could use our voice and change what is in place in Texas now.”

This story originally appeared 12/25/2016 in the Houston Chronicle.

What To Expect From The Next Harris County Sheriff

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Ed Gonzalez is a former Houston police officer and city council member.

His campaign for sheriff centered on the Harris County Jail and how to improve it.

For several years now, the jail has suffered from overcrowding as well as mistreatment and preventable deaths of inmates.

In an interview with News 88.7 during the campaign, Gonzalez said he wants to make better use of the budget. Currently, many detention officers are working overtime.

“We have to relook at the hiring process, make sure we’re staffing adequately because that leads to overtime cost,” he said. “And then we need to be a leader on how do we find more alternatives to incarceration, as I did for example with the sobering center, and also be an advocate for bail reform.”

Gonzalez was endorsed by the Texas Organizing Project. The organization’s Tarsha Jackson said she wants Gonzalez to deliver on his campaign promise to end the 287(g) program.

It’s an agreement with immigration authorities to report undocumented immigrants that are charged with a crime.

“I’m hopeful that he’s going to come in and transform the way the sheriff’s department has been operating for centuries,” Jackson told News 88.7 at Gonzalez’s election watch party.

The Harris County Deputy Organization endorsed Sheriff Ron Hickman.

But its president David Cuevas said they are looking forward to discussing their vision for the department with Gonzalez, “to make sure that there are guaranteed due process rights for employees and that staffing levels will increase so that way there is not going to be a security risk.”

Cuevas said it will take a collective effort to address management of the overcrowded jail.

This story originally appeared 11/10/2016 on Houston Public Media.