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The Pivot-Point: A Conversation with Mike Siegel

Mike Siegel is a Democratic candidate making a run for a seat in the U.S. House to represent Texas’ 10th Congressional District, where he faces a narrow battle against Republican incumbent Michael McCaul, who he narrowly lost to in 2018. However, in taking an affirmatively progressive stance on issues of climate change, curtailing gun violence, and protecting voting rights, Siegel hopes that his coalition of supporters built over a career as a public servant will win his community over. Siegel is a former attorney for the city of Austin, union organizer, and educator. 

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The Politic: On your campaign website, you say that your experience in public service is drawn from your time as a schoolteacher with Teach for America, your co-founding of two educational non-profits, and especially your work as a civil rights attorney in Austin, Texas. How has that experience informed your priorities of particular issues in your campaign?

Siegel: Over the 21 years of my career, I’ve had multiple roles as a public servant. I started off as a teacher with Americorps and Teach for America, I’ve been a union organizer for labor groups in Texas, and I’ve been a civil rights lawyer and advocate in the city of Austin, and over my experience in these roles I’ve accrued different perspectives. In terms of policy priorities, the core motivation for me has always been social justice. This is what got me into teaching and inspired me to go to law school. I had a wonderful opportunity to go to school, and wanted to help people fulfill the same dream of equal opportunity for all through the work I did.

As a teacher I taught in Oakland, California, Brooklyn, New York, and Houston, Texas, and in this work I got to see firsthand a lot of the very relevant social issues that were affecting students’ lives. For example, I met students living in each of these American cities who had parents from all around the world, I also taught many low-income students who qualified for free and/or reduced lunch. I learned a great deal about how much a student’s development and success in life is dependent on their access to education early on, and more particularly I learned how important it was to have a safety net in place for these kids so that they can succeed in school. Factors like having safe housing, having parents with a good job, and access to healthcare alongside an access to quality education have the potential to impact a child’s future in drastic ways. If you’re a teacher and you are relying on your students to succeed based on a conventional measurement of success, such as a state-administered standardized test, you have to know that you’re starting out on a completely un-level playing field where the biggest indicator of student achievement is their and their family’s socioeconomic status. 

At each stage of my work my understanding of society has been informed by witnessing class relations in this country and by witnessing the drastic inequality in this country. While I do place a strong priority on improving public schools, I also know that students are going to need a comprehensive safety net so that they can succeed. It was through being an educator that I truly developed this firsthand experience with the true variety of experiences that people go through that can impact their lives.

You’ve also worked as a civil rights attorney, as well as you’ve represented the city of Austin as an attorney. How has this experience informed a transition into wanting to run for office?

When it came to my formative experiences working as a civil rights attorney, I was really in the right place at the right time to be exposed to the dynamics of politics in Texas. The situation in Texas is that you have some really progressive cities, like Austin where I worked, surrounded by conservative rural areas that cover the majority of the state, and a Republican-dominated state government. This creates a situation of whenever a city attempts to do something progressive; whether it’s protections for low-income renters, banning the box for incarcerated people, or as it was the case in 2018, adopting law enforcement policies aimed at discouraging the deportation of migrants for non-serious offenses, the state tends to step in and they preempt local control. 

In the years after Trump took office, the Texas governor and his executive administration basically collaborated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on a number of ways to expedite the detention and deportation of undocumented migrants. First of all was attacking a newly elected county sheriff in Austin who, while they didn’t explicitly say that they wanted to adopt a sanctuary city policy, said that it may not be entirely necessary to turn every migrant person arrested over to ICE. The county was going to do this on a case-by-case basis, and for non-violent offenses not cooperate with or notify ICE. When this sheriff won election and took office, the governor immediately responded by taking away a great deal of local funding, withholding grant dollars from the county, and then began tasking the state legislature with passing a law which eventually became Senate Bill 4. This law eventually came to be known as the “Show Me Your Papers” Law, and it not only stripped away local control when it came to law enforcement, it then went one step further to encourage local police and sheriff’s deputies to act with more power as immigration enforcement officers and bring more people into the immigration deportation system. 

At the time that this was all unfolding, I was an attorney with the city in Austin, and our city council and the current mayor of the city were taking a lead statewide to sue the state government, putting forward a claim that this law was bad for public health, public education, public safety, and that it took away our state constitutionally-defined rights to govern ourselves as a city. As this was all going on and unfolding, one day I was working in the office and the city attorney came in and asked us who would like to sue the state government to stop Senate Bill 4, and I was one of the first people to volunteer for the case. I was eager, this is why I went to law school in the first place. 

I went to Cornell Law School and was pursuing a degree in law because I was particularly motivated by what had happened in this country post-9/11 and the subsequent crackdowns on the immigrant community. So, I got the opportunity to play a statewide role in this lawsuit protecting immigrant rights, and through this I also had the opportunity to speak with many of the advocates who were out in the streets about why they opposed this legislation and how it was affecting them. In this case I was able to coordinate with other city attorneys to develop some of the legal theories of the case, I was also able to work with nonprofits and other outside groups like the ACLU to develop arguments to use in court, and finally, I was able to actually make major arguments in court to stop this law. 

Unfortunately though, after we got an injunction in a federal court to block this law, the conservative Court of Appeals overturned that injunction. However, despite this, throughout that fight I was privileged to become deeply integrated with the immigrant rights community here in Texas. In the aftermath of this case, not just in Texas but on the federal level, I’m seeing President Trump do things like advocate for a border wall, implement the Muslim ban—which was co-authored by the current representative of Texas U.S. Congressional District 10, Michael McCaul—as well as a number of other attacks on the immigrant community leading up to the separation of families policy which many activists believe McCaul could have stopped as chairman of the Department of Homeland Security; but he chose to do nothing. 

My work with the city and the case against Senate Bill 4 brought me in touch with the movement against these harsh policies and for protecting migrants, and seeing how my elected representative stood on the wrong side of this movement gave me the ability to see that we could possibly organize and beat this guy. Part of the Senate Bill 4 lawsuit was that it was the first time that all of the big cities in Texas joined together to sue the state—it wasn’t just Austin, it was San Antonio, El Paso, Houston and Dallas as well. The unity of these major cities and different demographics across the state showed me that maybe this wasn’t the strictly conservative place that it has always seemed to be. It also showed me that McCaul, in his position in government, was not just a symptom of the problem, but was also a leading purveyor of this racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and that he needed to be challenged. 

In the 2018 election, Republican incumbent Michael McCaul slightly edged you out on a 51% to 47% vote. This was a very close call, and a narrower margin for McCaul than he’s won in past elections. What do you think made that 2018 election come so close, and what has changed in your district between then and now that you think will allow you to move the needle in 2020?

Like many things in electoral politics, the answer is multilayered. The shift in this district as well as the rest of Texas comes down to demographic trends, political trends, Trump’s election, and the expanded role of grassroots groups in organizing. But I also believe my campaign played a big part in that. What I did in my 2018 campaign hadn’t been done since the district was gerrymandered in 2003 by Tom Delay and Karl Rove. In this redistricting process, Republican lawmakers essentially turned Congressional District 10 from what had previously been a Democratic hill country district which had run from Austin to the west and had been the seat of representatives like Lyndon Johnson and Lloyd Dogget, into a solid 60-40 Republican seat. This used to be a very populist district, but McCaul spent several million dollars to win his first Republican primary; the Democrats didn’t even field a candidate in 2004. McCaul was allowed to essentially coast to victory in this district and become a U.S. Congressman, and from then on basically act entitled to the seat because it was deemed so unwinnable by a challenger. 

Before I ran for office the first time, there had been one Democratic challenger in 2008, Larry Joe Doherty, who I continue to work with actually to this day, who was able to raise a significant amount of support to effectively challenge McCaul. Doherty’s campaign was able to raise over a million dollars and run a TV and mail campaign, but wasn’t able to attempt a field operation. The reason for that is because this is a sprawling district: from east to west it’s over 150 miles, encompasses 7 rural counties, and captures parts of both Austin and Houston metro areas. The shape of this district makes it a very difficult geographic space to organize. 

I think the big element of my campaign that I worked hard to bring in was an earnest attempt at organizing and moving things on the ground. I worked with nonprofit groups, worked with unions since I have had so much experience as a union organizer, and I worked with immigrant rights folks who had appreciated my work on the Senate Bill 4 case. With their help, and with the support of the communities around them, we were able to raise over a 1,000 volunteers together and make over 300,000 voter contacts. We established a very strong independent presence in the district, and at the same time were also very lucky to be supported by Beto O’Rourke’s strong statewide campaign for the Senate in 2018 against Ted Cruz. He would do a lot of town halls in Austin that I would get to come out beforehand as kind of a warm-up act for, and we were able to do five of these in the district, each with over a thousand people in attendance. Every time I did one of these, I would sign up dozens of volunteers who were feeling energized and excited to support Democratic politics, many of them feeling like they wanted to push back at Trump after 2016 and take back the House for the Democrats. 

Especially over time, as the Austin portion of this district has grown, more educated people and more people of diverse backgrounds have been coming into the electoral pool of the district, and have tended to vote Democratic. On the Houston side of the district, in places like Katy and Tomball, these places had originally been very conservative white-flight communities. However, over time as Houston has sprawled out, these communities and more generally the suburbs of Houston have become gradually more and more diverse. You have Nigerian folks working in the oil and gas industry, there’s a significant population of south Asian folks who have been here for several generations, there are long-established black and Latino communities working in a variety of sectors in the economy. The neighborhoods that these groups have moved into are captured by the boundaries of the district, and although they haven’t been historically engaged with the Democratic party, they had an opportunity to engage with the party in 2018 and turn out in an election for a candidate they supported over McCaul, a representative who in his roles in government had been so openly harsh towards migrants. What we then saw was the collapse of a 19 percent lead in 2016 down to a 4 percent lead in 2018. We’re getting closer this time around, but there is just a little more to be done to win in 2020.

In 2018, Beto O’Rourke popularized the idea of “powered by people, not by PACs” when he made a commitment not to take any corporate PAC money to fund his campaign for Senate. On your website, you also claim that you don’t take any money from these corporate-funded PACs. What led to this choice, and do you think this is the new wave for Democratic politics?

Basically, the root of the decision to not take corporate money is the belief that the system has been corrupted by the unlimited expenditure of corporate and often anonymous money. These expenditures were enabled by a number of Supreme Court decisions that identified money as speech, corporations as people, and ultimately the Citizens United case which allowed corporations through these rights to use vehicles like PACs to give money anonymously to candidates. That’s been the crux of our system since, and it means that someone like Senator McCain could have accepted millions of dollars from a group like the National Rifle Association via a PAC, which could have then used their money and influence to curtail policies that would have otherwise improved public safety by regulating firearms. Fundamentally, I believe that PACs are a symptom of a broader problem of money having undue influence in politics at the expense of the majority of people. So while I don’t take money from corporate PACs I do accept money from union PACs. I think it’s different when a majority of workers pool their money so that they can donate it to a candidate who supports working-class interests. In the bigger picture, while Beto did popularize this idea of running a people-funded campaign, I’ve also worked on my level to bring unions and other worker’s rights organizations into that support network as well. 

Among the top issues of your campaign are healthcare as well as the environment. On healthcare, how do you believe that the recent outbreak of COVID-19 has impacted concerns about public health in your district, or in the way that you’re managing your campaign?

To start, in the primary and also in the runoff, I’m the only candidate who has advocated for Medicare for All. I think this current public health crisis brings home just how important a single-payer healthcare system is for ensuring that all people, regardless of income, ought to have access to healthcare. Just this week we’ve learned that there were nearly 3.3 million new unemployment claims in the United States, and the idea that people’s healthcare is tied to their employer is just obscene. This crisis has brought to light just how important the safety net is to all of us. Public health is only as strong as the weakest link, so if some folks don’t have access to doctors or can’t afford a hospital, that puts us all in jeopardy as it allows pandemics to keep spreading and hospitals to get overwhelmed and forces us all indoors. To talk about a single-payer healthcare system that has no copays, no deductibles, no premiums, but allows you to have access to a doctor—that has become so critical in this unprecedented moment. I also think that for a lot of folks who may have been happy with their employer-provided healthcare, the impact of this crisis is telling them that there ought to be something there for them when their employer isn’t. We need to uncouple your job from healthcare, and start treating healthcare like a human right. 

In terms of my campaign, we’ve basically taken a pause. For three weeks now we haven’t had any door-knocking, and for the sake of the community’s health as well as our volunteers’ health we aren’t going to be resuming that for the foreseeable future. At this point we’re trying to find other ways to reach out to voters through social media, phone-banking, texting, and we’re even starting to write postcards. Ultimately, we’re having to get creative in maintaining that person-to-person contact that’s so critical to an effective field campaign. 

Through this, I also think we’re going to be orienting our talks with people in this district about healthcare and Medicare for All. I am running in a runoff against a doctor, Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, so he is also having a way of reaching out to voters as a medicare professional who is out on the front lines treating patients. However, I believe that his past statements referring to Medicare for All as “fool’s gold,” or that Medicare for All was giving the people false hope is giving me the opportunity to say that while I appreciate his service a doctor, he’s got it wrong on policy and we’re going to have to make significant improvements in rolling out a single-payer system. 

Another issue where you and your runoff opponent digress is environmental policy. Dr. Gandhi has supported a carbon dividend and free-market solution, while you’ve come out recurrently in support of the Green New Deal. What’s the significance of that difference?

It’s a huge difference. I’ve taken a big risk in supporting a Green New Deal, especially in this district where a large portion of the oil and gas industry operates. However, I felt like I had to make this choice for not only political reasons, but also for moral reasons. I believe that the broader international scientific consensus has more than effectively warranted drastic and immediate action to stop climate change, and that we’re under a great amount of pressure to save our planet and protect our coastal communities. To me, the Green New Deal is a package of legislation that would meet the needs of combatting this crisis while also preparing us for a sustainable future. 

As a student of political history, I’ve looked to the original New Deal as a political moment when President Roosevelt was able to mobilize the country over a 15-year period to mitigate the impact of the Great Depression, to fight facism abroad, and to revitalize the economy and our infrastructure. To take on our modern issues of climate change and dramatic wealth inequality, I think that the Green New Deal offers a real path to accomplish something big. It’s the right thing to do on a policy path, and the right thing for our grandchildren and future generations so they may live unencumbered by pollution and climate change on the planet. I also feel that by supporting this policy, I’m on the right side of history. I’m very honored as a candidate to have the endorsement of the Sunrise Movement, an amazing youth-led organization of activists who are speaking out about issues of climate change and calling for elected officials to take action to protect them. In addition to talking, these activists are also putting their shoulders to the wheel. A number of them came to Austin to knock doors and work with our field team during their spring breaks. They’ve helped raise money, and they’re building their environmental justice movement with strikes, protests, and marches for what they believe in. 

This is also a perfect district to talk about the Green New Deal and fight for environmental policy in Texas. We’ve been able to include these activist organizations like the Sunrise Movement, environmental justice coalitions in Austin, and organizations like the Sierra Club into our campaign easily by advocating for the Green New Deal, but at the same time we have a coal plant right in the middle of our district, and a lot of people who work in that plant. This plant is partly owned by the city of Austin, and it’s spewing pollution into the air and water and posing a huge risk for public health. We’ve got fracking all across the district as well. In the Houston area, there have been five dramatic flooding events just in the past five years, including Hurricane Harvey. This is a really important place to talk about these issues, and it’s the kind of place where we can engage with people over their concerns that their lives or incomes would be threatened by these reforms. Even then, I’ve found that once we have that conversation, people have been really in support of me speaking up for a Green New Deal and can get behind me for supporting it. 

A big emphasis on the new coalition-building strategy of the Democratic Party is trying to bring in young people, by listening to the issues that matter to them and taking up solutions to these issues. In Texas, this has revolved around issues that have affected young people throughout their lives. Hurricane Harvey displaced over 30,000 people in the Houston area, and there have also also been recurrent instances of gun violence in the state too. Texas has been one of the leaders in the U.S. in the number of school shootings for years now. How has the campaign worked to incorporate the voices of young people?

Young people have been pivotal in this campaign. Back in 2018 when gun violence was becoming a national concern, I worked closely with the March for Our Lives movement as well as groups like Moms Demand Action in a series of forums to discuss issues around gun violence; in 2020, the strongest youth presence has been the Sunrise Movement. To me, it’s necessary for a successful Democratic campaign to work with young people. In addition to climate change and gun violence, an issue that has also been extremely significant with young people in my district has been voting rights. 

I have a historical college in my district, Prairie View A&M University, where students have basically been fighting for their right to vote for over 40 years. When we lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in this country, the students at this university, which are living on a campus embedded in a rural Republican county, started voting. Local Republican officials felt threatened and didn’t want these students to vote, so in the 1960s they told these students that they couldn’t vote here, that they had to vote in their home districts because they weren’t real residents of Waller County. Students couldn’t accept this. They filed a lawsuit and took it all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the students of Prairie View actually established through this case the right of every student in the United States to vote in the district where you attend school, with a case called Symm v. United States

Unfortunately, even though they’ve won historically, that fight has continued into 2018. The students were denied their ability to vote at a polling station on campus and were told by clerks that they were either improperly registered or registered in another precinct. My campaign got involved in this dispute, and one of our staff was actually arrested while delivering a demand letter—we went on the Rachel Maddow show to discuss it and it became this national spectacle for the importance of protecting voting rights. Throughout our campaign we’ve been trying to fight alongside these young people in our district to secure and protect their right to vote, and we’ll continue to fight for voting rights after this campaign because voter suppression is a huge problem all around Texas. Early voting stations have closed down and the state has restricted access to vote-by-mail, all of which are critical to improving engagement for a lot of people.

Assuming you prevail in November, what are you fighting for on your first day in Congress?

I’ll definitely be there with the House Progressive Caucus to fight for a progressive agenda, and I think especially after this coronavirus epidemic, we need to be fighting for Medicare for All on day one of the 2021 congressional session. The reasonings for legislation like this are going to be so much clearer: it’s actually more choice for people. People will have access to a doctor even if they lose their job, they will be able to have access to medical care regardless of their income or class status, and we can pay for it because we’re already able to give trillions of dollars to bail out industries like cruises and airlines. The money’s there, and it’s the surefire way to guarantee public health and public safety. 

I’m also going to be representing my district in Congress, and in my district the environmental issues are where I believe I can stand out. I can talk about our coal plant, I can talk about fracking, and I can talk about the fact that I’ve built alliances with labor unions that even include fossil fuel workers. Half of the labor unions in Houston, for example, are oil and gas related, but they still found me to be a trustworthy advocate for their rights in the workplace and for their general health and wellbeing—someone who will bring them to the table. I want to make my mark in environmental issues as a representative from an urban area who backs the Green New Deal but also has the backing of labor and the working-class. 

Finally, to anyone who might be reading this interview across the nation, or in your own district, what would you like to tell them?

Here in the Texas 10th we have the rare opportunity to replace one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, Michael McCaul, with a true progressive with a 21-year history of fighting for the people as an educator, an union organizer, and civil rights lawyer. This is a district that has been made winnable by strong community organizing and coalition-building, and in November we can finish the job.