The Democratic sweep in Harris County has drawn some national attention, as writers from the left and right try to analyze what happened here last year and why Hillary Clinton carried the county by such a large margin. Unfortunately, as is often the case with stories about Texas by people not from Texas, the results are not quite recognizable to those of us who are here. Let’s begin with this story in Harper’s, which focuses on the efforts of the Texas Organizing Project.
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.
The TOP founders and their colleagues, including another Stanford graduate, Crystal Zermeno, a Tejana math whiz whose mother grew up sleeping on the floor, began to ponder ways to change that. Might it be possible to mobilize enough voters to elect progressives to statewide office? For non-Republicans in Texas and elsewhere, the most galling aspect of recurrent electoral defeat has been the persistent failure of supposedly natural allies, specifically Latinos and African Americans, to show up at the polls. For years, Democratic officials and commentators had cherished the notion that natural growth in the minority population, which rose from 20 percent to nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population between 1985 and 2015, would inevitably put the party back in power. Yet these designated agents of change seemed reluctant to play their part. As I was incessantly reminded in Houston, “Demographics are not destiny.”
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. (Their string of lucrative settlements included some with insurance companies who had balked at paying claims for Ike-related house damage.) 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.”
Link via Political Animal. I love TOP and I think they do great work, but this article leaves a lot of questions unasked as well as unanswered. When Ginny Goldman says that the Latino vote grew by five percent in Harris County in 2012, I need more context for that. How does that compare to the growth of Latino registered voters in the same time period (which I presume is since 2008)? What was the growth rate in areas where TOP was doing its outreach versus areas where it was not? Do we have the same data for 2016? I want to be impressed by that number, but I need this information before I can say how impressed I am.
For all that TOP should be rightly proud of their efforts, it should be clear from the description that it’s labor intensive. If the goal is to close a 1.1 million voter gap at the state level, how well does the TOP model scale up? What’s the vision for taking this out of Harris County (and parts of Dallas; the story also includes a bit about the Democratic win in HD107, which as we know was less Dem-friendly than HD105, which remained Republican) and into other places where it can do some good?
I mean, with all due respect, the TOP model of identifying low-propensity Dem-likely voters and pushing them to the polls with frequent neighbor-driven contact sounds a lot like the model that Battleground Texas was talking about when they first showed up. One of the complaints I heard from a dedicated BGTX volunteer was that both the people doing the contact and the people being contacted grew frustrated by it over time. That gets back to my earlier question about how well this might scale, since one size seldom fits all. To the extent that it does work I say great! Let’s raise some money and put all the necessary resources into making it work. I just have a hard time believing that it’s the One Thing that will turn the tide. It’s necessary – very necessary – to be sure. I doubt that it is sufficient.
Also, too, in an article that praises the local grassroots effort of a TOP while denigrating top-down campaigns, I find it fascinating that the one political consultant quoted is a guy based in Washington, DC. Could the author not find a single local consultant to talk about TOP’s work?
Again, I love TOP and I’m glad that they’re getting some national attention. I just wish the author of this story had paid more of that attention to the details. With all that said, the TOP story is a masterpiece compared to this Weekly Standard article about how things looked from the Republican perspective.
Gary Polland, a three-time Harris County Republican party chairman, can’t remember a time the GOP has done so poorly. “It could be back to the 60’s.” Jared Woodfill, who lost the chairmanship in 2014, does remember. “This is the worst defeat for Republicans in the 71-year history of Republican party of Harris County,” he said.
But crushing Republicans in a county of 4.5 million people doesn’t mean Democrats are on the verge of capturing Texas. In fact, Democratic leaders were as surprised as Republicans by the Harris sweep. But it does show there’s a political tide running in their direction.
Democratic strategists are relying on a one-word political panacea to boost the party in overtaking Republicans: Hispanics. They’re already a plurality—42 percent—in Harris County. Whites are 31 percent, blacks 20 percent, and Asians 7 percent. And the Hispanic population continues to grow. Democrats control the big Texas cities—Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, to name three—thanks to Hispanic voters.
But in Houston, at least, Democrats have another factor in their favor: Republican incompetence. It was in full bloom in 2016. Though it was the year of a change election, GOP leaders chose a status quo slogan, “Harris County Works.” Whatever that was supposed to signal, it wasn’t change.
“It doesn’t exactly have the aspirational ring of ‘Make America Great Again’ or even Hillary’s ‘Stronger Together,'” Woodfill said. “It is very much a message of ‘everything is okay here, let’s maintain the status quo.’ People were confused and uninspired.”
A separate decision was just as ruinous. GOP leaders, led by chairman Paul Simpson, panicked at the thought of Trump at the top of the ticket. So they decided to pretend Trump was not on the ticket. They kept his name off campaign literature. They didn’t talk about him. And Trump, assured of winning Texas, didn’t spend a nickel in the Houston media market. It became an “invisible campaign,” Polland said. “There were votes to be had,” Polland told me. They were Trump votes. They weren’t sought.
This strategy defied reason and history. Disunited parties usually do poorly. GOP leaders gambled that their candidates would do better if the Trump connection were minimized. That may have eased the qualms of some about voting Republican. But it’s bound to have prompted others to stay at home on Election Day. We know one thing about the gamble: It didn’t work. Republicans were slaughtered, and it wasn’t because the candidates were bad.
“Our overall ticket was of high quality, but no casual voter would know it since the campaign focus was on ‘Harris County Works,’ and Houston doesn’t,” Polland insisted. “Did we read about any of the high-quality women running? Not much. Did we read about issues raised by Donald Trump that were resonating with voters? Nope. Did the Simpson-led party even mention Trump? Nope.”
Republican Rep. Kevin Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the “holy grail” for Democrats, both in Texas and nationally, is winning the Hispanic vote. “They did that somewhat successfully” in 2016, he said in an interview. Unless Democrats attract significantly more Hispanic voters in 2018, Brady thinks Republicans should recover. His district north of Houston lies partly in Harris County.
For this to happen, they will need to attract more Hispanic voters themselves. They recruited a number of Hispanics to run in 2016, several of them impressive candidates. All were defeated in the Democratic landslide.
I have no idea what the author means by “a number of Hispanics” being recruited, because by my count of the countywide candidates, there were exactly two – Debra Ibarra Mayfield and Linda Garcia, both judges who had been appointed to the benches on which they sat. Now I agree that two is a number, but come on.
Like the first story, this one talks about the increase in Latino voting in Harris County in 2016 as well. Usually, in this kind of article, some Republican will talk about how Latinos aren’t automatically Democrats, how it’s different in Texas, and so on. In this one, the turnout increase is met with a resigned shrug and some vague assurances that things will be better for them in 2018. Maybe no one had anything more insightful than that to say – it’s not like Jared Woodfill is a deep thinker – but it sure seems to me like that might have been a worthwhile subject to explore.
As for the griping about the county GOP’s strategy of not mentioning Trump, a lot of that is the two previous GOP chairs dumping on the current chair, which is fine by me. But honestly, what was the local GOP supposed to do? Not only was their Presidential candidate singularly unappealing, their two main incumbents, Devon Anderson and Ron Hickman, weren’t exactly easy to rally behind, either. Focusing on the judges seems to me to have been the least bad of a bunch of rotten options. Be that as it may, no one in this story appeared to notice or care that some thirty thousand people who otherwise voted Republican crossed over for Hillary Clinton, with a few thousand more voting Libertarian or write-in. Does anyone think that may be a problem for them in 2018? A better writer might have examined that a bit, as well as pushed back on the assertion that more Trump was the best plan. It may be that, as suggested by the recent Trib poll, some of these non-Trumpers are warming up to the guy now that he’s been elected. That would suggest at least some return to normalcy for the GOP, but the alternate possibility is that they’re just as disgusted with him and might be open to staying home or voting against some other Republicans next year as a protest. That would be a problem, but not one that anyone in this story is thinking about.
So there you have it. At least with the first story, I learned something about TOP. In the second one, I mostly learned that Gary Polland and Jared Woodfill don’t like Paul Simpson and have him in their sights for next year. That will provide a little mindless entertainment for the rest of us, which I think we’ll all appreciate. It still would have been nice to have gotten something more of substance.