Lawrence Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Looming Tower, now a 10-part miniseries on Hulu. His book on Scientology, Going Clear, became a featured documentary for HBO. He writes for The New Yorker and lives in Austin, Texas. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: California and Texas, the two biggest states, are both 39 percent Latino. Hillary Clinton got 62 percent of the vote in California, and 43 percent in Texas. In California, Democrats hold all the statewide offices. In Texas it’s been the opposite for a long time. Obviously demography doesn’t explain the difference between the two states. How do you explain the political differences?
Lawrence Wright: Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in California and will be in Texas in 2020. The difference is they vote in California and they don’t in Texas. Why is that? I asked Garnet Coleman, who’s a Democratic state representative from Houston. He’s black, and blacks vote at a higher rate than whites do in Texas. Why is it that Hispanics don’t vote in Texas and they do in California? He attributed it to Cesar Chavez and the grape-workers’ union, and he said that, when you join a union, you become political. In Texas, we’re a right-to-work state. So it’s very difficult to get into unions. Also, Hispanics in Texas are disillusioned. They haven’t been given a candidate that really speaks to them. There are candidates like the Castro twins, Joaquín and Julián, future possible statewide candidates, but they haven’t offered themselves yet. So we just have not had the kind of motivation that would stimulate a real resurgence of Hispanic voters in Texas. But the state is far more progressive than its elected representatives would have you believe. Part of it also is gerrymandering.
JW: If unionization has been the key to California’s mobilization of Latino voters, which I think is true, it seems like it’s going to be a long time before anything like that happens in Texas.
LW: There has to be something else, because the unions are not going to get a foothold in Texas for the foreseeable future. It has to be the candidate, someone who really speaks to the Hispanic situation.
JW: Let’s talk about Beto O’Rourke, the hope of the Democrats, challenging Ted Cruz.
LW: I just met Beto yesterday, in a greenroom really early in the morning. There are 254 counties in Texas and he’s been to 240 of them. Many of them have never seen a candidate before, and many of them are very red and never voted for a Democrat, but he’s been out, working really hard. He’s a charismatic, attractive candidate, personally charming and appealing. He’s set a record in fund-raising in the last quarter and has out-raised Ted Cruz considerably. He’s young, and he used to play in a punk-rock band—a constituency that hasn’t been tapped in the past. Fluent in the issues. He’s seen as a kind of bipartisan figure. Those are the advantages. The disadvantages are, number one, we’ve never elected anybody from El Paso to statewide office. El Paso is seen as being a distant galaxy. It’s halfway between Houston and LA. And the Republican Party is still very much dominant in Texas, even though it doesn’t represent the real demography of the state. Also going against Beto is the fact that the ticket itself doesn’t have very much weight on the top or the bottom, and so he’s having to carry the whole thing by himself.