If you’re a Democrat in the market for a candidate who draws a sharp contrast with John Cornyn, you could do worse than Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez. She’s young, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, and a well-respected labor and political organizer. The 37-year-old community activist just announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in a two-minute YouTube video that went live early Monday morning. The video makes a pitch for a sort of rainbow coalition of Texas’s increasingly diverse tapestry.
“Soon we’re going to be a country where people of color and children of immigrants make up the majority,” she said in her video. “And in Texas, we already are.” She quickly pivots to a tacit attack on Cornyn and Trump: “We have people in power that have wanted to make us feel powerless in a moment where we actually have incredible power.”
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Cornyn’s campaign responded to the announcement by highlighting her progressive credentials. “Cristina Ramirez is a hardcore progressive who supports Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, and slashing funding for law enforcement,” said John Jackson, Cornyn’s campaign manager. “We look forward to talking more about John Cornyn’s work bringing the Texas model to D.C.”
Her entrance into the crowded Democratic field—there are now seven announced candidates vying to take on Cornyn in 2020—gives primary voters the chance to nominate a candidate much closer to the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic party. The comparisons are fair as far as they go—both are social-media-savvy Latina millennials with outsider cred. But unlike AOC, Ramirez has more than a decade of experience in politics. She was one of the cofounders of Workers Defense Project, a new-style labor organization that the New York Times called in 2013 “one of the nation’s most creative organizations for immigrant workers.”
In the small labor community in Texas, Ramirez was known as a ruthlessly focused, if not always beloved figure who built the Workers Defense Project from a two-person outfit into a significant player in the construction industry and other sectors with a light labor footprint and rampant abuses. When she left Workers Defense in 2016, the group had a staff of thirty with a $1 million budget supported in part by the likes of Alec Baldwin. If she can transfer her nonprofit fund-raising abilities into the campaign chase, she’ll be a force to be reckoned with on those terms alone.
Following last year’s near-defeat of Senator Ted Cruz by Democrat Beto O’Rourke, Cornyn is viewed as vulnerable in next year’s race. Cornyn served as majority whip in the U.S. Senate until he was term-limited out of the role in December. In that position, he frequently defended the Trump administration, giving his opponents plenty of opportunities to link him to the president. While Cornyn has been sounding alarms since Cruz’s near defeat about not taking reelection for granted, Cornyn himself should not be underestimated. In 2019, he leads all other senators in terms of fund-raising, having brought in more than $4.5 million, according to the Federal Election Commission. His total cash on hand currently exceeds $9 million. The entire Democratic field of candidates that are now challenging him and have filed reports, by contrast, raised a total of just over $1 million, the FEC reported.
Among the more prominent Democrats that Ramirez will take on are Royce West, a Dallas state senator since 1992; Houston city council member Amanda Edwards; former U.S. Air Force pilot MJ Hegar, who came within three percentage points last year of unseating incumbent U.S. representative John Carter of Round Rock; former Houston congressman and 2006 Rick Perry challenger Chris Bell; and three other candidates. And while Ramirez’s name identification among potential voters is low, so is that of her Democratic opponents, with the possible exception of Hegar.
After a brief stint in Washington, D.C., Ramirez returned to Texas in 2017 to start Jolt Texas, which bills itself as “the largest Latino progressive organization in Texas, focused on building the political power and influence of young Latinos.” Jolt gained national recognition that same year when teen girls wore their quinceañera dresses at the Texas Capitol to protest Senate Bill 4, which outlaws sanctuary cities and allows law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone who is detained.
Jolt also shook up the Democratic primary last year when it hosted gubernatorial candidates Lupe Valdez and Andrew White for a runoff debate. Many, including apparently Valdez, believed Jolt would endorse the Hispanic candidate after the debate. But after a lackluster performance by Valdez, the group instead endorsed White before he eventually lost to Valdez, who in turn lost to Abbott.
Ramirez’s campaign team includes a coterie of progressive organizer types, including a heavy dose of folks from the Beto O’Rourke camp. Among them:
- Eugene Sepulveda, an Austin entrepreneur, will serve as campaign treasurer.
- Ginny Goldman, cofounder of the Texas Organizing Project, will serve as campaign chair.
- Katelyn Coghlan, former statewide deputy field director for O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, will be Ramirez’s manager.
- And Zack Malitz, who led O’Rourke’s field program last year, will serve as senior adviser.
This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Eugene Sepulveda’s last name.