Early in the morning of July 23, 1999, more 10 percent of the Black population of Tulia, Texas, was handcuffed and arrested, pulled out of their homes in front of television crews and wrongfully charged with dealing cocaine. Many of them served years in prison for a crime it is now widely understood they did not commit. The name Tulia has since become a stand-in for the worst excesses of the war on drugs.
The officer responsible for the mass arrests, Tom Coleman, provided no real evidence or corroboration: Forty-six people, almost all of them Black, were arrested on fabricated drug charges that were entirely based on the testimony of one police officer. No drugs, weapons, or large sums of cash were ever found in these mass arrests.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the NAACP of Texas declared the mass arrests “the ethnic cleansing of young male blacks from Tulia” and called on the state’s top prosecutors, Attorney General John Cornyn and Deputy Attorney General Michael McCaul, to open an investigation and reverse the convictions.
“As the state’s leading prosecutors, Cornyn and McCaul had unique latitude in opening an investigation, taking over the case, and overturning the convictions in Tulia,” the Texas Signal wrote. “Instead, they intentionally delayed action and sat on the sidelines for years.” The same year of the arrests, Cornyn awarded Coleman “Lawman of the Year.” Coleman was later convicted of perjury.
Cornyn is now the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, facing a tight reelection bid as Texas drifts more Democratic. That same trend has put the seat of McCaul, an eight-term congressman, in jeopardy too. To fend off his challenger, Mike Siegel, a civil rights attorney and former public school teacher running on a progressive populist platform, McCaul has gone back to the well.
The incumbent recently launched a million-dollar-plus TV and digital ad buy, leading with an attack ad against Siegel that features Waller County Republican Constable Joe Trimm Jr. In the ad, Siegel is slammed for supporting criminal justice reform policies like defunding the police and ending contracts for private prisons. “It’s extreme, it’s dangerous, and it’s all true,” Trimm says in the 30-second ad. “Take it from me, Mike Siegel is a threat to your family.”
Trimm is a brazen choice to be the face of McCaul’s campaign: He has a history of inflammatory social media posts, including justification of police violence against Black Lives Matter protesters, who he deems “looters” and “thugs.” In 2016, he shared a video of protesters being run over by police with the caption “not today scumbags, not today,” and another meme that said “if you follow the officer’s orders, you won’t get shot.” In 2013, Trimm posted a meme comparing former President Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin, the Black teenager who was murdered by a self-appointed neighborhood guard, because they had both previously smoked, participating in a particularly cruel character assassination of a boy who’d just lost his life. The following year, Trimm shared a post alleging that CNN tried to hide that the lead officer arresting Eric Garner, who was killed after being held in a chokehold by New York City police officers, was Black. When reached for comment, Trimm said, “Oh bull, I’m not going to be talking to you,” before hanging up. McCaul’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Siegel is calling on McCaul to take down the ad and added that his view of criminal justice reform is much more holistic than his opponent’s characterization. “The ad and McCaul’s choice to platform a public, certifiable racist is very dangerous,” Siegel told The Intercept. “It further divides the community and really makes Texas less safe for so many people, including my own family. I’m married to a Nigerian American woman; we met in Texas 21 years ago, we’ve been together since then, and we have two children we’re raising, a 5-year-old and 8-year-old.”
The choice of Trimm is in line with McCaul’s politics since Tulia. He has represented Texas’s 10th Congressional District since 2005 and is one of the wealthiest members of Congress.
As chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, McCaul played a central role in putting together the “Muslim ban” policy that Donald Trump first promised as a candidate in 2015. When Trump signed the 2017 executive order to ban travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, triggering nationwide protests and chaos at airports in the process, McCaul immediately tried to distance himself from the action. A McCaul spokesperson told the Texas Tribune that the congressman “wrote a white paper on extreme vetting for then-candidate Trump” with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani but “it did not include a Muslim ban.” He also tried to walk back his support at the time, not by criticizing the Islamophobic and xenophobic nature of the policy, but by complaining about the implementation of the ban, which he said should have been “better coordinated with the agencies implementing them and with Congress.”
In 2009, McCaul joined his Republican colleagues in undermining an FBI-Department of Homeland Security report that detailed the “resurgence” of right-wing extremism, including the rise of extremists infiltrating law enforcement. As a result, DHS disavowed the intelligence study and its unit investigating right-wing extremism was largely dismantled, as The Intercept previously reported, allowing the threat to grow.
“This report politicizes one of our most important national security tools,” McCaul said at the time. “The assessment that returning veterans who are risking their lives fighting terrorists would somehow be recruited as terrorists is absurd.”
McCaul has accepted thousands of dollars from the biggest names in the for-profit prison industry, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (which renamed itself CoreCivic), and voted to allow these companies to compete with Federal Prisons Industries, which is owned by the federal government, for government contracts. He received at least $18,500 from GEO Group and CoreCivic over the last few election cycles, according to Open Secrets. In September 2006, McCaul was among the 22 Texas lawmakers who voted for the Federal Prison Industries Competition in Contracting Act.
Just last month, the Texas lawmaker sent out multiple Islamophobic fundraising emails, accusing Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar of “doing everything she can to buy Texas out from under us” and trying to bring “radical ideas to the great Lone Star State.”
Throughout his congressional career, McCaul has also played a significant role in the effort to ramp up America’s disastrous war on drugs, seeking to designate Mexican drug cartels as “foreign terrorist organizations” and calling for U.S. military involvement.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been active all across Texas, and Houston, where George Floyd grew up, saw massive marches earlier this summer. Waller County, a Republican stronghold, was also the site of Sandra Bland’s death, a 28-year-old Black woman who was pulled over for a minor traffic violation, arrested, and put in a jail cell where she was found dead days later.
“This idea that he was complicit in the biggest law enforcement scandal in Texas history, the Tulia scandal … while these individuals were languishing in prison, facing severe personal, economic and family costs — he delayed justice for these people,” Siegel said. “Then here he is, 20 years later, still propping up white supremacists. His time has come, this is definitely an old-school, Jim Crow-style politics, but I think the new Texas is going to profoundly reject that.”
A new internal poll conducted for Siegel’s campaign found the Democrat closing in on McCaul, with the two statistically tied. Siegel has gained 4 points over the past seven weeks and is now trailing McCaul 45 percent to 43 percent. The poll, which surveyed 400 registered voters, found that Siegel is winning by large margins among people of color, college-educated women, and independents.
Siegel, who came within 4 percentage points of unseating McCaul in 2018, has outperformed the expectations of many political observers and earned the support of national progressive groups and local labor unions. The 42-year-old civil rights attorney has represented labor unions, immigrant families, and low-income renters. Siegel’s campaign has also already surpassed $1 million in fundraising this quarter, he said, “which is going to put me in the top 10 or 20” Democratic House candidates nationwide.
But, despite his narrow miss in 2018, Siegel hasn’t won the love of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. On Monday, Julie Oliver, the Democrat challenging Republican Rep. Roger Williams in an Austin-based district, became the latest candidate to make the DCCC’s Red-to-Blue program, which targets seats that have a promising chance to flip. So far, the program has been expanded to include seven Texas races. Siegel is still not on the list. He added that he’s still hopeful there’s a chance the DCCC adds him to the list, and would welcome more national support.