Texas has become the US’s new coronavirus hot spot, with skyrocketing cases setting records nearly every day, hospitalizations rising, and deaths beginning to pile up. It’s both tragic and infuriating, because the situation was entirely avoidable. Instead of practicing smart public health policy, the Republicans caved to the far-right MAGA brigade, taking precious few precautions and lifting even those absurdly early. Now, it’s a runaway train, and the state’s GOP leadership might as well have tied Texans to the rails.
The silver lining is that Texans are increasingly outraged at their state government and ready to make a change. Cities are beginning to require masks, police reforms are being approved by city councils, Confederate monuments are being torn down, and Democrats are making gains. In fact, Dems need just nine seats to take back the State House, and a few of them are big, juicy, flippable targets. That includes the 108th House District, which Democrats lost by a mere 220 votes in 2018.
That’s the race we’re focusing on today — not only will it be super-close, but a win will also represent a further transformation of Texas’s big cities and proof that running everywhere is key to Democratic success.
Joanna Cattanach spent nearly 15 years as a respected journalist in Texas, covering local news and politics as objectively as possible. But after the 2016 election and the 2017 legislative session, which was bigoted and damaging even by Texas Republican standards, she’d seen enough. Instead of covering elections, she was going to run for office herself.
There were two pieces of legislation in particular that convinced Cattanach that dire action was required. As a Latina (and human), the passage of SB 4, the state’s infamous “Show Me Your Papers” Law, absolutely enraged her, while the signing of HB 3859, a “religious liberty” law that allowed adoption agencies to discriminate against prospective parents for just about anything — sexuality, religion, insufficient church attendance numbers, you name it — proved to be the last straw.
“I am a former foster care child and I thought that was unbelievably appalling,” Cattanach tells Progressives Everywhere. “It was a breaking point for me. I reached out to some of our local media and said, ‘would you like to talk to a former foster care child?’ And that was it.”
Just like that, Cattanach gave up much of her hard-earned career (she kept a job as an adjunct professor) to run for office. As a Dallas resident, she was living in a city that was slowly turning blue, but her particular district, HD 108, had long been represented by a mostly absentee legislator named Morgan Meyer.
Some years, Meyer didn’t even have a Democratic challenger, including in 2016, the most recent election to that point. When a Democrat did run, it was largely perfunctory — in 2014, his Democratic opponent ran a half-hearted campaign, falling more than 20 points short. But Meyer sat on the committee that passed the bigoted adoption bill, so Cattanach was determined to give him a run for his considerable money.
Right off the bat, Cattanach discovered the importance of having viable candidates contesting every election, both for political purposes and sheer organizational infrastructure.
“When you don’t have candidates run, you lose that momentum,” she says. “When I stepped in, it was like walking into a job and someone handing you a filing cabinet with information that was four years old. When people don’t run, you don’t clean up your data, you don’t identify or update voters. We had such a massive amount of movement in my district. I would walk blocks and see a bulldozer sitting in an apartment complex that had been torn down that had voters on my list.”
Fortunately, Cattanach was used to fighting uphill battles.
She survived a rocky childhood split between troubled parents and the foster system to excel in school and make it to college. Then Cattanach attended Baylor University in a deeply conservative part of the state, serving as a liberal school newspaper columnist at a time when President George W. Bush would visit nearby Crawford to clear out brush for the cameras while taking a break from lying the country into disastrous wars. And then she built up an enviable career in the media, a feat that is increasingly difficult (trust me).
Before she declared her candidacy, Cattanach got her feet wet in community activism by fighting to have her son’s school, Robert E. Lee Elementary, renamed and stripped of its ample tributes and memorials to the Confederacy. It was Summer 2017, in the months after the right-wing Charlottesville riot, and Cattanach and her fellow parents were sick of seeing the totems to hatred in their backyards.
“I don’t know how to impress upon people what it’s like to go to your kid’s kindergarten roundup and the first thing you see is a six-foot portrait of Robert E Lee in the hall and Confederate symbols on the school,” she says. “I remember saying in the meeting, I didn’t want to hear any excuses or fighting anymore. I just wanted us to lead this meeting with one thing in agreement: We were changing the name of the school and it didn’t matter how we were going to do it.”
The steadfast demand worked; the school is now named Arlington Elementary School.
It’s that sort of determination that makes Cattanach such a strong candidate and future lawmaker. When COVID-19 hit and made door-to-door campaigning hard, she hired out-of-work community members to make calls to voters. When last year’s election came down to the wire, she demanded a recount so she knew exactly how many votes she’d have to flip this year (again, it’s just 220). And she’s been running this time from right out the gate, ready to turn the district blue. She wants to expand Medicaid, fight for major changes to state policing laws, and permanently fund schools, all top party priorities that won’t happen without Democratic takeover.
Texas is a swing state this year. The more we help down-ballot candidates like Joanna, the better chance we have of not only flipping the legislature, but also turning the state blue on the presidential level. And doing that would change the very face of American politics and government for an entire generation.