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We speak to Austin City attorney Mike Siegel, who took Texas to court to stop the “anti-immigrant” show me your papers law. He is running a strong campaign against Republican incumbent Mike McCaul in 10th Congressional district

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us once again. The 10th Congressional District in Texas is a storied political district. It’s a district, albeit in a slightly different configuration, that was represented by a then-Congressman named Lyndon Baines Johnson, who later became, of course, president of the United States. It was gerrymandered to be a safe Republican district, though it includes Austin and parts of Houston. The man who won the Democratic primary as a progressive backed by the Brand New Congress. His name is Mike Siegal. He’s an assistant city attorney in Austin, Texas. He’ll be challenging conservative Republican Congressman Michael McCaul, who is chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. And joining us now is Mike Siegal. Mike, welcome. Good to have you with us.

MIKE SIEGAL: Thank you so much for having me. Great to be here.

MARC STEINER: Texas is a changing state, isn’t it. People think of it as a safe Republican state, but nothing is safe anymore.

MIKE SIEGAL: Well, we’d like to say that it’s a non-voting state. It’s not a red state, or a blue state for that matter, but there’s a lot of people who don’t vote here, unfortunately by design. But this year-.

MARC STEINER: What do you mean, by design?

MIKE SIEGAL: Well, you know, there’s a history of voter suppression in Texas, unfortunately, largely led by the Republican Party, to first diminish the power of your vote by gerrymandering, by drawing these districts that pack Democrats into a smaller number of districts and give safer seats to the Republicans. But also by other voter suppression tactics like voter ID laws, which disproportionately impact Black, Latino, and elderly voters who would otherwise vote Democrat.

MARC STEINER: So how do you and other people who are progressive deal with that, and address that issue? I mean, especially in your campaigns, how does that affect your ability to run for Congress or other seats in Texas?

MIKE SIEGAL: Well, to some extent we’re fighting on an unlevel or an uneven playing field. And there are a number of court cases that have found the lines to be discriminatory, the voter ID law to be discriminatory. Those cases are not going to resolve in time for this election. So we’re going with what we got. And what we have is a wonderful popular upsurge of involvement not only here in Austin, but across the district, even in rural areas. There are Democrats who used to think of themselves as isolated. They didn’t know that they had neighbors who were in the party who wanted to vote for progressive ideals. But now they’re finding each other and getting out. So I’m very optimistic that this year, even with the unfair advantages that the Republicans have given themselves, that the Democrats can win a lot of power here.

MARC STEINER: So I’m curious, I’m going to ask you a straight up political question about this race, and then come back to some of the issues you’re talking about. And SB-4, which is the state Senate bill that you fought against in Texas, which I think is really important to discuss. But I- so strategically, thinking about this- I mean, you’re in a district that went for, if I have it right, nine points for Trump. By nine points over Hillary Clinton in the last election. How do you strategize? Even though you’re from Austin, parts of Houston are there, and there’s also some Democratic following inside of some of the rural areas, as well. I mean, strategically, how do you address that?

MIKE SIEGAL: Well you know, I have to admit that when I got into this, running against an incumbent with about $400 million in family wealth and a district designed to keep him in power forever, I thought of it more as a David and Goliath operation. You know, we’re challenging this guy just for the principle of it, that he shouldn’t be safe. I mean, we’re not safe here. Whether you’re a woman who needs reproductive health care, a worker living on $7.25 an hour, you name it. So many of us are unsafe. So why should McCaul be safe?

But as I’ve gotten into it I’ve realized that we do really do have a path to victory, and more and more I feel like we have a great chance of success. And our path is to speak to progressive ideals. You know, I say I’m running from the democratic wing of the Democratic party, fighting for universal health care, fighting for jobs, fighting for a living wage and improvements to social security, and really getting out our base. Because the problem for Democrats in Texas is not that there aren’t enough of us, it’s just that enough of us don’t vote.

And so we’re lucky enough this year to have great campaigns up and down the ballot. You might have heard of Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for United States Senate. And he’s really getting a lot of people out who have never been out before. Just last night I was in a town called Katy. Katy, Texas. And historically a red suburb of Houston. You know, part of the oil-producing community. But increasingly diverse. You know, as Houston sprawls to the west it becomes more and more diverse with folks from around the world. And last night in Katy we had a thousand people at a town hall that I got to speak out with Beto. All the old Katy Democrats said it’s the most Democrats in one location that they’ve ever seen in their whole lives.

And that’s the story across the state. Even in the rural areas, you know, we get two dozen people out on a weeknight, people are ready to host block walking parties, host phone banks. And so there’s a wonderful upsurge of energy motivated by Trump, motivated by the family separation policy, by attacks on healthcare, and also just by the lack of common decency in the federal government. There are plenty of Republicans and moderates who tell me they just can’t stand the way Trump is acting towards African-American people, towards women. I mean, you name it, there’s just this horrible, pervasive, really abusive language that’s being used, and people are sick of it.

MARC STEINER: So let’s talk a bit about this. One of the issues that you fought for earlier on, which was to combat SB-4, the State Senate bill in Texas. Tell our viewers about that, because if you’re not from Texas you don’t know what that’s about, and that was kind of what pushed you and pushed this campaign a bit in the beginning.

MIKE SIEGAL: That’s right. You know, I’m a former civil rights lawyer. I’ve been working at City Hall in Austin for a few years. And in 2017 after Trump was elected, the Texas Republicans decided they were going to follow Trump’s lead and attack immigrants as a basis to appeal to their base. And so they introduced this law, Senate Bill 4, which is basically the Texas version of SB-1070 which was introduced in Arizona a few years ago. And it had a number of provisions, and it said to our local sheriff here, you know what, no matter what you have to turn over every prisoner to ICE, even if they’re picked up on the most minor of offenses. Even if deportation is going to destroy a family. You have to turn everybody over to ICE. And then the other portion was a show me your papers provision, which essentially told police officers across the country they can decide to stop someone and ask for their citizenship status and paperwork for any reason at all. And we knew that that was basically an open door to racial profiling. I mean, because how is a police officer going to decide who to ask for papers. Right? I mean, if I’m out in Austin one night and I jaywalk, and a police officer sees me, is he or she likely to ask me for my passport? No, right. So we knew it was opening the door to racial profiling and attacks on the immigrant community.

So I was lucky enough to be in a place where we have a progressive city council who was organizing against the bill. And I was asked to join the litigation. Ultimately we got together five of the largest cities in Texas. I’m talking about Houston, Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio, and Austin. Now, we all joined together to sue the governor. We were able to stop some of the worst aspects of this law. And also we kind of, you know, set a new standard for how political organizing could go in Texas. The idea that the largest cities are ready to unite against some of these hateful policies gives hope to a lot of progressive movements here, and shows that we really can push back against what these Republicans are doing.

MARC STEINER: So let’s talk about some of the issues they’re really kind of grinding in this campaign, and hitting Texas hard, as well as the nation. But the immigration issue is one. And it’s, it’s an issue that seems to me that divides Texas down the middle. Most people are one way or the other way. They want to see a wall, they want to see people deported, they don’t want Mexicans and Latin Americans coming to the United States. And then clearly there’s the progressive issue, which is the wall is absurd, and all people are Americans, and we should be opening our country up as brothers and sisters. So I mean, how is that playing? I mean, what are you finding? I’m very curious about how that works out in a place like Texas.

MIKE SIEGAL: So just to give you a little context of my district, it’s nine counties. Austin is in Travis County. It crosses seven rural counties before it gets to Harris County in the Houston area. And so I almost have three different types of districts within mine. You know, pretty liberal Austin. We call it the blueberry in the tomato soup. Then these rural counties, which are traditionally Republican. Then Harris County, which is mixed. And so there’s different ideas in each area. But I would say big picture on immigration, family separation nobody likes. You know, even the most conservative Catholics in the rural areas are wondering why their government is doing this. And also there are moderates in other areas that see it as just a boondoggle. For example, I’m going up against Michael McCaul, who wrote a bill that would put $25 billion towards the border wall. At the same time, the Harris County, the Houston side of my district just suffered from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which was exacerbated by a lack of flood control infrastructure. And 10 years before there were these red flags put out by the United States government. The Army Corps of Engineers said these two dams that basically keep millions of people safe are catastrophic-. They’re in extreme danger of catastrophic failure, was what the Corps said. And yet these Republicans couldn’t find a billion dollars to fix the flood control. Meanwhile, they can find $25 billion for a border wall.

So I think there’s folks on the Houston side who might ordinarily vote Republican that see these folks as mismanaging the government. They can’t even keep their own constituents safe. They’re so busy with these political stunts like a border wall, which will do nothing to make us safe, that they can’t even do the kind of the core competencies of government. You know, let’s have safe roads, bridges, and flood control facilities.

So I guess, you know, there might be a lot of folks in this district who say, you know, we can’t have open borders. You know, I’m not advocating for open borders. They would say we need to make sure that everybody here has proper paperwork. And I think many Mexican and Central American immigrants would agree. They just wish the immigration system would work so that there is actually a line that progressed. But folks, I think they’re ready to draw the line at huge wastes of money like a border wall, and completely inhumane actions like family separation.

And so that family separation issue is huge, because my opponent is chairman of Homeland Security, and he backed that policy. So I’m turning that into one of the major issues that I’m running on. Basically human decency.

MARC STEINER: You mentioned water. I read an article in the Austin American Statesman, that’s the name of the newspaper in Austin, in Austin Texas. And they talked about your opponent using more water, in a area strapped for water, to water his lawn than anybody else around. I mean, even more the rest of his community, which is one of the wealthiest communities in America. Is that true?

MIKE SIEGAL: Yeah. And it’s not it’s not even his only house, just to put it in context. I mean, they found that he used 1.5 million gallons, which is about 30 times what my family used last year.

MARC STEINER: Wait a minute, you don’t use that much water?

MIKE SIEGAL: I’m a modest civil servant here. I don’t have a seven acre estate. But you know, I think that issue by itself, you know, it’s almost humorous. I mean, it’s a huge waste. But his response to the newspaper was broken pipes.

The problem is that he was the same wasteful water user in 2011, 2012. He said broken pipes then, too. And you know, he’s getting a water bill of ten or fifteen thousand dollars a month. Most of us, if we had broken pipes that was costing us thousands of dollars, we would do something about it. So it’s symbolic of how wealthy and out of touch he is. And also, I think in rural areas where they can’t get enough water to grow their crops, I mean, they’re like, who is this guy. I mean, he’s just pouring water down the drain, and I can’t even get enough water from my rice crop or my sorghum crop. And so to me it’s illustrative of how out of touch he is, how his wealth makes him completely oblivious to the needs of regular people.

MARC STEINER: So one of the realities of politics in America has to do with money, and- to fuel campaigns. And he’s raised at least easily ten times more than you have, out of state and within the state. So how do you organize a campaign in a place like Texas with this kind of vast district, in terms of just space, when you are up against that kind of money in opposition?

MIKE SIEGAL: That’s right. And that’s probably why I’m the nominee and not some better-known Texas politician. Folks looked at this [inaudible]. You know, they said, hey, McCaul’s got more money than God. Why would I go against him? But I start from the premise that you can’t buy people. Right? McCaul might have all the money in the world he can buy the TV ads he wants but he can’t buy volunteers.

And so because I’m fighting for the things people care about, whether it’s universal health care, building rural hospitals, broadband Internet in the rural areas, you name it, people are volunteering on my campaign. I have over 500 people that have volunteered for my campaign, either knock on doors, make phone calls, write postcards. You know, all these different ways you can help. And so I can counteract his money with people power. And I have raised over $200,000 to date which, from D.C.’s point of view, is not a lot of money, but it’s more than a Democrat has raised in this district in over 10 years. And I’m using all that money to knock on doors and organize voters.

And so I can counteract his, you know, I guess you might call it air cover- you know, he can pay for advertising, things like that- with my ground game, which is people-powered. At the same time, I started out this race- actually, I was working full time at the City of Austin while I was running. But luckily my wife is a veterinarian, a businesswoman. She’s freed me up to work full time on this campaign. And I’m actually raising much more money now. And so I’m optimistic that by the end of this race I’m going to have a thousand volunteers in the field, dozens of staff. And I’m going to reach every voter three times in person and tell everybody, hey, you have a huge choice, and a real choice to make. You have someone that’s going to fight for your healthcare, or someone that voted to cut your healthcare. You have someone that’s going to fight for progressive tax policies, or you have someone that voted to give themselves a $40 million tax cut. Because McCaul is so rich, when he voted for that tax cut, that’s, that’s what his family netted from the estate tax cuts, and so forth. You know, I’m going to fight for quality infrastructure. This guy, he’s so busy kissing up to Donald Trump, you can’t even be bothered to really take care of the needs of the people here.

And so you have debates coming up before the election. You know, he has not agreed to debate me. It might be that the first time we’re in the same room together is in front of the Houston Chronicle editorial board. You know, I’m going to continue to reach out and offer that to him. But you know, my my job is just to knock on doors and raise a little money so the people can knock on doors for me, and you know, let the cards fall where they may. And I’m very encouraged by all the results of the special elections throughout this last year. You know, the race in Ohio 12, which is still too close to call, is analogous to mine. That was a race where Trump won by 11, where the incumbent had previously won by 26 points. And it’s still less than a point several days after the election. And so my race is actually more competitive than that one. So I feel really good about my chances in November.

MARC STEINER: Well, Mike Siegel, we’ll see how this rolls out. We’ll be following your campaign and you, and appreciate you taking time with us here at The Real News Network. Great to meet you.

MIKE SIEGAL: Fantastic. Thank you so much for having me. Keep doing what you’re doing.

MARC STEINER: Take care, Mike. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us. We’ll be talking together soon. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.