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.
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.