Optimism abounds for Texas Democrats in 2020, but campaign staffers are sparse

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Democratic Party signage and logos at the Texas Democratic Party office in Austin on Oct. 8, 2019. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Though the news broke last week from Baltimore, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ withdrawal from the presidential campaign reverberated all the way to Texas.

Harris made a few inroads in the state. But most prominently, she hired over the last few years a stable of female operatives with Texas roots. And one particular woman was on the mind of a number of Texas Democrats, now that she was without a campaign.

"What's Emmy going to do next?" was the question bouncing around Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston on Tuesday, referring to Emmy Ruiz, an Austin-based Democratic field organizer who was one of the most sought-after campaign consultants this cycle.

The hope among many Texas Democrats is that Ruiz will turn her attention to her home state. But her trajectory is the story of where the state's Democratic operative class is today: With scant campaign opportunities in Republican-dominated Texas over the last two decades, many of the best and brightest young Texas Democrats deployed their talents elsewhere, like Virginia, California, Colorado and Ohio. Now the state is booming with Democratic campaign activity, but polished political staff is so scarce that poaching or struggling to retain talent is common to practically every campaign in the state.

It's a high-class problem for Democrats. But it is still a problem.

"We have a huge staff shortage across the board, at every level of the races because in Texas so much of the talent has left," said Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schechter. "I am weekly — if not daily — being asked about staff to help with these campaigns.”

“A lost generation”

There is, effectively, a lost generation of talent in Texas Democratic politics.

Democrats were in decline in the 1990s, but the death blow came in 2003 at the hand of then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Thanks to his successful mid-decade redistricting plan, Republicans destroyed Democrats’ candidate and staffer farm team. With a Republican-favored redrawn map, Republicans targeted five Democratic incumbents in newly-hostile districts. Four of those members lost reelection in 2004. Eventually the fifth, U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, lost reelection in the 2010 wave, along with two other Democratic incumbents.

With this new map, and the next decade's succeeding map, competitive races were mostly eliminated from the state, save for West Texas’ 23rd District currently held by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, in a region remote from most of the state's urban Democratic strongholds.

Erin Mincberg was one of those Democratic operatives forced to become Tex-pats. Doors slammed in her face in the late-2000s, like they did for so many other young Texas Democrats. It made no difference that Mincberg had a political pedigree: Her father served in the mid-1990s as Harris County Democratic Party chairman and her mother served on the Houston school board.

Mincberg described a culture of "limited competitive races to get legitimate experience." So she packed up and moved to California to get hands on experience in high stakes races.

She, too, is a Kamala Harris alumna. After raising money for a Sacramento-area Congressional campaign, she worked for Harris for five years, including the California attorney general's 2014 reelection race.

As she was already anxious to come home, something curious happened on election night 2016: Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump in her home 7th Congressional District.

With her own backyard in play, she quickly joined future U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher’s campaign to unseat longtime Republican incumbent John Culberson. After establishing a chemistry with Fletcher, Mincberg was promoted to campaign manager.

"In terms of moving back ... it was the right time for me, personally," she said. "However, I think it's more about why I left in 2009."

Many Texas Democrats put Crystal Kay Perkins, a former state Democratic Party executive director who returned home, in this category. Perkins is now with the Biden campaign, and worked early in her career for the national House and Senate Democratic campaign committees. Otherwise, there are few prodigal sons and daughters returning to the state, and there’s a worry that many of those who are in the game now have daunting learning curves.

“Beggars can’t be choosers”

The issues first manifested in 2018, when a wave of Democratic candidates were forced to hire neophytes and dealt with campaign quality control. The complications were nearly comic in effect. Some candidates struggled with their own names misspelled on campaign signs.

But with so much at stake this cycle for Democrats, the tone is more anxious. While national intrigue surrounds whether Texas will truly be a battleground at the presidential and Senate level, many state-based Democrats most covet winning the state House chamber — and the redistricting implications involved with such power — above all other priorities.

Four years ago, the opposite was true. Back in 2016, there were only two truly viable Democratic presidential campaigns. Democratic star staffers found themselves taking lower pay and titles for opportunities to work on a presidential campaign. With over 20 presidential campaigns at one point this year, operatives are signing onto jobs they might not qualify for in more conventional cycles — leaving even fewer options down-ballot when that talent is sorely needed.

Prior to 2018, the Texas 23rd District, along with a handful of state legislative seats, were the only games in town. Now, in the 2020 cycle, there are potentially over 30 competitive state legislative races, nine competitive U.S. House seats, a hot U.S. House Democratic primary in South Texas, a crowded U.S. Senate primary and a presidential primary that could turn into a competitive general election campaign in the fall.

Candidates now confess to staffer envy, as they see campaigns snapping up coveted talent.

Texas candidates are hiring applicants who might otherwise only qualify for assistant-level posts as department heads. Out-of-state operatives with few Texas connections or institutional knowledge are parachuting in. And the mantra is, beggars can't be choosers and candidates ought to be grateful for those under-qualified warm bodies.

Some campaigns cannot even find interns.

"It's not a lack of talent, it's a lack of experience," said a Capitol Hill staffer who was not authorized to speak on the record.

He observed that his generation of Republican counterparts were able to "be in the room" amid major decisions and had opportunities Democrats did not have. The current Texas Republican operative class is populated with acolytes to elders like former President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former presidential candidates Rick Perry and Ted Cruz, along the current slate of statewide officials.

"We've tried to mitigate that every way we know how"

Several state-based organizations have responded to the challenge with intensive training efforts. Local Democrats credit the state party, the women's groups Annie’s List and Arena, a national progressive group called Run for Something and a training organization called the Blue Leadership Collaborative.

Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Manny Garcia said in a statement that his organization recognizes the stresses to the system due to Texas' increasing competitiveness and is in the process of hosting a second of two rounds of training this cycle.

"That means there are hundreds of candidates who need professional staff and strong campaigns to engage their voters," he said. "The first round was a massive success, graduating 57 Texas-based campaign operatives in various campaign roles and placing the majority in crucial campaign jobs across the state to help turn Texas blue in 2020.”

Lisa Turner, the state director for the Democratic PAC the Lone Star Project, detected the coming dilemma years ago.

“It is a challenge for sure, but it’s something we’ve been aware of for awhile, and we’ve tried to mitigate that every way we know how,” she said, referring to the training efforts.

Meanwhile, plenty of well-regarded Texans did hang back to run campaigns in an environment that was far more hostile than that of many celebrated Democratic national consultants. Democrats interviewed pointed to the state party's Garcia, Progress Texas Executive Director Ed Espinoza, state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign Texas state director Jenn Longoria, Dallas-based fundraiser Megan Rodman McGilberry and Jackie Uresti, who has worked in both the Legislature and for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Amid the exodus, Texas has been a draw for out-of-state talent. Jane Hamilton, a Louisiana native, moved back and forth between Capitol Hill and Dallas County over the last 20 years. A previous chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, she is now former Vice President Joe Biden’s state director.

And one of the foremost experts of the state’s geography is a newcomer. At least one national campaign strategist pointed to U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke’s spokesman Chris Evans as a key hire for any organization aiming to run a statewide campaign. Evans followed O’Rourke on his 254-county tour, live-streaming every corner of the state.

While Trump is credited with activating interest in political careers, O’Rourke’s campaign could prove to be the first training ground for the state’s future talent.

There are others, both homegrown and transplants. But it’s simply not enough to go around among the dozens of campaigns in a state as unique, populous and geographically expansive as Texas.

And as the presidential campaign drags on, there will be other candidates beyond Kamala Harris who drop out. Texas candidates are sure to be lying in wait, praying they will be the ones to land the talent left behind.

But Hamilton, the Biden staffer, told the Tribune there is only one way to build for the future.

"With so many viable races, this election cycle is on a great path but in order to continue on that path, we've got to win."

Cassandra Pollock and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

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