Since my last op-ed on the Harris County Democratic Party went viral many are asking who am I. Most know me through my role as President of Meyerland Area Democrats and the many achievements we made in changing history in Harris County. But do you know who I am as a person? Did you know I was the victim of an antisemitic attack when I was 14? Or that, overnight I found myself with nerve paralysis? Those famous people I’m in photos with-did you know most I met through my own will and determination to show I am not something lesser than because of my disability?
My ties to this city are deep. I was born in this city. My family fled persecution as they were Jews. My great grandfather Sam was conscripted by the tsar and hidden many times. In the early 1900’s they came here. My great grandfather Meyer used to say, “I crawled across the ocean to be a free man.” My paternal grandmother Evelyn and grandfather Dr. Arthur Pronin settled here in 1951. Grandfather was a medical doctor and got his degree despite many hurdles. He was Jewish and the New England schools had quotas on Jews, so he had to go to Zurich University in Switzerland in the 1930’s to get his education. Yes, antisemitism then was very high in America and dreams did not come easily for our people. He later served in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) in Montana and had his practice there. He met grandmother at the wedding of a mutual friend. In 10 weeks they got married. After several years out West they moved to Houston to raise their son. In 1964 Dr. Pronin, whose practice served many in poverty, died in a hepatitis epidemic that swept the city, leaving my father at age 13.
Grandmother Evelyn was college-educated and served in WWII as an army librarian, residing in various posts on the East Coast. These ladies would find books that were requests of soldiers about to go overseas. She heard much about the demise of the Jews of Europe which later propelled her to help found and organize Holocaust Museum Houston. In addition, she trained a generation of Houston librarians in southwest Houston.
My maternal grandparents Philip and Edith were loving hard working people. Grandfather worked in many plants assembling goods. Money came hard for them, but they raised my mother and her sister with deep moral values. Grandfather died in 1989 at 59 years of age of a heart attack, while grandmother lived on until 2017.
My mother and father were both public school educators. My sister and I were raised to be voracious readers. Early on Evelyn taught us civics. She was an election judge and an avid Democrat. Her first vote was for FDR and last vote was for John Kerry. Many of her friends said she was as well read as Golda Meir. When she was a librarian in HISD she paid attention to African American students who at the time were often neglected in their learning.
I was no social butterfly until college, although Evelyn was chair of many organizations. In high school, at Bellaire, I suffered quite a bit from various forms of bigotry. In 1994 in science class, I went to sit and found paper swastikas all over my desk, with the words “go home dirty Jew.” It was a formative moment for me. And I’m grateful my teacher stood and gave a powerful speech against antisemitism and ensured the Anti-Defamation League and others were involved. But the words never fully left me. The incident pushed me to be very driven. It propelled me in college to go a on a trip to see the concentration and death camps: Prague, Lublin, Warsaw, and thankfully Israel.
You could say my greatest trial was in college at the University of St. Thomas. In my senior year however, after going to a restaurant, I woke up the next day paralyzed in my stomach. It was from a virus, and it turned my life upside down. I had to learn a new diet and live with new suffering. But I found hope at Holocaust Museum Houston, where I became an archivist for several years while getting my master’s in history at the University of Houston. The survivors of the Shoah who I grew close to give me great strength.
I found myself in the welfare system when I could not work at the museum anymore. Disability was a huge help: no medical expenses, but the pay is poverty level. I am a man who has tried now for 15 years to get out of the system, for in the system there is a ban on savings beyond $2,000. No congress has changed the law despite my testimony recently and the work of many to improve the laws.
I am grateful I found Meyerland Area Democrats in 2003, for it gave me a new purpose and a proving ground for my own self-worth. I met so many wonderful people who taught me how to be an organizer. Mentors for life. The organization gave me a role on the board. I met my best friend CJ Yeoman there. And in 2011, thanks to the nudging of precinct chair Jerry Wald, former state rep. Ellen Cohen and HCC Trustee Richard Schechter, I became its president with CJ as VP. And so, the journey began: a mission to change the world by moving our communities into the progressive column. After many cycles and doing GOTV programs, mail, fundraising operations, we began playing key roles in the fate of Houston.
Mayor Turner’s 2015 win was one where we pulled all the stops. I worked well with him to get margins out here which were essential to his election as our mayor. In 2018 our structure went into full gear helping elect Lizzie Fletcher and ousting incumbent Culberson. Numerous seats were flipped, including JP 5. My mentors’ teaching all came to the fore, the structure taught to me by Sissy Farenthold, CJ and others paid off. In 2020 HD 134 flipped Democratic for Ann Johnson, a 10-year mission fulfilled. The structure also saved our HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard, despite a vicious GOP campaign.
The acclaim I received in leadership has taken me to places and people I never thought I’d meet. In 2022 I was invited to the White House. I have met President Biden, Vice President Harris, and numerous members of congress. And not through monetary donations but in recognition of my work. Many I have met through my own will and all while scraping by on disability and a SNAP card.
Over the years I learned leadership up close from Hillary Clinton, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, and community figures such as Nata Koerber. My biggest lesson: be inclusive and hear all voices, then make the decisions needed.
Items such as getting flood control projects finished and our beloved library rebuilt, have happened by using such skills. Having care for others, especially in politics, is rare. The situation has spurred me to be watchful for others. Too many care for too few in life.
As a Jew who faced antisemitism in high school, and found a bond with many Holocaust survivors, especially Leon Cooper who was saved by Oskar Schindler, and Rikki Roussos, who fought the Nazis in the woods as a young woman, I know what fascism is and means in stark terms. Because I faced it and learned its lessons from those whose families were massacred. I walked Auschwitz Birkenau. This is a moment right now where the greatest tests yet are here, for me personally and for us as a state and nation. Will there be justice? Can we save the Republic from extremists? Holocaust denial? Can we save our own county?
Art Pronin is currently President of Meyerland Area Democrats