Local Pols We Love — Greg Casar
Austin, Texas city council
by ANDREW DOBBS
The crowd came to Greg Casar’s election night party because they knew that the young, ambitious Austin city cCouncil member would win an easy victory over his token opposition.
Even driving rain couldn’t dampen the victorious spirit among the labor activists, immigrants’-rights advocates, neighborhood activists and even a few leftist true-believers who had come together to re-elect their progressive champion.
The small Peruvian restaurant was loud with celebratory talk and live conjunto music — it was going to be a good night.
This was a crowd that was most definitely feeling the Bern in the spring of 2016, but the prospect of another four years of Democratic control of the White House certainly opened up avenues for policy changes that the other side just would not offer.
As the realization that Donald Trump might win — would win — set in, the crowd thinned out and heads went into hands. For the folks at this party Trump’s victory didn’t just mean a lost election, it meant lives at risk.
“We need to face the reality that the federal government is in the hands of people that want to hurt our people and force local governments to hurt our neighbors and our communities,” Casar said in an interview a couple of weeks later. “I believe that local leaders are in the best place to be defiant and lead whatever our resistance work will be.”
The day after the election, Casar made his stance unambiguous in a statement that spread far and wide in Austin’s progressive social media. “Lots of people, including Donald Trump, are calling for healing and unity today,” he wrote. “I won’t call for healing. I’m calling for resistance.”
Asked if he would shake Trump’s hand if he came to town as president, Casar deepened his defiance. “Hell no. Frankly, I would not be allowed into the room with Donald Trump, because I would be out in the streets protesting with you.”
Casar is remarkably progressive even for the progressive bubble that is Austin, known as a haven for liberals in the otherwise rock-ribbed right-wing politics of Texas. For one, Austin’s liberal establishment tends to be older, white, well-to-do and concentrated in neighborhoods in the city’s center.
For his part, Casar is one of the youngest council members in the city’s history — 27 now, 25 when first elected — a Latino based in a working-class and often marginalized area on the city’s north side.
His background wasn’t in the traditional Democratic Party channels or as a business owner or lawyer, but as a community organizer and advocate for immigrants and low-wage workers. Casar applied those grassroots skills to defeating a well-heeled field in 2014 before being overwhelmingly re-elected the same night Trump won. His reelection has only fueled his ambitious vision.
“The GOP has a lock on federal and state lawmaking. but progressives still have a majority in the big cities,” he told me. “We can use traditional local tools like zoning and our utilities to push for social progress, but we can also pass pretty sweeping policy visions like sanctuary for immigrants and fair-chance hiring and raising the minimum wage in states where it isn’t preempted.”
The fact that such a bold visionary could get elected in Austin isn’t just a function of Casar’s unique political skills, but also of major changes in Austin’s government. For decades, Austin’s city government had been elected at-large — every voter in the city voted for each seat — meaning that a small number of wealthy neighborhoods controlled all the city’s politics.
A grassroots coalition of activists changed that in 2012, bringing together constituencies as widely varied as the Republican Party, the Libertarians, the International Socialist Organization, the Greens, the NAACP, unions and environmental groups.
Together they undertook a petition effort to put the issue of district representation on the ballot, but the city’s establishment struck back. A majority of the council drafted an alternative plan that would have had some district seats and some elected citywide, making it easier for traditional powers to retain their advantages.
The grassroots effort wanted a “10–1” plan with only the mayor elected citywide and ten district representatives elected locally. The establishment outspent the grassroots campaign, and while voters were free to vote for both, if both passed the one with more votes would become law — activists had to tell voters, “Yes on Proposition 3, no on 4.”
Despite all of that confusion, voters overwhelmingly approved the 10–1 plan. Casar was one of the nine first-time city councilmembers elected in the first vote after the new system went into effect.
The most important element of the 10–1 plan is an independent redistricting commission that draws the city’s 10 districts. The establishment plan would have let council draw their own districts. Those politicians would likely have split up Casar’s District 4 and diluted its power in a gerrymandered map.
Sitting just on the edge of one of the city’s most prosperous districts and beneath a more conventional suburban area, it contains some of the most troubled areas of the city, along with a disproportionate number of immigrants locked out of the electoral process.
Liberal neighborhood associations and business interests both have little influence here, and there are few other organized constituencies to fill that gap. Casar has responded by using his office to organize the community.
“At first I told folks I wasn’t really interested in running, but when I saw that District 4 was going to be such an immigrant-heavy place that really needed some policy initiatives and organizing infrastructure, I knew I could help find some of that and that the other folks running likely wouldn’t,” he said. “I may not have been the most qualified person in the district, but I was the most likely to get that done.”
And since his election, he has gotten it done. Casar hired a former organizer with the city’s local Saul Alinsky-inspired interfaith organization to be a community organizer on his council office staff. They have used this position to help residents in their district fight mass evictions and organize families affected by the proposed cancellation of a city-funded after-school program.
In the latter case, they had children advocating for themselves in front of the council. To help residents fight for themselves long after Casar is gone, his office secured money in the city budget to help build a new tenants’-rights organization, and they have sought to use city contracts to build worker power by protecting the city’s embattled but well-organized unions.
In the midst of all of this, the unique nature of Texas’ constitution actually made Casar’s most notable achievement possible. Despite its roots in Klan violence and the attempt to protect large landowners and white supremacy, the state’s Constitution also contains a home-rule amendment that gives cities with more than 5,000 residents the power to legislate on any issue not preempted by the state or federal government.
In that space Casar took on the fight for a fair-chance hiring ordinance — also known as “banning the box” — that bars Austin employers from asking potential hires about their criminal backgrounds before offering them a job.
In other cities, the policy has empowered formerly incarcerated workers in need of work and has helped employers find qualified help they never would have considered before. Austin is the first city in the South to pass such an ordinance, thanks to Casar’s leadership.
“When I was just beginning to run I met with a former city councilmember who told me that based on what I was interested in doing, I should run for state rep and not city council because council isn’t a social-justice thing,” Casar said. “This is exactly the attitude we need to overcome. It’s not just about building sidewalks and picking up trash. Cities are places where we can really push a progressive agenda because state and federal policymakers aren’t doing it.”
Of course, pre-emption is always a threat after the fact, and Casar and others expect the Texas legislature to consider laws erasing the fair-chance hiring ordinance and blocking other cities from following Austin’s lead. Even more worrying is the threat posed by Trump and his promise to deport millions of undocumented Americans, including potentially thousands of people in Casar’s district.
Casar is mobilizing with more than just tough words, having used his prominence to coordinate the various protests planned for Inauguration Day into a single day of action, one he is already calling a resistance movement. Beyond that Casar is helping to lead a community discussion about how this progressive, inclusive city will stand against attempts to hurt its people.
“Trump spoke to economic inequality and wage stagnation, and I don’t think Republicans or many Democrats, frankly, are offering solutions to attack this inequality,” Casar said. “Local governments need to come up with solutions, and show what that looks like.”
In that work Casar has the luxury of a city council with several key allies, most of whom were community activists and grassroots leaders first able to reach office thanks to the 10–1 change. He also enjoys the support of the very community organizations that made these changes and elections possible.
Not every community has these elements today, but Casar, his allies and Austin show that sustained organizing, grassroots leadership, a fighting spirit and key reforms driving democratization — including an end to gerrymandering — can add up to a city where Trump not only lost badly, but where people are ready to fight whatever terrors he brings.
It’s these very things that will make resilience in the face of the Trump threat possible, and leaders like Casar are key to the effort. It’s their work and the work of the organized constituencies backing them that will make future election nights a time for real celebration.