Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, as Hillary Clinton tussled for the Democratic nomination against Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders, the independent U.S. senator from Vermont, an underlying theme by the party faithful was that Sanders was not a Democrat and neither were his supporters. Now, in a primary season when Texas Democrats are trying to reestablish their self-identity, Sanders supporters are infiltrating the party as a new and revitalized progressive wing of the party. They are among a crowd of 346 candidates under age 40 seeking office this year.
Although the actual number of Sanders progressives running for office is small, they are persistent. There’s Laura Moser for the 7th Congressional District based in west Houston; Rick Trevino for the 23rd Congressional District that stretches from San Antonio west to El Paso; Derrick Crowe in the crowded field for the 21st Congressional District that goes from San Antonio to Austin; and Northern style kung fu practitioner and biomedical PhD candidate Allison Campolo of Euless, who is running for the 10th State Senate District in Tarrant County. Across Texas, the Sanders-supporting Our Revolution Texas is organizing the election of precinct chairs while preparing to reignite populism in the state. The Texas operation is a spinoff of Sanders’s national organization, which includes former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower as a board member.
“My slogan for Texas is: ‘We’re not here to protest the government. We’re here to become the government,’” Hightower told me. “It’s not an attempt to take over the Democratic Party. It’s an attempt to build the progressive force, a progressive voice into the Democratic Party.”
Once upon a time — when many millennials were children — progressive Democrats like Hightower led the state. Jim Mattox was attorney general. Garry Mauro was land commissioner. And Ann Richards rose through the political ranks to win election as governor. But after two decades of statewide losses, Democratic leaders moved to the middle and often looked like Republican-lite. Even when Wendy Davis ran a progressive-style campaign for governor in 2014, she looked like more of an East and West Coast establishment Democrat than a Texas progressive. From Hightower’s point of view, the party had just drifted away from its activist base.
“We got taken over by corporate interests who said, ‘We don’t have to do grassroots any more. We’re going to raise money and throw it at the TV set.’ And it’s a losing game for Democrats because we can never match their (Republican) money,” Hightower said. “But, most importantly, we turn our own people off.”
Two of the Sanders supporters who are receiving the most enthusiasm from this new progressive movement are Crowe of Austin and Moser of Houston. Crowe is running in a crowded Democratic field for the congressional seat being vacated by retiring Republican Lamar Smith, while Moser is in the hunt for the party nomination to challenge incumbent Republican John Culberson in the general election. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently tried to torpedo Moser’s candidacy, while U.S. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi fired a shot at Crowe during a meeting with the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman.
“We don’t agonize, we organize, that’s our motto. We don’t waste time. We don’t waste energy, we don’t waste resources. This is a cold-blooded, strategic, focused campaign to win the Congress for the American people,” Pelosi told the Statesman. “How can I say this in a nice way? We have to be cold-blooded in what we do. In other words, if the wrong person wins — well, nobody’s wrong — but if the person who can’t win, wins, it’s not a priority race for us anymore, because we’ve got 100 races.”
The message of the national party on Moser and Crowe: don’t support them because they can’t win in the fall. Hightower said Pelosi doesn’t understand what is driving young people to voting and to activism this year, issues like a living minimum wage and universal health care. “The young people, particularly, are pouring out, and that’s the future of the Democratic Party, and yet the party is stiffing them. So, yes, the candidates who are standing up and saying something are generating genuine grassroots excitement, and that’s why Nancy Pelosi doesn’t have a clue.”
In response to the DCCC critique of her candidacy, Moser hosted a new commercial that uses not-too-subtle code words to appeal to Sanders supporters to carry her into a primary runoff. She declared that the race is about “Our Turn,” an easy play on Sanders’s “Our Revolution.” It’s also worth noting that Moser’s husband was the official videographer for Sanders in the presidential campaign.
Although there seems to exist an ongoing war between the national Democrats and the Our Revolution candidates, it does not seem as extreme among Texas candidates. The best example is the contest for the Democratic nomination in Tarrant County to challenge Republican state senator Konni Burton. The party-favored candidate on the Democratic side is businesswoman Beverly Powell, a member of the Burleson school board. Powell, age 66, has the support of Wendy Davis, local congressman Marc Veasey, and Texas House Democratic Caucus chair Chris Turner. Thirty-year-old Allison Campolo has drive, is working hard, and is creating enthusiasm at party events.
“In general, we’re on the same team. I don’t think anybody’s out to get anybody else, no matter what age you are,” Campolo told me. “But I do see a little bit different style in what the campaigns are.” Not a whole lot says different style quite like Campolo’s web video breaking bricks with a palm heel strike that is part of her kung fu practice.
Sounding far more like a traditional Democratic candidate, Powell told me that she is trying to focus her campaign as the candidate most likely to defeat Burton and her tea party base in the general election. “Neither one of us, neither I nor Allison, are really interested in the labels or in dividing our party,” Powell said. “I’m interested in building a very broad-based coalition to defeat Konni Burton because I think Konni Burton is bad for Tarrant County.” She described her coalition as independents, Democrats, African-Americans, Hispanics, and people of all nationalities living in the district, because she believes more needs to be done to improve economic development and the local transportation infrastructure.
Whether any of these candidates wins in Tuesday’s voting or makes it to runoffs is not the most important thing, Hightower said. The effort has to start somewhere and build. And as part of that, Hightower said he expects Sanders to fill a 3,000-seat stadium at Trinity University on Friday night for a post-election rally. “We’ve got really good people and have a really serious objective, and it’s perfectly OK for us not to be taken seriously by the establishment right now, because we’ve got to do it, whether they know about it or not.”
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