In January 2020, Stand Up America worked with Forward Majority and the local Texas group Reform Austin to get out the vote in Texas’s 28th House District, where progressive candidate Dr. Eliz Markowitz’s ran a competitive campaign to win a historically GOP-controlled seat.
You might be wondering: what does a small district in the suburbs of Houston have to do with Stand Up America’s long-term vision for democracy reform and progressive change? It may be a local race, but it’s a microcosm for what’s happening around the country. Progressives are organizing to win at the state legislative level because they know that to stop partisan gerrymandering, pass meaningful gun reform, tackle climate change, and decrease the influence of big money in our elections, we need to win progressive power.
Although Eliz Markowitz did not beat her conservative opponent, turning out unlikely voters in races like HD-28 is an important part of how we begin to repair our democracy.
Organizing in the Lone Star State
Texas’s 28th House District held a special election this January, pitting progressive candidate Dr. Eliz Markowitz against Republican candidate Gary Gates. District 28 has been a conservative stronghold for many years — Donald Trump won the district by 10 percent in 2016. Markowitz was the underdog candidate from the outset, even though she beat the district’s historic Democratic average performance by four points in a difficult electoral environment.
Stand Up America played a key role in this special election, with our organizing team sending over 126,000 text messages to voters, mobilizing folks in the Houston area. Other groups, such as Powered by People, ran an on-the-ground operation, organizing over a thousand volunteers and knocking on tens of thousands of doors. It was people-driven organizing tactics like these that turned a surefire victory for conservatives into a race where they had to fight for every single vote in order to win. Markowitz’s opponent relied on $1.5 million in campaign contributions of his own money in order to win.
Building Progressive Power, Step By Step
Electing progressives in local races is the key to strengthening our democracy and enacting progressive reforms in states across the country.
As an organization, we are committed to expanding voter participation and repairing our broken political system, which means passing reforms like automatic voter registration, campaign finance reform, fairer districting, and empowering voices in Black, Latinx, immigrant, and other underrepresented communities. Although it’s less likely to make the national news, state and local governments have the ability to pass — or block — legislation that accomplishes these goals. And when reforms are enacted at the state or local level in one state, that builds momentum for reforms in other states and federal progress.
An example of this is campaign finance reform that has been implemented in states and municipalities after the devastating 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allowed for unfettered corporate political spending. State governments like Maine and New York and cities like Seattle and Denver took matters into their own hands and passed campaign finance reforms that offer a model for impactful change at the state and local level.
Power isn’t won overnight — it’s won through hard fought campaigns like Markowitz’s. Elections of all sizes in states like Texas, where shifting demographics are changing the electoral map, are an opportunity for progressives. In 2016, it’s unlikely Markowitz would have made it to a runoff race.
Campaigns like this, even when they don’t turn out the way we want, build infrastructure and networks that are ready to go when the next election rolls around. They also build relationships among and energize progressives living in areas that are all too often forgotten about by national campaigns.
During the next election in Texas, turnout will be higher. We won’t be operating in a runoff or a special election in January, Donald Trump (and his corrupt agenda) will be on the ballot. And we won’t be starting from square one. Eliz Markowitz will be on the ballot again, with tens of thousands more voters turning out in her district. Those voters will look more like the population of Texas: they’ll be more racially diverse, more socioeconomically diverse and they’ll be a lot more progressive.
It’s not enough to campaign when progressive victory is assured. Mobilizing today to pave the way for future victories is how we will strengthen our democracy — little by little.