Clayton Tucker starts his days at the farm by feeding his family’s goats. He’ll sometimes need to clear the fields for crops, but after his farmwork, he’ll always start making phone calls to let voters know that he is running to deliver progressive policies to rural Texas.
Tucker, a Democratic candidate for Senate District 24 in Central Texas, sports an iconic cowboy hat, and hosts “Tucker Talks TX-24” live streams twice a week and near-weekly virtual town halls to connect with his potential supporters. Before he goes to bed, he’ll catch up on the latest COVID-19 updates, hang up his hat, and tend to his bees.
The beekeeper and community organizer from Lampasas embodies much of the industrious and agrarian lifestyle that defines much of rural Central Texas. In order to win his race, Tucker must shatter the narrative that rural Texas is an unbreakable Republican stronghold by ousting the district’s conservative incumbent. To do that, he’s returning to the deep populist roots of rural Texas.
In 1877, a group of poor farmers gathered in Tucker’s hometown of Lampasas, Texas, to confront a common struggle that rings familiar today — the fight against big special interests, like banks and railroad monopolies, who were charging high-interest rates and price gouging. The meeting led to the creation of the Farmers Alliance, and in a few years, the Alliance had more than 3,000 chapters to empower farmers to take on big money.
In short, this group of poor farmers in Lampasas ignited the Populist movement, a sprawling network of cooperatives that formed a massive agrarian revolt against corporate power. It became one of the largest democratic insurgencies in America’s history.
While the Populist movement eventually merged, in part, with the Democratic party, some of Texas’ last statewide Democratic leaders, former Gov. Ann Richards and Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, were avowed populists.
Tucker, who is backed by Hightower and the Texas AFL-CIO, argues that returning rural Texas to its populist roots — one defined by working people coming together against moneyed corporate interests — will be critical to winning the state and his district. While the greed and political dominance of corporate titans like Walmart and Amazon are well documented, local farmers are going through a similar plight against big industries. Resources are being quietly siphoned away from family farmers to competing large-scale farms and agribusinesses.
“The ground has definitely been shifting here,” Tucker said. “While this [district] is easy to write off for being incredibly red, there is this current of anti-establishment feelings. A populism of sorts.”
With the backing of a quickly growing number of voters, Tucker’s message seems to be breaking through, a sign that the district is ready for change.
Rural Texas has seen 23 of its hospitals shuttered since 2013, more than double the number of any other state. Four of the counties in Tucker’s district — Blanco, Callahan, Mills, and San Saba — lack a single hospital, a dangerous reality that residents face in light of a rampant COVID-19 outbreak that has claimed more than 4,000 lives and seen more than 325,000 cases in the state.
“Corporate profits [were] put before people,” Tucker said of the alarming number of hospital closures in rural Texas. He described a familiar and compounding scenario for many Texans — having healthcare, but avoiding a doctor visit out of fear of an exorbitant medical bill.
An unapologetic progressive, Tucker is running on a platform that includes universal healthcare, tuition-free public college, and creating green jobs by pushing the state toward 100 percent renewable energy in the next decade. Promoting these policies on the campaign trail is a natural extension of his previous work as the statewide coordinator for Our Revolution Texas, a chapter of the progressive group created after the end of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign to elect progressive candidates.
Rural Texas, where unobstructed wind and sun are found in abundance, would be a strong contender for thousands of green union-paid jobs. With the highest uninsurance rate in the country, surging COVID-19 deaths, and rural hospitals closing down faster than any other state in the nation, Texas is in desperate need for universal healthcare.
A version of this message is part of Tucker’s pitch to voters, and he contends that it is working. After some supporters of President Donald Trump hear Tucker out, they affirm that he’ll be the one Democrat they vote for. “At least one Democrat won’t hurt me,” they say according to Tucker.
“We need folks who really care about rural Americans, who really understand what rural Americans are going through,” said Tucker, who has grown up in and around Lampasas and his family’s farm. “The progressive message does actually resonate in rural areas.”
In college, Tucker worked at the Williamson County Attorney’s Office and the Texas House of Representatives. He then spent several years in Taiwan, working as a kindergarten teacher, before returning to central Texas to pursue work on political campaigns and Our Revolution. In Taiwan, which has a single-payer healthcare system, less than 1.5 percent of his paycheck went to his health insurance. It cemented Tucker’s desire to deliver universal healthcare to his home state.
All the progress Tucker has made notwithstanding, defeating Republican incumbent Sen. Dawn Buckingham will not be easy. Despite Texas being the largest battleground state, Texas’ rural country seems to be the last solid frontier of conservatism in the state. In her last election in 2016, Buckingham fended off a Democratic opponent with more than 70 percent of the vote.
This cycle, Buckingham has received massive donations, including a $200,000 donation from a single individual, and 15 donations of $10,000 or more from PACs or people. Candidates for the Texas Legislature can receive unlimited contributions from individuals, political parties, and PACs.
“I don’t know how much big money has done us as the regular folks,” said Kelly Fladling, a military veteran and urban farm startup owner who has lived in Killeen since the late 80s. “[Tucker] has a lot more in common with the working person than Sen. Buckingham.”
Fladling, who is a top volunteer and phone banks regularly for the campaign, said she was drawn to Tucker’s authenticity. “You can tell that he actually cares about the people he’s trying to represent,” she said. “[Voters] appreciate that because that’s something [they] are missing from the people who are representing them in government.”
In contrast to Buckingham’s inaccessibility, Fladling described Tucker as an earnest listener to voters’ concerns. Tucker has traversed the district to talk to voters, partnered with fellow Democratic candidates in overlapping districts, and showed solidarity with a local organizer by attending a small protest against police brutality in Temple, Texas.
Like Fladling, Tucker seems confident in the changing tides of the district. “There’s enough anger, enough willingness to change that we’ll see a pretty high turnout [of Democrats],” he said, alluding to the recent record Democratic runoff election turnout.
Tucker contributed the rise in Democratic turnout to people’s frustration with the mishandling of the pandemic and increasing fears of an economic recession. Conditions that have led to growing demands for systemic change in society, in both the present and past.
“[The Democratic Party] is returning to its New Deal roots,” Tucker said.
The New Deal era was defined not only by groundbreaking, transformative policies but by Democratic dominance across the country — including rural Texas.
Photo: Clayton Tucker
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.