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Texas Democrats Who Worked For Obama See Their Ties As Midterm Strength

Christopher Connelly
Ed Meier, who worked in the Obama administration's State Department and was a policy advisor to Hillary Clinton, addresses supporters with his son, Nolan.

“If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.”

That’s what Barack Obama told his forlorn supporters in his farewell address last year as he prepared to leave office. One group that seems to have taken that message to heart are the people who worked in his administration.

From California to Michigan, Colorado to New Jersey, dozens of appointees and analysts, lawyers and policy wonks, who filled the ranks of the government’s various departments, have filed for office.

In the crowded race for the Democratic primary in Texas’ 32nd Congressional District — a Dallas-area seat held by Republican Rep. Pete Sessions — three of the seven candidates are Obama administration alumni.

“[President Obama] attracted a diverse group of young people to be involved in government, probably in a way that hasn’t happened since John F. Kennedy,” said Colin Allred, who worked in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and is running in the 32nd District race. “Those of us who were a part of that believe in the power of good government, believe we can do things to help people out.”

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Colin Allred talks with Rickey Phillips as he knocks on doors in North Dallas to gin up support for his campaign for Texas' 32nd Congressional District.

Allred is a former NFL linebacker who went on to serve in the Obama administration. He went to school nearby, he says, and grew up with a single mom and went to college on a football scholarship. That’s why he’s running for Congress, he says. You shouldn’t have to be a ballplayer to go to college.

“The American Dream is on life support,” Allred says. “And as someone who’s been able to live my version of the American Dream, I feel it really strongly that we have to do this now; we can’t wait.”

Allred was a civil rights lawyer in the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Obama. He says watching President Donald Trump’s team start unraveling the work they did helped cement his decision to run for Congress.

“The work that we did at HUD was something that really affected people on a day-to-day basis,” Allred said. “Seeing the approach they took to it made me feel like we were going to have to have a reaction to it in 2018.”

That’s a common sentiment for many of the Obama alumni running for office this year.

Lillian Salerno, who was a political appointee in the Agriculture Department and is also running in the 32nd District, says hyper-partisanship in Congress is stymieing good policy.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Lillian Salerno at Jimmy's Food Store in Dallas.

“Just because it says Obama or Bush or whatever, it’s just crazy that you go and tear down stuff just because the other guy did it,” Salerno said. “I’m somebody that, if it’s a good idea, if it doesn’t come from somebody in my party, I’ll listen.”

Salerno is a lawyer who launched a small medical device company before going to Washington to work on rural business issues under Obama. When you look at the country from that vantage point, she says, it’s pretty clear that undermining the federal government hurts real people.

“Guess what? The capital markets don’t go and put broadband in those last miles of these small communities. There is no clean water without the federal government in some of these communities,” she said. “We’re a first-world country; we’ve got to take care of her people.”

Campaign credibility

University of Virginia political analyst Geoffrey Skelley says time spent working in the Obama administration can give candidates some street cred among Democrats and can help with fundraising or endorsements.

“Serving in the administration could open up the connections that you might need to open up a credible congressional campaign,” Skelley says, though not always.

And given Obama’s popularity, Skelley says it’s probably a smart move for former administration officials to tout that experience on the campaign trail. When the former president left office, a Political poll showed a little more than half of voters approved of him. Eighty-five percent of Democrats in that poll thought he did a good job.

Republicans say they’re more than happy to have Democratic challengers embrace their Obama connections.

“We see it as a legacy of big government, slow job growth, heavy-handed regulation, weak foreign policy,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the House of Representatives. “I just don’t think that the American people, particularly in Texas of all places, really have an appetite for that.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Democratic candidate Ed Meier has a different read on politics here in Dallas. The former State Department official worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and he says his candidacy stems from a question his daughter asked after Donald Trump was elected.

"Serving in the administration could open up the connections that you might need to open up a credible congressional campaign."

“She asked ‘Daddy, is Donald Trump going to do all those mean things he was going to do?’” he said. “I thought bullies never win.”

Meier is the best funded among the seven Democrats running for the race, which includes immigration attorney George Rodriguez and former TV reporter Brett Shipp.

But like the other Obama alumni, Meier only really wants to talk about taking on Republican Pete Sessions in November.

“People want someone who values treating people with dignity and respect and who’s going to listen their community and represent them in Washington and really go up there to solve problems and not tow a party line,” Meier said.

No matter which Democrat wins, it’ll be an uphill battle. Sessions has been in Congress for two decades. A former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Sessions is a strong fundraiser with more than a million dollars in the bank.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.