One of the most promising trends in criminal justice reform in recent years has been the rise of the progressive district attorney. From Philadelphia to San Francisco, reform candidates have won control of DA’s offices with an agenda of rolling back the harsh excesses of the “tough on crime” era. Now, a newly elected progressive DA in Austin, Texas is bringing something to his position that none of his counterparts have before: deep ties to the labor movement.
Earlier this month, Jose Garza overwhelmingly defeated a Democratic incumbent, and then a Republican challenger, to become the top prosecutor in Travis County, Texas. Garza, a native of Laredo, made his name in Austin by leading the Workers Defense Project, a powerful and well-regarded worker center that has won significant victories for low-wage workers in Texas, including better wages, workplace safety and protections for immigrants. After taking over WDP in 2016 from its founder, Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez (who ran unsuccessfully to become the Democratic Senate candidate in Texas this year), he helped get a paid sick leave law passed in Austin, the first in any city in Texas. His move straight from a grassroots labor group into an elected DA position makes him a unique figure in the American social justice movement.
For Garza, though, his new job feels like a culmination of a career spent prodding different institutions towards righteousness. After college at the University of Texas and law school in DC, he took an internship with the juvenile division of a state’s attorney in Maryland. “I was assigned to this prosecutor straight out of central casting. She had a giant portrait of Ronald Reagan in her office, and she told me that I was gonna love my internship there because I’d get to wear the white hat every day,” he remembers. His first case involved a single father who had called the police on his son for possession of marijuana, in a desperate attempt to set the young man straight. Later, the father thanked prosecutors, and told them he wanted to drop the case — only to be told that it was no longer his case to drop. “That was the moment it became clear to me that I was going to come back to Texas and become a public defender.”
As a public defender, he quickly learned the dark realities underlying the system. “There was not a single client I had who we as a society had not failed,” he says. “When we fail people in that way, our criminal justice system is the rug we sweep them under, so we don’t have to face our own failures.”
He moved on to a legal position in the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board, an up-close and personal lesson in the extent to which labor rights are systematically attacked by business interests. Five years of breathing the rarefied air of Washington, DC, working on labor issues on the federal level, taught him that “the opportunities for progress were happening at the local level.” As the Obama administration came to a close, his gaze turned back towards Texas. He considered Workers Defense Project — founded in 2002 and already nationally prominent for its successes — to be the state’s most effective organization pushing labor and immigration policy changes. Garza became its executive director in August of 2016, and over the next several years continued to notch victories in cities across the state, winning laws that raised working standards in the construction industry and helped protect immigrants from deportation.
For the entirety of the Trump years, Garza has sat at the center of a loose progressive coalition in Texas, which draws together organized labor, civil and immigrants rights groups, and leftist political groups, all quietly doing the grassroots work of pulling a historically reactionary state into the future. The fact that Texas is now thought of as a plausible swing state during presidential election cycles can be traced back in large part to years of organizing by this loose-knit web of advocates. For Garza, success in electoral politics comes only as a result of this issue-based organizing, and never vice versa.
“What we know in the state of Texas is that historically, people don’t vote here. Because when they do, they don’t see any meaningful difference in their lives,” he says. “What we have found is that when you talk to people about the issues, when you show them that they can win on the issues, those wins build on themselves.”
This fundamental approach is familiar to labor organizers, but can be alien to professional political functionaries who tend to view all policy successes as merely instrumental to electoral wins. When Garza decided to run for DA, labor unions who had worked with him while he was at Workers Defense Project knew that he would bring that organizing approach with him into office.
One of the unions that endorsed his campaign was Local 520 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, whose 1,500 members work on large commercial and industrial projects. Ryan Pollock, the union’s lead organizer, got to know Garza when he was fighting alongside them for paid sick leave in Austin. (Among the accomplishments of Workers Defense Project is that it’s widely praised by local unions, whereas many worker centers face a touchy relationship with unions who worry about any power being won on behalf of non-union workers.) “He’s a true working-class hero. That’s what we need in Austin, instead of this woke liberal bullshit,” Pollock says. “We’ve seen our city grow and flourish, and all this wealth coming in. The residents that live here and built that wealth, they’re getting edged out and exploited. We see somebody who understands where the working people of Austin are coming from, in a position like that, as a big win in this battle for our city.”
Garza’s platform in the DA’s race included a slew of fundamental reforms: ending prosecutions for minor drug possession, pursuing restorative justice programs, cracking down on police misconduct, a blanket ban on seeking the death penalty, and other measures often sought by progressive DAs across the country. But when you ask his supporters where his experience with labor rights and economic justice will be most valuable, they tend to zero in on the issue of ending cash bail — another one of Garza’s platform planks.
“We know he’s going to be prioritizing issues like bail reform, that have an incredibly detrimental effect on working folks in particular,” says Mimi Marziani, the president of the Texas Civil Rights Project and the leader of Garza’s transition team. “Because of the deep reliance on cash bail, you literally have a situation where two people can be accused of the very same crime — but just because one person has means and the other doesn’t, one person goes back to their family, goes back to their job, goes back to their life.” Cash bail is perhaps the clearest example of the criminalization of poverty, and the best demonstration of the fact that the line between “labor issues” and “criminal justice issues” dissolves when you look closely enough. If you can’t post bail, after all, you’re likely to lose your job.
“For hundreds of years in this country, we have been told that what ‘public safety’ is is locking up as many working-class people and communities of color as we can,” Garza says. “We know that’s a lie. What public safety is is a good job. What public safety is is access to health care, and good schools to send our children. What public safety is is stability.” It is a simple way of looking at the issue, but one that is exactly backwards from the standard American approach. Instead of assuming that individuals — ”criminals” — cause instability, Garza accepts that the opposite is true. Instability of communities and individual lives, he says, produces crime. Ensuring people have good jobs and safe working conditions and fair pay and protection from state harassment, therefore, are first order public safety goals. In this sense, Garza has a perfect resume to become district attorney.
For the progressive groups in Texas like Workers Defense Project that see deep organizing as the long path to progress, seeding members of their ranks into elected positions is a natural step. Garza and his allies are confident that he can make his agenda a reality in Travis County. But the larger project of transforming the entire (still red) state will be a long, hard path — one that now falls to a movement that has spent the past four years in a pitched battle against a governor seeking to suppress the vote, and a White House pursuing vindictive policies against immigrants.
“The Trump administration has both energized and exhausted our social justice movement,” says Mimi Marziani. “But I think that it has awakened a lot of people to issues that came long before Trump… and it has created conditions where we can have conversations about policy that did not exist five years ago.”
The fact that a person like Jose Garza can now sweep into power as a top law enforcement official is a product of that awakening. He cites, as his own motivation, both a sense of disappointment in where Austin was at the end of the Trump years, and a sense of hope about the type of change that lay waiting to happen there.
“The injustice that working people feel on the job when they can’t organize for better wages and better working conditions is the same injustice that communities of color feel on their streets,” Garza says. “It all flows from the same imbalanced power structure.” His job titles keep changing. But the job itself remains the same.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.