This Former NFL Player Is Running on a Progressive Agenda to Flip a Red District in Texas

Former linebacker Colin Allred is hoping to take out Republican Rep. Pete Sessions by campaigning on Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage and automatic voter registration. But first, he will have to win the upcoming Democratic primary.

Kate Aronoff February 6, 2018

Colin Allred is running in the March 6 Democratic primary to represent Texas's 32nd District. (Colin Allred / Facebook)

When it comes to Texas, for many years nation­al polit­i­cal pun­dits have focused on one ques­tion: When will the state turn blue? This year, a num­ber of Democ­rats are run­ning in the Lon­es­tar State, from Beto O’Rourke, who is chal­leng­ing Ted Cruz for a U.S. Sen­ate seat, to sev­er­al can­di­dates vying for House seats con­sid­ered new­ly up for grabs.

Our policies have majority support. We just don’t have enough people voting.

Among them is Col­in Allred, a civ­il rights attor­ney and for­mer Ten­nessee Titans line­backer who has thrown his hat into the ring for the 32nd Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict. Like many oth­er dis­tricts in the state, the 32nd, con­tain­ing parts of Dal­las and its sub­urbs and exurbs, was so aggres­sive­ly ger­ry­man­dered that Allred’s staffers joke it looks like a dog, albeit a less friend­ly one than his office’s res­i­dent Rhode­sian Ridge­back, Scar­lett. The 32nd has been rep­re­sent­ed by Repub­li­can Pete Ses­sions since it was cre­at­ed in 2003 as a safe Repub­li­can seat. That safe­ty was called into ques­tion in 2016, when vot­ers in the dis­trict chose Hillary Clin­ton over Don­ald Trump by one point.

While Ses­sions has con­tin­ued to vote in lock-step with Trump, it didn’t take long after the pres­i­den­tial vote for Democ­rats to see his seat as con­testable ground. Allred is run­ning in a crowd­ed pri­ma­ry field, where sev­en Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lengers have declared so far. But the biggest bar­ri­er to him or any oth­er Demo­c­rat claim­ing the seat may be Texas’s dra­con­ian vot­ing laws that have led to low turnout: the state ranks 49th in the nation for vot­er participation.

Allred con­sid­ers him­self the most pro­gres­sive can­di­date in the race, and is run­ning on a plat­form of Medicare for all, a $15 min­i­mum wage, cam­paign finance reform and auto­mat­ic vot­er registration.

As a civ­il rights attor­ney, Allred has spent much of his career out­side the NFL defend­ing against attacks on vot­ing rights at the local and nation­al lev­el. As he tells me, Texas isn’t a red state. Texas is a non-vot­ing state.” By this he means that white and mid­dle-class Repub­li­cans have an eas­i­er time turn­ing out on elec­tion day than Texas’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of peo­ple of col­or. And while the state’s vot­er ID laws are noto­ri­ous­ly strin­gent — allow­ing Tex­ans to use con­cealed car­ry licens­es but not stu­dent IDs to vote — its vot­er reg­is­tra­tion poli­cies may well keep even more peo­ple from get­ting to the polls, par­tic­u­lar­ly vot­ers of color.

The state does not allow same-day reg­is­tra­tion, and any­one hop­ing to reg­is­ter vot­ers has to first take a class and become dep­u­tized” to do so, a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion that only applies to the coun­ty where the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is grant­ed. For pri­maries like Allred’s — races where turn-out is already like­ly to be low — the sys­tem presents an espe­cial­ly tough hur­dle. Reg­is­tra­tion for vot­ing in the March 6 race is already closed. 

In many ways, the 32nd is a micro­cosm for the kind of dis­tricts Democ­rats may have to learn to win if they hope to retake con­trol of Con­gress: A diverse dis­trict where Repub­li­cans have erect­ed myr­i­ad road­blocks to mobi­liz­ing what could be the core of a pro­gres­sive base.

On Super Bowl Sun­day at his cam­paign office in Richard­son, Texas, just north of Dal­las, I spoke with Allred about the dis­trict he hopes to rep­re­sent, his career as a civ­il rights attor­ney, the increas­ing­ly charged racial pol­i­tics of the NFL and how to turn Texas blue.

Kate Aronoff: How did you decide to run?

Col­in Allred: I didn’t think I would run for office, cer­tain­ly not at this stage in my life. I want­ed to give back to my com­mu­ni­ty, and that’s why I went to law school and became a civ­il rights attor­ney. I want­ed to be involved in the things that had giv­en me a chance and allowed me to chase my ver­sion of the Amer­i­can Dream. And I saw we were — in a lot of ways — slip­ping back­ward on civ­il rights.

For a while, those of us in the civ­il rights com­mu­ni­ty have felt like we were los­ing ground and defend­ing shrink­ing ground instead of push­ing for­ward. The elec­tion of Don­ald Trump was the ulti­mate out­break of the dis­ease that had been trou­bling us.

Here in my com­mu­ni­ty, where I was born and raised, we have a mem­ber of Con­gress who I have known for decades and who is com­plete­ly out of step with the com­mu­ni­ty that we are. What­ev­er North Texas is, it’s not what Pete Ses­sions is. I’ve been want­i­ng to get rid of him for a long time, so I decid­ed to run against him.

KA: Can you give some con­text for the district?

CA: This dis­trict takes part of Dal­las and com­bines it with some of the sub­urbs and exurbs, as many of the Dal­las dis­tricts do. That’s how Repub­li­cans try to keep those dis­tricts Repub­li­can, since the city prop­er is very blue. But they’ve been under­mined by some of the rapid changes in the area. It’s a very diverse dis­trict, and there are 100,000 peo­ple a year mov­ing to North Texas.

It’s a dis­trict that has two tails to it: There are some very wealthy areas, and there are some folks who’re real­ly strug­gling. In a lot of ways, it mir­rors the country.

KA: Yours is a crowd­ed pri­ma­ry. What would you say are the big dif­fer­ences between you and oth­er Democ­rats running?

CA: I’m the most pro­gres­sive can­di­date, but we also have the most grass­roots-dri­ven cam­paign. We have hun­dreds of vol­un­teers and we’ve knocked on 13,000 doors, which is a lot for a con­gres­sion­al pri­ma­ry this far out in Texas. And that’s how I think we have to beat Pete Ses­sions. I don’t think you’re going to beat long-term incum­bent Repub­li­cans across the coun­try by run­ning gener­ic Democ­rats on gener­ic Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­forms. We have to have can­di­dates who have a sto­ry to tell and who can appeal to vot­ers who don’t always come out to vote.

KA: How do you think the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty needs to change to retake Congress?

CA: We need to avoid the pit­fall of just oppos­ing Trump. I am dis­gust­ed by Don­ald Trump as a human being and as the pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. But we have to know what vot­ers are for instead of just what they’re against.

A poll that was done after the elec­tion said that a large per­cent­age of vot­ers think the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty stands for the rich. That is a big prob­lem. Obvi­ous­ly our poli­cies don’t. But there’s cer­tain­ly some­thing we’ve done as a par­ty that has led to that per­cep­tion, and we have to address that.

Our lead­er­ship has not been bold enough on what we’re stand­ing for. For exam­ple, the recent vote in the Sen­ate to keep the gov­ern­ment open with a con­tin­u­ing res­o­lu­tion. I think that was a huge mis­take. They should have stood firm and got­ten a clean DREAM Act. We’re not deal­ing with an hon­est bro­ker on the oth­er side. And this is the thing we were elect­ed to do — to stand up for things like this. If you don’t, then why should we re-elect you? If you’re won­der­ing where the Black vote is or where the Lati­no vote is, it’s issues like this. When you’ve invest­ed in a can­di­date or a par­ty and you don’t feel like they show up for you. That’s when peo­ple turn off.

KA: What should that for­ward-fac­ing call be in the 32nd District?

CA: Num­ber one is health­care. We have a health­care cri­sis in North Texas. One in five peo­ple in Dal­las Coun­ty don’t have health insur­ance. One in six Tex­ans don’t have health insur­ance — the high­est unin­sured rate in the nation. You can’t chase your dreams if you can’t go see a doc­tor. That’s why I believe so strong­ly in uni­ver­sal health­care, and have spo­ken about my sup­port for a Medicare for All sys­tem that can pro­vide a base­line of coverage.

The sec­ond thing is pub­lic edu­ca­tion. In Texas, we have not invest­ed enough in pub­lic edu­ca­tion, peri­od. And we are always fight­ing back on the forces that are try­ing to do what they call school choice,” which is real­ly just siphon­ing off fund­ing from pub­lic schools for vouch­ers to send kids to pri­vate schools and parochial schools. I’m a prod­uct of Dal­las pub­lic schools. I come from a long line of edu­ca­tors. We have to invest so much more in our pub­lic education.

The oth­er thing is good pay­ing jobs and wage growth. Our pro­duc­tiv­i­ty has grown tremen­dous­ly since the 1970s, but the aver­age Amer­i­can work­er hasn’t got­ten a raise. Peo­ple under­stand that they’re work­ing hard­er for less, even if they don’t have the ter­mi­nol­o­gy for it. So many of the gains that we’ve made from our col­lec­tive hard work have gone to the top. That’s not the Amer­i­can way. It’s not rad­i­cal or social­ist to say that’s not the way we do things.

Our inequal­i­ty prob­lem is just explod­ing, and it’s a huge prob­lem. Even if you don’t care about the moral side — which I do — you should care about the issue from the small‑d demo­c­ra­t­ic side. When peo­ple feel like there’s no chance for them it dri­ves down par­tic­i­pa­tion and leads to extrem­ist politi­cians like Don­ald Trump.

KA: What are some of the trends you’ve seen in Texas in your work as a civ­il rights attor­ney work­ing on vot­ing rights?

CA: Texas is one of the worst states in terms of vot­er sup­pres­sion. The state gov­ern­ment here passed a vot­er ID law that was the strictest in the coun­try, and added more restric­tions to vot­er reg­is­tra­tion. Repub­li­cans can read demo­graph­ics as well as any­one, and they’ve done every­thing they can to ensure that vot­ing is not the province of peo­ple of col­or in this area. There’s no oth­er way to say it.

Putting clamps on vot­er reg­is­tra­tion is the eas­i­est way to stop peo­ple from vot­ing. A lot of peo­ple talk about vot­er ID laws because it’s the most obvi­ous thing, but the real per­ni­cious thing is restric­tions on reg­is­tra­tion. That’s how you real­ly stop peo­ple from get­ting involved. You can find ways around vot­er ID laws, but if you’re not reg­is­tered, we can’t do any­thing for you. That’s the biggest fight here in Texas and the biggest fight across the coun­try, and that’s why I’m going to be push­ing for auto­mat­ic vot­er reg­is­tra­tion in Con­gress. We can do this as a coun­try, we’ve just cho­sen not to.

It’s a long-run­ning bat­tle. Whether you care about the econ­o­my or the envi­ron­ment or the min­i­mum wage, what­ev­er the issue is, it comes down to get­ting enough peo­ple out to vote to change it. Our poli­cies have major­i­ty sup­port. We just don’t have enough peo­ple voting.

KA: How have you dealt with these bar­ri­ers in the campaign?

CA: We try to talk about it in ways that it doesn’t sound too daunt­ing, but it is the biggest hur­dle we face. If we had 75 per­cent turn-out in this dis­trict then we would eas­i­ly beat Pete Ses­sions. We’re going to have to expand who’s vot­ing. My back­ground and my sto­ry can help bring peo­ple out who might not come out oth­er­wise. Because I went to the same schools they went to, they know that I was raised by a sin­gle moth­er and was able to make it to the NFL and become a civ­il rights attor­ney — they know that I know what they’re fac­ing. There’s an ele­ment of excite­ment to me being a for­mer NFL play­er, which helps.

KA: Not that the NFL wasn’t polit­i­cal before, but it’s been pret­ty remark­able to watch Trump take aim at play­ers who are tak­ing a polit­i­cal stand. What has your reac­tion been?

CA: I’ve talked to a lot of for­mer play­ers about this. All of us feel that what hap­pened this year with the pres­i­dent tar­get­ing these play­ers was a vio­la­tion of our First Amend­ment rights.

Foot­ball play­ers are aware of our posi­tion in soci­ety, espe­cial­ly African-Amer­i­can play­ers. We know that in some cas­es we’ll be the most promi­nent black per­son that a black kid will watch. We know that their eyes are on this, and we feel a com­pul­sion to take a stand. Some of the kids who you see in the NFL now are 21 and 22 years old. They’ve decid­ed to take a stand for some­thing they believe in, and now they have the pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States sin­gling them out and say­ing they’re not patriots.

I wish that more play­ers that weren’t just black would have got­ten involved, because this is a nation­al issue: Issues of police vio­lence and trust between com­mu­ni­ties and their police is not some­thing that is only applic­a­ble for the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. What’s going on in some of these com­mu­ni­ties has to be addressed, and play­ers who took a stand felt so strong­ly about it that they were will­ing to lose their jobs — jobs that may be the only chance for them to change the gen­er­a­tional wealth for their fam­i­ly. If they’re will­ing to risk that, you should at least lis­ten to what they have to say.

KA: What do you think it would take to turn Texas blue?

CA: Texas is not a red state. Texas is a non-vot­ing state. Right now we’re elect­ing offi­cials who rep­re­sent a minor­i­ty of our pop­u­la­tion. There’s not going to be a sil­ver bul­let. The way we push that boul­der fur­ther up the hill is by run­ning can­di­dates who appeal to peo­ple who aren’t vot­ing at as high a rate, and who in some cas­es come from those com­mu­ni­ties. We start­ed to do that in 2014. Wendy Davis and Leti­cia Van de Putte ran and did a great job, even though they lost by a lot. The work that was done to clean up our vot­er file and bring polit­i­cal tal­ent back to Texas. So many peo­ple vol­un­teered for Wendy who are now vol­un­teer­ing on my cam­paign. Those ideas — peo­ple think­ing they have to knock doors and make phone calls — was an alien thing to Texas until Wendy ran. Now it’s going to be eas­i­er for each per­son after her, so we have to keep build­ing on that.

Ulti­mate­ly, the answer has to be that we turn out an elec­torate that is as diverse as the state is and make sure they’re able to vote. If that hap­pens, the state will turn blue. Repub­li­cans, for what­ev­er rea­son, have aban­doned the minor­i­ty vote. As Democ­rats we have to cap­i­tal­ize on that and appeal to the folks who feel like they don’t have a voice.

We have to remem­ber that Hillary lost Texas by nine points, which is about the same amount she lost Ohio and Iowa by, which are both con­sid­ered to be swing states. And she didn’t spend any mon­ey here, com­pared with the mil­lions she spent in those states.

Our future as a par­ty is in the South and the South­west: states like Texas, Geor­gia and Alaba­ma. Those are the states that are going to flip, because they’re so diverse. Those are the states we should be invest­ing in.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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