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Rachel Barrios-Van Os: The TT Interview

The Texas Democratic Party chair hopeful on what's wrong with the Democrats, how they can become competitive again and why she's the best person for the job.

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Rachel Barrios-Van Os is familiar to voters in Bexar County, where she ran unsuccessfully for county clerk in 2010, and to Democrats who know her as the manager of three statewide campaigns where her husband, David Van Os, was the candidate (twice for Texas Supreme Court, once for attorney general). In private life, she runs the family law firm.

Now she's running to be chairwoman of the Texas Democratic Party, an election that will take place at the party's state convention in Houston next month. In her campaign materials, Barrios-Van Os says she's "tired of defeatism ... low goals and low expectations." She and her family have moved to Austin, where the party is headquartered, and has started campaigning in earnest.

She came to The Texas Tribune's offices Monday morning to talk about her candidacy. Video of the interview and an abridged transcript follows: 

TT: Why are you running? Why would anybody want this job?

Barrios-Van Os: I'm running for the office of state chair of the Texas Democratic Party because I believe it is time to start winning again. It's been too long since we’ve won an election statewide. Our statewide candidates have not won an election since 1994.

When statewide candidates lose, we lose. We end up with governors like George Bush, Rick Perry and so on, and all the corporate elitists that they bring with them. It’s time we have a voice for the people, and it’s time that we start winning.

TT: What has the party done or not done that created that situation?

Barrios-Van Os: I think the biggest problem is targeting. The party leaders decide they are going to target certain House races, certain elected candidates that they think are choice candidates, and they leave everybody behind. I have seen that in the experience that I have had running three statewide campaigns, and it has to stop. We need to support all our candidates from the bottom up all the way to statewide candidates, and I think we need to focus on statewide candidates because they have the power of state government to do people's work — to represent the people, to bring a real government to the people.

TT: What’s the party doing wrong? What part of it is the responsibility of the candidate, on one hand, and of the party on the other hand?

Barrios-Van Os: The responsibility of the candidate is to put his life and duty to that office that he seeks, to the party, to the people. The part of the Democratic Party leaders is to support those candidates and to run — what I would recommend — is running coordinated campaigns. We put our funds together and stretch our resources out amongst all the candidates, and that hasn’t been happening.

TT: The money seems to have run to the Republicans; are there enough people with enough money out there to support Democrats in Texas to make this viable again?

Barrios-Van Os: I believe there is. Even if I just took a dollar from a million voters, a million citizens, I would have a million dollars and not be beholden to one contributor that gives $1 million [who] is forcing the party leadership to run the campaigns or the candidates he wants to run, and the message. I don’t think that a contributor should be the sole leader in saying, "This is how I want you to push the campaigns, this is the message." I think the message has to come with the issues, and about the people, and what are the best things we can do for the people. So a-dollar-a-person sounds a lot better to me. It's going to be a hard job, but I will work hard to bring in that money. I'll do whatever it takes, night and day, seven days a week. I will get the job done.

TT: What prompted you to get into this race?

Barrios-Van Os: I believe I'm the right candidate for the job. I believe what it takes is a person that is a true activist. I'm a lifelong Democratic activist. I'm a lifelong union activist.

I joined the union in 1980. My father told me the night before I started my first job at Southwestern Bell, "Get a union rep as soon as you get there. Go look for a union representative. Sign your union card and get involved." My father, my family, we were not wealthy. We were a struggling family. I'm one of nine children. My father knew the power of the union and the power of representation with the voice and power of labor behind you. So I followed his instructions or orders. I found a union rep. I didn’t wait for them to find me, and ever since then it's helped shape who I am. I'm a strong union woman, a strong Democrat.

I give my mother credit as well. I had a very strong mother — I mean, she had nine children, you’ve got to be strong — and she was very involved in community politics and kind of gave me my first lessons in grass-roots organizing and doing neighborhood events. Bringing in candidates, getting them introduced to the neighborhood. We were from a small barrio, a small Southside neighborhood — the Palm Heights area — full of heart, a great neighborhood.

TT: When did you start running?

Barrios-Van Os: I believe it's been three weeks.

TT: The election for party chair will be on June 8 or 9 — is that enough time? Do you wish you had jumped in earlier?

Barrios-Van Os: In the end, it’s always better to have more time, but it is what it is. I'm going to make the best of the next — I think I have about six weeks to go — I'm going to work 16, 18 hours a day. It's what I've been doing for the past three weeks, and I'm going to just fight like hell and get out there and push my message and push the thought and the reasoning of what we need to do.

We need to get up and start fighting again. Too much defeatism, too much, you know, low targeting. I say we start targeting the whole state of Texas. It’s time to win.

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