Texas Faith and Freedom

The full 'Chronicle' interview with Samantha Smoot of Texas Freedom Network

Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network since 1998, recently announced her resignation, effective Jan. 1, 2005. Smoot assumed leadership of the organization, which describes itself as "a mainstream voice to counter the religious right,"as the successor to Cecile Richards, who founded TFN in 1995. Just before she announced her resignation, Chronicle readers awarded Smoot the designation "Best Activist" in our annual "Best of Austin" Readers Poll. Recently we sat down with Smoot in her small but comfortable office on West Sixth and talked to her about the TFN, her hopes for its future, and her life before and after. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation. – Michael King

Austin Chronicle: Why are you stepping down as director of Texas Freedom Network?

Samantha Smoot: Well, the simple answer is that after six years I've decided it's time to move on and do something else, and hand the reins over to somebody who has got some fresh vision and energy. I think that's best for the organization right now.

AC: You've told me you hadn't anticipated being here for as long as you have been.

SS: No – I'm an itinerant campaign worker at heart. This is more than twice as long as I've been at any job. My résumé is studded with three-month- and six-month-long gigs.

AC: Let's sketch that out a little bit, leading up to when you took over the leadership of the Texas Freedom Network.

SS: Well, I worked on various causes when I was a university student, at Harvard/Radcliffe, and I got involved in various political causes, mostly having to do with women's issues. Afterward I worked at an AIDS organization, a women's organization, a battered women's hotline – all of this back East – and then through a fortunate series of events, got a job in Austin working for TARAL [Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League] in 1989. I think this was two days after the latest Supreme Court decision [on abortion] – in the late Eighties and early Nineties, during a time when there was a series of Supreme Court decisions restricting the right to choose. The pro-choice movement was mushrooming at the time and was also becoming much more political. TARAL at the time was kind of a hybrid between an issue advocacy organization and an electoral organization. We had phone banks running in six cities in Texas; we identified a quarter of a million pro-choice Republican and independent women voters for Ann Richards and other candidates on the ticket in 1990.

The following year I took a leave of absence and went to Louisiana to help there in a NARAL affiliate, essentially doing the same thing. That was the year of David Duke's run for the governorship, and I ended up, after the primary campaign in Louisiana, running a state representative's campaign there – and kind of got the campaign bug. After that I worked on various campaigns in Connecticut and Michigan and Louisiana and here, and I worked for Dean Rindy for a while, and then I worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, helping their candidates in seven states, including Texas. And then I worked for Emily's List ... based in San Francisco.

Oh, 1994 was the year of the Republican tsunami in Congress, but one of the miracle stories for Democrats that year was [U.S. Rep.] Ken Bentsen's victory in Houston in 1994 – when he defeated a Republican who had outspent him five to one – and then I worked for Ken for a while, helping him get his Washington office set up.

Fast-forward again to 1996, I was working in San Francisco for Emily's List for about a year and a half, and I looked up one day and realized I'd been homesick every day I was in northern California, I was over 30, I knew where I wanted to live, why was I wasting my time? So I came home.

AC: So you are a Texan?

SS: Oh, yeah. Well, I'm a navy brat, but I'm a fifth-generation Texan, went to high school and junior high in Dallas, I've got a lot of family in southern Oklahoma – so this is home. So we loaded up a moving van, and two of my girlfriends and I drove home, and took a little detour to stop in Luckenbach and had a couple of beers to fortify us for the home stretch. And when I got back here, I got in touch with Cecile [Richards]. I was already a member of this organization, and I had already worked with Cecile before on a couple of projects related to women voters. So when she decided to leave, and move with her family to Washington, I interviewed for and was lucky enough to get this job [in 1998].

AC: What was your sense of the organization when you began, and how has it changed?

SS: Well, from the beginning of my tenure this has been an incredibly solid organization. I can't think of anyone other than Cecile who could have gotten an organization like this off the ground, literally from nothing to 7 or 8,000 members, which is where we were when I started. I really think it took someone with that kind of energy and charisma and vision and contacts, to build the foundation of this organization. We were a four-person staff when I started, a deputy director (a sort of jack-of-all-trades), me, a fundraiser, and an office manager.

One of my goals was to sort of beef up our political and program work a little bit. And so we began doing research on issues, on political campaigns, on money behind religious right organizations, and later on things like tracking on how charter schools were performing, tracking how the privately funded voucher campaign in San Antonio was performing. So we started utilizing more interns and producing more original research, with the belief that information is one of our most powerful tools, and that information gives the organization credibility, and most importantly that right-wing political movements are more effective under the cover of darkness – anything that could expose what they were doing would be of great use in putting out the alarm to the public.

AC: How would you describe the central character of the organization?

First and foremost this is a grassroots organization. This is an organization that helps regular people have a voice in and an impact on the political process, and especially people who have not been traditionally, necessarily represented. We've done a lot of work to organize progressive people of faith and religious leaders; we now have a full-time person staffing the Texas Faith Network, which is over 500 clergy around the state at this point. We have tried to get ordinary people involved in the voucher debate – we've worked hard to get parents from Edgewood ISD down to the Capitol, many of whom have not been to Austin before, some of whom aren't comfortable speaking English – so that they can have press events, and testify, and lobby their legislators.

We try to put together coalitions that reach beyond the usual suspects – which is not to devalue the usual suspects, I don't know where we would be without our longtime allies, the folks from LULAC, and ACLU, and other progressive groups. But we believe that while there are some states where if we could just reach the people who agree with us, and get them mobilized, we'd win – there are states where that might be true, but that's not always true in Texas, on any given issue. So we've got to able to find people who don't necessarily agree with us on everything, but might on a particular issue.

AC: You came out of a lot of partisan Democratic work – I presume that's something you had to make an adjustment for in a nonpartisan organization.

SS: Sure, although actually my first campaign job in Louisiana was for a Republican candidate – a pro-choice Republican woman running against an extremely anti-choice Democrat. So my campaign background is actually bipartisan.

AC: The TFN works on a lot of religion-related issues, so one of the things you attempt to do is make visible a religious perspective that is not the conventional, presumptively conservative one. Can you talk about how the Texas Faith Network fits into that and how it differs from the Texas Freedom Network as a whole?

SS: The Texas Faith Network is I think about the most important thing that we do. This is a group of religious leaders, there are members across the state, there's a steering committee here in Austin. They will sometimes choose issues that are different than Freedom Network issues. For instance, the Texas Faith Network was vocal on a lot of issues related to welfare reform, where the Freedom Network wasn't involved at all. I anticipate that the Faith Network may be involved some day on criminal justice reform issues, where the Freedom Network may not go. The Faith Network is a bit more oriented toward social justice type issues.

AC: Is it explicitly an organization of clergy?

SS: Yes, although there are some lay people who are involved and on the mailing list and so forth, but it really is an organization of clergy. They've been around since after the first year of our founding, so almost nine years now. And there were religious leaders involved from the very beginning, when Cecile Richards started this group. The Texas Faith Network is so important, because in the first place it's important to progressive religious leaders simply to have a forum to which their voices as moderate or progressive people of faith can be heard, and so the public dialogue is not going to be so very dominated by fundamentalist, Christian-right voices. Secondly, I think that the political dialogue in this country is so polarized right now, and the religious right is very quick to accuse progressives of being anti-religious. And, progressive organizations have too often not reached out to very natural allies in religious communities. And for all of those reasons, it is easy sometimes for people to perceive "religious vs. anti-religious" in a dialogue, say, surrounding an issue like school prayer, for example. So, the only way for us to really demonstrate that that's not the case, is for us to let a religious leader, someone who has that mantle of morality and credibility, and the spiritual language, to articulate that different point of view.

AC: Let's talk a little bit about the most high-profile things that TFN is known for: school issues, and more specifically, textbooks. This has been a perennial battle in Texas for more than a generation. How do you see the organization's role in that debate?

SS: Our role in fighting the political censorship of textbooks is huge. There's really not another organization that would count that as among their chief issues. There aren't many organizations that are equally aware, even those working on school issues, about what goes on at the State Board of Education. So to the extent that we can let people know what's going on, but also give them an orientation to the process, and how you make a difference over there, we're helping a lot, I think.

This is a depressing time, I think, to check in on the status of textbook censorship in Texas. Two years ago, an environmental science textbook was rejected because religious-right activists testified that it was anti-Christian and anti-free enterprise because it contained information on global warming. A couple of years ago, the date of the ice age was removed from a book, because two people testified that saying the ice age was millions of years ago conflicted with their reading of scripture, which indicated to them that the earth was only 6,000 years old. So the publisher took it out. Last year, the forces of good prevailed, and a very well-funded, well-coordinated, out-of-state effort to weaken the teaching of the theory of evolution in our biology textbooks was turned back. But David Bradley, one of the ringleaders of the religious right group on the State Board of Education, said to me, minutes before they took their final vote – he said, "Hey, next year we get to talk about sex," and he laughed and walked away, knowing that it's one thing to argue that there's a theory of evolution – not necessarily a very emotional topic – it's another thing entirely to talk about young people needing to be able to protect themselves from unintended pregnancies or STDs [sexually transmitted diseases].

AC: That was the health textbooks debate this year.

SS: Yeah – so we're in the middle of what I think is the most difficult challenge we've ever faced, trying to defend publishers and their books from groups that would censor information. What's depressing about the sex-ed fight this year, we're seeing an incredible example of the ripple effect of the right-wing's organizing efforts. Ten years ago, the last time the health textbooks were approved, it was a fiasco. It took the State Board of Education more than a year, hundreds of changes were submitted to the commissioner by individual board members, and it was such an embarrassment for the state that the following year the Legislature took away the State Board of Education's power to determine content, and confined them to considering factual accuracy in the books.

Ten years ago, the book with the most comprehensive sex-ed information was put forward by Holt. Holt was bullied and battered and finally withdrew their book – knowing that it was going to be rejected if they didn't – at a cost to them of millions of dollars. So, because of the ruckus raised by religious right groups ten years ago, publishers have decided that the most economically profitable way for them to go is to say as little as possible about family planning or disease prevention. And that's why three of the four books that have been submitted, don't say a single word about stopping HIV or other STDs, or unintended pregnancies, other than abstinence.

And so, it's been a real lesson, that each of these skirmishes that we engage in, has long-term consequences, far beyond the short-term win or loss. For instance, there was a big battle over public school vouchers six years ago that has set the stage for each voucher battle since, and the ones to come in the future. We were able to get the word out that the price tag for vouchers was going to be paid out of the public school kitty. Once people realize that, they're no longer interested in trying to finance two school systems out of one pot of money. That has been a great lesson – that it's not even so much about the immediate win or loss, it's about how the message and the dynamics are going to be perceived in the future.

I think that the right wing has done an incredible job of this. They really have a good sense of how to build on issues, how to use an issue to mobilize their people for consequences that are far beyond that issue. They are using and will be using current issues in that way. For instance, on abortion rights you can clearly see how they are just chipping away, chipping away, chipping away – trying to pick up ground on public opinion about abortion itself by focusing on late-term abortions.

I think the future of this organization, the Texas Freedom Network, is a very bright one, and I think this is the reason why. We now have a very strong constituency of members and activists – we have about 19,000 supporters, 95% or more in the state of Texas, some Texas expatriates around the country, and some people from other organizations around the country supportive of what we do. We understand how to engage and win some of these ground wars, these skirmishes. I think the next thing for the Texas Freedom Network is to move from playing defense, and to take on the task of actually changing public opinion on some of these issues.

AC: Let's talk a little bit about your relationship with the Legislature. How has that developed over the years?

SS: Well [laughs] there are plenty more lowlights than highlights. But thus far we've been able to defeat vouchers, we've won in the laws governing charter schools – charter schools are really about the privatization of education. While there are some excellent charter schools, the political forces promoting the expansion of charter schools are the same forces that are promoting the privatization of public schools. We've turned back what I think is the most insidious anti-public school effort, the push to eliminate safety and quality regulations covering public schools, which goes under the name "home rule." That has been an enormous victory.

We've also been able to shut down a key part of what had been Gov. Bush's faith-based initiative: his law to put faith-based children's homes under alternative, private accreditation, instead of state oversight – which had led to the Roloff Homes coming back to the state. We've been able to hold off some nasty things, like covenant marriage. There's the moment of silence bill – there was a lot of energy trying to turn that into more of a prayer bill than a moment of silence bill. We worked very hard on hate crimes legislation.

There are a number of different things. But I think that now that the political climate is so hostile – and I'm not speaking about partisanship, there are Republicans for instance who are supportive of the Children's Health Insurance Program, and Child Protective Services, and there are Republicans who think there should be no funding of children's health insurance and that Child Protective Services should be out of business. Within the Republican Party of Texas right now, there is a pretty broad ideological range. Unfortunately, it's the folks who are on the far right of that range who are holding the reins right now.

AC: Has that changed your relationship to the Legislature?

SS: Sure. When Tom Craddick secured the speakership, people who had been our allies lost their committee chairmanships, people who had not been, took their places. This organization doesn't have professional lobbyists, we've never really been in anyone's inner circle at the Legislature. We were outsiders before at the Legislature, and we're still outsiders today. The difference is that the agenda that's at work right now is deeply hostile to public education, to women's rights, to low-income families, to the separation of church and state, to all these things that we value. So it is absolutely a war zone over there.

So, when you get to lowlights – we build our grassroots army one person at a time. So if we bring 100 people to testify at a hearing, we've worked for months on outreach, to get those folks informed and prepared to be there. So seeing a couple of buses pull up filled with home-schooling families, or private school kids in uniform, or parents of kids from a particular private school where we're told that the parents were offered if they would come to the Capitol then they wouldn't have to do their volunteer hours for the rest of the year. That was over vouchers, this past year, at the Public Ed Committee.

AC: Do you think they've learned to consider you a force to be reckoned with?

SS: I hope so. I think that Chairman [Kent] Grusendorf [R-Arlington] would be the person to ask about that. I really do hope so. We have done a lot of work with legislators from both parties, and with the general public, and with organizations of people who care about public schools, to educate them about the dangers to public schools of key pieces of Chairman Grusendorf's agenda, and he has not been successful. You remember that the first bill that came to the floor, last regular session, was the bill to get rid of Robin Hood. And it came to the floor, and they had to pull it because they didn't have the votes. They hadn't counted the votes. It went from there, and it just kept going, and people like Scott Hochberg [D-Houston] and Jim Dunnam [D-Waco] were able to actually secure victory – face off against Kent Grusendorf and win on the floor of the House. I think we played a part in that in just letting legislators – legislators who otherwise might just have said, "OK, I'm just going to vote with the majority" – letting them know what the actual consequences of this anti-public school agenda would be.

AC: It did seem that on education, which is your bread and butter – that is where the ideological lines tended to break down.

SS: Right. Some of that is attributable to the fact that a lawmaker is going to be attuned to the parents' groups and school groups, and school board members and superintendents in their districts. But on some of these issues, we were on the other side, for instance, of the school board association, on this deregulation stuff. So it's not just a matter of that [self-interest], I think. One of the depressing lessons of that session was that this Legislature was willing to mess with consumers' rights, and women's rights, and low-income people – but not with public schools. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? But in these battles that we have been able to win, there's some lessons there about coalition-building, about bringing an issue home. And optimistically, I think, there's some information there about what kind of state, ultimately, this is. Ultimately, the leadership in the Legislature has not been successful with some of the key parts of their agenda, because they are way too far to the right. So the unwillingness to debilitate public schools back in the district could become an unwillingness to cut kids off of health insurance back in the district, or an unwillingness to block scientific research – we're going to have a stem cell bill in the next Legislature – and unwillingness to disappoint families grappling with Parkinson's disease or diabetes, back in the district. I hope there are ways that we can – the broader we – can continue to bring these issues home to legislators and put human faces on them and bring the people in their district. But it's a Herculean task to try to override the kind of ruthless political pressure being put on legislators.

AC: So in general, how do you see the future of TFN over the next period, and more broadly, the future of the kind of issues you work on?

SS: Well, we've expanded our issue base, things like doing some work on children's issues, fighting the push to restrict gay and lesbian families, hate crimes, charter school reform, covenant marriage, family law issues. All of these things have been sort of new to us, and it's going to be a challenge to remain focused and effective but also to stop the religious right on many of the different fronts in which they've been making advances. I do think that there are some issues brewing that are so clearly mainstream issues – like stem cells, like children's health insurance, like sex education – there was a Texas Poll question in August, in which 90 percent of respondents said that they agreed that public school students should have access to information about contraception. Can you think of anything else that 90 percent of Texans agree on? So I think that kind of information, that shows so clearly that the right wing has an agenda that is counter to the interests of the vast majority of Texans, is going to continue to be important for us.

AC: Not certain what you're going to do next?

SS: No, my imagination is going wild about that. I'm drawn to the idea of going somewhere abroad and working with refugees, I'm also drawn to the idea of hanging around town and taking a jewelry-making class and a tile-making class, and spending a lot of time on the hike-and-bike trail.

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  • More of the Story

  • Smoot Steps Down

    Texas Freedom Network director moves on after six years of leadership

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activism, Samantha Smoot, Texas Freedom Network, Texas Faith Network, Kent Grusendorf, Cecile Richards, Jim Dunnam, Scott Hochberg

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