By now, almost everybody knows. Harris County turned solidly blue this past election, ushering in a new wave of diverse and young elected leaders.
Fresh faces with new visions for Harris County are now occupying some its highest elected offices and districts, and for the first time in its history, are actually starting to reflect the multi-racial makeup of the county’s 4.6 million inhabitants.
Lillie Schechter, the Harris County Democratic chair who helped ensure the blue wave would overtake the Houston area in the 2018 midterms, told The Signal she intends to keep it that way, for good.
“We have to continue building on that momentum, we can’t just say ‘oh it’s a presidential we’re going to do better,’ we have to fight every single day like we’re losing to make sure we win in 2020,” Schechter said.
“You never take any campaign or any political season for granted,” she said, drawing on 11 years of experience working with local campaigns. “We should always run like we’re behind and not like we’re like ahead.”
Sworn in as party chair in 2017, Schechter has already helped Harris County Democrats break records. Her first fundraising event tapped Rep. Nancy Pelosi (“There was no hesitation from her office, it was an automatic yes,” Schechter said) and drew a crowd of 1,400 eager Democrats, more than double the attendance of any previous fundraising event.
When the midterms came and went, Democrats not only sent Republicans packing they also made history.
Lina Hidalgo, the first-ever Latina county judge who kicked out a 12-year Republican incumbent, is busy passing historic bail reform measures, fighting for immigrants’ rights, and approving stricter floodplain development rules.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia, the first-ever Latina sent to Congress from Texas, is already causing trouble for the Trump administration by questioning Robert Mueller over the investigation into Russian election interference.
Perhaps most famously, Harris County is now enjoying a supermajority of Democrats in the county’s judiciary, among them, 17 African-American women elected under the “Black Girl Magic” campaign spearheaded by Schechter and her team.
Schechter refuses to take credit for all the victories that occurred during and leading up to the 2018 midterms. She said it was all thanks to her staff, more than 600 volunteers and of course, Trump.
“The current Republican leadership in Texas and the Republican administration in the White House are doing everything possible to galvanize our voters,” Schechter said. “And the 2018 election results, while yes, as a local Democratic party we ran what I consider to be an amazing program and ran more programs than we’ve ever run in a midterm election, there was also a huge sentiment against Trump and the things that he’s doing.”
Involved in local politics since elementary school, Schechter is no stranger to what it takes to win city or county-level elections that can be too easily overlooked by flashy presidential politics.
Her mother, Sue, was the Harris County Democratic chair and a former member of the Texas Legislature in the 1990s. Growing up, Schechter, a native Houstonian, spent a lot of time at the party office carefully watching her mom navigate a county, which was back then still voting Republican in presidential elections.
When she graduated from high school, Schechter moved to Boston for college, leading to one of the most transformative periods in her life that informed her political philosophy for years to come.
“I was not ready to go to college. I dropped out my freshman year,” Schechter said. “I was 18, I didn’t really have any skills and so I applied to a local convenience store where I worked overnight shifts and also worked at an overnight retail shop in the mornings.”
After moving back to Texas, Schechter went on to receive her degree in American Studies and a Masters in Public Leadership from the University of Texas, but she said she’s always remembered the stress of working two-minimum wage jobs, including delivering pizzas at one point, just to barely make ends meet.
“While 15 dollars an hour is a great improvement over the current minimum wage, if people don’t have their basic necessities and can’t afford what they need, like health insurance, it’s incredibly challenging to survive,” Schechter said.
After college and before becoming party chair, Schechter launched her own progressive political consulting business where she aided Democrats like Cecile Richards, Wendy Davis, and Hillary Clinton.
She said that after all of the years working in politics, her biggest motivating force is the desire to see equal opportunity among Texans, regardless of how few resources they might be born with. She also wants to make sure women, like her stepdaughters, are treated equally and grow up in a world where women can be powerful in their own right.
“In Texas, we’ve seen what Republicans have done by holding power. I believe one of their main goals is to keep that power close to the vest where only a certain few can have access to that power. But knowledge is power too, and we have the resources in Texas so that we can have a government that works for everybody.”