Inside Beto’s Plan to Turn Out Black Voters in Houston
Black activists are cautiously optimistic — but it’s a huge challenge for Beto’s grassroots machine to reach the unlikely voters he needs to come out.
by Justin Miller
October 29, 2018
With two days till early voting, Cameron Mayfield, a Beto O’Rourke field organizer, gets busy setting up a makeshift campaign office in a corner of a combination KFC/Taco Bell in Kashmere Gardens, a predominantly black neighborhood in northeast Houston. Mayfield lugs in a laptop and phone charger. Precinct maps and campaign literature are piled haphazardly on the table.
While other parts of the city are flush with Beto volunteers, the KFC/Taco Bell franchise owner was the only one in this neighborhood to offer up space to the campaign. The men’s bathroom is currently out of order, employees take orders from behind bulletproof glass and, of course, there’s no WiFi.
Kashmere Gardens is one of the poorest parts of the city — median household income hovers around $26,000 — and it was among the areas hardest hit by Harvey. Forty percent of neighborhood residents affected by the storm are still living in homes that need repair. It also has a large concentration of people who’ve been incarcerated, many of whom are unclear about their voting eligibility. Many are unaware that their voting rights are restored once they get off probation or parole.
Kyle Maronie, who grew up in Settegast, a neighborhood a few miles to the northeast, shows up for the noon shift — he’s the main volunteer Mayfield depends on. It’s not easy work. People are often hesitant to answer the door and don’t want to talk.
But Maronie brings enthusiasm to the job. “Block walking is the best way to not only understand the needs of the community, but also to get a visual understanding of situations people live in,” he told me. “They’ve been left out of the conversation for so long.”
If O’Rourke is to become the first Texas Democrat to win a statewide race in a quarter-century, one of the hundreds of things he needs to do is inspire huge levels of turnout from black voters. Anglos may be flooding into Beto campaign rallies by the thousands, and the party’s future may hinge on its ability to turn out Latino voters, but the backbone of the Texas Democratic Party base is black — and it has been for a long time.
At a block-walk event on Houston’s South Side earlier that day, Damien Jones, Beto’s political director for the Houston area, laid out the stakes. “Two years ago,” Jones pronounced in his red Chucks and a black-and-white “BETO” trucker hat, “many of us had many regrets about what happened — that we didn’t do enough. This is the time to leave it all on the field. We can’t have any regrets this time.”
O’Rourke has assembled perhaps the most impressive ground game of any statewide Democrat in a generation — and the campaign is trying to reach deep into black communities. Home to nearly 1 million African Americans, Harris County is the cornerstone of that effort. He’s running hard on criminal justice reform issues and has made a point of reaching out to leaders in the city’s black neighborhoods and HBCUs. People are also fired up about down-ballot races, like the “Black Girl Magic” slate of 19 black women running for judicial positions on a criminal justice reform platform.
The slate has been stumping around town and garnering a lot of excitement. “By time you get to the 19th name being called,” the crowd is going crazy, said Audrie Lawton, who coordinates the slate’s campaigns. “I think there’s a real sense that we can actually do something and make a difference” in the Trump era.
Christian Menefee, chair of the Houston Black American Democrats, uses his mother as an electoral bellwether. “If [someone like] my mom didn’t vote in 2016, she’s surely voting now.”
Polls have consistently shown O’Rourke with overwhelming levels of support from African-American voters in Texas. The energy has activists cautiously optimistic about the chances for a big bump in turnout. Terrence Shanks, a Democratic activist in Senate District 13, which represents many of Houston’s black neighborhoods, predicts that turnout in Harris County will come close to presidential levels. “My spidey sense says that while turnout won’t be as high as 2008, it will be comparable,” Shanks said.
Beto’s campaign has joined with an array of allied organizations and campaigns in an attempt to saturate the city’s historically black neighborhoods — from Acres Homes and the Fifth Ward on the north side to Sunnyside and South Park on the south — and maximize turnout.
It’s easier said than done. Hurricane Harvey devastated many of these areas. Vacant houses dot the streets; many people have moved, or their lives are still upside down. Add to that concentrated poverty and disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system, and it’s all the more difficult to mobilize low-propensity black voters.
At the KFC/Taco Bell, Mayfield and Maronie hang out in the dining room for a few minutes, plotting their canvass route and hoping for another volunteer or two to show up. It’s hard to tell whether people are coming to help, or just to order a $5 meal. No one shows, so they start walking down Lockwood Avenue to their first batch of addresses. It has just rained and the sidewalks are muddy and washed out. In this precinct, 94 percent of voters supported Clinton — though only half of registered voters cast a ballot. In 2014, just over 30 percent turned out.
Mayfield and Maronie hit the Legacy Apartments, a run-down two-story complex — the entire first floor is vacant and being remodeled, perhaps because of flood damage. The pair remind the people who answer on the second floor that early voting is coming up and ask them if they have a plan to vote. Most nod along politely as they go through the script, promising that they’ll vote.
Eventually, Josh Mireles, who lives a few minutes away, caught up to help. He had shown up to a recent Beto rally with rapper and activist Bun B to register to vote for the first time. This is the 23-year-old’s first time doing any sort of political work, and he’s a bit nervous. “Our goal out here is, we have enough supporters that we need to just knock as many doors as we possibly can,” Mayfield explained to Mireles.
In a nearby complex of single-story brick homes, the canvassers talk to Lacy Vann. “Beto O’Rourke — that’s who I’m rollin’ with,” he said, promising to vote first thing Monday. Vann said that Trump has done some good things (jobs, gas prices, immigration), but the president is in it for himself. “He’s on an ego trip. That just don’t sit right with me.” In 2017, Vann voted for the first time in more than 20 years.
The crew heads back to the KFC/Taco Bell base camp. “This is the biggest day I’ve had,” Mayfield told the two volunteers. “It’s hard out here in Kashmere.”
After its first big weekend of GOTV action, the O’Rourke campaign hit about 30 percent of the 700 doors it’s targeting in this precinct, and even fewer in surrounding areas, according to its open-sourced tracking of GOTV efforts. There’s still time, but they’ll need help.
Several miles to the west in the Heights — a whiter, tonier part of town — there are ample volunteers and multiple pop-up offices are hosted in supporters’ homes. Because the campaign has already canvassed more than two-thirds of its targeted voters in the Heights, a volunteer group from the area was expected to head out to Kashmere Gardens on Sunday to help knock doors.
In many ways, Beto’s campaign is simply following the lead of groups like the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) that have been on the ground for years. “Women, Latino and black candidates have invested [in communities of color] since forever, so it’s not shocking that statewide candidates built something based on what these groups have done,” said Jeremy Brown, a Houston native who’s running for a local justice of the peace position.
TOP, which has endorsed O’Rourke, has pioneered intensive canvassing strategies aimed at unlikely voters of color. In Harris County, the group has invested major resources in a ground game focused on turning out more than 100,000 low-propensity black voters this cycle.
On Saturday afternoon, TOP’s headquarters in Midtown is bustling as dozens of paid canvassers have gathered to get their marching orders. Rodney Ellis, the sole person of color on the Harris County Commissioners Court, is there to rally the troops. He’s visibly excited about what he’s seeing on the ground and pulls me into a side room where there’s a map of Harris County precincts with highlighted areas that TOP is focusing on. “We know where the folks are who are low-propensity voters,” he told me. “And we’re doin’ all we can in the era of voter suppression that is unprecedented to make sure that these people know what’s at stake.”
The amount of resources Beto and others are dedicating to increasing turnout in Houston during a midterm election is unprecedented, Ellis said. While Republicans are counting on a base election, one where the other side doesn’t show, TOP and its allies are doing all they can to make sure that doesn’t happen. “I’m certainly not overconfident,” Ellis said. “If so, my blood pressure would be lower.”
The group now has 80 canvassers out in the field at any given time. Still, it’s difficult to get in touch with many of the voters on their lists — the ones who recently registered or typically only vote in presidential years.
Gerry McGee is a tall and lanky man in his 50s, but he walks with the urgent stride of a much younger man. It’s a matter of necessity in order to hit enough doors as he canvasses the Acres Homes area. Expanding the electorate doesn’t happen with a magic wand. “If you’re a voter, you’re gonna be voting and enthusiastic,” McGee told me. “If you’re not, then it’s harder.”
The El Paso congressman has done a nearly impossible thing: He’s built a statewide Democratic campaign that has enough money and enthusiasm to compete. The more challenging task now, in these final days, is for the campaign to use its bounty of resources to reach and mobilize the voters whom it needs to stand a chance.