Turning Williamson County a Bluer Shade of Purple
Wading through the new political landscape of the Austin suburbs
He's the youngest member of the Legislature, and looks even younger than his 29 years, but James Talarico sees himself as more of a throwback. "Every election is located at a certain point in history, whether it's for dogcatcher or president of the United States," he tells me as we walk along a county road on the edge of Taylor. For him, that time is Trump Time, and "the sense I got was not necessarily that the people of this district wanted something new; I think they wanted something a little old-fashioned. And I think this walk is an example of that."
We're not walking alone. Surrounding us are a small band of Talarico's staffers, supporters, friends, and family, managing the Round Rock Democrat's conversation not just with this reporter but with scores of people via Facebook Live. On this Sunday, Talarico will walk 25 miles, holding town halls in Taylor, Hutto, and Round Rock and meeting his constituents along the way. "You think back to the 19th century – like the Lincoln-Douglas debates – where candidates went town to town and had a public exchange of ideas, and citizens participated directly.
"It feels like in the Age of Trump, we've lost that," Talarico continues. "It's become entertainment politics, this reality TV show, and social media with its algorithms promoting conflict with one another. People wanted to get back to having elected officials who would listen to them, engage with them, and wouldn't embarrass them."
As we know, millions of Americans found those people by voting for Democrats for the first time in a long time, and Central Texas likewise saw the purple wave break on Austin's shores. With the exception of a single term at the turn of the decade, the last time Williamson County was represented by a Democrat in the Texas Legislature was 1993, when James Talarico was 4 years old and, he says, already signed up for the blue team. "My mother told me I was a Democrat when I was in kindergarten," he says, "because she said Democrats are for the people, and I've tried to maintain that." (His mom, Tamara, is following us in the walking tour's de facto sag wagon. "Is he drinking enough water?" she asks me later.)
Talarico's first political experience was working for former Rep. Mark Strama, who also flipped a GOP seat on the edge of Austin 10 years earlier, "and he was very much in the mold I've tried to replicate: someone who is pragmatic, not afraid to work across the aisle, and do the work of the state in a way that's productive." In Talarico and his fellow R-to-D freshmen across the state – a group dubbed "The Twelve" – one sees ample evidence that, despite the shrieking about socialism and whatnot echoing from Fox News Nation, Democrats now have a solid claim on the political center, at least in Texas.
Stopping the Silly S- - -
"It shouldn't be that way, and luckily in our chamber, it isn't really that way," Talarico says, "but yes, statewide and nationally the Democratic Party has its hand extended, and the GOP is led by people who don't have any interest in bipartisanship." He points to his work on school finance this session – a former classroom teacher, he sits on the House Public Education Committee – as an example of how things should be, with a GOP chair (Houston's Dan Huberty) who "won't move a bill without support from his Democratic colleagues" and a speaker (Dennis Bonnen) who is "absolutely invested in working across the aisle."
The victories of the Twelve, four of whom are from seats bordering Austin, "symbolically, at least, changed the tone of the discourse in the Texas House," Talarico says. He cites as an example the group's collective decision to "white vote" (registering "present not voting" in a roll call vote) the ridiculous and redundant "Born Alive" bill from Plano Rep. Jeff Leach. "That's exactly what we were elected not to do. There's a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans and just folks fed up with the political process, wanting us to stop the silly s---" – he checks himself – "coming through the state Capitol."
Despite Williamson County's persistent redness, it's probably not that surprising that as Austin grows, its outer bands of left-leaning political sentiment reach into the suburbs. But that doesn't mean that flipping four state House seats, along with other notable down-ballot wins, didn't take a lot of work. When my colleague Michael King spoke to Rep. John Bucy III – whose House District 136 adjoins Talarico's HD 52 to the west – at the beginning of the 86th Legislature, the representative pointed to several factors behind his larger-than-expected 10-point victory over incumbent Tony Dale.
"The suburbs are changing rapidly," Bucy said, "but we ran an aggressive field campaign in 2014, when I ran and lost the first time [also against Dale]. We continued that field development throughout, with the Western Williamson County Democrats group" – another of whose leaders and success stories is Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan – "with the focus on building the grass roots throughout District 136. So it's really been five years without letting up. That, coupled with population growth and what was going on higher up the ticket" – meaning Beto O'Rourke's U.S. Senate campaign and the national anti-Trump backlash – "just, a lot happened. We thought we would probably win in a nail-biter, nothing like we saw on Election Day."
Talarico worked closely with Bucy during the 2018 campaign to nurture the growing Democratic electorate in Williamson County, along with "one of my most famous constituents, a rock star and American hero," MJ Hegar, who carried the county in her narrow loss to U.S. Rep. John Carter and who is now the Democratic front-runner in the 2020 U.S. Senate contest against John Cornyn. During Talarico's walking tour, Hegar joined him on the path outside of Hutto.
Moving the Needle on Texas Values
As with Talarico, Hegar was a toddler growing up in the Williamson County countryside the last time a Dem represented her in Congress. Her political narrative is now familiar well beyond Central Texas – a Marine helicopter rescue pilot shot down in Afghanistan, she became engaged in politics on behalf of women in combat service roles, and through skillful viral video messaging attracted attention and big money from across the nation to challenge a GOP incumbent who'd last won the district by 32 points. One of her big digs against Carter was his failure to engage with his constituents on the ground; part of her commitment to do otherwise was to work closely with Talarico and Bucy on what became a tightly coordinated Williamson County campaign that, in the eyes of many observers, was more effective than O'Rourke's in bringing out dormant Democrats.
"I'll say this because she won't say it herself," Talarico told his virtual audience, "but most candidates that are famous and have a national profile and millions flowing in would not assist a local legislative candidate like me. But MJ made it a point to merge our field operations and pulled us over the finish line ... I count myself as part of the legacy of [her] campaign; without it, John and I wouldn't have two seats in the Legislature."
Hegar takes the praise gracefully and returns serve. "I think it's a very good, not-so-obvious litmus test to see why people are doing what they're doing. If they're in it for themselves and their ego and their résumé, and they want the nameplate and respect, then maybe they don't pay attention [to down-ballot candidates], even though it's strategically not very smart. But also, I often tell you this, and you hate it when I say this, but my children's future is in your hands, and I'm trusting you with protecting their education."
She likewise urged support for candidates even further down the ballot, in city council and school board races in Taylor, Hutto, and Round Rock that were decided this past weekend (results were mixed, from Hegar's perspective). What's most important "is to move the needle on the values that I'm also fighting for," she said. "It doesn't matter if I accomplish them, or you [Talarico] accomplish them, or someone else. You want to help the people above you on the ballot and pull up the people down-ballot."
Like Talarico and Bucy, Hegar positions herself as a champion of Democratic values that are also Texas values that transcend party: "strength, courage, integrity," in her words. It was with no awkwardness that Talarico and I were joined earlier on the town hall by another of his satisfied constituents – his own Republican predecessor, Larry Gonzales, who retired after four terms representing HD 52 and 18 years before that working as a House staffer.
"Just Stay in the Fairways"
As we made our way along the railroad tracks that flank U.S. 79 through Hutto – "It's like Stand by Me," Talarico says – Gonzales stresses that Williamson County's rapid growth (enough to merit creating the new HD 136 in the 2011 redistricting) itself creates an impetus toward centrist collaboration across the aisle. "People are moving here, but also in 2018 you saw a lot of people who've been here for a while find their voice and vote for the first time in some time," he says. "In 2009, there were a lot of people who told me they didn't want growth, and they were digging in, but now people are on board and are working together."
But did it take a resurgent Democratic Party to make that collaboration possible? "I think it's up to his party," says Talarico, pointing to Gonzales. "If it decides to follow his lead and elect leaders like Chairman Gonzales again, they'll be back in fighting shape and will reclaim districts like HD 52." (Gonzales served as chair of the Sunset Advisory Commission while in office.) "If they continue on another path, a more radical path, they'll [continue to] see the same results. The Democrats aren't the active players in this situation; I think we're just reacting naturally to what the GOP has done. The pragmatic Republicans who are pro-local control and pro-business ... they used to run this state, and I don't know why they've abandoned that successful Reaganesque path that got them here. But they have, and there's an opening that Dems have tried to fill."
Gonzales, whose years as a staffer included many sessions in a House under Democratic leadership, remembers then-Speaker Pete Laney telling members "as the bell was ringing during a vote, 'Vote your district.' In my opinion, I just did what I thought was right and voted HD 52. You start with education, the most important thing we do as a state, and without an educated workforce the jobs don't come here. So you just have to stay in the fairways – education, jobs, infrastructure, the things that holistically define opportunity."
Talarico translates: "What the chairman just said is the reason why, upon his retirement, I was able to take the seat, because there were a lot of Democrats in this district who voted for him in every single election because of that approach. If he stayed, they could have kept this seat, because he attracted support in the middle ground. A lot of leaders would benefit from taking that advice."
Gonzales comfortably wears the mantle of "policy wonk" that he acquired under the dome, and says that "on the House floor, there's the partisanship and the politics and the policy, and for so long, the policy has come in third – or fourth – out of three in some cases. But when I see a problem, I want to fix it." Talarico concurs: "That's the job I was hired to do. There's a difference between being an activist and being a lawmaker. It's not a job for everybody; some people are better suited to being activists."
As it has happened, the two reps agree, the folks who ended up in the wrong job are concentrated on the GOP side of the aisle. "There are a lot of pressures you feel under the dome, but I think it's different for each party," Gonzales says. "For Republicans, those pressures come from outside the building" – from third-party interest groups like Empower Texans, keeping ideological scorecards – "and for Democrats, they come from inside the rails," whether from the longtime lions of the caucus or the siblings in solidarity such as the Twelve.
The advent of social media has changed some of those dynamics, though, certainly from when Gonzales first took office. Talarico elaborates on his earlier observation that social media algorithms promote friction: "It's not designed to lead to compromise or consensus or understanding or empathy; it's good for business, the constant fighting and yelling at each other, and it's not healthy. It can do great things, like today," gesturing to his Facebook Live audience, "but in so many ways, I think it's damaging our civic culture."
Both he and Gonzales – and Bucy and Hegar and others among Williamson County's purple brigades – are finding the messy business of real-life politics more fruitful, though more complex, than the old game of blue vs. red tug-of-war, no matter how aggressively certain Republicans attempt to bait them into battle. "Every time there's a leadership change, there's a renewed energy around the building," says Gonzales, referring to Bonnen succeeding Joe Straus, who succeeded Tom Craddick, who succeeded Laney.
"And the tough votes will come, but you've now had three months to get to know and work with your colleagues, and you meet their family, you see the kids dressed up for the Easter egg hunt, and it's nice to have that rapport. The body has had a lot of time to spend with each other on issues that everyone cares deeply about. That's a huge benefit going forward as people. Because, you know, they're just men and women."
"They're just human beings," adds Talarico. "Once you see them with their families and their kids, you see them as three-dimensional figures, not the two-dimensional villains you thought they were."