Meet Sameena Karmally, the Democrat Taking on Jodie Laubenberg
If Democrats are going to turn Texas purple, they need to do a lot of work at the local level. Long-hidden voters need to be identified, and organizational abilities need to be strengthened. To do that, Democrats need good candidates to run in local elections. Even if they don’t win, they’ll do their bit to put calcium back in the Democratic Party’s old bones. They might run in red districts with little chance of victory, but they’ll pave the way for future contenders.
But standing for election is hell—it’s costly, and it exacts an enormous personal and professional toll. Most people won’t do it if they don’t have a decent chance of success—and there aren’t many places in Texas these days where a Democrat has that chance. So big pockets of the state don’t have any Democrats of significance running locally, which further alienates ordinary people from Democratic politics. It’s a tenacious feedback loop that’s going to be difficult to break.
Some Democrats, though, are doing their part. Take Sameena Karmally, who’s been waging a long-shot effort in heavily Republican House District 89, which covers an area north and east of Plano. In a different context, Karmally would make a star candidate. She’s a lawyer and mother of two who grew up in the Metroplex. She’s smart and thoughtful, and has a compelling personal story: She’s the daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants, and worked her tail off to get to UT School of Law. This is one of those races that seems to embody the clash of the old Texas and new Texas, particularly because she’s running against state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker).
If you know Laubenberg for one thing, it’s that she became the public face of the coalition backing last summer’s abortion restrictions. Laubenberg sponsored House Bill 2, the legislation that Wendy Davis filibustered. During debate on the bill, Laubenberg famously said that a rape exception for abortion restrictions was unnecessary because hospitals “have what’s called rape kits,” so “the woman can get cleaned out.”
That remark earned her international notoriety, but at home, Laubenberg cruises from re-election to re-election. She hasn’t had a primary opponent since 2002, and hasn’t had to run against a Democrat since 2006. She has perfect scores of 100 from Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, wins awards from groups like the Young Conservatives of Texas, and is lauded by the NRA and pro-life groups. She’s the state chair of the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes bills for conservative state legislators.
When Laubenberg first won her seat, it was a predominantly rural district. But the Metroplex has experienced explosive growth, and the nature of her district has changed. The last bout of redistricting cut off Laubenberg from the most rural areas, and now HD 89 is heavily suburban, with a growing immigrant population. Many of the district’s residents work for tech companies. The district is less Republican than it used to be, but on paper, it’s still looks prohibitive for Democrats. In 2004, every member of the Republican slate won more than 75 percent of the vote—in 2012, Mitt Romney won just under two-thirds.
The Texas Observer met Karmally in Plano to talk about her race.
Texas Observer: So why did you want to run?
Sameena Karmally: I wasn’t planning on running. You know, my children are very little. But I grew up here in Texas, and I watched what was going on last summer with that whole debate over women’s health and it seemed symptomatic to me of a state government that’s just sort of heading over a cliff.We’re at the point now where we need to get control over what’s going on. We have so many issues in this state where people not voting is really affecting families and the quality of life and the Texas that we’re going to have in the future.
That’s one of the hardest things to communicate with people as we go out there, is that your vote could save lives. There’s children dying in foster care. Your vote could educate thousands of children because they’re cutting millions, billions from the Texas school budget. And people don’t know.
I guess it reached this critical point where I felt like I couldn’t wait ten years.
TO: A lot of people would look at this district and say that your chances are pretty slim.
SK: I’ve been told. (laughs)
TO: So why put yourself through this?
SK: Well, there’s the numbers on paper—and, nobody who knows me would say that I’m an overly naive or overly optimistic person—there’s what it looks like on paper, and what it looks like when you live here. When you live here, you see a whole lot of people who are frustrated with their state government, who are willing to vote for a Democrat who’s willing to do something.
And one of the reasons the numbers look so bad out here is because we just haven’t had any candidates run in so long. I’m Jodie’s first opponent in eight years. So we’ve fallen into this cycle of, there’s no Democrats who live here, there’s no Democrats to vote for. We meet people saying, “I thought I was the only Democrat who lived here,” everywhere we go.
We get them together for these events, and everyone is looking around shocked to find their friends and neighbors sitting with them at a Democratic event. They really thought that there was just no one like them in the area. And that’s very encouraging. That definitely pushes us to do more, versus just putting a name on a ballot, which has been the usual choice in the past.
I guess the answer is that I’m a sucker for hard work.
TO: Do you feel like you’re helping to open up the area for future Dems?
SK: Most certainly. Although—I think it’s a possibility to win in November. It’s just a matter of can we make enough phone calls and knock on enough doors. People are excited this year because of Wendy—we didn’t want to lose the chance to use that to do something locally while at the same time helping statewide candidates.
TO: How has this district changed since Laubenberg was first elected?
There’s many people who have moved here in the last two to four years—there’s just been an explosion of growth along the eastern side of Interstate 75. So that’s a huge opportunity. [Laubenberg] was redistricted, and the new lines were in effect two years ago, but of course there was no one running against her.This is the first time she’ll be running with these new lines, and the new lines cut away a lot of rural areas that were in her district and left her with these suburbs, which are very diverse and young, and where a lot of people have moved in from the east and west coasts.
So there’s the new people and the new lines, but there’s also the old people. We went block-walking last weekend and we went to a neighborhood where people had lived on that street for 20 years. They had a history of voting independently, D and Republican. They overwhelmingly were willing to vote for a new face, a new person, and they didn’t really care what party I belonged to.
TO: This area up here reminds me of the suburbs north of Austin—House District 50, formerly held by Mark Strama—which experienced rapid population growth and suburbanization and went from Republican-leaning to solidly Democratic in the space of about a decade.
SK: My in-laws are from there. Pflugerville is a good analogy: Think about what Pflugerville was like ten years ago. Solidly rural. You wouldn’t even meet people who really lived in Pflugerville.
It’s a similar situation here. Solidly rural areas have become completely built-up. The city I live in, Allen, which is almost to McKinney, became completely built-up. Huge change in the district. Someone ran against [Laubenberg] in 2006: Even in 2006 it was majority rural out here. There just weren’t a lot of people to reach. Now we have all these new voters.
It’s very similar to Pflugerville. This is called the Telecom Corridor, because of all the tech companies around here. Texas Instruments is right here in Richardson. So there’s a ton of tech jobs around here.
TO: Why did you want to run against Laubenberg, specifically?
SK: She was a big motivation, for sure. She’s exactly the kind of person I don’t want in charge of my tax dollars. I don’t want government intruding in my family’s lives. I don’t want religion in public schools.
It was the events of last summer that really tipped me over. I thought, the inmates have taken over the asylum. We have people that just don’t know what they’re doing. Her comment about rape kits…
TO: How has Laubenberg represented the district?
SK: She’s taking her orders from special interest groups. You look at her financials, and that’s who funds her. She’s doing the work of very large, monied interests. There’s not a lot of positive contributions that she’s made to our community.
We’re under stage three drought restrictions—she’s been on the [regional] study commission for the [Texas Water Development Board] for years and years and done nothing about it. We have such massive growth here—everyone agrees that our roads need investment. There’s no counter-argument to it. Even city councils are banging their heads against the wall, saying “we need state money to improve these roads our communities depend on.” And there’s no action from her at the state level to take on these pressing issues.
She voted to cut $5 billion from schools. Many people moved to Plano and suburbs like it for the schools. That’s why they live here. Then she votes to cut $5 billion from public education. Overnight, schools are more crowded. Teachers don’t know where they’re going to be shuffled. Every parent who had a kid in public school out here thought, “Well, this isn’t what I bargained for when I agreed to move out here and pay these property taxes.” That affects everybody, whether you have a child or not.
TO: You’re an Indian-American Muslim woman running in the district of one of the most conservative politicians in Texas. Has anyone tried to make your background an issue in the race?
SK: No, I haven’t attracted that much attention. (laughs) Also, my district is—the census would tell you that it’s about 10 percent Asian. I can tell you that it’s at least 10 percent Asian. So it would be very foolish to run a “she’s not one of us” kind of campaign, or to run on my ethnicity. And I don’t think people take very well to those kind of personal attacks.
TO: As you’ve been working the district and trying to meet these new voters, what are some things you’ve learned?
SK: One question that we’re been struggling with a little bit is—how many Democrats are there here? It’s hard to say. Even in a presidential race, Democrats may not turn out because they know how the state is going to go. And in the off-years, we haven’t always had the most compelling statewide ticket. So it’s hard to say how many potential Democrats there are. And having a good local candidate—and this year we have several good local candidates in the area—will help, I think.
Immigrant communities don’t always realize the potentiality of their vote—how important it is, all the decisions that are being made with their tax dollars. I think that’s true of many communities—many people that moved here from out of state, their vote might not have been as important when they were living in a blue state. Here, it’s a critical matter.
The turnout is so low here, we really have no place to go but up. There’s not as much potential for growth on the Republican side, because many of their voters are registered Republicans and already vote. We have whole neighborhoods, whole blocks, where we can go door to door. We walked just last weekend and I had nobody turn me away at the door—my husband had two. We’re talking almost a hundred doors.
We’re finding a lot of that. I’m from South Asia, my parents are from India. There have been some national studies that say South Asians—Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis—they vote upwards of 80 percent Democratic. And they consistently vote, once you activate them. And there’s other ethnicities‚ Chinese, Vietnamese, that vote better than 50 percent Democratic and vote consistently once you activate them.
This is all work we have to do sooner or later. Why not do it ASAP?