Greg Casar Superstar?

The organizer, groundbreaking Austin policymaker, and congressional nominee plans to be the House’s ‘most pro-labor’ member.


A version of this story ran in the May / June 2022 issue.

Twenty-three days after effectively securing a seat for himself in Congress, Greg Casar, a 32-year-old ex-Austin City Council member, strode up to a gray strip-mall Starbucks in north San Antonio carrying a black bullhorn. It was his first public event after cruising to victory in the March 1 Democratic primaries, and this was one of four Starbucks in Texas where workers had joined a nationwide wave of union organizing. Casar was scheduled to visit them all that day. He wore dress shoes, slacks, and a ratty old AFL-CIO t-shirt his fiancée had found at a nearby thrift shop. Surrounded by a state senator and a couple dozen labor activists and political candidates, Casar reframed Texas history through the bullhorn.

“A lot of people think of Rick Perry or Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick when they talk about Texas, but … I think of Barbara Jordan, I think of LBJ, I think about Roe v. Wade, I think about Emma Tenayuca and the pecan shellers’ union, and now I increasingly think about the workers organizing here at Starbucks,” he said, before deploying his favorite stump speech tagline: “Because to me, Texas is not a corporate state, it is not a red state, it is an under-organized state.” 

The plan Casar’s team hatched was to file into the coffee shop and order under names like “union strong” or “union yes” so the staff would essentially be calling out support for the organizers with each latte and pastry. To fire up the crowd before going in, Casar launched into a Jody call: “I don’t know but I’ve been told,” he bellowed, “Unions here are pretty bold.” As he repeated the chant, Casar evinced no irony—no sense that he was a politician play-acting at activism—rather, he seemed to be entering his element. 

An ex-labor organizer and trailblazing council member, Casar has emerged as a leading light for the Texas left. His campaign platform includes the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and his bid drew a bevy of national backers including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. His background as a young Latino Texan, mixed with a bona fide organizing résumé, long policymaking record, fundraising chops, and history of embarrassing even stiff campaign competition, make him a rare sort of rising star. Some observers see him as a potentially electric statewide candidate one day, à la Beto 2018, in a state where Democrats desperately need a political bench. For now, though, Casar’s task will be replicating his impact in local government in the 435-member U.S. House. 

His ambitions aren’t sheepish: “My goal is to be the most pro-labor member of Congress, period,” he told me.

Casar was elected to Austin City Council in 2014 as the body’s youngest-ever member. Prior, he’d been employed by the Workers Defense Project, a Texas nonprofit that organizes undocumented construction laborers. Over seven years, he’d prove the most progressive and influential member on the council of America’s 11th-largest city, while representing Austin’s second-poorest district. He led on nationally groundbreaking second-chance hiring, paid sick leave, homelessness, and police funding policies, and he won each reelection with ease. After years of speculation, Casar seized his chance for higher office last fall when Congressman Lloyd Doggett, the unofficial dean of Austin liberal politics, decided to leave his 35th congressional district to run for a newly created Austin seat.

The Texas 35th is an elongated gerrymander that encompasses Austin’s Eastern Crescent, the city’s Black and brown side, then stretches down I-35 to snag a large chunk of majority-Hispanic San Antonio. The son of Mexican immigrants, Casar felt he fit. He drew two serious opponents: 10-term Austin state Representative Eddie Rodriguez and ex-San Antonio City Council member Rebecca Viagrán. Casar swept local labor endorsements and raised $1.1 million, besting his combined opponents two-to-one. He prevailed with 61 percent of the vote, carrying every county. The district is so blue that the November general election will be a formality.

“I do think we won the race because of our progressive message,” Casar said. “But it also helps to be four times as organized and to work 10 times as hard.”

Supporters attend a February campaign event in San Antonio for Casar and Laredo Congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros, headlined by New York Congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Ilana Panich-Linsman)

At a table outside the Starbucks, Casar sat down with his “union yes” black coffee and chocolate croissant. Once in Washington, he said he plans to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus; he admires Chair Pramila Jayapal, a Seattle immigrant rights advocate who won office six years ago, and hopes to help her grow the group. He’ll also join the so-called Squad—a loose moniker for young leftists of color elected to the House since 2018—“if they’ll have me.” Asked what Congress member he’d most imitate, he demurred, but circled around to Cori Bush, the once-unhoused Missouri Democrat who forced the Biden administration to extend a federal eviction ban last year by sleeping out on the steps of the Capitol. “We need so many more members of Congress that are willing to do that kind of advocacy work where you don’t have to negotiate with Mitch McConnell or Joe Manchin,” he said.

I then asked Casar to put the Starbucks organizing in context of the broader labor movement, and he launched into a story instead. In 2015, he heard from undocumented tenants at a North Austin mobile home park that they were being price-gouged by new management; he and his staff helped organize the renters and file a lawsuit. This work, he said, helped birth a new tenant rights nonprofit, which later pushed the city in 2018 to pass its largest-ever affordable housing bond. In 2020, that money helped the original mobile home tenants purchase their park and turn it into a cooperative. His point? That chain started with him using “the power of elected office to validate people organizing … to protect them,” and the people handled the rest. “So I don’t know exactly where the Starbucks union movement is going to take us, but I know it’s taking us to the right place.”

Perhaps Casar was merely articulating an inside-outside theory of political change, but as he did so, his eyes shone almost like someone describing the guiding hand of a higher power. So long as he tries to do right, he seemed to say, things will work out, and the maw of politics won’t consume him.

Greg Casar was born into economic privilege. His father, originally from Guadalajara, is a physician at Baylor St. Luke’s hospital in Houston. The family home where Casar grew up is a sprawling Mediterranean build appraised at $1.7 million in the posh enclave of Bellaire. Casar doesn’t bring this up much. “It’s not what you start a speech with; it’s not useful,” he said, noting that if his folks were undocumented construction workers, he’d certainly talk about that more.

At the private Catholic schools he attended, Casar was a high achiever—using discipline he picked up from his doctor father. On top of excellent grades, he was the first track and field athlete at his Jesuit high school to ever qualify for state competition. It was at these competitions, including a mile race on Congress Avenue, that he fell in love with Austin. “He’s a dedicated athlete who eats right and trains right,” his high school coach told the Houston Chronicle in 2005. “He has a bright future.”

Casar was a liberal kid, pushing back on classmates who expressed anti-LGBTQ+ views and bothered by the inequality he saw when volunteering at homeless shelters, but he didn’t turn to organizing until starting college at the University of Virginia. “When I first visited UVA, I was taken aback by the beauty of this place, but I never thought about how much work it must take to build and maintain such a beautiful space,” the local alt-weekly reported him saying in 2010. Casar helped lead a campaign for a living wage for university employees—including lobbying the Charlottesville City Council for support. The movement finally succeeded in 2019 when the college approved a $15 hourly floor. 

Erin Franey, Casar’s co-lead organizer at the time, said the pair worked hard to train new leaders before they graduated, knowing the fight would take years. As I found repeatedly when asking past colleagues about Casar, Franey gushed. “I think there’s something about the humility that Greg brings, the integrity, the sort of deep thoughtfulness, and that his head and his heart are deeply intertwined, so he’s incredibly smart and incredibly compassionate and I think that’s a rare combination,” she said. 

In the summer of 2010, Casar, then 21, found his way back to Austin for an internship at the Workers Defense Project—then an innovative workers’ center with just a handful of staff trying to organize undocumented workers in anti-union Texas. The group was pushing its first major policy proposal: a city ordinance requiring that construction laborers receive periodic water breaks, something required by neither Texas nor federal law. 

“Greg just dove in. … I remember him phonebanking hundreds of allies and members to get them to turn out for this thirst strike,” said Emily Timm, co-founder and current co-director of the nonprofit. “I actually ended up ceding him my time so he got to testify to the city council about the water break ordinance on behalf of Workers Defense.” 

In 2013, Casar speaks in front of the Marriott construction site in downtown Austin. (Priscila Mosqueda)

The following year, Casar came back full-time for Workers Defense, just as the group was pivoting to a new focus: pairing wage and safety standards with city economic incentives. In the country’s most profligate state for often needless corporate giveaways, Austin—despite its liberal character—was no exception. If the city was to forego income, Casar and co. believed workers should at least reap the benefit; soon, he was helping broker deals between the council and commercial giants like Apple and Trammell Crow, mobilizing workers to City Hall as needed, to lock in independent worksite monitoring and living-wage standards. The fight that came to define his time at Workers Defense would center on a 1,000-room, $300 million Marriott hotel downtown. 

In 2011, the developer White Lodging agreed to pay a federally set prevailing wage to workers building the Marriott—a hotel to attract large conventions to boomtown Austin—as a condition for a multi-million dollar fee waiver. In 2013, city staff revealed that the company, having calculated the wage costs outweighed the incentives, had been paying many workers less. The mayor at the time, along with city administration, was inclined to let the company off the hook, but Casar dug in against the company’s well-paid advocates at City Hall.

“I saw this kid who was kicking the shit out of some really successful and important other lobbyists here in town on development issues,” recalled Mark Littlefield, a longtime Austin lobbyist who would become an early and avid Casar backer, “and I go, ‘Who the fuck is this?’”

Casar and allies prevailed, and White Lodging eventually repaid the city. The Marriott was built anyway, belying the developer’s claim the incentives were necessary in the first place. Eager to avoid another fiasco, the city soon began passing standard wage and safety floors to apply to all incentivized projects—a process Casar would soon push from the other side of the dais.

Prior to 2015, Austin was politically backwards. The liberal haven was the largest city in the country that still elected its council entirely at-large, a system that allowed white business interests, concentrated in West Austin, to control the entire body. Other cities, including Dallas and Houston, had been forced by the courts in the 1970s to switch to a district system, which lets historically segregated and redlined non-white voters concentrate their electoral power. In Austin, instead, the white establishment had concocted a “gentleman’s agreement”—a strategic concession to the civil rights era and a bulwark against lawsuits—whereby business leaders set aside one Black council seat and one Hispanic, out of seven seats total. The establishment would withhold funding from any white candidate who ran for those seats. This system held for more than 40 years. 

Last decade, after reformers had tried and failed six times, voters finally approved a district system in Austin with 10 districts and a mayor, all but ensuring the 35 percent Hispanic city would see more Latino representation. One new district, number four, was drawn straddling I-35 in North Austin; it was two-thirds Hispanic, with a heavy presence of newcomers and the undocumented rather than multi-generation Mexican Americans. It had the fewest registered voters of all 10, and it was poor. Casar felt he fit. 

David Butts, at the time, was something of an Austin kingmaker. As a political consultant, he hadn’t lost a race since the ’90s. Butts encouraged Casar to run and advised him on the campaign—which Casar would win handily against seven opponents while raising the most money. “First of all, he’s disciplined; he put together a team of people who set up a system to identify who was going to vote in this election,” Butts said. “And concomitant with that was the ability to raise money … and he was relentless about that.”

Casar even approached Richard Suttle, a powerful development lobbyist who’d been on the other side of the bitter Marriott hotel fight. 

Casar in April 2022 (Ilana Panich-Linsman)

“He came to me and asked for my support; I said, ‘What the fuck are you thinking?’” Suttle told me. But after “a long conversation about everything: his attitudes, life, support on council, support for business, real estate … I saw a bright young man that I thought had a good future and that’s somebody I can reason with.”

Suttle backed him, as did other real estate interests that would support Casar, who became chair of the council’s housing and land use committee, throughout his time in office. A 2020 analysis showed that a third of his contributions that year were from real estate and construction, near the top of all candidates. For this, Casar has taken some heat. “When you look at Greg Casar’s campaign finance reports, what you’ll find is a rogue’s gallery of the usual funders, especially real estate oligarchs,” said Fred McGhee, a neighborhood preservationist and scholar who’s opposed Casar over the years. 

Austin, like other tech hubs in America facing runaway housing costs, is riven by internecine debates over development and gentrification. Susana Almanza, a respected East Austin environmentalist who endorsed Casar for Congress, speaks bitterly of his local housing approach: “He was a big proponent of high density development, and high density development has really destroyed our neighborhoods and has caused major displacement.” 

Casar, meanwhile, is generally of the mind that expensive cities need more and denser housing—with as much as possible being affordable and concentrated in non-gentrifying areas. He can point to multiple projects he opposed over the years where displacement concerns outweighed increased housing stock. In 2019, he tried to plant his flag with a piece in the Austin American-Statesman headlined: “Our pro-housing, anti-gentrification movements can co-exist.” It’s a cogent op-ed, but he never persuaded many longtime neighborhood activists, and a major project of his time on council—the rewrite of the city’s decades-old land code—foundered on these rocky politics. 

Littlefield, the lobbyist and early Casar booster, thinks Casar could easily have spent his council tenure in “our little sandbox of Austin fights: neighborhood versus developer, urbanist versus whatever.” But, then, Donald Trump was elected. “People in Austin started looking at Greg thinking that we’re all now in the resistance and he’s fucking Luke Skywalker, and he changed a little bit. … Shit got real.”

The day after Trump’s 2016 election, as fear blanketed the country’s undocumented communities and others of good conscience, Casar released a statement. “To my brothers and sisters who are immigrants and are in immigrant families: I will do everything I can to keep you safe,” he wrote. “I will be a part of your civil disobedience. I will go to jail with you. No nos moverán.”

Three months later, the fears took form. In what was likely retaliation for the local sheriff limiting cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE agents descended on Austin, arresting 132 immigrants over four days, reportedly including in the parking lot of an H-E-B grocery store in Casar’s district. Casar was everywhere—spontaneous street protests, know-your-rights trainings, and on social media spreading information and condemnation. 

“I remember perfectly that it was terror; you couldn’t even go to the H-E-B,” recalled Virginia Badillo, a longtime member of the Workers Defense Project originally from Mexico. “So in a way, seeing a city representative raising his voice … it was like a relief for us, feeling that we weren’t totally alone.” 

At the same time, the Texas Legislature was moving along Senate Bill 4, a measure to obligate cooperation between county jails and ICE and to force open the door for street cops to ask for citizenship papers during routine interactions. On May Day 2017, as the bill was about to arrive on Governor Greg Abbott’s desk, Casar joined 23 other protesters in an annex of the governor’s office. The group occupied the office for eight hours; as a state trooper pleaded with them to leave, they sat, arms locked and chanting—with Casar sitting front and center, overdressed in a button-up and tie, as loud as anyone. Ultimately, all were arrested with zip ties, cited, and released. 

“This was not so hard,” Casar said afterward. “We can do so much more.” 

Casar, SB 4, protest
Casar with protesters on May 1, 2017 (Gus Bova)

Casar ramped up his work with the Local Progress Network, a nascent coalition of progressive city and county officials trying to stitch together a resistance to Trump and red state legislatures, to govern in the breach and from the bulwark. He helped spearhead a network of local governments that sued, partly successfully, over SB 4, and he began pushing the envelope across issues: With his leadership, Austin took the nigh-unprecedented step of shooting down a police union contract to strong-arm reforms; passed the first mandatory paid sick leave policy in the South, which Casar then helped spread to San Antonio and Dallas; decriminalized camping and begging in a country that’s made homelessness increasingly illegal for 30 years; exploited a legal loophole to effectively end low-level marijuana arrests; and, alongside few other cities, turned the demands of the George Floyd uprisings into policy by moving money out of the Austin police budget. 

These high-profile policies encountered stiff headwinds and not infrequently ended in failure. Paid sick leave was struck down by the GOP-stacked courts; workers never received the benefit. Police budget-cutting was summarily banned by the state legislature, constituting a step backward from the pre-2020 status quo. And public camping and begging—after two years of homeless-bashing, political opportunism, and sensationalist crime reporting—were recriminalized by 58 percent of Austin voters in a bruising referendum. It seemed that Casar’s bolt leftward may have caught up with him; his bid for the largely symbolic role of mayor pro tem was even derailed early last year. 

Yet when Democrats entered the voting booths in March, all the backlash evanesced. State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, who’d represented Travis County since Casar was 13 years old—and who attacked Casar on homeless camping in the campaign—won just 16 percent of the county’s votes, compared to Casar’s 73. It was as if the voters were saying they didn’t agree with him on everything, but they trusted his intentions; so long as he tries to do right, things will work out. 

On an April morning, at a bustling coffee shop a block from Austin City Hall, Casar wanted to order the huevos rancheros—his usual from his days on council—but it was no longer on the menu. He ordered breakfast tacos instead, as he chatted up a current city hall staffer. We took a seat, and I needed to move the conversation some 7,000 miles away. To Palestine and Israel. 

In early January, Casar, who’d spoken little on the issue, wrote a letter to a local liberal rabbi outlining his positions. In it, he committed support for “continued federal aid for self defense of Israel” and said he is “not a BDS supporter”—referring to the global movement pushing for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel over the occupation and oppression of Palestinians, an approach supported by a few U.S. House members. At the same time, Casar wrote that the “humanitarian crisis in Gaza and indefinite occupation in the West Bank are untenable” and called for a two-state solution. Overall, this places him on the liberal end of the Democratic Party, but some in his district were disappointed. 

Prior to writing the letter, Casar had met with pro-Palestine activists in San Antonio to discuss his position. Moureen Kaki, a Palestinian-American activist and filmmaker, was there, and after the meeting she hoped Casar would take a more aggressively pro-Palestine stance or delay making up his mind. “He doesn’t know anything about this to the level that a U.S. congressman deciding or making commitments to foreign aid, before he’s even elected, should,” she said. 

Kaki thinks Casar, whose work in Austin she admires, wrote the letter partly out of fear of the Israeli lobby, which makes her doubt his fortitude against other lobbies. “For Greg to bow down on this one, what earthly reason do I have to believe that he would not do that over and over again?” she said.

A 3-year-old super PAC, run by Democratic Majority for Israel, has recently made waves in Dem primaries as it seeks to beat back growing liberal sympathy for Palestine. The group is credited with helping tank Ohio politician Nina Turner’s congressional bid last year. Casar received no direct threat of spending from any pro-Israel PAC, he told me, but “we always knew that that was possible. … It was important to have a clear position, so that if there was negative spending, say with false claims of anti-Semitism, I could point to what I wrote.” He also claimed that his views, roughly modeled on Bernie Sanders’, have been consistent since he declared for Congress.

Casar’s letter made a minor media splash because its publication by Jewish Insider led to a split between Casar and Austin’s large Democratic Socialists of America chapter, formerly a staunch ally. The pro-BDS socialist group nearly expelled New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman over the issue last year. Casar, who joined the organization in 2017, told me he’s unsure whether he’s still a member; asked whether he identifies as a democratic socialist, he equivocated: “That’s not my organizing principle. … My core identity has always been movement organizer and immigrant rights organizer.” 

Nevertheless, Casar intends to be among the furthest left in the House’s left wing, and he’ll likely have a solid claim as the strongest labor progressive south of the Mason-Dixon. Depending on May runoff and November results, he may enter as something of a cohort with other Texas progressives including Jasmine Crockett of Dallas. 

The crowd reacts to Casar’s victory at a primary election watch party in Austin. (Ilana Panich-Linsman)

Casar will be joining a progressive caucus that, after the Sanders presidential runs, has grown from what one member called a “Noam Chomsky book reading club” into a 100-member body solidifying a power base independent of House leadership. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the group startled D.C. last fall when it successfully bucked Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to backburner “Build Back Better” legislation. 

The progressive caucus “has never been stronger than it is right now,” said Marcela Mulholland, political director for the think tank Data for Progress, “so for a new member like Greg Casar this is a really exciting time to join Congress.”

Of course, by the time Casar gets there next year, Democrats may have lost their House majority. If that’s the case, he says he can still develop labor rights legislation, push for executive actions, strengthen his caucus, engage in Cori Bush-style direct action, blockwalk to juice turnout in his district for statewide Dems, and use the “bully pulpit” to back Texas workers. He’s an organizer; he’ll find a way to make a difference.

After an hour, we left the coffee shop for city hall, where the local carpenters’ union was holding a small rally against wage theft. Reaching the front steps, Casar ran into an electricians’ union representative who’d given him his first campaign contribution in 2014. He then lined up alongside a few other elected officials, including a fellow Workers Defense Project alumnus who’s now the district attorney. He spoke: “I am committed, as long as I am vertical, to still being a part of this labor movement.” 

In my interviews, a number of people reached for figurative language when describing Casar. He’s “a five-tool baseball player,” a “bulldog,” with “a little Elvis” to him. David Butts, the old campaign guru, drawing on 50 years in politics, opted for a nautical metaphor. “If you launch 100 boats across the ocean, how many actually make it over there?” he said, before switching gears. 

“Think of it as a pyramid system”—from city council to Congress to the Senate or governor’s mansion and finally the presidency—“in that process, there’s all kinds of winnowing out; people get burned out,” Butts said. “Others get arrested for corruption, others get defeated because they stood up for some issue that made people mad, so it narrows and it narrows … so I’m not saying Greg Casar is going to be elected president, I’m just saying he’s doing pretty damn well.”

Editor’s Note: Laura Hernandez Holmes, the board president for the Texas Democracy Foundation, is employed by Greg Casar’s campaign. TDF is the nonprofit organization that publishes the Texas Observer. The Observer’s editorial decision-making is independent of the TDF board.