Plenty of pundits will tell you Tuesday’s disappointing election results for Democrats nationwide represented a resounding rejection of progressive ideals, but Greg Casar would invite them to consider what happened in Austin, Tex.
In that rapidly growing and increasingly diverse Southwestern city, the Austin Police Association and conservative groups campaigned for a proposition on the November 2 ballot that would have forced the city to hire hundreds of new police officers. If passed, it would have boosted spending on policing at a time when activists seeking to end police brutality and violence argue that more resources should be directed toward mental health initiatives and community services.
The police association and its allies were convinced that the proposition campaign would stir up a backlash vote against local and national efforts to reform policing—on the theory that voters were so concerned about recent crime data, which has been widely misinterpreted by the media, that they would shift priorities to dramatically expand the police budget. That didn’t happen. A grassroots coalition with deep roots in the community mobilized and beat the ballot proposition by a 68-32 margin.
The Austin vote came on an Election Day that saw Minneapolis voters reject a ballot initiative that would have replaced the city’s police department with a new Department of Public Safety, and when supporters of bold policing reforms were defeated in several cities. Voters in Austin faced a different question, yet they rejected similar false premises and fearmongering. Why so?
“We pulled together a broad-based coalition and showed that it is possible to cut through the lies and beat the scare tactics,” said Casar, an Austin City Council member who decried the proposition as a “far-right-wing police mandate” and joined activists and community leaders in warning that it would slash funding for other city services. “There’s a message from Austin that progressives can win. But there’s something more to it,” he added. “Progressives have to understand that we can’t shy away from and ignore the long-term work that we have to do when it comes to organizing.”
That long-term work does not always yield victories, as Casar well understands. As a Texan in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, he’s seen progress at the local level undone by Republican state officials, and he’s waged his share of losing battles. Yet, he says, diligent work in the neighborhoods—knocking on doors and building ongoing relationships with people who are often let down by the system—can yield results. Coalitions are forged, battles are fought, and losses can be turned into wins.
That’s a message Casar has been pitching for years, as a grassroots organizer with the Workers Defense Project (Proyecto Defensa Laboral), a community organization for immigrant workers that demanded workplace safety protections and fought against wage theft, and as a high-profile local official. After his election to the council in 2014, Casar brought his workers’ rights activism into city hall, championing an initiative for paid medical and family time off that the Texas Observer identified as the “first paid sick leave policy in the South.” He has also fought to preserve affordable housing in neighborhoods threatened by gentrification, challenged tax breaks for the wealthy, defended Planned Parenthood amid state-level attempts to defund the reproductive health organization, and battled against mass incarceration and mass deportation.
Now, Casar wants to put his faith that progressive policies can be advanced through deep organizing to the test as a candidate for Congress. Casar announced Thursday that he’ll run in District 35, for a seat that takes in part of Austin and runs down a corridor to San Antonio. Progressive Democrat Lloyd Doggett has represented the district for years. But, under a new map drawn by the Texas legislature on the basis of the 2020 Census, Doggett will now run in the Austin-based 37th district. Both seats are solidly Democratic, and the race for the open seat in the 35th is likely to attract a number of primary contenders.
Casar is jumping into the congressional race early, at a time when Democrats are struggling to wrap their heads around the results from Tuesday’s off-year elections, in which the party suffered serious setbacks in a number of states. There are plenty of political insiders and media pundits who are telling Democrats that the party’s problem is that it has moved too far to the left on issues ranging from the climate crisis to criminal justice reform. But, as Casar pointed out, this is not a time for cautious politics.
The way to battle the right, he explained, is with a bold progressivism that recognizes the necessity of legislative and grassroots work to achieve economic and social and racial justice in a state where right-wing politicians have been attacking worker rights, reproductive rights, and local democracy.
To that end, he has launched his campaign as an ardent supporter of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, comprehensive immigration reform, strong unions, and abortion rights. He enters the race with support from elected officials in the district, former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, and the national Working Families Party. “Greg Casar has been a champion for working families on the Austin City Council. And now, it’s time to take the fight to the halls of Congress,” said WFP National Director Maurice Mitchell. “Progressives in Congress need all the backup they can get to pass a big, bold agenda that delivers for working people and demonstrates that government can work for the many.”
For Casar, grassroots organizing is an essential part of the equation. “The victories that mean the most are fought for together,” explained Casar, who promises, “We’re going to be talking to people at the doors, keeping them engaged and inspired.”
Casar sees his bid for Congress as an extension of his work in Austin and across Texas, arguing that “we need to change the state of Texas, but to do that we need representation in Washington that will work on national issues with a clear sense of how they impact Texans.”
Take voting rights, which are under siege by the Texas legislature. As a member of Congress, Casar says he would bring a sense of urgency to fights to enact democracy reforms, such as the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. But, understanding that the political makeup of Congress can stall progressive legislation, he says he would keep organizing in Austin and other communities in the 35th District—working on the ground to register new voters and get them to the polls. “From my first election in 2014 to my reelection in 2020, we’ve doubled turnout in my city council district,” he said. “That’s what Republicans fear.”
Maintaining a constant focus on organizing is demanding. But Casar is right: “We’re at our best when we stop talking about what we can’t do, and start working on what we must do.” That’s advice Democrats in Texas and nationally, who are facing a daunting 2022 election cycle, should heed now more than ever.