Among those speaking at last weekend’s Texas Democratic Women’s Retreat in Bellmead was Alex Steele, 30, the California-born field director overseeing Battleground Texas, a group dedicated to expanding the electorate in Texas and ensuring Democrats are competitive in elections — a heady challenge given that Democrats control not one statewide office in Texas. In an interview, Steele talks of state demographics that Democrats believe favor them in the “not-so-distant future,” his belief the Republican Party is sagging under political extremism and how Democratic heroes such as state Sen. Wendy Davis fit into future electoral scenarios.
Q You’re on the program for this retreat. What message do you bring Central Texas Democrats, who very often seem an endangered species around here?
A First and foremost, it’s that Battleground Texas is a grass-roots movement dedicated to turning Texas into a battleground state by treating it like a battleground state. What I mean by that is registering new voters and, just as importantly, engaging those voters who are registered but haven’t turned out recently and just don’t feel part of the process. It’s up to us to go out and talk to those folks and make them feel they have a voice and a role in the process.
Q How do you get people like that engaged when this area is so overwhelmingly Republican and other voices are simply lost in the wind?
A Much of it is talking to folks about what it means, what decisions in Austin mean in their lives, what decisions in D.C. mean in their lives. I grew up dirt-poor and, in my family, politics wasn’t anything we talked about or cared about. It was abstract — red vs. blue, pundits on TV, people yelling back and forth at each other. It wasn’t till I really started getting involved that I began putting the pieces together. That was through conversations I had with friends in college. Those connected the dots. That’s something we need to do and it’s something we haven’t done in a long time. It’s not just about sending out mailers. It’s not just about producing TV ads. When we talk about having conversations, it might be at their door or in parks and at festivals when we’re registering voters, talking to them face to face. And I do want to emphasize this — this movement is of, by and for Texans. This is about Texans talking with Texans.
Q But isn’t this just a creation of the Democratic Party? Can you really claim it’s authentic grass-roots?
A We’re not part of the Democratic National Committee. Battleground Texas is set up as a federal and state PAC, so we are our own entity. I myself was part of the Obama campaign for many years but, for the most part, everyone on staff is from Texas. They’ve either worked in the Democratic Party in Texas or were from here and are now coming back. I was in Colorado in 2012 for the campaign and so many Texans were on staff there because they felt like they could make a difference there. Many of those resources are coming back to Texas.
Q I’ve read projections that some Democrats have about turning this state blue because of our fast-changing demographics, including astounding growth in population among Hispanics deemed likely to vote Democratic. Others say many Hispanics don’t vote and that such projections are outrageously unrealistic, overly optimistic.
A Well, I was in Colorado. I’d been there as a field organizer in 2008, regional field director in 2010 and deputy state field director in 2012. Each of those elections we were able to keep it blue — not by a lot, but we were able to keep it in the Democratic column. Before that, you were talking about a state dominated by Republicans. President Johnson won it in 1964 and then nobody won it at the national level till Bill Clinton in 1992. Other than that, it was a red state.
Q Yes, but Texas is a red state in ways Colorado can’t begin to match. I was at the McLennan County Republican Club meeting the other day and members take pride in this being “the reddest of red states.”
A Yes, but my point is that you see states like Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida — red states written off for so long — where we’re gaining ground and winning elections. But we didn’t go in a couple of months before Election Day and say, “OK, let’s get to work,” and it suddenly flipped blue. We got in early, early on and started organizing. And it wasn’t just through one election cycle, it wasn’t through two election cycles, it was through multiple election cycles that this change took place. And that’s why we’re here in 2013.
Q I saw a lot of minority interest in politics in 2008 when Barack Obama was running, but 2010 was a tea-party tidal wave that was at least partially in reaction to Obama policies and what Democrats in Washington were doing. What do you say to fire up Texas minorities now? Because it sure didn’t take in 2012 and political pundits don’t see it happening in 2014 or 2016.
A Well, here’s the thing. My focus as field director is not on any one election date, it’s getting in early and actually making this happen. Now what we saw in 2012 among Hispanic turnout — I think it was 39 percent (in Texas) — and what we’re able to do in a state like Colorado is get that number over 50 percent. African American turnout was in the low 40s here and we were able to get it up to almost 60 percent in Colorado. But that’s because we were engaging these communities on a regular basis. And that means actual conversations about why elections are important, why the Democratic Party and their candidates reflect the values of Texans — not just Hispanics and African Americans and women but Texas in general. It means conversations about why the current crop of leadership in Austin is so far out of the mainstream. I mean, you got people like Ted Cruz and Greg Abbott and Dewhurst and Rick Perry in this race to see who can be the most rabidly right-wing Republican of all, to where they’re constantly trying to out-do each other. You have to engage people and say, “Hey, look what’s happening here.”
Q State Sen. Wendy Davis has become a media star for an 11-hour filibuster of an abortion restrictions bill. But how do you turn that into real political muscle when this issue is so divisive? Polls show most Texans generally support the idea of forbidding abortions after 20 weeks or five months. How can this evolve into a movement?
A I cannot speak to Wendy Davis and what she is or isn’t going to do. I think there are a lot of great candidates mulling bids for higher office. We’ll see where that ends. I do think we saw that fight as really more of a women’s health issue and that a lot of folks are sick and tired of right-wing folks running roughshod over the direction of Texas. I think folks are standing up to that in general. There’s a lot of outcry over the failure to expand Medicaid in Texas as well. All this has really rejuvenated the Democratic Party in Texas.
Q Well, there’s a lot of concern about how Republicans supposedly abused the redistricting process by failing to acknowledge that much of Texas’ growth over the past decade was from Hispanics. Some say this wasn’t readily reflected in the new maps drawn. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court this summer seems to leave all this stacked against Democrats in Texas.
A Look, those redistricting lines are blatantly discriminatory and they’ve made no secret about it. In fact, there was a story that broke in Dallas about a tea-party leader (Ken Emanuelson) at a Republican meeting saying, “Look, the Republican Party doesn’t want black people to vote.” And while that was one person and one quote in one incident, I believe it is indicative of this larger viewpoint that they want to shrink the electorate. They want it to be as small and as conservative as possible. If you look at what Rick Perry won by in 2010 and consider the entire voting age population in Texas — those registered or not registered, anyone eligible to vote — 18 percent of those of voting age in Texas put Rick Perry in office. Republicans are going to do anything to keep it that way. You literally have a small group of right-wing voters making decisions for the rest of us in one of the largest states in the nation.
Q So where did Democrats go wrong after 2008? Obama and the Democratic Party came in on a national tidal wave that year, yet by 2010 the Republican Party was at their heels, retaking the House. What did Democrats do on the national level that turned the fortunes of 2008 around so sharply in just two years?
A Well, I’m not going to speak to the national issues and problems we had in 2010. We can talk about what we did.
Q Yes, but what happens to Democrats locally and statewide is heavily dependent on how everyday voters view Democrats nationally.
A Yes, it’s unfortunate how nationalized even the smallest election can be. But what we’ve shown in the past is that you’ve got to run great candidates and you have to have a great ground game to overcome all that.
Q So what are your hopes for Wendy Davis and the popular Castro brothers of San Antonio, who may well be the first three Texas Democrats to actually excite state and national voters since Ann Richards?
A Well, there are a lot of great candidates. I think all of them are taking stock of whether they can make it competitive if they run. It’s my job as field director for Battleground Texas to make sure that we’re laying the groundwork for whoever decides to jump in — and I’m talking about everyone from the top of the ticket to the bottom. One day soon we’re going to see candidates coming in on both Democratic and Republican tickets and actually campaign competitively for Texans’ votes. That’s what this is all about.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.