Mike Siegel on why Texas is ready for progressive politics

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Congressional Democratic candidate Mike Siegel, a former educator and attorney for the city of Austin, is confident bold ideas and corporate-free campaigning can flip a Republican district held since 2005.

Siegel was dangerously close to proving his theory for change during his first run for Congress in 2018 when he came within a margin of four percentage points from unseating incumbent Rep. Michael McCaul.

The result stunned political observers who had labeled the race as either safely or solidly Republican that year. And in their defense, it was hard for even the most fine-tuned crystal balls to predict Siegel would buck the district’s historical trend so aggressively. The previous Democrat to run in the district in 2016 lost to McCaul by 19 percentage points. There was little reason to suspect Siegel, who was outraised by a torrent of finance and oil cash entering his opponent’s coffers, would fare any differently. 

“It surprised a lot of people who told me on the phone, ‘Mike you seem like a nice guy but I can’t give you money because you don’t have a chance in heck of winning,’” Siegel told the Signal in a recent interview. “And so the way I see it, it turned out that flipping this seat is something that couldn’t be done in one cycle, but it’s a two-cycle process.” 

This time around, Siegel said more eyes are on Texas’ 10th congressional district, voters and donors such as unions or environmental groups have a renewed perspective on the race, and more people of diverse backgrounds have since moved to the district. 

Siegel is one of only two Democratic congressional candidates in Texas running on a platform that includes support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal (the other being Julie Oliver in TX-25). 

Both ideas have characterized the progressive movement since 2015 and have kicked off plenty of conversation within the party about the ability of Democrats to win because of them, or in spite of them.

Texas’ 10th congressional district stretches from West Austin to Houston, and includes several rural counties that makeup the distance between the two suburban metro areas. It’s not exactly the type of district where one would expect the ideas championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders to churn out support — after all, leftwing freshman lawmakers that were elected in 2018 came to power in safely blue districts where moderate Democrats, not Republicans, were knocked out. 

Siegel is vying to push his party leftward on ideas he passionately believes while also being on the frontlines of battleground Texas. Success stories from that battlefield, at least in Texas, have so far been typically reserved for Democrats who have stopped short of endorsing those ideas. 

But Siegel’s near-win in 2018 while supporting Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and refusing corporate PAC money offers proof that progressive ideas may soon have a history-making home in battleground Texas too.

“I think we need to separate Bernie as the messenger from the policies that his campaign came to embody,” Siegel said of campaigning in his district.

“I don’t think we need to talk about Medicare for All as Bernie’s proposal, though of course he wrote the bill in the Senate, to me it’s a matter of common sense now, that we all need healthcare, it’s the way we get out of the pandemic, it’s the way we promote social justice and equal opportunity,” Siegel said.

When talking to voters about the policies, Siegel said he shys away from hashtags and focuses on how the ideas relate to people, like prescription drugs for retired teachers or addressing the closure of hospitals in the district — three in the last decade. He said the biggest questions he’s heard when discussing Medicare for All are the costs of the universal single-payer plan and the fact that some voters like their employer insurance. 

Siegel said both concerns have been answered by the pandemic. The government is already using trillions in taxpayer dollars to prop up Wall Street and there is no reason healthcare can’t be prioritized. As for private insurance, he said the pandemic has shown that someone’s ability to go see a doctor shouldn’t be tied to employment. Ultimately, Siegel said the policy demands for both Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are present in his district, both plans enjoy popular support among Democrats, and messaging is the key to winning over voters in his rural-suburban district.

Across the aisle and frantically sending fundraising emails about the Democrat’s latest attempt to grow “the squad” — the collective name given to freshman lefty lawmakers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar — is Siegel’s opponent, Michael McCaul.

Perhaps more than any other Texas member of Congress, McCaul embodies the worst aspects of lawmaking that contribute to harsh feelings of mistrust that Americans have for government. A limousine-addicted hardliner and the second-richest member of Congress boasting an estimated net worth of $113 million, McCaul is the proto-typical example of a fat-cat politician. Throughout his eight terms in the House, McCaul has used his mandate from voters to enrich himself and those who have historically funded his sleepy re-elections.

A 2012 Washington Post analysis of McCaul’s early years in Congress found he was among 130 members who traded stocks worth hundreds of millions from companies lobbying before Congress, often in their very own committees. McCaul’s family had the highest number of overlapping trades, totaling between $5 million and $23 million. His latest finance disclosure shows he continues to own pages and pages of assets, including stocks for pharmaceuticals, oil & gas companies and banks who often benefit from the votes he takes in Congress. One recent example, in 2018 McCaul voted to successfully roll back Dodd-Frank regulations on commercial banks while owning millions of dollars worth of stocks in Citigroup, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase.

In truth, a progressive running on a populist platform couldn’t ask for a better opponent. 

“He’s completely bought and paid for by corporate interest,” Siegel said. “It reflects every vote he takes.” 

“This is a person who gets 70 percent of their campaign dollars from corporate PACs and he does their bidding,” Siegel said, listing McCaul’s votes on prescription drugs, private immigration jails and on the U.S. Postal Service. 

Siegel partly credits the development of his own politics on his 5-year career as an educator in underserved schools in California while working for Teach For America, as well as his own family who participated in the Civil Rights Movement, including his father who was a freedom rider in the south during the 1950s. His time teaching led him to create two after-school education nonprofits agencies that continue to serve their communities.

“One of the things we learn as teachers is this idea that public schools are a level playing field is an illusion,” Siegel said. “The biggest indicator of success is the socio-economic status of the family.”

After teaching, Siegel studied law at Cornell and in 2013 moved to Texas to kick off his new career as a civil rights lawyer and a plaintiff-side employment lawyer. In 2015,  he became Austin’s assistant city attorney, taking on landlords and representing tenants for habitable living conditions and leading the legal charge against the anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4, the infamous Texas “show me your papers” law. 

When asked about a particularly zesty tweet on his Twitter account that said “concentrated wealth is a threat to our democracy” in reaction to the news that Jeff Bezos was the world’s first-ever $200 billion man, Siegel said it was not the workings of a campaign staffer who felt particularly righteous that day (as the interviewer suggested) but they really were his own words.

“It distorts our democratic ideals,” Siegel said. “It makes it harder to achieve either workplace democracy or democracy for the nation.”

“In general, we talk a lot about how our campaign finance system is broken,” Siegel continued. “And as a candidate I come face to face with that everyday. The people who write $1,000 dollar checks or more have different politics than the people at large.”

A fan of science fiction, Siegel said he has recently begun re-reading Frank Herbert’s 1965 600-page epic Dune on his downtime to escape from the pandemic.

“It’s science fiction, but it’s also about, you know, a popular revolt against hegemony,” he joked.

Photo: Mike Siegel campaign website

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