- Interview by
- Alex Birnel
Texas Republicans are committed to minority-rule reactionary politics. They recently legislated to suppress the vote, created penalties for cities that reduce police budgets, protected marauding oil and gas interests after a catastrophic grid failure, and enacted the most draconian abortion ban in the country.
But even in the belly of the beast, organizer-turned-city-councilmember Greg Casar has managed to advance a progressive agenda. Since 2014, Casar has served on the Austin City Council, where he has coordinated city-level pushbacks against Republicans’ state-level class warfare and Democrats’ shortcomings and evasions. With creative organizing and a clear focus on popular working-class issues, Casar has demonstrated that even in Texas the Left has legs.
Casar is now setting his sights on Congress. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), he’s hoping to become Texas’s addition to the Squad, representing the urban and exurban Thirty-Fifth District. Alex Birnel spoke to Greg Casar for Jacobin.
What was your organizing history prior to holding public office, and how did it lead you to the Austin City Council?
Before I was elected to office, I was an organizer at Workers Defense Project, which is our statewide immigrant worker center. We were taking legal action against employers that were underpaying our members or in some cases not paying our members at all for the work that they did.
A lot of the work that I was doing was direct advocacy, organizing workers to advocate at city hall to win policy change in the construction industry in particular. Because in Texas, we know that one of our levers of power is not the state government but pushing supposedly liberal city halls. One of the first campaigns I worked on, when I was still in college, was organizing our members and a broad coalition of unions and progressive organizations to win the right to water breaks for workers here in Austin.
I decided to run for office at age twenty-four, when our city council not only needlessly approved millions of dollars in public subsidies for the largest hotel development being built in the city but then tried to let the builders off the hook on wage requirements for their workers.
I joined union organizers in working overnight in parking garages, gathering testimony from dozens of workers about the violations of the law and the violations of city ordinance happening on the project, and we brought that information forward to the city council. Then mayor Lee Leffingwell reacted by putting forward a proposal for a new law that would retroactively waive all the worker wage requirements and let the developer off the hook. So, we organized a coalition of progressives from across the city to block Mayor Leffingwell’s proposal.
We had to work for months to make sure that key swing votes on the city council actually blocked that proposal — and this was on an all-Democrat city council. We should have never been put in that position in the first place. So, I ran and won a seat on city council right after that, to push our city away from mere liberal branding and toward meaningful solutions.
Census data for the last ten years shows that Texas grew by nearly 4 million people. 95 percent of that growth has been from people of color. You decided to run following the redistricting process, which redrew congressional maps, compelling the current incumbent in Texas’s Thirty-Fifth District, Lloyd Doggett, to jump over to the newly drawn Thirty-Seventh District. How do you view your coalition to win?
This is a district of working families and of communities of color. It is a district where people froze during the recent power crisis, while officials like Ted Cruz flew to the beach. It is a district where people have gotten disproportionately sick and died from COVID-19, while the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court banned paid sick day laws in the middle of a pandemic.
It’s a place where working people have been through so much and are struggling more than they have to because of the Republican regime that governs the state. And I believe that those people could put a real progressive champion in Congress to represent the Thirty-Fifth District.
Whether it’s people who are facing discrimination and gentrification in East Austin or facing stagnated low wages in Hays County or San Antonio, their interests are interconnected. And we see how people like Governor Greg Abbott have continued to put corporate needs and the concerns of the far-right wing way ahead of them. I know that this is a district that holds values that align with those of the progressive movement. People here want to see solutions for working families.
I’ve been working up and down the I-35 corridor for years, in Austin and San Marcos and San Antonio. My city council office cowrote a policy for reducing needless arrests with organizations like MOVE Texas, the Texas Organizing Project, and DSA. We passed that policy in Austin and were then able to push for similar policies in other cities up and down the same district.
When Trump sent ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to raid our communities and separate families, we established the first publicly funded immigrant legal defense fund in Austin. And just weeks later, we worked with leaders in San Antonio to establish one there as well. The Thirty-Fifth Congressional District is such an interconnected set of communities with common interests in passing progressive policy that works for working people.
Texas is infamously and shamefully the most difficult state to vote in. Many believe that the matrix of barriers, depressed resources, and difficult registration steps leads to suppressed turnout, specifically among voters of color, who even as nonvoters are likely more progressive on the issues than high-propensity voters are. Can you talk about how voter mobilization factors into your strategy to win?
As a city councilmember, I’ve represented the lowest-income district in the city and a part of the city that has some of the lowest voter turnout. But we were able to double voter turnout between 2014 and 2020 in my city council district, and we did that through constant engagement and respect for our voters and for our constituents.
People oftentimes don’t turn out, because why would they go and participate in a system that has consistently failed them? We will be using this campaign to directly knock on folks’ doors, to engage them on which improvements they want to see, and then to work with them not just around election season but consistently throughout the year. That way we aren’t just coming back and asking people for their vote, but actually showing that we can deliver results and that their participation can make a difference.
We badly need comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship and respecting people’s right to vote. And there are many people in this community, many people whom I have represented as a city councilmember, who have lived in the United States longer than I’ve been alive but continue to be denied their right to vote because of our broken immigration system and immigration laws.
Here in Texas, the fight against voter suppression bills like House Bill 6, Senate Bill 7 and Senate Bill 1 put Texas in the national spotlight, especially when Texas Democrats broke quorum and left the state in an effort to kill these bills. Ultimately, they returned home. And after two special legislative sessions declared by Governor Abbott, SB1 passed.
Do you read this dramatic action by state Democrats as a success or a failure? And as a candidate, how will you ring the alarm yourself about the crisis of democracy taking place here in Texas?
We had one of the worst legislative sessions that anyone can remember. We can’t see anything in this legislative session as a success when there were laws passed to discriminate against trans youth, laws passed to virtually ban abortion for the vast majority of people here in the state, and laws passed to suppress the vote. It is critically important for us to recognize the harm being inflicted on our community and to double down on organizing. We also have to be critical of the steps that we’ve taken in the past, so that we can take care of our people better moving forward.
We also need to figure out how to use our losses as a jumping-off point for organizing. For example, people are rightly upset that we don’t know whether the lights are going to stay on this winter, in the energy capital of the world. We need to make sure that we are connecting directly with working people and letting them know that Governor Abbott took a $1 million check from the from the CEO of one of the companies that profited the most during the winter storm.
And back to the topic of voting rights, we need to tell people about how the legislature is trying to make it harder for folks to vote — and use people’s anger about this as a way to mobilize more people to vote than ever. Because Texas is not a red state. It is an underorganized state.
What’s your theory of change at the local level in light of the fact that reactionaries are bound to use preemption at the state level to undo what we win?
We have to pass more progressive policy at the local level, because the state-level reactionaries can only undo so much of our work. And even if they undo some of our policy victories, they can never undo the organizing that went into securing them.
In Austin, I authored policies that successfully created sick day ordinances, a city fund for abortion care, and fair chance hiring protections for formerly incarcerated individuals. We passed some of the strongest anti-eviction rules in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. We doubled the minimum wage for city workers and city contractors from $7.25 to $15 an hour plus health benefits. And the legislature has tried to undo each of those things, but they haven’t been as successful as they would have liked.
In states that are under Republican rule, I think it’s incumbent on local communities to organize and push their city councils to pass as much good policy as they can and then do the extra work of defending that policy. In some cases, the legislature has come and undone progressive policy. For example, in Texas, the legislature banned a raise in the minimum wage in the private sector if there’s no city contract. But what they can’t undo is the strengthening of the workers’ rights movement that has raised wages for thousands of people in our community.
My theory is that if we do enough good work, Republican legislatures cannot preempt or undo movement building. And even if they preempt some of our policy wins, they certainly can’t preempt all of them.
And as a final note, we need progressives in Congress who can pass federal protections to supersede anything that Republicans like Governor Abbott are trying to do. It really should be up to Congress to ensure paid parental leave, paid sick time, and a $15 an hour minimum wage to every single American.
If Governor Abbott is going to prioritize corporate interests over fixing our electric grid, then we need somebody in Congress who is going to champion keeping the lights on for people in Texas. If our legislature is going to focus on discriminating against LGBT people and immigrants, then we need federal action to fight back against that kind of discrimination. If Republicans are trying to virtually ban abortion in Texas, then we need federal action to guarantee reproductive rights.
And that’s going to take not only passing important bills in Congress, but it’s also going to take federal elected officials coordinating with movement progressives and the broader left to build the base necessary to make that change at every level of government. I see myself as one piece of the labor movement, one piece of the reproductive rights movement, one piece of the environmental justice movement. And I think that in Congress, I could not only do a lot for the Thirty-Fifth District but also for progressive movements across the state.
Many in office seem hostile toward social movements, but your time and leadership is a record of a different philosophy towards building power. What is that philosophy?
I believe deeply in an inside-outside strategy, where elected officials can actually be committed partners with movement organizations. That requires relationships of trust and accountability. Elected officials and community organizations shouldn’t just be in a transactional relationship but should actually should be working together toward bigger goals.
For example, when everyone else was playing it safe on housing and only making a nominal commitment to affordable housing, our office worked directly with a coalition of community groups to put forward a truly bold affordable housing proposal. Instead of the common conflict in which the community comes and demands more but elected officials are worried that it won’t pass and therefore push back, we actually came together from the beginning and made a joint commitment around the size and breadth of a campaign we could wage together to pass a truly transformational anti-gentrification and affordable housing package.
That’s the same way that we were able to pass paid sick time. That’s the same way we were able to reappropriate funds from overmilitarized police academies into mental health response and into family violence shelters. That’s the same strategy that we used to block key portions of Donald Trump’s “show me your papers” law so that we could actually keep immigrant families together instead of allowing Trump to separate them. We’ve shown how that strategy can actually lead to transformational change, but it requires a core set of progressive elected officials to be coconspirators with the progressive movement.
What do you think of the Squad and the shift in tone and substance it represents federally? Would Squad members be your allies in Congress?
I think members of the Squad have done such an such an incredible job of shifting the conversation amongst the entire Democratic caucus. We’ve seen how members of the Squad have been able to deliver real change. For example, Representative Cori Bush — who wasn’t alone but really led that effort — sleeping on the steps of the Capitol for several nights. As a result, we got an eviction moratorium extended that helped thousands of people not lose their homes across the country. It is so incredible how just a small number of members can make such a big difference.
I’ve been asked how I would feel going from a city council where I’ve been able to pass dozens of policies to being in the minority as a progressive in Congress. But I don’t think that’s quite the right question, because in truth a majority of Americans believe that we shouldn’t have to pay for lifesaving medication through GoFundMe campaigns. A majority believe in Medicare for All, a $15 an hour minimum wage, and reproductive rights.
And so, when that’s where a majority of Texans and Americans are, I actually don’t believe that these progressive positions are minority positions, despite progressives being a minority in Congress. We shouldn’t fall back into thinking these policies are too progressive, when really they are what a majority of working people want.