In the inevitable-looking saga of Republicans losing power in Texas, there would be no sweeter stroke of fate than Julie Oliver toppling Congressman Roger Williams.
A healthcare finance analyst turned Democratic candidate, Oliver is running one of the most progressive campaigns in Texas that include support for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, abolishing private and for-profit prisons, and going after dark money in politics.
To prove the latter, Oliver is saying no to all political action committee money. Not just corporate PAC money, but PAC money from the major unions and agreeable political action groups that have endorsed her, such as the Texas AFL–CIO, Our Revolution, Working Families, Moms Demand Action and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Oliver’s commitment to the no PAC money pledge goes as far as sending back checks, sometimes worth only $100 or $200, to small Democratic clubs that support her.
“You don’t have to have millions of dollars in cash to win,” Oliver told the Signal, citing the elections Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush — three progressives that defeated more moderate, well-funded incumbent Democrats in safely blue districts during their primaries due to grassroots fundraising and organizing.
Oliver held the same pledge in 2018 during her first bid for Congress against Williams. She raised an impressive $644,928, but fell 9 percentage points short on Election Day — not exactly a nailbiter, but a significant improvement from her predecessor in 2016 who lost by 20 points.
“I’ve heard from some people in the Democratic Party who are like, ‘oh that’s foolish, you’ll have to take PAC money this time,’” Oliver said. “And I’m like, mm-hmm, we’ll see about that.”
A poll of Texas’ 25th district released earlier this month shows Oliver only two percentage points behind Williams. That competitiveness is even more impressive when considering the fundraising gap between the two campaigns. Oliver has raised $681,850 so far this cycle (more money than she raised throughout the entire 2018 midterms), but Williams continues to outspend and outraise. The latest fundraising report shows Williams with 14 times more cash on hand than Oliver.
When asked if she thought the poll numbers would favor her more if she were to take PAC money, Oliver said she didn’t know.
“I really don’t, honestly. We wouldn’t change what we’re doing,” Oliver said. “It’s always been voter focused.”
That commitment to forgo PAC money may not matter much to hard-right Republicans, Oliver said, but for swing voters and especially young voters, it is crucial to developing trust.
Her district, which stretches from Austin to Fort Worth, includes the University of Texas and its dorms where thousands of students live. Oliver said when she campaigns on campus and talks about taking no special interest money, jaws drop.
“It’s sad,” Oliver said. “I would hate to think that an 18 or 19-year-old is already jaded by the political system, but if you can show them a different way of doing it and you can lead by example, we have the ability to change things in our country.”
Consciously or unconsciously, Oliver frequently answers direct questions about herself and her candidacy with plural pronouns, like we and us, as if she were a union steward. This is no surprise considering Oliver credits the competitiveness of the race as well as her confidence in winning entirely on the Texans who give up their weekends to knock out Williams.
Her campaign boasts roughly 1,000 volunteers, including anywhere between 400 to 500 volunteers who are routinely involved in the fight — Oliver said she would describe the campaign “as part of their life” — phone banking, texting, dropping off campaign literature, filming, photographing, editing, researching, crunching numbers, and organizing and managing volunteers of their own.
Her campaign shares the distributed organizing style that characterized Sen. Bernie Sanders’ successive presidential runs, and the 2018 U.S. Senate bid of Beto O’Rourke; Oliver’s campaign manager, Julia Doubleday, is a veteran of both campaigns.
It is precisely that commitment to a new type of campaigning, one whose roots stretch back only a few years, and whose success depends on building a transparent relationship with supporters to create small recurring dollars and an army of volunteers, that makes the race for Oliver’s district so addictive.
It’s also what would make the defeat of Roger Williams, a car dealership owner who got his political start fundraising big dollars for the Bush presidency and Cornyn’s Senate bid, and recently unsuccessfully sought the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee — the fundraising arm of Congressional Republicans that tees up donations from billionaires and millionaires — that much sweeter.
It was Sen. John McCain’s dramatic and unexpected thumbs down on repealing the Affordable Care Act in July 2017 that queued up the thought of running for Congress in Julie Oliver’s head.
“I looked at my husband, and I was like, ‘oh my goodness I have a terrible idea and I need you to talk me out of it,’” she recalled.
The thought of her son, who suffers from a heart condition and an immune deficiency disorder, losing healthcare solidified her desire to run.
When she was still mulling over the decision a few weeks later, Oliver said she finally told someone outside her family she was running for Congress. Suddenly, she felt accountable and her campaign began in earnest.
Both Oliver and her husband would dip into their savings for the race. Her first PAC-free donation: a $3,125 investment in her own campaign. Her first expenditure, a website on Squarespace.
Financial filings show Oliver would raise about $33,000 during the Democratic primary, almost five times less than her opponent, Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer Christopher Perri. Ironically, Perri attacked Oliver in mailers and campaign emails, calling her a “moneycrat” and placing an image of her alongside Gov. Greg Abbott atop a pile of cash because her campaign’s treasurer had voted Republican in 2016 in an attempt to prevent Donald Trump from securing the Republican nomination.
When Super Tuesday rolled around, Peri took a third of the vote, and Oliver barely made the cutoff. The two headed to a tight runoff where Oliver would take the lead and become the Democratic nominee.
Oliver would drive tens of thousands of miles as she campaigned and visited the 13 counties within her district again and again. “I wasn’t focused on the outcome, I was trying to focus every day on trying to talk to people,” she said.
One day, Oliver scheduled a series of health care town halls throughout her district and was texting potential voters with an invite. Someone messaged back, lecturing the campaign that town halls were rigged since candidates could just call on people in the audience they knew. The voter instead offered to meet Oliver on their porch to discuss the Second Amendment. She agreed.
“I go to this house out in the country in Coryell County, between Bosque and Lampasas, and I come up to this gate with an AR-15 sign and a no trespassing sign,” Oliver said. “I have to call the guy and say, ‘Tony I just want to make sure I’m not going to get shot and I’m at the right house’.”
“We ended up having one of the best conversations I’ve ever had,” Oliver said. “I hardly even talked.”
Oliver said Tony would go from supporting concealed reciprocity — the ability for concealed handgun carriers to move their guns freely between state lines — to supporting extensive training for anyone’s first firearm purchase. On Election Day, Tony texted Oliver that he was rooting for her.
And just like that, bit by bit, Oliver has grown her base of supporters over the course of almost three years of campaigning.
Ultimately, Oliver did not win the Central Texas heartland she so vigorously campaigned in. Two-thirds of her votes came from a high turnout Travis County, which she won along with Bell County. Still, every county in the district saw Republican margins chipped away by a few points or more when compared to 2016, including its most rural counties. Oliver contends that because of the district’s gerrymandering, she will not be able to rely solely on voters in Travis County to defeat Williams.
In 2020, Oliver’s grassroots base and name recognition were enough to comfortably secure her nomination again despite the well-funded grassroots primary campaign of Democratic Socialists of America-backed farmer Heidi Sloan.
Health care is the defining issue of Julie Oliver’s campaign.
Before running for Congress, she spent 15 years working with St. David’s HealthCare, an affiliate of Hospital Corporation of America Healthcare that operates multiple for-profit hospitals in the Austin area. Oliver said she reviewed contracts for financial implications, worked on building financial statements, oversaw audits, and eventually worked as a division liaison reporting between the hospitals and HCA healthcare.
Oliver’s time in the complicated world of healthcare finance and taxes has gifted her the ability to list the costs of hospital visits and different medical procedures from memory at dizzying speeds; a first-time visit to a hospital for a patient with hypertension suffering a heart attack runs them about $250,000; the second time, between $500,000 to $750,000. If patients are uninsured and can’t pay (as is often the case in Texas) a portion of that cost is kicked back to taxpayers via property taxes.
“It’s what gave me this insight in that, wow, we finance healthcare in the most ridiculous of ways,” Oliver said. “It’s so expensive, it leaves so many people out, and there’s a much better way of doing it.”
Oliver said the most memorable moment of this cycle so far is receiving a call from Sen. Bernie Sanders, grilling her on her commitment to Medicare for All and other progressive ideas prior to receiving an endorsement.
“It was a total blur, I just remember thinking, oh my gosh I just got a call from the Senator,” Oliver said. “And he’d cut me off mid-sentence and go on to the next question. It was awesome.”
Oliver said her biggest political hero is Sen. Elizbeth Warren because both their life stories and humble beginnings align closely. Much of that life story is featured in an ad Oliver released detailing her early life of poverty as well as the time she ran away from home at the age of 17 and returned home pregnant after several months of living in abandoned buildings and stealing food from gas stations.
“Even though I came back and I was pregnant, the people in my community, a small tiny town called Ovilla, did everything they could to support a 17-year-old mom,” Oliver said.
Filings show more than nine out of ten of Oliver’s dollars are from Texas this cycle, immunizing her from criticism that has been lobbed at other progressives, like Jessica Cisneros, who received national attention and raised large sums of money from states like California and New York. It also serves as proof that the type of congressional campaign Oliver is running can be entirely homebrewed in the Lone Star State.
“When you get out there and you actually care about somebody and you connect with them, and they establish a rapport and trust with you and believe you’re going to fight for them — you don’t have to have millions of dollars in cash to do that,” Oliver said.
Photo: Hays County Democratic Party
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 email@example.com