The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has intervened in a third U.S. House race in Texas, endorsing former Obama administration official and NFL linebacker Colin Allred for a Dallas-area seat held by incumbent Republican Pete Sessions.
In 2016, the party failed to field a candidate in the race.
Allred garnered 38.5 percent of the vote in the first round of the Democratic primary for the 32nd Congressional District, short of the 50 percent he needed to advance directly to the general election. He still has to clear a May 22 runoff against Lillian Salerno, another Obama administration veteran, who earned 18.3 percent in the seven-person field.
A DCCC aide pointed to Allred’s strong performance in the primary and a series of endorsements, including the state and local AFL-CIO, former Dallas Mayor and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro (Allred’s former boss). But choosing sides in the primary before Democratic voters have the final say could irk some party faithful. It’s already angered one: Lillian Salerno.
“I figured they’d let us duke it out, but they couldn’t help themselves,” said Salerno, who was a small business entrepreneur before working for the United Nations and the Agriculture Department. “I don’t see the benefit of this that helps our party. I’m a Democrat; why does this help us?”
It’s unclear what designating Allred as a “Red to Blue” candidate accomplishes in March, before the primary runoff, as opposed to after the runoff in May. The DCCC did not promise any resources or support within the next two months for Allred. The committee has also been plagued by the perception of putting its thumb on the scale in primaries across the country, especially in Texas.
In the Houston-area 7th District, the DCCC dropped opposition research on Democrat Laura Moser before the primary, which didn’t stop her from advancing to the runoff (and might have even helped). In the 23rd District, located in the southern part of the state, the DCCC recently endorsed Gina Ortiz Jones, which has her opponent giddy because of the committee’s poor track record and bad reputation. Perhaps wanting to avoid negative headlines, the DCCC has not yet endorsed Moser’s opponent, corporate lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, in the Texas 7th District race. (In that race, EMILY’s List and the DCCC wound up on the same side.)
All three districts are potential pickups for Democrats in their bid to take back the U.S. House. Hillary Clinton won the 32nd District in 2016, but Democrats didn’t bother to field a candidate against Sessions.
Often these types of decisions involve the DCCC siding with a candidate who has lined up establishment support against an outside progressive challenger. And Salerno, who has a history of fighting corporate monopolies, does have progressive backers. The legendary Texas populist and former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower responded to the Allred endorsement by denouncing “the party’s corporate establishment,” adding, “The D-triple-C has gone D-triple-crazy, barging into local elections like clueless, anti-democratic potentates.”
But Salerno also lined up the support of EMILY’s List, typically seen as aligned with the DCCC. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also endorsed her. And Salerno’s resume — small business entrepreneur, deputy under secretary for Rural Development in Obama’s USDA, working with the World Health Organization on global HIV prevention, and co-author of legislation to protect nurses from unnecessary medical accidents — is not one of an outside firebrand. It’s also not a question of disproportionate fundraising: According to Federal Election Commission disclosures, through February 14, Allred had raised $516,000, with $74,800 in cash on hand, while Salerno had raised $431,000, with $164,600 in cash on hand.
“I didn’t think that they would work against me, ever,” said Salerno, who told The Intercept that the DCCC did not give her a heads-up before endorsing her opponent. “I thought I would get a shot to have a debate and show a contrast. Now we have more noise.”
Upon learning about the endorsement, Salerno’s campaign issued a defiant press release condemning “Washington insiders” for meddling. “After the DCCC’s embarrassing stumble attacking candidate Laura Moser, they have not learned their lesson,” said Salerno’s campaign manager Jeanne Stuart in the statement. “Texas Democrats know better than some Washington, D.C., committee that’s trying to tip the scales.”
Added Salerno: “Texas hasn’t elected a new woman to Congress in 22 years, and we’re not taking it anymore. The DCCC would do well to remember: Don’t mess with Texas women.”
Allred’s campaign didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. The campaign did not even issue a press release on the DCCC endorsement, though on Twitter he wrote, “Today’s news only confirms what our campaign has known all along – that #TX32 is a winnable district for Democrats.”
Salerno suggested to The Intercept that the endorsement had little to do with the district. “If I had a bigger dog than Colin had to call in a marker, they would call it in for me,” she said. “This party needs to really change the way they do business. We are confident of one thing: We do better in Texas when they stay out.”
The DCCC aide said that Allred earned the endorsement by “surpassing aggressive goals of grassroots engagement, local support, and building a winning campaign infrastructure.”
Salerno earned a reputation for speaking out against corporate power after her small business, Retractable Technologies, couldn’t market a retractable syringe that would have prevented needle injuries because Becton, Dickinson & Co. sold 80 percent of the syringes in America. She’s talked mainly about health care on the campaign trail. “I use the word ‘fraud’ a lot,” she said.
Allred, formerly a star player at Hillcrest High School, a public school in Dallas, has an impressive story, too: After his professional football career, he became a civil rights attorney, going on to do housing work for the Obama administration.
The campaign, though, has soured Salerno on the Democratic Party. “I’ve worked for President Obama, given to the DNC, given to many members. That’s never going to happen again from me,” she said. “I’m never getting my checkbook out for the Democratic Party or candidates they support.”