Texas’s affluent 7th Congressional District has become a hotbed for activism against Republican John Culberson. But first, it needs to get through one of the most contentious Democratic Party battles in the country.
The weekend before early voting in Tuesday’s runoff started, Jay Taylor found himself in an awkward situation. The two Democratic candidates in the 7th Congressional District, lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and activist-writer Laura Moser, were in the homestretch and scrambling to get as many volunteers to canvass as possible. That was a tough task on a hot Mother’s Day afternoon.
But Taylor, who is a retired attorney, is not your average volunteer. Woken from a political stupor by Trump’s election — he can’t be sure, but he says he probably voted for John Culberson, the Republican incumbent, at some point — Taylor has become highly engaged in local politics. Recently, he became a precinct chair and launched an extensive canvassing operation in his part of West University Place, an affluent enclave of Houston filled with nice houses, manicured lawns and a lot of socially liberal, fiscally conservative types.
The support of super-volunteers like him are the coin of the realm in this runoff. Both the Fletcher and Moser campaigns had asked him and his wife Karen to knock doors for them that day. He’s found staying above the fray increasingly impossible in the final stretch of a contentious runoff where nearly everyone has already lined up behind one of the two candidates.
So, on that sweltering Sunday afternoon, the Taylors decided to go knock on some doors for Moser. Karen, also a retired lawyer, had made her decision back in February at a forum that included all seven primary candidates. The congressional hopefuls were each asked whether they’d vote to shut down the federal government to protect Dreamers; she says Moser was the only one who unequivocally answered “yes.”
While the two candidates vying for the nomination in the runoff agree on the vast majority of policies, the biggest difference is in style and approach. Moser — who would vote to impeach Trump on “day one” and says “incrementalism is dead” — embraces straight-talking progressive absolutism. Fletcher, meanwhile, is more measured, answering policy questions with lawyerly consideration.
Moser, who moved back from Washington, D.C., to run for the seat, wants to throw the Democratic playbook out the window and try to expand the district’s electorate by bringing in new progressive voters. “I believe I offer the greatest contrast between [Culberson] and that the only way to win is not by assembling the same coalition of elites [as in the past],” Moser pronounced at a recent candidate debate. “It’s by assembling teachers, nurses and firefighters and steelworkers, and all the people who maybe haven’t voted because it hasn’t mattered yet.”
Fletcher, who has lived in Houston almost all her life, points to recent Democratic successes in Harris County as evidence that the party is on the right track and says that she will be able to reach Republicans fed up with Trump. “We need to appeal to everyone and ask every single person in this district for their vote because the job of the representative is to represent every single person in this district,” Fletcher said at the debate.
Nationally, the race has become defined by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s decision to drop opposition research against Moser right before the March primary. The DCCC flogged an article she wrote that made a dig at Paris, Texas, insinuating that she was a carpetbagger and unfit to run in Houston.
The DCCC interference introduced a new narrative — that this race was a micro-level relitigation of Hillary vs. Bernie. Many activists in the district dismiss this as overly reductive. But it did help deepen pre-existing factions and rivalries that have only gotten worse in a runoff featuring two candidates who in many ways are cut from the same cloth: Both Moser and Fletcher grew up in the district, went to the same prestigious private school and come from political families.
Mostly, the DCCC has just ticked off local activists who were already facing an uphill battle trying to flip a seat in a longtime Republican district. Art Pronin, president of the Meyerland Area Democratic Club, told me that he called the DCCC and told them to keep their noses out of the primary. He says the level of political engagement this cycle is “insane” and that he was concerned national involvement would muck it up. Pronin notes that people are coming out of the woodwork at rates far greater than during the height of the Iraq War or the 2006 wave election. The biggest problem now is finding large enough venues to host the swelling crowds who come to forum after forum after forum.
“There’s no room for error. We have to get [this nomination] right,” Pronin said.
There are concerns about both candidates. Fletcher’s career as a partner with the Houston corporate law firm AZA has drawn scrutiny, particularly from the Texas AFL-CIO. The firm represented a commercial cleaning company that won $5.3 million in damages from the Service Employees International Union in Houston. The AFL-CIO has accused the law firm of intimidating immigrant workers who might testify and fostering anti-union and anti-immigrant sentiments in the courtroom. Fletcher has said that she had no involvement in that case.
Still, activists are concerned that Houston-area labor unions might sit out the general election. In a district that has about 20,000 union members, that could be a decisive blow. “Anybody but Lizzie,” Zeph Capo, who heads the Houston branch of the AFL-CIO, told the Observer in January. More recently, he told the Houston Chronicle, “We are not the DCCC. I have had no problem telling the DCCC lately that they need to stay the hell away from our office. We represent our members.”
Moser’s career as a writer has dredged up problems for her own candidacy. The DCCC infamously cited a line in its opposition dossier on Moser from a 2014 piece she wrote for the Washingtonian. Moser wrote that she would rather “get my teeth pulled without anesthesia” than to live in Paris, Texas. What the DCCC didn’t highlight in the piece — entitled “Yeah, DC Is Pricey – Get Over It Already!” — was a general disregard for the impact of gentrification on the city’s black residents, and what many have found to be offensive language. “True, I’d rather not raise my children directly next door to a deaf-mute drug addict who openly smokes crack in the back yard and throws beer cans over our fence and regularly passes me notes reading ‘NEED 1$ [sic],’ but we all make choices in life.”
Another piece, published by Moser back in 1999, has been circulating. This one, entitled “The Jesus Orgy,” was about her visit to a black church in London. Some activists have said the piece smacks of racism and mockery of black Christians. Moser has since apologized and promised to do more outreach to communities of color, including a racial healing event.
Local activists are concerned that Culberson and the GOP will use the weaknesses of whichever candidate wins the runoff as fodder for attack ads aimed at depressing Democratic turnout.
For their own part, many Democratic activists are already focused on how to take down Culberson, no matter who the Democratic candidate is. On Tuesday late morning — the second day of early voting — a ragtag group of burgeoning organizers met on Jay Taylor’s back porch. With laptops and mugs of coffee strewn around the table, the impending runoff was the last thing on their minds. They were busy trying to figure out what to do in the days, and weeks, after the runoff. The big concern was about how to get everyone united and motivated, even if their preferred candidate hadn’t won. How long should they give people to lick their wounds before asking them to jump right back in? A couple weeks? A month?
As one of the activists, Rebecca Weisz Shukla, who helps lead the district’s Swing Left group, said, “If we wait four weeks, it’ll be too late.”