-by Mike Siegel
After my Congressional campaigns in 2018 and 2020, building progressive coalitions in parts of Texas that had never seen them, I knew I had to stay in the fight. There truly is a path to victory in Texas. It involves consistent investment, year-round voter engagement, constant voter registration, strategic development of voter lists and data sets, smart messaging, good candidates, and competent campaign professionals. Once I started talking with Julie Oliver, a fellow progressive, Bernie and AOC-endorsed Congressional candidate, I knew I had a partner. That's what led to Ground Game Texas.
We launched last year, from scratch, and now we are in ten cities. We won our first ballot measure in May— the "Austin Freedom Act" that banned no-knock warrants and decriminalized marijuana possession under four ounces— by an 85% to 15% margin. Our mantra of "Workers, Wages & Weed" is a glib way of saying that we need to organize on the popular issues that motivate the Democratic base.
After Austin, the floodgates have opened up. For this November, we've already qualified for the ballot in four more cities (Killeen, Harker Heights, Denton, and Elgin), and are likely to qualify in at least two more (El Paso and San Marcos). A seventh city decided to simply adopt our proposed policy — Alton, in the Rio Grande Valley, now has a $15 minimum wage for city workers and city contractors. We are organizing people, mobilizing voters, building lists and changing policy, one city at a time.
The biggest opportunities are yet to come, however. If Ground Game initiatives are on the ballot in six cities, we think we can add 30,000 or more votes to the turnout this November— potentially 10% or more of the margin that Beto O'Rourke needs to make up to become the next Texas Governor. Imagine that, for a moment: that marijuana campaigns in college towns change the leadership of the richest, most powerful state in the South! Wouldn't that be grand?
It's not pie in the sky, either. Take Killeen, Texas. A military base community, just south of the massive Fort Hood Army Base. A place that had turnout below 60% in the 2020 presidential election, well under the 67% statewide average. A place that is nearly 40% African-American, but where Black people make up 77% of the people arrested for marijuana possession. A place where a 10% boost in turnout could add 10,000 votes to the statewide ticket.
Ground Game will be running messages to veterans and Black Killeen residents urging a vote for marijuana decriminalization, and reminding folks to vote up and down the ticket. This is a strategy that Democrats haven't effectively used in Texas to date.
We know the playbook works for Republicans. George W. Bush put "Defending Marriage" on the ballot in eleven states to support his 2004 re-election campaign. Wedge issues can win elections. And now it's our turn.
In the May 7, 2022 election in Austin, we started to prove the "Workers, Wages & Weed" theory of change. In a small turnout statewide election, Austin produced more raw votes than much larger cities in Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. And people who signed our petition were more than twice as likely to vote as non-signers.
Among young and infrequent voters we saw the biggest results. Young people (under 35) in Austin were six times more likely to vote than young people in Dallas— and eight times more likely to vote than their peers in Houston. Similarly, infrequent voters (who previously only voted in presidential elections) were 2.5 times more likely to vote in Austin than San Antonio, and five times more likely to vote than similar voters in Houston.
Our issue campaigns can have a tremendous impact this Fall, and we are only getting started. We are planning new campaigns focused on city-based organizing for abortion rights. And we are laying the groundwork for huge gains in 2024.
It's been a rough time to be a progressive in Texan. But there are some encouraging signs, that if we do the right work in the right way, victory is possible.