Good Monday Austin:
Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, the married couple, co-founders and co-executive directors of Indivisible, the network of grassroots organization founded to resist the Trump presidency in the immediate aftermath of his election as president, returned this weekend to Levin’s hometown of Austin, where the idea of Indivisible was born over drinks at DrinkWell, 100 days out from the election where the success of their efforts to electoralize the resistance will be tested.
I first wrote about Indivisible on Jan. 18, 2017, two days before Trump’s inauguration as president. Here’s the top of the story:
WASHINGTON, DC – When the history of grass-roots resistance to President Donald Trump is written, it might be recorded that the movement was born in Austin – prefigured at the Randalls supermarket on Brodie Lane in the summer of 2009, conceived at a North Loop neighborhood bar over Thanksgiving weekend 2016, and crafted in great part by battle-tested veterans of the office of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett.
It was at Randalls in the first summer of the Obama administration that Doggett, the longtime Austin Democrat, was besieged by tea party protesters chanting “Just Say No” to the health care reform that would come to be known as Obamacare. It was a jarring scene that set the tone for what would be a dreadful August recess for Democratic members of Congress at bitterly contentious town hall meetings across the country and presaged an Obama presidency to which the tea party and Republican Party just said “no.”
Seven years later, in the aftermath of Trump’s election, Ezra Levin, who grew up in Austin and Buda and worked for Doggett in Washington from 2008 to 2011, was back in Austin for the Thanksgiving holiday with his wife, Leah Greenberg, another Capitol Hill veteran. They got together at Drink.Well. on East 53rd Street with an old friend who was leading a new progressive group in Austin, to talk about how to channel their mutual despair and knowledge of congressional politics into effectively doing to the Trump presidency what the tea party did to the Obama presidency.
“We knew how Congress works and we knew how a pretty darn small group relative to the total population came together and implemented a very thoughtful strategy with very specific concrete tactics to resist an administration and a Congress that they didn’t agree with, and that was the tea party,” Levin said. They left Drink.Well. with a plan to draft a manual to replicate the tea party strategy — stripped, of course, of what they considered its noxious ideology and mean streak.
Three weeks later, on the evening of Dec. 15, Levin, 31, tweeted out a link to a Google Doc: “Indivisible: A practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda. Former congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen.”
“The tea party implemented a two-pronged strategy, and that was very locally focused, focused on their members of the Senate and their one member of Congress, and then they consciously chose to be defensive and almost exclusively defensive,” said Levin, who now lives in Washington.
“And they also understood that they weren’t setting the agenda, that at that time Democrats controlled the House and the Senate and the presidency, so what they could do is simply respond to it,” he said. “And they did that in a few concrete, not rocket science kinds of way. They showed up in person at public events, at town halls, at district offices and then called in response to whatever new thing President Obama or the Congress was trying to do.”
“We started out writing a practical guide for progressives who find themselves in kind of the same situation now, with a president we believe is illegitimate and is looking to destroy some key tenets of American democracy, and who controls the Senate and the House,” he said.
The response from across the country was swift and overwhelming: high-profile coverage in mainstream and progressive magazines, two segments on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” an op-ed in The New York Times, and a tsunami of grass-roots interest.
I spoke with Levin and Greenberg, who are 33 and 32 respectively, just before they spoke to a phone bank training attended by about 40 folks in a room at the Austin History Center on Guadalupe Street.
“We are at 100 days until the election. Literally it’s 99 days and nine hours,” Levin said. “This was the weekend of action pivoting directly into electoral activity.”
“Indivisible began as an advocacy, talking about how to pressure their member of Congress, whoever that was, and then whoever their elected officials were at the local and state level,” he said. “That’s a great strategy in off years. When an election is coming up, a great way to build power is to change who that member of Congress is, or to change who the senator is, or change who the state rep or state senator it.”
“What we’ve been doing at the national level, is preparing to pivot folks in that direction.”
“n the same way that we provided call scripts on Trumpcare in Ohio or national days of action to do sit-ins or die-ins at congressional offices against Trumpcare, we’re trying to help the groups now register voters, endorse candidates, get out the vote, phone bank, text, all the nuts and bolts of electoral politics, is where we have the most power now.
“What we’ve seen over the last 16, 17, 18 months is in the special elections, in the primary elections, in the off-year elections, they don’t get won on Election Day, they get won by boots on the ground doing the work, day in, day out leading up tot that. So we’re building the blue wave. That’s what the groups are doing.”
Why spend pivot weekend in Texas, which still seems an uphill climb for electorialization?
“I think the story of the last 18 months has been surprises. We’ve seen 3, 6, 9, 12-point swings against Trump in competitive races, places that traditionally political prognosticators in Washington, D.C., say, “Oh they’re not winnable.
“But then we win in rural Virginia. We win an Alabama Senate race. We win special elections w. we win a plus-Republican district in Pennsylvania, Conor Lamb. ”
“The blue wave has a physics all its own and it’s going to come crashing down in places that traditionally don’t see this kind of progressive power. So Texas is fertile ground for that because the powers-that-be in Texas, for instance, have used redistricting to gerrymander themselves a whole bunch of districts that are gerrymandered for traditional election years, not for wave election years.”
“And when you have a candidate that’s as hated as Ted Cruz going for re-election you even have a shot of going statewide, even tough Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since the mid-90s. This year could be different.”
” A year ago the question was, is it even possible we could take the House back,” Greenberg said. “We were very optimistic because of what we were seeing on the ground level. Already people were doing the work at the ground level in places where nobody was expecting a victory.”
“We’ve actually focused on Texas,” Greenberg said. : We have a statewide organizer for Texas in part because we think there is real potential here.”
Let us pause here for a moment, and fast forward a few hours to the latest in a series of Walk the Lines events organized by Justin Nelson’s campaign for attorney general against Ken Paxton as a critique of gerrymandering, which is nowhere more obvious than in Austin, which has been carved up into six congressional districts leaving Austin votes the master of none of those districts and leaving Austin the largest city in the country without a congressional district to call its own.
From a June 15 story by Chuck Lindell on how Nelson and Paxton are on opposite sides of the gerrymandering debate:
Before they became election foes, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Democratic challenger Justin Nelson landed on opposite sides of a U.S. Supreme Court fight over the ability of politicians to gerrymander political districts to give one party a distinct advantage in future elections.
In one of this term’s most eagerly awaited cases at the high court, Paxton came down on the side of Wisconsin Republicans who are defending state Assembly districts that were ruled unconstitutional for giving the GOP a disproportionate advantage at the polls.
Because redrawing political districts after each census is an inherently partisan task, Paxton told the Supreme Court in an August brief joined by 15 other Republican-led states, there is nothing “invidious or irrational” about having a partisan political purpose in preparing new maps.
Paxton also warned about letting judges decide when the quest for partisan advantage goes too ggfar, saying it would create legal standards so vague that every state would be exposed to lawsuits, giving the losing political party a “plausible chance” of overriding the will of a majority of lawmakers.
Nelson, on the other hand, argued that allowing the party in power to gain an outsized electoral advantage undermines democracy and improperly dilutes votes.
“The foundation of American democracy rests on ‘the consent of the governed.’ When lawmakers engage in partisan gerrymandering, they corrode this consent by punishing groups on the basis of their political beliefs in an effort to deprive them of equal representation,” Nelson wrote as the lead lawyer for a Supreme Court brief on behalf of two voter advocacy groups, FairVote and One Nation One Vote.
Here’s some of what went on last night, at an event attended by Nelson and four of the six Democratic candidates representing pieces and shards of Austin: Longtime gerrymander survivor Lloyd Doggett, the only incumbent in the bunch; Julie Oliver, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, and would count Dogged as a constituent if she is elected; Joseph Kopser, who is facing Republican Chip Roy in the campaign to succeed U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, who is retiring, and Mike Siegel. Siegel is challenging U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who, living with his family at the intersection of great wealth and bad pipes, consumes more water than any other family in the city of Austin.
Here’s a litte of what they had to say at the event, held upstairs at Antone’s, a classy venue, albeit the Home of the Blues, and not House of the Blue Wave.
Also in attendance last night were the Lafairs, who have created a gerrymandering board game, Mapmaker.
Becca Lafair, left, Josh Lafair, her younger, taller brother, and Louis Lafair, Becca’s twin.
Louis just graduated from Stanford University, and Becca is entering her fifth year at Northeastern University in Boston (a school where the normal course of study is five years, as students alternate academic and real world experience.) Josh is a senior in high school.
Josh: “We grew up in a gerrymandered district in Austin.” They were formerly represented by Doggett, now represented by McCaul.
The Lafairs took moral umbrage at this.
“Voters should be choosing their politicians, but what’s happening is politicians are choosing their voters, and that’s just not right.”
And, Louis said, “we’ve always loved playing board games with each other.”
“I invented a board game when I was 11, that was my first board game,” said Louis.
Well, that explains Stanford.
What was that?
“I was called Pathwayz, spelled with a z, because I was 11.”
“It was published eight years later.”
More Louis: “We researched it. There weren’t any other gerrymandering games out there.:
The goal of the game is to win the most districts.
Louis: “The real reason we’re doing this is to start a conversation about gerrymandering.”
In other words, the goal is to win, but feel bad about it.
Louis: “We have a proclamation inside every box – gerrymandering is not a game.”
But Louis said, “We spent a lot of time making sure it was a really fun game. There’s the whole anti-gerrrymandering community and there’s the whole board game community.”
In the meantime, the game, which will be available shortly is being sent to the Supreme Court, governors and others, and has been endorsed by notables like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lawrence Lessig and Doggett.
Back to Levin and Greenberg.
I wondered why they chose to spend pivot weekend Texas, not necessarily the ripest for victory.
“I think the story of the last 18 months has been surprises. We’ve 3, 6, 9, 12-point swings against Trump in competitive races, places that traditionally political prognosticators in Washington, D.C., say, “Oh they’re not winnable.'”
I asked them how they would counsel Democratic candidates to talk about impeachment.
This was apropos a recent back-and-forth on impeachment between the O’Rourke and Cruz campaigns via Gardner Selby at PolitiFact Texas.
Cruz’s campaign said in a July 17, 2018, press release that O’Rourke “continued today his reckless and radical Senate campaign based on impeaching Pres. Donald Trump. He is the only candidate to the U.S. Senate to call for impeachment,” the release said.
We wondered: Is O’Rourke alone among Senate hopefuls in advocating the Republican president’s impeachment?
Not so, we found, though it looks like he’s the only Senate nominee to date to say he’d vote to launch impeachment proceedings.
Our search of the Nexis news database showed that as early as August 2017, O’Rourke said he’d vote for Trump’s impeachment. Most recently, the Dallas Morning News quoted O’Rourke saying in July 2018 that Trump merited impeachment for his performance in the just-completed summit with Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin.
O’Rourke responded to a News reporter: “Standing on stage in another country with the leader of another country who wants to and has sought to undermine this country, and to side with him over the United States — if I were asked to vote on this I would vote to impeach the president. Impeachment, much like an indictment, shows that there is enough there for the case to proceed and at this point there is certainly enough there for the case to proceed.”
Then again, O’Rourke in December 2017 was among 364 House members to vote for tabling a proposal by Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, to impeach Trump, records show. Before that vote, Democratic leaders released a statement referring to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry that said impeachment wasn’t timely.
When we asked Cruz’s campaign how the senator determined that O’Rourke was alone among Senate candidates calling for impeachment, spokeswoman Catherine Frazier pointed out by email that the News story noting O’Rourke’s willingness to vote for impeachment quoted Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, leveling a more limited claim. Roe called O’Rourke “the only major-party candidate in America to call for impeachment.”
Another Cruz contact, Emily Miller, emailed us a web link to a November 2017 Reuters news story describing O’Rourke saying that Trump’s racially charged rhetoric and divisive governing style had led O’Rourke to support impeachment. O’Rourke was quoted saying: “I’m now convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that Donald Trump is unfit for that office.”
O’Rourke spokesman says he’s not ‘called’ for impeaching Trump
When we reached out to O’Rourke about Cruz calling him the only Senate candidate to call for impeachment, campaign spokesman Chris Evans said by email: “Beto has never called for the impeachment of President Trump.”
Evans maintained that O’Rourke’s responses to reporters and voters about voting in favor of impeachment weren’t the same as the candidate calling for impeachment. Evans elaborated that O’Rourke hasn’t brought up impeachment “at town halls or rallies, has not sent fundraising or petition emails on it, has not posted social media advocating for it, and has not used his current position of public trust to do so through floor speeches, letters or resolutions.”
Evans also pointed out an interview we’d missed. For an episode of Showtime’s “The Circus,” posted online in May 2018, O’Rourke replied that as a member of the House, he’d vote right then to impeach Trump. Asked if he’d vote as a senator to convict Trump, O’Rourke replied: “Until I’m in that position and am able to hear the case made by each side, all the facts laid out, I can’t give you an answer on that–nor would you want me to.”
Cruz said O’Rourke is “the only candidate to the U.S. Senate to call for” impeaching Trump.
Since August 2017, O’Rourke has been saying that he’d vote to impeach Trump, which would start with a vote in the House, where he serves. O’Rourke might be the only Senate nominee to say as much. However, Democratic Senate contenders in Minnesota and California also have talked up Trump’s impeachment.
We rate this claim about O’Rourke’s uniqueness False.
“Our network got involved in response to Trump. They want to resist the Trump agenda. So this is something that animates them,” Levin said. “I will say that impeachment is a political process. It’s something where you need not just vote to impeach in the House but convict in the Senate. You need Republican votes, by definition. You are not going to get two-thirds of the Senate just from Democratic hands, so you need Republican votes. So, it’s a process.
“On the first day of Congress, if we take the House or the Senate, we can get Donald Trump’s tax returns, we can launch investigations, we can get more information, we can get the smoking gun that is out there. To say you will vote for impeachment right now – it is a fine line to walk when folks are not putting it front and center, or when they’re saying they’ll re-evaluate – that’s actually the right move. We need more information, we need investigations.
“And the things that Texans care about when we talk to them in Wimberley, is they care about the state of democracy, they care about democratic institutions, like voting, like redistricting, like money in politics. They worry that it’s being taken over by a small segment of society. They care about health care. They care about families being detained and separated and put in cages along the border and elsewhere. These are the things that we see getting a lot of folks out.
“And I think it’s smart for candidates like Beto and others to be talking about those issues. We will get to the questions of what is going on in the Trump campaign and this administration, and the only way we will get there is if we retake the majority and force them to give reveal that information.”
“We were both congressional staffers, we both worked for Democratic members of Congress,” Levin said. “I didn’t have a super high opinion of Republican members of Congress, but I would not have accused them of doing essentially what they’ve done, which is turn a complete blind eye to what this administration does. They have proven again and again and again that they are not willing to act as a check on this administration, which is their constitutional duty, so the only answer in this moment is,we need to retake power so that we can start having a Congress that acts as a check on this administration.
“And then what comes from that, will come from that.
“We are in favor of impeachment proceedings, but the way impeachment works is to start investigations and you get information, and it’s worth noting that the Senate doesn’t vote to impeach, the Senate votes to convict, so that is going to be the question put before Sen. O’Rourke, and that will come after a long series of investigations that reveal exactly what’s going on.”
(*in the realm of phone banking on a summer Sunday in Austin, ginormous is defined as around 40.)
“The only question we get asked again and again is, “Yeah but, can the resistance be electoralized, can you actually win elections?” Levin said. “The rule of the last 20 months has been surprise wins by anti-Trump forces all over the country. Is it a sure thing? A Democrat hasn’t won statewide in Texas in over 20 years. And yet we were out in freakin’ Beaumont Texas on a Friday night and there were 15 people phone-banking for Beto O’Rourke.
“This is everywhere.
“It’s going to be won if people put in the work day after day from now until Election Day, and so far we’re seeing the energy out there.”