The Signal recently spoke with Greg Casar, a progressive Austin city councilman considering a run for Congress in Texas’ 35th congressional district.
A former labor organizer with the Workers Defense Project and the youngest person ever elected to Austin City Council, Casar has marked his three terms in office by expanding local labor laws and abortion access, raising the minimum wage of City of Austin employees to $15 an hour, and being a staunch ally to undocumented immigrants.
Chances are, anytime Texas Republicans complain about socialists in Austin, they’re usually talking of Casar, whose achievements (in tight competition with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo) are routinely targeted by the GOP-controlled state legislature. In the following interview edited for length and clarity, Casar talks about his potential run for Congress, overriding legislation passed by Texas Republicans, and joining “The Squad.”
Where did the idea of running for Congress come from?
Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I especially remember in the middle of the winter storm I was walking through the snow bringing blankets from me and my neighbor’s houses to one of the shelters where people were staying when I saw that Abbott was on Fox News making stuff up about a Green New Deal and blaming the storm on windmills.
At that moment it became so clear that we have statewide Republican leaders that are standing in the way of basic decency and thoughtful policy, and that we have to override them in Congress. That’s the only place where we can check and stop what people like Greg Abbott are doing.
What are some other reasons you’re exploring a run for Congress? What’s your stump speech?
Hah, no stump speech yet. But working people in Texas are struggling and they wouldn’t have to so much if people like Governor Abbott looked out for other people instead of just themselves.
We’ve shown that when we organize in Texas we can win. I know how to do that, our communities from here to San Antonio know how to do that. We’ve raised wages for everyday working people in our communities; we worked from Austin to San Antonio to put together immigrant defense funds to keep families from being separated by Trump; we passed paid sick time policies that I authored here and in San Antonio.
So we’ve shown that when we organize we can win, but unfortunately, we have to deal with a state that wants to undo everything good that we do.
The legislature has banned raising the minimum wage in Texas, so it’s time for Congress to override them and pass a $15 an hour minimum wage with an automatic escalator to get it up to $20 an hour.
The Republican courts banned our paid sick time laws that we passed here and in San Antonio — in the middle of the pandemic — so the only way we can solve that issue is for Congress to pass a law giving everyone access to sick time and paid parental leave, a decent retirement, and universal healthcare.
In the richest country in the world, we should be able to provide everyone a decent life. In an area that’s growing as quickly as our neighborhoods, we should be able to make sure that growth benefits everyday people. But with Republican leadership at the state capital, we continue to see corporate interest prevail over working people.
You mentioned paid sick leave and your other work on city council that’s been targeted by the governor and legislature. In what other ways do you see them getting their comeuppance with you in Washington?
We’ve seen the devastating effects of Abbott’s abortion ban which is impacting so many families. We should be able to make Roe v. Wade national law so he can’t do that.
If the Republicans don’t want to fix the grid because they’re so beholden to fossil fuel interests then we need someone in Congress who will so our families don’t freeze during the next storm.
While Governor Abbott keeps catering to big corporations and to the far right, we need someone in Congress who will make sure that big companies pay their fair share so everybody else can afford to live here.
We’ve seen the legislature focus on discriminating against LGBTQ kids instead of focusing on making sure those kids can afford to go to school and not be straddled by heaps of debt. We need someone in Congress who will focus on education instead of discrimination and cancel student debt.
I think what we need most is organizers in Congress to make sure we can deliver the progressive agenda that we know the majority of Texans want.
And speaking of the progressive agenda. I think the big question on everyone’s mind — if elected are you going to join “The Squad.”
[Laughs] I don’t know — if they’ll take me!
I know that there are honorary members like Jamaal Bowman, and I really look up to the incredible work that Cori Bush did just showing how one member of Congress can sleep on the steps of the Capital and ultimately create a chain of events where Joe Biden signs a continued eviction moratorium keeping hundreds of thousands of people in their homes.
So I think it’s really important to see how individual members of Congress and the young progressives in Congress have been able to make such change.
I also really admire Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus and shows that it’s also important to be able to play as part of a team and deliver the most progressive parts of Biden’s agenda.
I see myself as someone who wants to play both of those roles, I think it’s important for individual members to make their mark but I’m also committed to delivering progressive policy and that means being able to work alongside a broad swath of the Democratic Praty.
What are your thoughts of negotiations so far in Congress when it comes to federal voting rights legislation as well as Biden’s Build it Back Better Act?
It is clear that the [Senate] filibuster is a tool for the status quo and for serving corporate interests and for holding the country back.
There has to be a total overhaul to the filibuster or at minimum some major exceptions to that rule. The idea that it’s going to get used against us in the future is wrong-headed because it’s being used against us right now!
So that absolutely has to change because it’s blocking voting rights legislation, it’s blocking our ability to raise the minimum wage, it’s blocking our ability to save our planet by taking action on climate change. It absolutely, absolutely has to change.
I also think we shouldn’t have a country that’s ultimately run by one or two senators. Part of what I hope to do if I run and win is to drive up turnout in places like Texas, to energize volunteers and communities to come out and vote because there’s no reason that Ted Cruz should be a senator from Texas.
We wouldn’t have to talk so much about what Senator Manchin or Senator Sinema want if we also were able to get rid of people like Ted Cruz in Texas and instead have, say, Julián Castro.
We need to get rid of the filibuster and organize in states like Texas so that we hold a stronger majority in the House and Senate and can actually pass these kinds of policies.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
So much man. I mentioned the abortion ban … I don’t want to give the impression that everything we’ve done locally has been whipped out, because it hasn’t.
For example, when the legislature tried to close the Planned Parenthood here in east Austin, we found a way around their law and kept that Planned Parenthood open. When we closed the tax loopholes for the most expensive properties in the city, the legislature tried to pass a law to reopen the tax loophole, and we beat them.
We have shown the ability to win at a local level, but we could do so much more if we override those legislators.
That’s one thing. A second part is, I came from organizing in the worker’s rights movement and the immigrant’s rights movement and I believe that we pass the best policy when we have those working folks at the table, no matter who they are or where they come from.
If we actually want to address the outrageous cost of living, or stagnating wages, or problems at the VA, or climate justice, we need to make sure that those everyday people who are hurt the most actually have a seat at the table in Washington D.C.
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org