Julie Oliver Is Running to Flip the Jalapeño Heart of Texas Blue

NBC News officially moved Texas to “toss-up” status today, indicating that Joe Biden has something close to a 50/50 chance of winning a state that used to be a Republican anchor. And if he does, a lot of the credit will go to remarkable candidates like Julie Oliver, who is running herself to flip the state’s 25th Congressional district.

The district is a product of egregious gerrymandering, so much so that despite all the focus on Texas, no one paid all that much attention when Oliver first ran in 2018. We covered the race here at Progressives Everywhere anyway — she was just too inspiring and impressive a candidate to ignore. And Oliver way exceeded expectations, eventually losing by less than 9 points, the first time a Democrat had come within single digits in the district since it was reshaped by Gov. Rick Perry (some years, there wasn’t even a Democrat on the ballot).

Now, Oliver has a legit chance to finish the job and flip the district blue. To be transparent, I’d be rooting for her no matter what, given her party affiliation and the fact that she’s in Texas. But Oliver is also running a full-on progressive campaign — she’s proudly in favor of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, for example — and is devoting more of her life to the cause not because she ever wanted to be a politician, but because she feels the moral calling to help in such dire times.

“I’ll be honest with you, after the 2018 election, I felt like, Oh my gosh, I didn’t do everything I could I have done and I let people down,” she told me earlier this week. “I just felt this tremendous weight on my shoulders. I looked at my husband in March [2019] and was like, ‘Honey, I have a terrible idea. I think I’m gonna run for Congress again.’ And he was very apprehensive because it’s a huge family commitment.”

First, it’s absurd to think she let anyone down, but Julie Oliver is pretty used to defying the odds — she’s done it all throughout her life. You can read her story here, but here are the basics: Oliver grew up poor, dropped out of high school and ran away from home, then got pregnant at 17 years old. She moved back home on the condition that she continue her education, which she did all the way through law school.

Now she’s a mother of four, a successful executive, and a candidate running a smart, data-driven campaign for Congress. And a campaign with really good ads:

The first thing that Oliver did after the conversation about running again was research whether there was a viable path to victory. She met with a friend and together they analyzed the 2018 election results, combing through the data to see where they might be able to turn out or swing more votes in 2020.

Oliver’s goal is to turn out more voters in suburban Travis County and Hays County while cutting into Williams’ margins in the much more red Johnson County. She’s even running to get the veteran-heavy Bell County to get out and vote, calling it the campaign’s “secret weapon.”

(The fact that she’s running against Roger Williams, a slick Trumpian millionaire Republican who took millions in PPP money for his car dealership while the rest of the district missed out on stimulus money, makes it a little bit easier, too.)

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It’s unconscionable that there are so many (13!) large counties in the district, but that’s the power of gerrymandering. The 25th district stretches from Fort Worth down to Austin, covering nearly 2500 square miles. The shape of the district is preposterous — as Oliver puts it, “it looks like somebody took a jalapeño and smashed it on top of the middle of Texas and then pixelated the edges.”

Given the fact that the district was engineered to be a GOP stronghold, you’d expect Oliver to play it cautious with her policy prescriptions, as many Democrats in the state have done. But she sees it the other way around — Texas has long been turning purple, demographics are working in Democrats’ favor, and people are looking for major change.

Before COVID hit, Texas already had the most uninsured people of any state, and that number has spiked during the pandemic — at this point, just about 30% of all Texans under the age of 65 don’t have health insurance. As a former healthcare executive, Oliver says she “knows how to explain Medicare for All” in a way that makes the problems with the convoluted and indubitably stupid way medical coverage is financed easy to understand.

And let’s be real, no matter their political convictions, people aren’t clamoring to deal with Aetna or Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“People want health care coverage, they don’t want a health insurance company,” Oliver says. “In fact, I have yet to meet the person who actually likes to be on the phone with their insurance company. If they loved their insurance company that much, then you would find somebody who likes to talk to the insurance company. And so far, I haven’t found that person.”

Instead, she hears story after story from people who are drowning in medical debt, desperate just to even consolidate the bills they get from various providers, let alone not have to go into financial ruin to deal with an emergency. One family told her on the campaign trail that they lost their employer-based insurance due to the pandemic, which has put them on the hook for the tens of thousands of dollars being billed for their young child’s cancer treatments.

“It’s just so sad that we’re in a pandemic, you have a child with cancer, the last thing you should be thinking about is, oh my god, how are we going to pay for this?” she says.

Early voting has already started in Texas, with a record-setting 8 million ballots already filed. Oliver’s campaign is running TV ads and fanning out across the massive district to get out the vote with canvassing, dropping off literature at people’s doors in as many target areas as possible. It’s also working with Sisters United, a data-driven organization in Texas that tries to turn out women who are registered to vote but rarely do so.

And with a week left, she’s not only feeling good about her chances, but also satisfied that she won’t have any regrets this time around.

“I can tell you that two years ago when I ran, the week before the election, I was like, Oh my gosh, I need three more months to campaign,” Oliver says. “I can honestly say that I feel like we have done absolutely everything you could possibly do, especially in a pandemic. It’s just so cool, feeling like, wow, we’ve really connected with hundreds of thousands of voters. It’s amazing.”

Want to help Julie and her campaign finish off the flip and win a huge victory for progressive Democrats?

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The Race in TX-22 Embodies The Battle for Texas

More than any other race, the dead-heat competition in the state’s 22nd Congressional District embodies the tussle between old Texas and new Texas. The Republican candidate is a far-right, power-abusing, anti-mask, fired-cop controversy machine, the archetype of Trump-era conservatism. Democrats, on the other hand, have nominated a long-time State Department Foreign Service Officer who has fostered a huge coalition in a very diverse district.

Sri Preston Kulkarni, the Democratic candidate, first ran for this seat in the 2018 election, before it was clear that the state was trending blue. He spent over 15 years working overseas, mediating negotiations and peace deals between hostile nations. Once Trump took over, that job became more and more difficult — the United States was supposed to be a beacon of democracy, but it was starting to look and feel more like a troubled nation.

“After everything I’d seen, from [Trump’s] birther attacks and saying that Latinos are drug dealers and rapists, then the Muslim ban, then the Charlottesville Nazi rally, I just had to do something,” Kulkarni tells Progressives Everywhere. “I started out not thinking that this was winnable, I was doing because it was the right thing to do.”

He wasn’t really on the national Democratic Party’s radar — the DCCC was focused on flipping the House and prioritized the obvious swing districts. Left to figure it out on his own, Kulkarni decided that he’d expand the electorate in one of Texas’s most diverse districts.

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Kulkarni’s campaign built the largest relational organizing program in the nation during that election cycle, with volunteers phone-banking in 13 different languages. By connecting with so many tight-knit communities within the district, the campaign became something of a community in and of itself.

“The third-largest language we speak in Texas is Vietnamese and Texas has the largest Muslim population out of any state in America — these are not stereotypes people have of Texas, but that’s what it looks like out here in the suburbs, and it’s just about getting them into the electorate,” he says. “Inclusion is what we do. By reaching out to people, showing up at mosques and temples and Chinese community centers, having volunteers to speak these languages and understand these cultures — that’s the only way you get change, through coalition building.”

In the end, Kulkarni came just a few points shy of a massive upset victory over Republican Rep. Pete Olson, and in fact gave him such a scare that Olson announced his retirement the following summer. Kulkarni quickly declared that he was going to run again to finish the job.

From the start, he focused his second campaign on issues such as affordable healthcare (the trauma of his family nearly going bankrupt when his dad got sick has stuck with him all these years later) and removing big money from politics (“the amount of time we spend fundraising is not healthy for democracy,” he says, “and I’ll push from day one to have publicly financed campaigns.”)

While Olson was certainly conservative, his 2020 Republican opponent, Troy Nehls, is (as I noted before) a far-right, power-abusing, anti-maskdisgraced-cop controversy machine. His record is appalling: Nehls was fired twice as a police officer for a litany of offenses; is being sued for overseeing a jail where a 15-year-old boy was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a volunteer and failing to act; and at the height of COVID-19 ravaging Texas, he decried a mandatory mask order as “communist.”

Continue reading “The Race in TX-22 Embodies The Battle for Texas”

Finishing the Job: How Democrats Are Running GOTV In The Age of COVID

We now have just over two weeks until Election Day, but given the unprecedented number of absentee ballots and early votes cast, the reality is that every day is election day. Already, over 8 million votes have been registered, and with more states opening up early voting in the next few days, that number will soon jump even higher.

With that in mind, the traditional weekend-before-the-election GOTV just won’t cut it this year. We need to be taking action now. Here at Progressives Everywhere, we’ve raised over $40,000 for GOTV groups this year, most of it over the last few months. Now, we want to go all-in on raising needed cash to help these organizations maximize their voter contacts over the next few weeks. It requires cash to run their advanced digital systems, pay field employees, and advertise online, so let’s help them as best we can.

Below, I spoke with leaders of two of the major grassroots organizations doing the hard work to put Democrats over the top when all the votes are counted. I can’t think of any better investment right now, so please help them finish off Donald Trump and the GOP with whatever kind of investment you can offer.

Community Change Action

Established in 1968, Community Change has been around since the tail end of the last civil rights era. This year, the organization is working to usher in a new era of civil rights advocacy and advancement by massively expanding its operations and connecting with voters beyond the typical checklist phone call or text message.

With a focus on working people and people of color, Community Change stands as a crucial link to underserved but enormously crucial voting blocs who often wind up disenfranchised at the ballot box and in policymaking.

“We believe that by engaging people who have been historically disengaged, we not only change the ultimate outcome of the election, but we also are building their long-term infrastructure and organizing capacity that we need to achieve progressive political agenda,” Grecia Lima, the national political director at Community Change, tells Progressives Everywhere. “We want for them to find a political home inside of their state that they can continue to be connected to, even after the election.”

Community Change Action, the organization’s political action arm, is now operating in eight states and 28 congressional districts. It’s running its own grassroots outreach campaigns in Arizona, Michigan, Georgia, and Colorado, while it has teamed with three other progressive groups — Planned Parenthood, SEIU, and Color of Change — for huge voter contact campaigns in Florida, Nevada, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Thus far, Community Change has engaged 6.1 million voters with 11 million phone calls and 2.3 million text messages. The numbers date back to January, but most of them have come in the last few weeks. The group has been busy, to say the least.

Continue reading “Finishing the Job: How Democrats Are Running GOTV In The Age of COVID”

Andru Volinsky Wants to End a Corrupt Political Dynasty

So much of our focus this year has been on flipping state legislatures from red to blue in order to pass progressive legislation and end gerrymandering. It’s absolutely crucial work, but just as important as flipping those legislatures is defeating Republican governors and cementing Democratic trifectas in as many states as possible.

The best chance to do that this year is in New Hampshire, where Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has been acting as a giant roadblock to progressive legislation  — he’s vetoed a record number of bills — and spent much of his time cashing in on his position since taking office in 2017. Democrats have a great opportunity to replace him with a very inspiring progressive candidate named Andru Volinsky, with whom I spoke earlier today.

Chris Sununu is a lot like George W. Bush, a scion of a political dynasty that has lorded over Republicans for multiple generations. In fact, his father John Sununu served as governor of New Hampshire and then as chief of staff in the first Bush White House, where he famously stopped an international climate treaty that could have saved the planet 30 years ago. Chris has continued the proud tradition of poisoning the environment by supporting coal plants, vetoing bills that would expand solar energy, and removing the state from a regional cap and trade. And his brother, Michael, is a lobbyist and straight-up climate change denier.

It’s not just the environment, either. Over just the past few months alone, Chris Sununu has vetoed laws that would have expanded red flag gun control, established paid family leave, approved independent redistricting, and created permanent no-excuse absentee voting. On the other hand, he has directed federal money meant to help low-income neighborhoods to pump money into a ski resort that his family owns, so it’s good to know he has some priorities.

It’s clear that the guy has got to go for anything good to happen. But who should replace him? Democrats have two candidates in a primary that is less than a week away. Andru Volinsky, by far the more progressive candidate, is running against an establishment leader who has raised a lot more money and used it terribly. Volinksy’s campaign has that Ed Markey coalition energy, riding a wave of support from young people and enthusiastic grassroots voters to a small lead in the most recent poll, out today.

As he joked in our conversation today, “everyone running this year is pretending to be a progressive,” but Volinsky is the real deal. He’s one of five members of the powerful state Executive Council, an oversight committee that serves as a check on Sununu. Volinsky has successfully blocked some of Sununu’s most corrupt gambits, including promoting an anti-choice Supreme Court justice and dispensing COVID-19 recovery money in secrecy.

Volinsky has a very long history of fighting for working people and progressive policies while combating conservative power. He spent years working as a public defender and fighting against the death penalty; in January, he took a week off from his campaign to put in a final, successful push to commute a 30-year client’s death sentence, pulling through with just a few hours to go.

Meanwhile, Sununu has said that he doesn’t believe that systemic racism exists in his police departments or elsewhere in the state.

“He said that in the face of Black Lives Matters, protests and other really appropriate challenges to how we do law enforcement, health care, and education,” Volinsky says, shaking his head. “But we know that four times as many young black people get arrested for pot as white kids and we’re no different on that score. We know that black and brown people have disproportionately poor health care outcomes compared to white people. And we know our two most diverse cities spend the least on their school kids.”

Volinsky is known for being the lead lawyer in a landmark case that required New Hampshire to better fund its schools. It was transformational, but he knows that there’s a lot more work to do on the education front; he told me that education will be one of his main priorities, along with the environment and a constellation of equality issues, including the legalization (and taxation) of marijuana.

New Hampshire has been known as a fiscally libertarian state, but Volinsky is unbowed by that reputation. He refuses to take The Pledge, an outdated Republican oath to fiscal conservativism that prioritizes the wealthy and shortchanges working families, children, and seniors. Notably, his rival in the Democratic primary was happy to sign on. Volinsky is also against fracking, another thing that makes him unique in the race.

Volinsky has been a community leader for decades, on the vanguard of a progressivism that has come into vogue over the last half-decade. Now, Volinsky is seeking to make big aspirations like the Green New Deal — he wants to create a regional version if necessary — and expansive criminal justice reform a reality. He was Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire campaign lawyer in 2016 and Sanders has returned the favor by endorsing his campaign.

“Now’s the time for bold ideas and courageous leadership,” he says. “I get some resistance from the insiders, who say ‘you can’t do this during a crisis.’ But if you think about it, it was during our country’s worst economic crisis, the Great Depression, when Social Security, a minimum wage, rural electrification, and federal home loans all started. And it’s because we had to make big changes.”

New Hampshire is a small state with an outsized influence on the country. If we’re focused on flipping states to make progressive policy a reality, we need to be fighting for candidates like Andru Volinsky.

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Leaders like Anton Andrew will be why Pennsylvania flips blue again

There are a few different paths that Democrats can take to win back the White House, but all of them require turning Pennsylvania blue. And to do that, Democrats need to continue what local leaders like Anton Andrew began in 2018: Reviving a moribund state party and energizing voters, turning long-time Republican strongholds into swing districts and Democratic victories up and down the ballot.

Democrats need just nine seats to take back the State House and pass laws like marijuana legalization and start funding schools again. Winning those districts will also translate into a Joe Biden victory, so the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The change is coming from the bottom up. In Andrew’s legislative district, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Democrats hadn’t even run a candidate throughout most of the last decade, with just two half-hearted campaigns between 2008 and 2016. In the wake of the Republicans’ sweep through Pennsylvania, Andrew, a former public defender and the chair of environmental and educational non-profits in the area, decided that he had to take action.

As a first-time candidate, he tapped his deep community ties and won the Democratic primary, then took on the long-time Republican incumbent. The state party refused to help, reasoning that he wouldn’t come close to winning. But Andrew was used to being told he couldn’t do something and using it to fuel his passion instead of snuffing it out.

He was born in the United States, where his parents were students at Howard University, but spent the first ten years of his life in Jamaica and Trinidad. Then they moved to Long Island, hoping to get Anton and his siblings a better education. On his first day at his new school, his teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. When Andrew answered “a lawyer or politician,” the class erupted into laughter — teacher included.

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“It never occurred to me that [being black] was something like a permanent handicap, but one of my friends clued me in at lunchtime. He asked me, ‘Do you know of any black lawyers? Do you know of any black politicians?’” Andrew recalls. “I remember at that moment thinking, well, we’re going to change that.”

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Fast forward several decades and Andrew was an accomplished lawyer and educator running a grassroots campaign out in the suburbs. He knocked on thousands of doors himself, determined to turn the political tide. Even without the Democratic Party’s help, Andrew came within just 800 votes (or 2.5%) of upsetting the GOP representative in 2018 of District 160, a shockingly close result.

Now, Andrew is running again to finish the job. He’s such a formidable candidate, in fact, that the Republican he nearly unseated decided to just up and retire, leaving Andrew with an even better shot of winning the seat. That he won the Democratic nomination again by over 20 points after a slim victory in 2018 is a very good start. An endorsement from President Barack Obama and a nice fundraising total thus far only help.

The day I spoke to Andrew, he was getting ready to go speak with the local police union, hoping to receive their endorsement. At first, I was surprised to hear that, considering both his party affiliation and everything I knew about his politics and past. But as he explained to me, he’s a coalition builder with enough credibility to reach out to seemingly opposite sides.

Andrew spent years as a public defender in Miami, a career he pursued after seeing some of his Black and brown friends at Penn arrested by cops for no obvious reason and unable to pay for their own private defense. When he moved with his wife and young children to Pennsylvania, where they had no paid public defender positions, he did it in a volunteer capacity as he worked for Cheyney University, the oldest HBCU. Where Andrew lives in Pennsylvania, police had joined in with protestors during the Black Lives Matter marches, leaving him hopeful that change is possible.

“I absolutely think we need to reform the police,” he says. “We need to re-fund social agencies — as a public defender working in Miami, coming up with those alternatives to incarceration, I was really lucky to have a team of social workers, educators, and health professionals to help. Those groups barely exist within the criminal justice system anymore.”

Along with police reform, Andrew is passionate about the environment — he’s on the board of trustees at his local chapter of the Nature Conservancy — and is, like any responsible citizen, very concerned with how the state recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. Legalizing and taxing marijuana, as Gov. Tom Wolf proposed, is near the top of his list, as is closing the loophole that allows many of the state’s businesses to incorporate in neighboring Delaware and avoid taxes. Education is key, as well — Andrew also works at an educational resource center.

The goal is to ensure that no Black child gets laughed at when they say they want to be a lawyer, but instead, they get every opportunity to make that dream come true.

“This might be the moment where me being a black candidate in an all-white district, I can lean into that, and I have been leaning into that,” Andrew says. “And the polling is showing that the residents of the district are buying into it. I’m very happy about having the opportunity to be completely authentic, and have that be to my advantage.”

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