Walking the Walk

by Published on

Somewhere near the intersection of the practice of democracy and the money-logged electoral politics of a flagging empire, the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation network held a statewide conference to promote its agenda for the upcoming elections and biennium and to build a get-out-the-vote effort modeled after its successes of 20 years ago.

By 10 a.m. on August 28, a parade of charter buses had docked at a conference center in northwest San Antonio and disgorged 1,300 people from the 11 IAF organizations in Texas—from El Paso to Houston and Lubbock to Brownsville. They were looking serious, many having begun their pilgrimage in the early morning darkness.  Teachers, nurses, school principals, undocumented workers, civil servants, construction workers, clerics, electrical workers, truck mechanics, labor leaders, retirees, and the recently unemployed—presente.

Bill White was there, but his invited opponent sent his regrets. The governor’s “Where’s Waldo” act had grown so stale that his absence did not even elicit the boos you once heard at these meetings that used to require IAF leaders to remind the participants that the Industrial Areas Foundation was non-partisan.

Of course, that depends upon what you mean by “partisan.” One leader after another addressed the gathering to advocate for increased investment in healthcare, public education, access to college, workforce development, and rebuilding neighborhoods whose infrastructure was in shambles. They talked about the State’s projected $18 billion shortfall and that the mindset of most public officials in that environment is to cut services rather than raise resources to invest in people.

Bill White, who was sitting at the front table, was asked to speak briefly.  He talked about his record as mayor of Houston on affordable housing and job training.  He began to talk about a high-dollar fundraiser Perry was holding the next week, but Father Walter D’heedene of San Antonio COPS asked him to stick to the issues. He talked about increasing the police force, and the good father cut him off again, asking if he would meet with the organizations if he is elected in November and if he supported their agenda. White agreed to both and was escorted off the stage as Father D’heedene reminded the crowd, “We’re not here to support candidates. We are here to get them to support us.”

The real business of the conference was to educate and mobilize their combined forces to get out the vote. Rev. Davis Price of Lubbock and the West Texas Organizing Strategy said their job was to “agitate people into hope [so they] open up an alternative future.”

To help educate, they’d enlisted John Shure of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. He told them, “States have never seen a bigger drop in their revenues than they are seeing in this depression. You can’t cut your way out of economic troubles. They’re giving us a shovel to dig deeper and not a ladder to climb out.”  More than 30 states have raised taxes since the recession started, he told the conference. Ann Dunkelberg of the Texas Center for Public Policy Priorities said that the budget should start by drawing on the over $9 billion in the State’s Rainy Day Fund. “Well, it’s raining,” national IAF Co-Director Ernesto Cortes, Jr., said.

Moments later, Texas House Ways and Means Chair Rene Oliviera, D-Brownsville, said, “Ernie, it’s not just raining. It’s a perfect storm…This is going to be the most difficult legislative session I’ve ever seen,” Oliviera said. “In 1985, we didn’t pass a budget until August. The same thing will happen this time.” Oliviera said that he has identified $40 billion in tax breaks that most Republicans will call a tax increase. “I believe we will be recovering in two years, so we should take as much as we can [from the Rainy Day Fund]. But that requires a supermajority two-thirds vote in both houses.

“This is not a ‘sky is falling’ speech,” he continued. “I want to tell you how it is. We may have to close prison units. We may have to reduce help for the elderly and for abused children….You must mobilize like you’ve never mobilized before,” he told the gathering.

Oliviera warned of a mean season in the Legislature not only focused on the budget and social services but on the latest Republican issue designed to polarize, distract and confuse the public—immigration. He said hearings have already begun—not to solve problems but to target immigrants. “Divisiveness, fear, and immigrant bashing are what we are going to see,” he said, echoing previous speaker and immigration reformer Tamar Jacoby. who called this “the worse time I can remember in the immigration reform debate.”

And then Ernie Cortes took the mound. He was clearly agitated and ready to agitate. He began with a long, slow windup: “If there is any word that defines democracy, it is ‘compromise.’ The question is: which compromise do you make? Half a loaf feeds some people. Half a baby, as decreed by Solomon, is a corpse. We have to be there at the table. What gets us there is organizing, is getting our people out.”

And then the blazing fastball: “It’s open season on anybody you don’t like. We need to stop bullying in public policy, picking on people they think can’t fight back. We’ve got to end that. The only way to stop a bully is to stand up to a bully. [A few cheers went up in the house.] If you walk in their neighborhoods and they turn you away, then you go to the next person and to the next person. We’ve got a choice,” he thundered. “Go home to your families or go out and fight for them.”

Thirteen hundred people rose to their feet and cheered. They pledged to send out 2600 block walkers in cities across Texas to register new voters and then to get people to the polls. Block walkers have already been working the neighborhoods of Houston and San Antonio. They pledged to bring in 225,000 new voters statewide this year and 750,000 new voters by 2014. It will be a test of the old-fashioned, highly democratic, retail politics that Dave Mann wrote about on these pages.

Following a series of workshops on the key issues of the conference, the IAF leaders reconvened for one last charge from IAF Co-Director Sister Christine Stephens. She reminded them of the network’s “Sign Up and Take Charge” campaign of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It resulted in 500,000 new voters and IAF electoral clout, which led to indigent health care legislation, infrastructure services for the colonias, and greater support for public education. “We understand our ticket to the decision-making table has got to be the number of voters who support our issues,” she told the conference.

“We’re looking for surprising clout at the ballot box,” she said. “These are trying times for our families, for Texas, for the future.” She told the leaders not to plan for the future, but to change it. “Those 750,000 voters [targeted for 2014] are our decision to change the future of our children and grandchildren. For our children and our grandchildren, we will walk on glass to get them a better future. Let’s walk together.”

Armed with information and determined to be dangerous to the status quo, 1300 community leaders filed back on their buses and fanned out across Texas to attempt to change the future one voter at a time, to breathe life into democratic purpose in a state that seems to have lost its faith in the ability of government to serve the public good.

 

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.

Geoff Rips is a novelist and a former editor of The Texas Observer.