In late April, a conservative Texas think tank sued the city of Austin to block a new ordinance that, starting October 1, would give employees the right to take eight paid sick days per year – a first for the state. That lawsuit, filed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, sparked a dispute in an unusual space: the runoff in the Democratic primary in Texas’s 21st Congressional District.
On May 22, businessperson Joseph Kopser will face off against pastor and former math teacher Mary Wilson in a runoff election. Kopser happens to serve on the board of the Texas Association of Businesses, a powerful business lobby that is a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Critics of the lawsuit, including Wilson, see it as an attempt to hold Austin back from making progress on workers’ rights. She immediately called on Kopser to resign from the board, which he’s served on for the last three years.
“I wouldn’t be able to stand with them, as a member of their board, at this point,” she told The Intercept.
Kopser, though, is standing his ground. In an April statement, he said the lawsuit is “dead wrong” and vowed to “fight within” the business community to support the paid sick leave law.
.@JosephKopser says in a statement that the @TPPF-@txbiz lawsuit against Austin over paid sick leave is "dead wrong." #TX21 pic.twitter.com/wLowJlR9Z6— Patrick Svitek (@PatrickSvitek) April 25, 2018
For Wilson and her supporters, Kopser’s insistence on maintaining his ties to the business lobby while it sues to force sick workers to show up or lose their jobs is just another example of why the Democratic Party is betting on the wrong horse in this race. National Democrats have coalesced around Kopser and have largely ignored Wilson, a favorite among progressives, who outperformed Kopser in the first round of voting, despite having significantly less resources than he did. (Derrick Crowe, the most left-wing candidate in the race, was eliminated in the first round and immediately endorsed Wilson.)
In December, Kopser earned the endorsement of Congress’s No. 2 Democrat, Maryland’s Rep. Steny Hoyer. He’s backed by the Democratic-leaning Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, and, having spent over two decades in the U.S. military, he successfully won the backing of Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton’s Serve America PAC. VoteVets is backing him for similar reasons.
Wilson, meanwhile, is supported by a number of national and local progressive organizations, including Justice Democrats, Our Revolution Central Texas, and the Stonewall Democrats of Austin. The Austin Chronicle issued no endorsement in the runoff between the two candidates, with its editorial board split on the issue.
In Kopser’s telling, there is little difference between the candidates on the big issues. “I think in terms of policies, when people look at our websites, you’re going to find out that our policies are very aligned,” he told The Intercept.
But a look at the two candidates’ issues pages elides some significant differences. On health care, Wilson favors a single-payer health care system, under which the government would provide insurance, while Kopser prefers a public option and Medicaid buy-in, where Americans could voluntarily buy into a public insurance program with their own money, rather than automatically being covered by one. (That distinction is also a symbol of how the health care debate has moved. In 2009, during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, the public option was the rallying cry of progressive activists; now progressives prefer a single-payer system and establishment Democrats prefer a public option.)
When it comes to college education, Wilson has endorsed the House tuition-free college bill, which would make four-year public colleges and universities free for families earning up to $125,000 annually. Kopser, on the other hand, supports a more modest approach that would give tuition-free college to students whose families make less than the median income in their state and offer partial subsidies to other students.
The national Democratic support for Kopser, who has expressed his admiration for Ronald Reagan, could be explained by the fact that the district leans heavily Republican. In 2016, GOP Rep. Lamar Smith easily carried the district with 57 percent of the vote; his retirement as a longtime incumbent may weaken the party’s chances in the district, but few would describe it as anything other than conservative. Cook Political Report ranks the district as “likely Republican.”
But Wilson proved to be a formidable opponent in the first round of voting in March. Of five candidates, she led the field with 30.93 percent of the vote, to Kopser’s 28.98 percent. She did this despite having only a fraction of Kopser’s resources. Wilson spent around $39,000 to Kopser’s more than $600,000 prior to the first round of voting. That means she spent nearly two and a half bucks for every vote she earned, while Kopser spent over $40 per vote. The surprising strength of Wilson’s campaign may show that the district is becoming more progressive.
Shannon Proctor, an Indivisible activist in the district, described herself as a “Derrick fan girl” to The Intercept, referring to Crowe, the now-defeated candidate. After Wilson’s surprising performance in round one, she quickly aligned herself with the candidate. “I was guilty of having said that Mary didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell because I honestly didn’t think Texas District 21 was ready for a woman or a gay minister,” she admitted. But Wilson’s first-place finish changed Proctor’s mind, and she now believes Wilson is the strongest candidate in the race.
In an interview with The Intercept, Wilson sought to cast the race as the difference between a grassroots candidate and someone supported by Washington, D.C.-based organizations with substantial resources. She pointed to heavy-handed interventions by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in other Texas districts. The DCCC has not formally gotten involved in the 21st District yet, but did call Wilson to learn about her campaign after her surprising performance in the first round of voting on March 6. Wilson has not heard from the committee since, she said.
“I am more concerned, however, with the DCCC handpicking our candidates. The DCCC has completely misread the mood of the electorate. They continue to recruit and push candidates who do not represent voters’ needs or interests,” she said. “That’s why I came in first place in our primary after being outspent 20 to 1 by my opponent. Voters want to support candidates who will give a voice to working-class people, not multimillionaires. This year, voters are standing up and saying ‘our elections can’t be bought.'”
Like many other first-time Democratic candidates, Wilson was inspired to run for office after Donald Trump’s election to the White House, but her politics are more populist than anti-Trump. She has a track record as a social activist who has used her background as a lesbian member of the clergy to push back against the religious right. In 2005, she testified against Texas’s proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. More recently, she has been involved in activism in support of Planned Parenthood and against so-called bathroom bills that would require people to use public restrooms that correspond with the gender listed on their birth certificate.
In early April, Kopser’s campaign dealt with complaints after it field-tested messaging that referred to Wilson’s sexuality. The San Antonio Express-News summarized the poll as so:
Poll respondents were presented with a glittering narrative about Kopser. They were asked if they agreed that it would be important for Democrats to have a candidate who is a 20-year military veteran and has been described by former President Barack Obama as a champion of change.
When it came to Wilson, the poll profiled her as a lesbian minister and asked if Democrats should vote for her in the runoff whether they think she can win in November.
Kopser’s campaign told the paper that it was not seeking to make the poll an attack on Wilson’s campaign. “We have great respect for Mary and wanted to understand the extent to which the electorate finds her profile and message compelling,” the campaign said in a statement.
Prior to the first round of voting, Kopser ran a primary campaign strongly branded around the Democratic Party and progressivism, using mailers and digital ads to tout an award he received from the Obama White House for his private sector work in green energy.
With new digital ad, @JosephKopser continues to highlight Obama recognition from 2013. His campaign says the spot is part of a "six-figure communications buy." https://t.co/b48DoUHD3L #TX21 pic.twitter.com/UtqpjJ0sm0— Patrick Svitek (@PatrickSvitek) February 9, 2018
But Wilson’s supporters are skeptical of Kopser’s Democratic credentials, pointing to a 2016 CNN segment in which he is portrayed as a Republican who opposed Trump. “He’s a Republican. I don’t give a shit what anybody says,” Proctor said. “He’s a Republican.”
“At a taco joint in Houston, Kopser shared how the self-described Reagan, Republican, West Point graduate army veteran who served in Iraq turned high-tech entrepreneur sees Trump as a dangerous choice,” CNN correspondent Ed Lavandera narrated.
“If Ronald Reagan and John Lennon had a kid, I’d be their son,” Kopser said in the clip, describing his politics. “Donald Trump is not who he appears to be. Donald Trump is a great entertainer. Donald Trump is a great showman if you will, but Donald Trump doesn’t really represent the views of so many millions of Americans.”
In an interview with The Intercept, Kopser said that the CNN segment misrepresented him. “I wish I had control over how reporters or papers editorialize their summaries,” he said. “He decided for spite or for whatever reason was the purpose of his article that he was going to describe me as a Ronald Reagan Republican. What he failed to do was add that very important prepositional phrase or description: ‘as a kid in the 1980s.'”
Kopser said he comes from a longtime Republican family but that he started to drift away from the party in the late ’80s.
At an event last year, Kopser said he had voted for Democrats in every general election since 1992. For Wilson, Kopser’s political history remains a question mark. “Regarding Joseph Kopser’s voting history, from what I understand, there is no evidence that Joseph has voted in a Democratic primary, and it is unclear to me when he became a Democrat,” she said. State voting records provided by the secretary of state to The Intercept only went back to 2014 and showed Kopser voting in just one primary: his own Democratic race in 2018.
In a November 19, 2016, Medium blog post titled, “On Trump, Reagan was right, ‘Trust but Verify,'” Kopser expressed dismay that Trump had been elected, but rhetorically reached across the aisle to his supporters to ask them to adopt the Gipper’s slogan when it came to the incoming president. He didn’t espouse a strong partisan identity in the post.
“Moderation and conversation will solve this problem as well as people starting to put country over party,” he wrote. “I look forward to working with anyone who wants to work to solve our problems in a moderate, thoughtful way to achieve a compromise we can all live with.”
Kopser cites his military history as the reason for avoiding partisan political activity prior to his announcement that he was running for Congress.
“It has been a tradition in military service going back to the days of George Washington,” not to have strong political affiliations, Kopser said in an interview.
“I made it a point when I was in the military to have never registered with a particular party,” he added. “And so, if given a choice whatever of the nine places I lived in my 20 years in the army, I would either choose nonaffiliated, unregistered, no party — I forget what the different options were — or in some cases, if they gave me no option, I put independent just to be my own person, independent not following the current-day independents, whatever the heck that means, that labeling.”
As recently as February, Kopser showcased his sometimes noncommittal approach to partisan political labels. During an event at the Ranchers and Landowners Association of Texas, he explained to the audience that his time in Iraq was part of the reason he wanted to secure the U.S.-Mexican border.
The hawkish remarks took some in the audience by surprise.
A member of the audience called out, “Are you sure you’re on the right ticket?”
He replied, “I’m on the American ticket.”