Pols Listen to Voters -- What a Concept

Texas politicians court the Industrial Areas Foundation at its Austin conference.

A variety of Texas politicians and civic leaders (including former Austin mayor and current candidate for Texas attorney general Kirk Watson, left) addressed delegates of the Industrial Areas Foundation at the Erwin Center on Sept. 8.
A variety of Texas politicians and civic leaders (including former Austin mayor and current candidate for Texas attorney general Kirk Watson, left) addressed delegates of the Industrial Areas Foundation at the Erwin Center on Sept. 8. (Photo By Michael May)

At the Frank Erwin Center on Sept. 8, Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison got a taste of what it might be like if ordinary Texans controlled the political agenda. Hutchison, one of several politicians who spoke to the 10,000 mostly working class delegates of the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation Network (IAF), moved toward a rousing crescendo on the Sept. 11 attacks: "The terrorists don't want our way of life, with our diversity and our tolerance, to succeed!" She waited for the applause; the crowd hardly murmured. A few minutes later, when Hutchison promised to try and provide clean water for every household in the Rio Grande Valley, an item on the Texas IAF agenda, the stands came to life, erupting in a frenzy of applause and cheers.

It may seem surprising that a Republican would bother to show up for an event that championed progressive programs like living wage ordinances and better immigrant services. But the nonpartisan IAF insists that any politician willing to work with the group on its agenda is welcome to their votes. "It's not about the candidates," said Angela Baker, co-chair of local IAF chapter Austin Interfaith. "It's about us. That's where the power lies. Look around: we don't have a lot of money, but we can generate half a million votes, and that is the power to really make things better for working families." Most major candidates showed up for the meeting: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez, U.S. Senate candidates Ron Kirk and John Cornyn, and 11 others. (Gov. Rick Perry and candidate for lieutenant governor David Dewhurst were notably absent.) Agenda items are first introduced by IAF members, who set the priorities themselves in small meetings held regularly in religious institutions and schools across Texas. The final agenda -- a list of specific demands on health care, immigration, living wages, education, job training, and water issues -- is finalized at a series of statewide meetings. Then comes the hard part: building relationships with key legislators and trying to turn the agenda into law.

"The action on Sept. 8 is only the beginning," says Father John Korcsman, a leader with Austin Interfaith. "It is important to publicly commit to the agenda, but politicians invariably need reminding." IAF members plan to meet with all of the candidates over the next month and a half, and then continue to meet with them once they are elected, Korcsman says. This simple strategy -- identifying an agenda backed by a large constituency and holding politicians accountable -- has worked in the past. For example, the IAF played a large role in providing running water to residents in the Valley, an initiative that Hutchinson supported. Last session, the IAF worked hard to pass a living wage bill that would allow school districts to pay above an area's prevailing wage, and a bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Perry vetoed both bills, which may cost him dearly: The IAF has promised to deliver 500,000 votes this election.

Although the IAF is nonpartisan, it's true that much of their support is in Democratic strongholds like the Valley. "If they do what they say they will, they could very well swing this election for the Democrats," says Texas AFL-CIO spokesman Ed Sills. "The IAF has a unique ability to reach new voters in places where other organizations like ours don't have a presence." And unlike the AFL-CIO and many other groups, he added, the IAF can attract bipartisan support. "If you look at their agenda, it's progressive, but it's not radical," he said. "There is bipartisan agreement on a lot of these issues. The question is how to pay for them."

Christine Stephens, associate director of the Southwest IAF, says they are successful in these areas simply because they reach voters the old-fashioned way, with their feet. Many organizations have moved on to sophisticated direct mail campaigns, she points out. Still, Stephens says they are unlikely to get a lot of new voters, who are "very difficult" to attract to the polls. IAF tends to focus more on occasional voters -- people who vote in presidential campaigns, for example. Without encouragement, they might not make it to the polls this time, she says. The IAF will target particular precincts, and hold an early voting day on Sunday, Oct. 20, in order to measure how much impact they have. IAF leaders seem truly unconcerned with whether they usher in a new wave of Democrats. "Honestly, we don't care who our members vote for," says Baker, "because either way, the agenda wins."

Austin Interfaith plans on bringing 35,000 people to the polls. Pickle Elementary principal and IAF member Claudia Santamaria will be getting out the votes in her neighborhood. "We just can't afford to ignore the issues facing recent immigrants," she says. "At Pickle, the effect of denying health care to undocumented immigrants is readily apparent. We have a lot of kids with rotting teeth and other basic health problems. And if these children aren't healthy, they are not going to learn. What kind of future does that leave us?"

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