As he is poised to become one of the most progressive politicians Texas has ever sent to Congress, Greg Casar spoke during a Texas Tribune event Tuesday about how his vision for organizing and progressive politics led him from working as an activist to his tenure on the Austin City Council and a highly successful primary campaign for the U.S. House.
Casar, 32, won the Democratic primary for Texas’ 35th Congressional District in a landslide victory last month. He collected 61% of the vote, beating out second-place finisher state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who won 16%. The district leans heavily Democratic, and Casar is expected to easily win the general election in November. But a Republican wave is also likely to wash over Congress, which would put Casar and other national progressives on the defensive.
As one of the most visible members of Texas’ progressive movement, Casar has become a favorite target of Republicans over the past few years. Specifically, his plan to cut and redirect funds from Austin’s police budget drew backlash from conservatives across the country and sparked state legislation to prevent similar local measures from happening again.
Casar supports a slate of progressive causes, including stronger union and workers’ rights, a single-payer health care system in “Medicare for All,” a comprehensive plan to address climate change and tuition-free public college.
“What we decided to do was try to put forward a bold positive vision for the state and for the district and for the country,” Casar told the Tribune’s James Barragán about his run for Congress. “When people think of Texas, a lot of times they think of Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick, but I think of LBJ and Barbara Jordan. And I think talking about that progressive vision for our state really resonated with voters.”
From activism to Congress
The district Casar is running for stretches from northeast Austin to central San Antonio. He has built up a profile as a staunch progressive over the years within the area. He joined a coalition of progressive City Council members and organized on a variety of issues, including pushing for paid sick leave for all workers in Austin and reducing deportations under the Trump administration.
“Texas, I don’t think is a red state,” Casar said. “I think it’s an underorganized state.”
Casar said his desire to run for Congress comes from the idea that the federal government needs to step in more with a “right-wing regime in the South or in the state taking advantage of working people.”
Historically, Casar said, civil rights protections came from local communities and leaders demanding more from the federal government. Now, he wants the federal government to step up its protections of voting, civil and workers’ rights and codify them into law.
Casar attributes his primary success to Democratic and progressive voices that came together across the district on short notice, given that the new congressional district maps were not finalized until October.
“I’ve worked alongside organizations in this district to build that neighborhood infrastructure, that church-based infrastructure, that union-based infrastructure that we could then just turn on for this race,” Casar said.
Activists in the Democratic Party and “defund the police” rhetoric
During his time on the Austin City Council, Casar oversaw pushes for change on controversial issues, including homelessness in the city and the police department’s budget.
Casar said he never uses the term “defund the police” because it doesn’t correctly describe the policy that he pushed on the City Council. His proposal was to mostly shift funding away from “overmilitarized” policing to mental health resources, first responders and domestic violence shelters.
The phrase has been used broadly by progressives and can mean anything from reallocating police budgets to defunding them in totality. Republicans have targeted the use of the term in an attempt to portray all Democrats as soft on crime.
Some moderate Democrats argue that progressives and activists who pursue such policies are undermining the party at large. Casar pushes back against these assertions and argues that they’re working not to help the party but to help people.
“I think that this kind of obsession, sometimes, within the Democratic Party of us trying to blame activist movements for our challenges as Democratic politicians isn’t the way to go,” Casar said. “MLK was not popular when he did his work, and his goal was not to get more Democrats elected. His goal was to transform American society.”
Casar said creating a more just society — especially for people of color — informs his approach to policy. Activists’ job, he said, is not to come up with the right slogans to get people elected.
Ultimately, Casar said, the policies that he has pushed for are “reasonable and thoughtful proposals” in response to community needs and added that Republicans are the ones who have gotten more radical on different issues.
“Telling the truth and trying to do the right thing makes it harder to be a Democrat,” Casar said to laughter in the room.
Navigating the halls of Congress
If elected to Congress, Casar will enter a political scene where seniority, longevity and money have long dominated what gets done in the federal government. Money is needed to run successful reelection campaigns, and time in Congress is needed to lead committees in charge of shepherding legislation.
Casar will also face the strong likelihood of a Republican majority in the U.S. House, which would likely prevent the possibility of big progressive policies passing the chamber.
Still, Casar said there are ways to push his platform in Congress, pointing to U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri and former organizer who slept on the steps of the U.S. Capitol last summer to push for action on an expiring eviction moratorium.
As Democrats face a difficult midterm election, Casar said he will support moderate Democrats in swing districts — members of Congress who are often credited with giving Democrats the majority in 2018 — in their election races.
“I plan on raising money for Democrats this year in swing districts who may not have as progressive policy positions as me,” Casar said. “But I know that if I want to pass progressive policy, then we need a Democratic majority in the Congress.”
One point of contention between more moderate Democrats and progressive Democrats is leadership within their House caucus — specifically, the speaker of the house. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is known for her legislating and negotiation abilities, has sometimes been the target of more vocal progressives who are calling for change in the party.
Casar said Pelosi, whom he met while she was in town recently, is not a barrier to progress and is one of the more progressive members of the House. He insisted that he is running not to challenge the party establishment, but to fight for progressive policy.
“Contrary to maybe what people portray me and lots of folks in Austin as, I’ve always been a proud member of a Democratic Party — just in the progressive way,” Casar said.
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