Council Member Greg Casar (l) and State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (Casar photo by John Anderson / Rodriguez photo by Jana Birchum)
For the first time in a decade, voters in Texas’ 35th congressional district will nominate a Democrat who isn’t named Lloyd Doggett. That’s because TX-35 has once again morphed in a GOP-controlled redistricting cycle, although the 2021 version has been kinder to Austin than the previous two cycles. The new TX-37, one of the two seats Texas gained in reapportionment following the 2020 census, was drawn as a solidly Democratic vote sink almost entirely within the Austin city limits, and Doggett – first elected as Austin’s boy-wonder state senator nearly 50 years ago – has opted to seek his 15th term in Congress in that district.
That leaves TX-35 wide open – a solidly Democratic, 70% non-Anglo and roughly half-Hispanic district stretching from the Williamson County line, east of I-35, all the way to the Alamo. Austin City Council Member Greg Casar (whose last day at City Hall is this week) and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, both entered the race in November. With the majority of TX-35’s eligible voters hailing from high-turnout Travis and Hays counties, Rodriguez and Casar have the advantage in the March 1 Democratic primary and potential May run-off; for the victor, the Nov. 8 general election will be a formality.
There are, however, still more than 300,000 residents of Bexar and Comal counties in the southern tail of the district, and much speculation centered on which San Antonio politician might enter the race. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer considered it and indeed asked the GOP’s redistricting committees to draw his home into the new TX-35. But looking at the electoral math within the final district lines, TMF opted instead to run for reelection and endorse Rodriguez, while also joining the legal challenges to the new map with a specific claim that TX-35 as drawn, with fewer Latino voters than in the current version that Doggett represents, violates the Voting Rights Act.
Instead, Rebecca Viagran, an eight-year veteran of the San Antonio City Council (where she was succeeded by her sister Phyllis), hopes to activate enough Bexar County voters to knock either Casar or Rodriguez out of a run-off. Carla-Joy Sisco of Austin is the fourth candidate in the race, but has not nearly the public profile of the other three, who have begun a race to the left, each attempting to define themselves as the most progressive in the field.
Different Shades of Blue
For most TX-35 voters, Casar enters that race to the left with a head start. He’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, whose large and lively Austin chapter has had Casar’s back both in his four Council campaigns in six years (including a 2014 run-off) and in his policy initiatives on Council. His vocal stances on workers’ rights and paid sick leave, abortion access funding, criminal justice reform, and the decriminalization of homelessness have made him not only a favorite on the left but also a target of the Texas right wing – a home-state equivalent to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., on the national scene.
Casar has earned notable endorsements from national progressive groups, including Justice Democrats, the political action committee that in 2018 helped elect AOC and her fellow Squadmembers Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.; Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.; and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. The large House Progessive Caucus as a whole (whose members include Doggett and San Antonio’s Joaquin Castro) has endorsed Casar, as has its chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and, just this week, AOC herself as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Rodriguez and Viagran’s backers are, by and large, more mainstream Democrats, along with past political colleagues. Rodriguez gained the endorsement of the New Democrat Coalition, a pro-business group of “Blue Dogs” in Congress, as well as local clubs the Black Austin Democrats and Capital Area Progressive Democrats, his Travis County House-mates Gina Hinojosa, Donna Howard, and Celia Israel, and U.S. Reps. Al Green of Houston and Marc Veasey of Ft. Worth, both active in the Congressional Black Caucus. Viagran has been endorsed by a host of San Antonio’s Democratic elite, including Bexar County Judge (and former San Antonio mayor) Nelson Wolff, state Sen. José Menéndez and his predecessor Leticia Van de Putte, and former San Antonio mayor and federal housing secretary Henry Cisneros.
“The legislative process is all about relationships. I’ve been able to develop relationships where if I can be helpful to Republicans so they will help me, I will. But if we can’t get there, I will fight them tooth and nail.” – State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez
In his campaign, Rodriguez is trying to walk a fine line as both an uncompromising progressive and effective, cross-party Lege dealmaker. He’s willing to work with Republicans as long as his progressive values – his moral compass – aren’t compromised. “The legislative process is all about relationships,” he said of his 19 years in the Texas House. “I’ve been able to develop relationships where if I can be helpful to Republicans so they will help me, I will. But if we can’t get there, I will fight them tooth and nail.”
Rodriguez pointed to his passage of a bill that expanded the state’s free school breakfast program, reaching around 700,000 children across the state. Republicans opposed it on the grounds that it would expand the welfare state, but over three sessions, Rodriguez was able to win over enough of them to pass the bill. Having entered the House just in time for the GOP to wrest control of the chamber – which it’s held ever since – has given Rodriguez a more pragmatic view of the progressive politics project. “If you’re not making progress, there’s no reason to be in office,” he told us.
Radicals and Socialists
As far as fighting tooth and nail goes, perhaps the most radical act of Rodriguez’s political career was last summer’s quorum break, when he and dozens of his House Dem colleagues first walked off the floor in the waning hours of the regular session, then spent 40 days in Washington, D.C., to wipe out the entire first special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott. This put a range of right-wing bills – most prominently the GOP’s “election integrity” bill to further make it harder for Texans to vote – on ice and bruised many feelings among Republicans who’d pointed to their past collaborations with Dems like Rodriguez.
Those concerns, and a desire to preserve what goodwill between members remained, led some in the delegation to eventually end the standoff, and the bad bills were merely delayed rather than prevented. But for Rodriguez, it was a transformative experience that gave him more interest than he’d had before in running for Congress. “It really highlighted the fact that some issues, voting or reproductive rights, can only be fixed or dismantled at the federal level,” he said.
“At the federal level we can pass rent control. We can reinvest in public and low-cost housing, and we can push cities to change rules that prioritize McMansions over people, as well as those that prioritize big parking lots over people.” – Council Member Greg Casar
That will also involve public pressure being mounted at the local level, where Casar has done much in a short time. Before throwing his hat into the ring for a seat on Austin’s new 10-1 council in 2014, he’d made his political reputation in Austin as an organizer at Workers Defense Project, demanding fair wages and safer conditions for the construction workers building out the ever-booming city. It took two years into his Council tenure for him to get arrested – in 2017, as one of 18 protestors conducting a sit-in at Abbott’s office as he prepared to sign anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4.
Casar told us he would operate in largely the same way as a member of Congress – citing fellow Justice Democrats like Cori Bush, D-Mo., as models. “I plan to show up,” Casar said. “If workers are on the picket line, I’ll be there. If a family is trying to make sure their family doesn’t get separated by ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], I’ll be there.”
Having organizers from the South, and especially from Texas, in federal office will be critical to building support among voters for progressive policies, Casar said. “Five years ago, there weren’t many people talking about Medicare for All,” he said, “but there’s been a significant shift and it’s important that organizing happens in Texas where so many of these rights have been stripped away.”
What Success Looks Like?
Throughout his City Council tenure, Casar has been the champion of some of Austin’s most progressive policy moves, which has led to backlash from the state’s conservative courts and lawmakers. The local paid sick days ordinance, which Casar authored, was a landmark breakthrough in Texas, but was overturned by the all-GOP Texas Supreme Court in June 2020.
In 2019, Casar pushed his colleagues on Council to approve changes to Austin’s public camping, no sit/lie, and panhandling ordinances – a major civil rights victory for unhoused people. Two years later, Casar’s decriminalization of homelessness was twice undone – once by local voters in May 2021, and then shortly thereafter by a statewide ban on public camping via House Bill 1900, passed with broad bipartisan support by both the Texas House and Senate.
Among his haters, Casar is most notorious for leading the charge to “defund the police,” which Austin actually did, unlike most cities in Texas and even in blue states. The national Black Lives Matter uprising against police violence, after the killing of Texas native George Floyd in Minneapolis and of Mike Ramos here in Austin, was met by this city’s police department with further violence. “Less lethal” lead-pellet rounds and C4 gas led to scores of injuries, some horribly severe, among a rowdy but nonthreatening crowd in front of APD headquarters on Eighth Street. Multiple lawsuits have been filed, and criminal charges may also be filed.
Literally within days, the ironclad political support for public safety among mainstream Austin leaders was shattered, as hundreds of citizens shared their suffering and their rage in marathon call-in Council hearings. The city’s 2021 budget, adopted a couple months later, eliminated about $20 million of APD funding immediately, with $120 million more put on hold pending the recommendations of a yearlong city-community Reimagining Public Safety task force. A year later, Texas passed a law threatening cities that cut police spending by any amount with draconian penalties – freezing their tax base, allowing parts of the city to de-annex themselves, and more. The fiscal year 2022 budget has the highest funding for APD in the city’s history.
Yet all of these heroic measures by the state government to thwart the Austin agenda were only necessary because Casar made things happen in the first place. Beyond these high-profile examples, Casar points to his response to Austin law enforcement’s systematic failure to support survivors of sexual assault. The meltdown of APD’s DNA Lab and the resulting backlog of thousands of unexamined rape kits – each a sexual assault case in which justice was never served – was a “real learning moment,” he said.
“I decided to listen to survivors and learned I wasn’t being told the whole truth by the police. Then we found out there’s so much other work to do with survivors of sexual assault, and I learned we cannot take at face value what powerful interests say is going on, when they may have something to hide.” The city last week settled a class action filed by rape survivors in 2018, alleging that APD and the Travis County District Attorney’s Office’s mishandling of their cases constituted a violation of their constitutional rights.
“Resources and Clarity”
From 2013 to 2021, Rebecca Viagran, representing District 3 in the city’s southeast, was a leader of a progressive bloc on the San Antonio City Council similar to Casar’s allies on Austin’s dais. She highlighted her time on that body’s intergovernmental affairs committee, which took her to D.C. often to advocate for the Alamo City during both the Obama and Trump administrations.
She recalled how early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when about 100 cruise ship passengers were set to be transported to Lackland Air Force Base on San Antonio’s westside, she pushed for more federal support with Vice President Mike Pence. “I stood up and talked on behalf of our community, because we needed resources and clarity from the federal government,” Viagran said.
Viagran’s work at San Antonio City Hall also helped raise the minimum wage for city workers to $15 per hour, establish COVID vaccination hubs, and pass an “equity budget” in 2017, which abandoned the city’s typical practice of providing each of the 10 council districts, both the rich ones and the poor ones, with “roughly proportionate” amounts of funding. “We invested more dollars in the districts that were not getting the dollars they needed,” Viagran said. “They were already far behind, so rough proportionality wasn’t doing enough to help them catch up.”
All three candidates support the planks of the progressive agenda in Congress: the For the People Act to protect voting rights; the PRO Act, which would protect the right to organize workers into unions throughout the nation and empower the National Labor Relations Board to better hold corporations accountable for violations of workers’ rights; and the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would codify Roe v. Wade now that the landmark 1973 ruling legalizing abortion appears at risk of reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court. All three also enthusiastically support Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, policy frameworks that at this point aren’t actual bills.
Rodriguez and Casar also take a side on an issue that divides progressives by backing the “yes in my backyard” (YIMBY) movement – a push for policy changes at every level of government to allow for more housing construction, informed by the belief that housing is a human right. As land use policy is overwhelmingly driven by local government decisions, Casar has had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate this.
Viagran’s work at San Antonio City Hall helped raise the minimum wage for city workers to $15 per hour, establish COVID vaccination hubs, and pass an “equity budget” in 2017.
He has a consistent pro-housing voting record in zoning cases. He championed $500 million in voter-approved affordable housing and anti-displacement funds since 2018. And he authored Affordability Unlocked, a density bonus program specifically targeted to make it easier to build subsidized and income-restricted housing. “At the federal level we can pass rent control,” Casar told us. “We can reinvest in public and low-cost housing, and we can push cities to change rules that prioritize McMansions over people, as well as those that prioritize big parking lots over people.”
Rodriguez has had fewer chances to advance a pro-housing agenda at the Lege, but he’s made the ones he’s had count. His legislation created homestead preservation districts to support community land trusts, calibrated to address Austin needs but now a potential template for the whole state. He carried the legislation that paved the way for creation of Community First! Village, the rural housing community for people exiting homelessness operated by Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which is now in a major expansion phase. And in 2009, he co-authored a bill in the House to legalize inclusionary zoning – which would allow cities to require, rather than simply incentivize, affordable housing from private developers – that was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. For it to even pass both chambers, each with members who think zoning is itself unconstitutional, is a pretty big deal. Both Casar and Rodriguez said they support emerging federal solutions to housing supply challenges in growing cities, such as tying access to federal housing or transportation funds to commitments to undo exclusionary zoning practices.
Speaking of the tax exemption used by Community First! Village, Rodriguez said, “We expanded it this session and I had to partner with Tom Craddick to get that done,” referencing the former House speaker and longest-serving House Republican in Texas history. “We don’t agree on anything, but he has a homelessness issue in his area [Midland], so I immediately latched onto him to get it done.”
Viagran offered a slightly contrasting answer. She emphasized preservation of existing affordable housing as an important way to maintain housing stock affordable to a range of income levels. She would like to see Congress invest in programs that help homeowners rehabilitate their homes and help cities redevelop older commercial buildings into mixed-use developments.
“Looking throughout the district, there are so many unique neighborhoods with their own stories,” Viagran told us. “We have to maintain those stories.” While local governments are best positioned to do that, the federal government should provide oversight to ensure “intentional clustering” of low-income housing doesn’t occur or that particular areas are exclusively reserved for single-family homes. “We need to make sure we have mixed-incomes in all of our communities.”
The State of the Race
With just over one week until early voting begins, forecasting a front-runner in the race is becoming clearer. Casar is dominating in fundraising; according to fourth-quarter campaign finance filings, he has raised about $468,000 compared to Rodriguez’s $251,000. (He’s raised the most money of any Justice Democrats nonincumbent candidate in the country.) Both candidates began fundraising in early November; Casar has thus far spent about $112,000, leaving $356,000 cash on hand, compared to Rodriguez’s $31,000 in expenditures and $220,000 cash on hand. Viagran, who entered the race six weeks later, has pulled in $47,000 in contributions and spent $2,200, leaving her underdog campaign with about $45,000 to spend. Sisco had not filed a report when the Chronicle went to press.
None of the top three candidates will accept any funds from corporate PACs (that would exclude groups such as the Justice Democrats or New Democrats Coalition) – even if the race does go to a run-off. Casar was the first to make that commitment, and both Rodriguez and Viagran tell us they will do the same. Each candidate’s fourth-quarter filings show that, thus far, they have honored this commitment.
Casar’s campaign has released the results of two internal polls publicly, both of which show him leading Rodriguez and Viagran by double digits. Internal polls, by their nature, can be suspect; these were conducted by Lake Research Partners, a veteran Democratic firm which maintains an A/B pollster rating from FiveThirtyEight. The most recent poll, conducted Jan. 4-9 among 400 likely Democratic primary voters representing proportional shares of the voting age population in TX-35, was released on Jan. 20. It shows that Casar is “supported” by 48% of respondents, compared to 20% for Rodriguez and 14% for Viagran, with a margin of error of 4.9%.
The Casar campaign declined to share what questions respondents were asked, but said respondents were presented with profiles of each candidate and information on their policy positions, then asked which candidate they prefer. Of course, without knowing precisely what questions the respondents were asked, it’s hard to gauge how valuable the poll is. Neither Rodriguez nor Viagran has released any polling.
While the Casar campaign’s internal polling shows him ahead, Rodriguez competed for votes in the Travis portion of TX-35 as recently as 2020, in the Texas Senate District 14 special election. He ultimately lost that race to then-County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, but Austin political consultant Mark Littlefield analyzed votes cast in the precincts (or parts of precincts) included in both districts; Rodriguez earned about 43% of the SD 14 votes cast.
Were it not clear already, Casar’s front-runner status was confirmed this week when attack mailers (though Rodriguez disputes this characterization) from the Eddie for Texas campaign hit Austin mailboxes and caused a stir among progressives. They attempt to contrast Rodriguez’s successes at Community First! Village with Casar’s thwarted push to decriminalize homelessness, but look and sound very much like the campaign waged by the GOP-aligned PAC Save Austin Now last year to reinstate the camping ban: “Greg Casar not only designed the disastrous ordinance lifting the ban on tent cities in Austin, he failed to build decent, affordable housing.” (Casar disputes the last part, pointing to the nearly 800 units of permanent supportive housing funded by Council since 2019.)
This has rankled enough progressives to spark an open letter to Rodriguez from a dozen elected Central Texas Democrats condemning “Republican-style campaign tactics.” When asked about the mailer and the letter, which was signed by two of Rodriguez’s House colleagues (Reps. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, and Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood) who had until this point stayed out of the TX-35 primary, the Eddie for Texas campaign issued the following statement: “Democratic primary voters support Eddie Rodriguez because he is the progressive who makes progress. He has the strongest record of progressive accomplishments – achieving the most affordable housing and supportive housing for the homeless, bringing in billions of funds for our public schools, and protecting our precious civil rights.”
Early voting begins Feb. 14 for the March 1 party primaries. Look for our endorsements in the next issue, and for more election coverage at austinchronicle.com/election.
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