Is Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez the Future of Texas?

The Latina labor organizer out to unseat GOP heavyweight Sen. John Cornyn.

Steven Greenhouse January 24, 2020

Labor organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez is running to unseat longtime GOP heavyweight Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) in Texas. (Illustration by Galine Tumasyan)

Back in 2013, I was look­ing to write a big piece about a high­ly suc­cess­ful work­ers’ cen­ter that hadn’t received nation­al press. Sev­er­al labor pro­fes­sor friends rec­om­mend­ed Work­ers Defense Project (WDP) in Austin, Texas. I flew down to meet with Cristi­na Tzintzún Ramirez, WDP’s exec­u­tive direc­tor. I found her whip smart, a born orga­niz­er and an inspir­ing speak­er. She took the helm of the then-tiny WDP while a senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas, help­ing it trans­form into a force to be reck­oned with. The WDP brought nation­al atten­tion to the fact that Texas con­struc­tion work­ers have the high­est on-the-job death rate in the nation, and then in Austin won Texas’ first munic­i­pal ordi­nance requir­ing rest and water breaks for con­struc­tion work­ers. It got Apple and oth­er com­pa­nies to guar­an­tee work­ers on their Austin con­struc­tion projects receive rais­es, safe­ty train­ing and work­ers’ comp, not required in Texas. Tzintzún Ramirez proved adept at work­ing with undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers, union lead­ers, con­struc­tion indus­try execs and lawmakers.

"Texans have the ability to change the course of not just our state’s history, but our entire country’s history, when we flip Texas." —Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez

Next, she found­ed and quick­ly expand­ed Jolt, a group to mobi­lize young Lati­nos in pol­i­tics. Sev­er­al top aides in Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Sen­ate cam­paign then pressed her to run in the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry in the hope that she could win and take on long­time Sen­ate Major­i­ty Whip John Cornyn, a stal­wart Trump sup­port­er. They talked her into it. She faces 11 oppo­nents in the March 3 pri­ma­ry. (Dis­clo­sure: I have donat­ed $200 to her campaign.)

I recent­ly spoke with Tzintzún Ramirez about how a labor orga­niz­er with a pro­gres­sive agen­da might defeat a GOP heavy­weight in Texas. The inter­view has been edit­ed and condensed.

Steven Green­house: How has being a labor and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er pre­pared you to run for Senate?

Cristi­na Tzintzún Ramirez: I have spent a decade and a half think­ing about how to make pol­i­cy solu­tions for real-life prob­lems that politi­cians often didn’t even know exist­ed. I learned how to build coali­tions. I learned how to raise resources for cam­paigns. I learned how to work around the clock to win — because the only thing I have that those in pow­er don’t have is time, and the knowl­edge that you can defeat pow­er­ful peo­ple by build­ing move­ments of ordi­nary people.

Steven: At WDP and Jolt, you devel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as a fight­er for Lati­nos. How would you assure all Tex­ans you will fight for them?

Cristi­na: I don’t think that dis­qual­i­fies me to be Texas’ next sen­a­tor — I think it makes me unique­ly qual­i­fied. The things that Lati­no fam­i­lies want are the exact things that every oth­er fam­i­ly wants: Mak­ing sure the edu­ca­tion sys­tem is afford­able and acces­si­ble. Mak­ing sure peo­ple have good, liv­ing-wage and safe jobs. Mak­ing sure fam­i­lies can be togeth­er. Mak­ing sure our democ­ra­cy works for everyone.

Steven: What are some ways you would work to help white and African-Amer­i­can communities?

Cristi­na: We have a sen­a­tor, John Cornyn, who only wants to rep­re­sent the inter­ests of one eth­nic group, one income brack­et and one gen­der: the inter­ests of white wealthy men.

I want to be the sen­a­tor for every­one. I stand up for Medicare for All because I believe it is the best way to have the high­est qual­i­ty health­care and to make sure every sin­gle Amer­i­can can go to the doc­tor. I want to tack­le the stu­dent debt cri­sis and make sure every sin­gle Texas fam­i­ly can send their chil­dren to col­lege or trade school. I want to make sure that Texas becomes a leader in tran­si­tion­ing our econ­o­my to green ener­gy in a way that cre­ates mil­lions of great jobs for Texans.

I was real­ly proud of my work at the Work­ers Defense Project. I brought union and non-union work­ers togeth­er, immi­grants and Amer­i­can-born togeth­er, black, brown and white togeth­er to pur­sue their com­mon interests.

I under­stand the way Repub­li­cans use racism and xeno­pho­bia and sex­ism to dis­tract us. That’s how they get away with not giv­ing us health­care. That’s how they get away with divest­ment from our edu­ca­tion sys­tem. That’s how they get away with an econ­o­my that doesn’t work for everyone.

Steven: The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­to­r­i­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee has endorsed one of your 11 oppo­nents, M.J. Hegar, pre­sum­ably think­ing a cen­trist Air Force vet­er­an has the best chance. Why would a pro­gres­sive like your­self fare better?

Cristi­na: There are two strate­gies to change Texas. One of them has been tried for 20 years and failed every sin­gle time — which is to run a mod­er­ate Demo­c­rat to try and swing white Repub­li­can voters.

The oth­er strat­e­gy is to embrace the state’s diver­si­ty. We are a state that is major­i­ty peo­ple of col­or, a state with a long pop­ulist tra­di­tion, where pro­gres­sives are hun­gry for change. Beto O’Rourke was the most pro­gres­sive statewide can­di­date I can remem­ber, and he got clos­er than any­body. In our Sen­ate cam­paign, we try to speak to every­one — the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, Lati­no and immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties, the LGBTQ community.

Every­body knows that you don’t win in Texas unless you dri­ve up vot­er turnout among Lati­no vot­ers. No Demo­c­rat wins with­out us. Yet there are Democ­rats run­ning who don’t want to speak to us, who don’t want to fight for us.

There are some peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton who think that they know Texas bet­ter than Tex­ans. We will prove them wrong on Elec­tion Day

Steven: Cornyn will no doubt have a huge cam­paign chest. How will you defeat him?

Cristi­na: Repub­li­cans know if they lose Texas in 2020, it’s game over for them nation­al­ly. So I think every sin­gle dirty trick will be played in this race.

Unseat­ing the sec­ond-most pow­er­ful Repub­li­can in the Sen­ate doesn’t come with­out hard work or sub­stan­tial resources. It’s my inten­tion to raise those resources from small-dol­lar donors across the coun­try who under­stand what’s at stake in Texas. Tex­ans have the abil­i­ty to change the course of not just our state’s his­to­ry, but our entire country’s his­to­ry, when we flip Texas.

Steven: What do you hope to achieve in the Senate?

Cristi­na: A state as large as Texas can dream big because we are big. I want to posi­tion Texas to be a leader in our nation’s tran­si­tion to renew­able ener­gy. We are already the largest wind ener­gy pro­duc­er. I want to make us the largest solar ener­gy pro­duc­er and cre­ate near­ly two mil­lion green jobs in Texas — good jobs — over the next decade.

I want to tack­le income inequal­i­ty. In Texas, we work more hours than most peo­ple in oth­er states. Yet most Tex­ans strug­gle to get by.

The oth­er big issue is Medicare for All. In Texas, we have the high­est unin­sured rate in the coun­try: one in six. Even Amer­i­cans with health insur­ance strug­gle to pay their co-pays, deductibles, pre­mi­ums. This past week my son was in the hos­pi­tal twice, and we had a $500 co-pay.

Steven: Texas’ econ­o­my has been built in large part by fos­sil fuels. How do you per­suade Tex­ans that the Green New Deal is good for them?

Cristi­na: As Tex­ans, we don’t run away from big prob­lems. We take them head on. I see cli­mate change as a big prob­lem, but I also see it as a real oppor­tu­ni­ty, espe­cial­ly for Texas. John Cornyn oppos­es the Green New Deal because he says it’s too expen­sive, but he doesn’t cal­cu­late the cat­a­stroph­ic cost of doing noth­ing — the cost for our econ­o­my and our envi­ron­ment, and the human cost and suf­fer­ing, which is incalculable.

No state has more to gain or lose than Texas. Texas has 250,000 work­ers in the oil, gas and min­ing indus­tries and 233,000 work­ers in advanced ener­gy, which will out­pace the oil and gas indus­try in the next few years. So it’s just basic com­mon sense for Texas to sup­port the Green New Deal.

Steven: I delib­er­ate­ly haven’t asked whether it’s hard run­ning with a 3‑year-old son — I imag­ine male can­di­dates don’t get that question.

Cristi­na: I don’t mind you ask­ing, because it’s the truth. Decid­ing whether to run was hard. I know that, when men run, they get thanked for their sac­ri­fice of being away, but when women like me run, we get vil­lainized as bad mothers

But I think I could be a great sen­a­tor and a great moth­er. I’m run­ning with my lit­tle guy, San­ti. I taught him how to hand out fly­ers and say Vota Mama.” He likes to do that at all the events.

When I’m going out and fight­ing for the poli­cies and solu­tions I believe are in the best inter­est of Tex­ans and Amer­i­cans — doing that with my son next to me, I know I’m fight­ing for his future as well.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH