In a nondescript West Dallas office complex, David Villalobos is on a roll, talking to about three dozen men and women – mostly black and Latino – all in matching teal shirts. They are canvassers for the Texas Organizing Project, preparing to hit the streets and knock on doors. Villalobos is answering a question about getting people to talk about the election when they’re not very interested in voting.
“How do we get them to actually pay attention, or to be committed to the conversation we’re trying to have with them?” he asks.
The answer: Talk about the issues like poor conditions in their kids’ schools, he says, or an unequal criminal justice system. Starting there gets people to “open their ears” so they’ll to listen to the pitch.
“What else is it going to open up?” he asks, to murmured responses. “Their heart! If we don’t open up people’s hearts, they’re not going to take that action to go vote.”
This is the central tenet of the Texas Organizing Project’s voter mobilization strategy: showing unlikely black and Latino voters that the issues that matter to their communities are on the ballot, and will be impacted by voting. It’s a shift from the kind of door-to-door campaigning done by most political candidates.
“We do talk about candidates but that’s on Page 2,” says Brianna Brown, TOP’s deputy director and a veteran of former President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
The organization, based in Dallas, Harris and Bexar counties, has built an increasingly sophisticated voter mobilization machine in its nine years of existence. Brown says building political muscle is part of the group’s strategy to push for an array of progressive policies that will help working- and middle-class black and Latino Texans, like paid sick leave, affordable health care, public school funding and immigrant rights.
“At the center is this fight for racial and economic justice,” Brown says.
Highest on TOP’s agenda this year is criminal justice reform. The group is backing candidates this year — mostly Democrats, including John Creuzot for district attorney — who have pledged to fight for bail reform, marijuana decriminalization and other policies to curb high incarceration rates that disproportionately affect people of color.
Getting out the vote
To support the candidates who will support their causes, TOP plans to move 26,000 unlikely midterm voters to the polls in Dallas County. They have higher targets in Harris and Bexar counties.
Irregular voters are, by all accounts, difficult targets. These are the people who may have voted for president before, but don’t show up during local elections, or March primaries, or vote in midterms. Reaching them and moving them to vote is labor intensive: TOP’s strategy involves as many as nine “touches,” including multiple in-person conversations with canvassers and mailed literature -- canvassers ask potential voters to sign postcards pledging to go vote, which are sent back to them before the election. TOP has daily phonebanks to call people they've contacted, and the group will organize rides to the polls.
In Texas, there’s plenty of room to grow. Although turnout has been markedly high this year during early voting, Texas regularly scrapes the bottom of the barrel for turnout. Only about a third of registered voters cast votes in the 2014 midterm election.
Brown says there are a range of reasons that the voters of color that TOP is targeting don’t vote regularly. People have busy lives, especially younger, lower-income people working multiple jobs and juggling child care. Laws and policies that depress turnout like Texas’ voter ID law tend to disproportionately affect black and Latino voters. And campaigns that do voter outreach tend to spend their limited resources contacting likely voters, ignoring those who vote infrequently.
“Our people are not voting, black and brown folks are not voting, because no one’s asking them to vote in these midterm and local elections,” Brown says. “So we’re asking folks to vote, and we’re also rooting that in a big picture, bold policy agenda.”
A long term goal
While the Texas Organizing Project has committed significant resources to voter mobilization, Brown says their community organizing work is year-round. The group worked on campaigns in Dallas County (unsuccessfully) and in Bexar County (successfully) to put a paid sick leave requirement on the ballot, and they helped push a 13-cent tax hike for Dallas schools onto the ballot. They also organize press conferences and rallies, show up at public meetings and file lawsuits to push for their issues, like one aimed at ending Dallas County’s bail system. Brown calls it a “two-fist” strategy.
“People power on one fist: mobilizing folks to the streets, to PTA meetings, city council meetings, commissioner courts meetings,” she says. “And then also political power: making sure that our votes are counted, taken seriously and that the people that we elect to office are going to be real champions.”
The group wants to turn out 100,000 unlikely voters in Dallas, Harris and Bexar counties this year. It’s a benchmark in their long-term strategy that, if successful, could have huge consequences for Texas politics.
By 2022, TOP plans to build robust operations in the state’s nine most populous counties, and add 850,000 voters of color to the electorate. That’s enough, Brown says, to put a governor in office who shares their agenda.
“Organizing is sometimes seen as a cute, squishy thing,” she says, “but really the destination is [building toward a vision of] what happy, vibrant, free lives really look like for black and brown people across the state. And that has been the main artery of the organization.”
A wider movement
“TOP is drawing on a long tradition of community organizations who have sought to organize African-Americans and Latinos in the political arena and beyond,” says Max Krochmal, a historian at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Krochmal says TOP is part of a range of progressive grassroots organizations that often work together to promote progressive civil rights and economic issues in Texas and beyond.
In some ways, he says, it resembles the mid-20th Century movement to unite African-American and Latino civil rights groups with organized labor and white progressives. Krochmal traced that movement’s successful takeover of the Texas Democratic Party in the 1960s that changed the state’s politics in a recent book.
And while the Democratic Party traditionally supports the issues TOP focuses on, he says their their statewide campaigns in the last couple decades largely focused on courting moderate white swing voters. That strategy, he says, has won them few offices and left many in black and Latino communities feeling neglected.
“What we've seen is that indigenous community organizations that are rooted in African-American and Latino communities are filling that gap, stepping into the breach and connecting those communities with the Democratic Party and the electoral process broadly,” he says. “But I would say with a bigger vision — a vision of social transformation.”
Krochmal says TOP has notched wins over the years, like in Harris County in 2016, where TOP threw its weight behind progressive candidates for district attorney, sheriff and mayor of Houston. Since then, the city that has taken the lead on reforming bail and decriminalizing marijuana.
“The conversations, when I was last there, were about how we make Houston a model city for criminal justice reform nationwide,” Krochmal says.
While progressive organizations focused on building electoral power and encouraging political participation have proliferated over the past decade, Krochmal says they’ve gotten a boost of energy from President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. That’s shown up in the rise of progressive candidates like Beto O’Rourke, who is running for U.S. Senate in Texas, as well as gubernatorial candidates like Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia.
Building political power
Back at Texas Organizing Project’s Dallas campaign office, Shetamia Taylor leads a team of 14 canvassers who go out five days a week to knock doors for $15 an hour. Many members of her team have been irregular voters like the people they’re reaching out to, so they know how to talk to people who are unconvinced that voting matters, she says.
“I love to see the passion in some of these young folks’ faces when they're out here,” she says. “I love the way they talk about how they got to someone who said that they weren't going to vote. And now they are because they came and knocked on the door.”
Taylor says seeing that passion, and getting people to vote, is exciting because it’s a step toward building political power among black and Latino communities.