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.”

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Sharon Hirsch Is Going to Unseat a Texas Tea Party Fanatic

Politics can be complicated, issues can be nuanced, and choices in elections can be unclear… but none of those things are true about this uber-close Texas House race between incumbent Republican Matt Shaheen and his Democratic challenger Sharon Hirsch.

He: A devout member of the fringe-right Republican Freedom Caucus who takes gobs of corporate special interest money, posts endless “Blue Lives Matter” memes, trolls the libs on Facebook, votes against public schools and special needs children, and once said “I will die on this issue politically” about passing a grossly bigoted anti-LGBTQ bathroom bill.

She: A long-time Democratic Party activist and Executive Committee member and public school employee who relies on small-dollar donations, is focused on funding schools and expanding healthcare access, and lost to Shaheen by an excruciatingly small 391 vote margin in 2018.

The two candidates for State House District 66 are a microcosm of the kind of politicians who have dominated Texas for 25+ years and the new wave of activists and lawmakers who are entirely remaking the state’s political culture. Democrats are now just nine seats from flipping the State House and Hirsch can claim a fair amount of credit for this ongoing transformation — she’s been involved in both the Plano and state Democratic Party since 2007 and co-founded an organization called Women Organizing Women Democrats. For a while, it was an uphill struggle — then Trump came along and changed everything.

To illustrate the contrast, Hirsch notes that before late 2016, the volunteer intake system was “a process of sticky notes and notes that said, ‘Call John at this number’ and ‘Called Mary at this number’ and it was a mess,” Hirsch tells Progressives Everywhere. “And then Trump won and it was the most remarkable thing that ever happened. All of a sudden, it was standing room only in the office and people just coming in droves wanting to do something. Some ran for office, some became super-volunteers who knocked on thousands of doors. There was a rallying cry.”

Click HERE to donate to Sharon Hirsch!

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Texas is a mess right now. Joanna Cattanach’s House campaign is a must-win if we want to help fix it.

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.”

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Akilah ‘Brass Balls’ Bacy is a Texas badass

Flipping a state blue significantly improves peoples’ lives. Turning Texas blue has long been a brass ring for progressives, and as we get closer, Republicans are starting to fight back. Such was the case in the special election in HD-28, where Democrats had a great candidate and lots of energy but were overwhelmed by the Republican’s money (newly elected Rep. Gary Gates self-funded over $1 million) and every statewide elected official’s help.

We can’t be discouraged. There’s too much at stake — and some important math. There are 15 seats that were decided by closer margins than HD-28 in 2018, and Democrats only need to take 9 of them. Plus, they have an awesome candidate in HD-138, a suburban Houston district that was decided by just 47 votes in 2018.

Normally, a candidate who loses by just 47 votes decides to run again, especially after the incumbent announces they’re retiring. But in this case, 2018’s Democrat decided to step aside and back Akilah Bacy, a tireless legal warrior for the community and one of the most compelling candidates I’ve interviewed here at Progressives Everywhere.

When I called Akilah last Sunday, it was 7pm and very dark outside, but she was just wrapping up a weekend of door-to-door canvassing in her western Houston community. I was drained from a weekend of hanging with friends; she was bubbling with energy after two days spent walking and talking with voters.

“While I’m a new candidate, I’m not new to the community,” Bacy told me. “I grew up around the area and I’ve always been involved, working in the legal field first as a prosecutor and then doing defense work and then employment discrimination work. I always believe that you grow where you’re planted.”

CLICK HERE to donate to Akilah Bacy’s campaign via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue page!

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