Can a progressive beat the most conservative Democrat in the Texas Senate?

by | May 18, 2020 | 2020 Elections, Politics

On March 3, 2020, in the shadow of a contentious presidential primary election, incumbent legislators and scores of primary challengers ran to serve in one of the 181 seats of the Texas Legislature. Sara Stapleton-Barrera, a candidate for Texas Senate District 27, spent the day doing interviews and running between polling sites and intersections to let voters know that she was running to unseat a 30-year incumbent. After polls closed in the evening, she watched initial results come in while sharing barbecued fajitas with friends, family, and volunteers. Long after everyone went home, at 2:00 AM in the morning, clutching her phone and sharing a bed with her 4-year-old and 1-year-old, Stapleton-Barrera learned that her campaign would continue.

No incumbent member of the State Legislature lost a primary on March 3, but one Democratic state senator was headed to a runoff to face Stapleton-Barrera: Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr.

Lucio hasn’t had a credible challenger in almost three decades. First elected to the Texas Senate in 1990, he has served a longer tenure than all but two other senators. He previously landed on Texas Monthly’s worst legislators list, and he has publicly opposed LGBTQ rights and abortion access his entire career. Cementing his reputation as the most conservative Democrat and ally to Republicans, Lucio is the only Democrat in Texas who was recently endorsed by Americans For Prosperity Action, a conservative super PAC founded by the Koch brothers.

Despite a few high profile examples, it is exceedingly rare in politics to challenge a powerful incumbent. It is even rarer to win. Stapleton-Barrera, however, has a real shot at victory.

Stapleton-Barrera isn’t just running against Lucio and his controversial record. She’s running to fiercely advocate for working families, women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community—all groups that she believes are currently being neglected in Texas. She has pledged to only serve three terms in office, 12 years for a Texas senator, citing the complacency of lawmakers who have served in office too long. Aligned with social issues almost universally supported by Democrats not just in Texas, but across the nation, her website prominently touts her as “a true Democrat,” and accordingly, she has earned the support of a slate of labor and progressive organizations that includes Texas American Federation of Teachers, Texas State Teachers Association, Texas Freedom Network, Annie’s List, Progress Texas, Equality Texas, NARAL Texas, and Planned Parenthood Texas Votes—the host of a candidate forum that Lucio notably skipped.

A constitutional lawyer and former teacher, Sara Stapleton-Barrera is a political newcomer, but is not new to the struggle of her community. Born in Harlingen and growing up in Brownsville, the heart of Texas’ 27th Senate District, Stapleton-Barrera cited that Rio Grande Valley’s inequities can be partially attributed to the state’s neglect. “We’re always the last to get resources, we’re always the last to be thought about,” said Stapleton-Barrera while balancing her 1-year-old child in the car with her husband. “Just because we’re a border town, doesn’t mean we should be forgotten.”

She became a lawyer after a difficult year of teaching music at a small Catholic elementary school as a way to serve her community. Stapleton-Barrera describes her legal work as protecting the falsely accused and those facing violations to their constitutional rights. In 2018, after spending six months in jury selection of a difficult death penalty trial that failed the defendent in the case, Stapleton-Barrera began to question how the system works. A desire to change that system turned her attention to the conservative record of her current representative Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. “You cannot find a more loving people than you will find in the RGV. And we deserve better. We don’t deserve to be 10 or 20 years behind,” she said of the district and its current representation.

“All these years, I voted for him because he was the only one on the ballot. And he was a Lucio. And that’s what we did,” said Stapleton-Barrera. “I was disappointed in myself that I had been voting for this guy. Now that I have all this information, I could do one of two things: I could just ignore it, or take a huge gamble and try to take this guy down.” She opted for the latter.

Sarah Stapleton-Barrera campaigning in the Rio Grande Valley with her three children | Photo: Sara Stapleton-Barrera Facebook Page

Stapleton-Barrera’s proponents argue that her new voice, legal career, identity as a young 36-year-old Latina mother, and unalloyed support for the marginalized communities that Lucio rejects make her the perfect candidate to defeat him. “We have this young woman who’s running to be the first female senator for this district. To have someone like that locally really drew me to her,” said Natalie Marquez, a community organizer who is volunteering for Stapleton-Barrera.

“She’s creating spaces for communities that have never been heard before, or communities that have been dismissed before—environmental groups, LGBTQ community, reproductive rights groups and advocates,” said Denisce Palacios, a Texas Rising organizer in the Valley. “She’s taking all these spaces for people to be heard and to listen to them in a way that a senator should have been listening to them this entire time.”

Several volunteers cited Stapleton-Barrera’s unique understanding of the challenges that women and children face along the border. Within the vast 4,300 square miles of the Rio Grande Valley reside 1.4 million residents, but just one abortion clinic in McAllen. Inequities persist for low-income women who may have to arrange hours of travel to first receive a mandatory sonogram and pregnancy options counseling at least 24 hours before an abortion procedure. For travelers, that imposes the burden of arranging a place to stay overnight, or two roundtrips. Keenly aware of this issue, Stapleton-Barrera supports abortion access and reproductive healthcare access for all. At the time of her oldest daughter’s birth, who is now 8 years old, Stapleton-Barrera was unemployed and not married. “She really had to decide whether she was ready to be a mother or not. That is a testament to a lot of women in the Valley who feel like they don’t have that choice or access to that choice,” said Natalie Marquez.

For ascendent challengers like Stapleton-Barrera, assembling a massive team of relentless door knocking volunteers can be critical for success. This simultaneously introduces voters to a new voice, and distinguishes the challenger from the incumbent. In the age of COVID-19, all in-person campaign activities across the country are suspended.

Before the onset of COVID-19, Stapleton-Barrera would go to as many as 15 events a day to introduce herself to voters. Now, Stapleton-Barrera insists her pace has not slowed down and expressed confidence in the campaign’s transitions to a digital and virtual format. 

“We’re doing Facebook videos, town halls, social media to engage with voters and constituents and whoever will listen to us,” Stapleton-Barrera said. Just in the past week, the campaign held a virtual town hall, a LGBTQ panel featuring five activists, daily phone banks, and a virtual week of action. Notably, Stapleton-Barrera highlighted Kimberly Avila, a transgender woman from Brownsville missing since 2017 whose case advocates say is not being prioritized, during the LGBTQ panel. “I’ve never seen any other official try to amplify cases like this or even acknowledge transgender people. It makes her stand out from anyone else,” noted Natalie Marquez.

The challenge of Stapleton-Barrera’s bid will be to talk to enough voters to make her case. Lucio enjoys near universal name recognition from his tenure, and Stapleton-Barrera must mobilize enough volunteers to defeat the sitting senator. That is no simple task, especially in a pandemic, but the challenger puts her faith in her volunteer team.

Sara Stapleton-Barrera volunteering for her community in the wake of COVID-19 | Photo: Sara Stapleton-Barrera Facebook Page

“It’s a coalition of people ready for change,” Stapleton-Barrera said of her volunteers and supporters. She further described her volunteers as young, progressive, and powered by issues, with many political campaign veterans. Volunteers, including Marquez and Palacios, all expressed optimism in Stapleton-Barrera’s ability to pull off an upset victory against Lucio, contrasting Stapleton-Barrera’s platform and active volunteer base to the 74-year-old legislator’s history.

Lucio’s defenders, however, don’t see a problem with his record. They point to his success in working across the aisle in a Republican-dominated chamber, his seniority in the legislature, and his passage of a bill to expand healthcare for children with disabilities. According to his campaign website, he is guided by “putting people first.” This, according to Lucio’s voting record, need not include the most vulnerable.

Recent polling of Senate District 27, largely working class and Latinx, shows that over 70 percent of the district and over 65 percent of active church goers strongly support expanding protections to the LGBTQ community. Yet in 2017, Lucio was the only Democrat to vote for the “bathroom bill,” which would have imposed discriminatory penalities for transgender Texans chosing to use a public restroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

“I’ve been wanting Eddie Lucio out ever since the bathroom bill. I’m a transgender woman. It was very personal. My community has dealt with a lot of blood, sweat, toil, and tears because of that man,” said Madeleine Croll, the first transgender woman elected as precinct chair and one of the five activists featured in Stapleton-Barrera’s LGBTQ panel. “To know that the person who represents my home and my heart is dead set against me was offensive and angering.”

Three months after announcing his support for the bathroom bill, Lucio’s hometown of Brownsville declared June as LGBTQ Pride Month. In 2019, Lucio was the sole Democrat, again, to vote for the “Save Chick-fil-A bill,” a religious liberty bill that had been killed just weeks earlier by the Texas House’s LGBTQ Caucus with the belief that the legislation would permit discrimination.

Despite the same poll showing that over 55 percent of the district supported access to abortion, in 2019 Lucio was the only Democrat to vote for an anti-abortion bill that would prohibit state and local governments from partnering with agencies that perform abortions. He further authored an anti-abortion bill that mandated providers distribute pamphlets detailing abortion alternatives to women seeking the procedure.

In this year’s Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who championed transformational progressive policies, vocally supported gay rights and abortion rights since 1972, and frequently spoke of systemic inequities, won decisively in the Rio Grande Valley and across almost all predominantly Latinx communities. Sanders’ victory included Senate District 27, where he edged out former Vice President Joe Biden and earned one more delegate than Biden in the district—further indication that Lucio’s time representing the district may be coming to an end.

Sara Stapleton-Barrera with a Brownsville family at the ACLU’s Senate District 27 candidate forum on January 15, 2020. Her incumbent opponent, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. was notably absent | Photo: Sara Stapleton-Barrera Campaign Website

Despite the ideological split of the district from Lucio, there is still much ground for Stapleton-Barrera to cover before the July 14 runoff election. Her three-way primary finish of 35.6 percent to Lucio’s 49.8 percent may not inspire easy confidence for residents yearning for change.

The daunting prospect of surmounting a near outright win from a runoff is not without precedent, however. In 2018, René Oliveira, a seventeen-term Texas House incumbent representing Brownsville, entered a runoff with 48.5 percent of the vote. Then Cameron County Commissioner Alex Dominguez, who had earned just 36.4 percent in the runoff, ultimately defeated the incumbent after Oliveira’s public arrest and DWI charge.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Texas’ 23rd Congressional District unconstitutional after the Texas Legislature drew out many Latinx voters in Laredo. In the redrawn district, which sweeps across the southwestern Texas-Mexico border, former seven-term Republican incumbent Rep. Henry Bonilla was defeated by Ciro Rodriguez after winning an initial runoff by 48.1 percent to Rodriguez’s 20.3 percent.

“She’s committed to listening to her constituents and being there. What she’s not aware of, she is trying to make herself aware of. It is a complete breath of fresh air compared to what we have now. We hope that through her victory, we will finally be heard,” said Madeleine Croll, the LGBTQ activist, speaking of Stapleton-Barrera in contrast to Lucio’s refusal to meet with and hear from Valley residents like her.

History proves that ousting a 30-year incumbent is not easy, but it’s not impossible. What often topples political titans is the urgent desire for a fresh voice, deep change, and representation that better matches the beliefs of the community. By mobilizing a strong, diverse volunteer base and successfully portraying Lucio as unaligned with the values and profound needs of the district, Stapleton-Barrera may very well be able to pull it off.

Photo: Sara Stapleton-Barrera Facebook Page

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Chris covers Texas politics and government. He is a Policy Advisor for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and a graduate student at Harvard University. Previously, Chris served as Texas State Director and National Barnstorm Director for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and as a Political Advisor for Beto O’Rourke. Born in Houston, Texas to immigrants from Hong Kong and Mexico, he is committed to building political power for working people and communities of color. Chris is a Fulbright Scholar and a graduate of Rice University.

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