Women across the U.S. found themselves suddenly drawn to politics after the shock election of Donald Trump four years ago. On this week’s podcast, Ryan Grim speaks to three such women: Candace Valenzuela and Julie Oliver in Texas, and Annie Weaver in Pennsylvania, about how that day changed their lives and the course it set them on over the last four years.
Candace Valenzuela: My goodness, I did not see so much of this coming. [Laughs.]
Newscaster: Secretary Clinton’s top surrogates say they’re still confident that she has a path to 270, but Florida making everybody a little more jittery than they had anticipated.
CV: I was a suburban mom. We’re talking about so many of them right now. I had a 1-year-old, and I was watching the Election happening.
Rachel Maddow: In Virginia, in Colorado, in New Mexico, we’ve got Donald Trump prevailing. According to NBC News projections, Donald Trump is prevailing in North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida.
Newscaster: I need to interrupt with another one. Trump wins Iowa.
CV: I didn’t think the Republicans I knew had the capacity to vote for someone like him. And I found myself, like many people of color, just flabbergasted that day after the Election.
Ryan Grim: I’m Ryan Grim, welcome to Deconstructed. You’re listening to the voice of Candace Valenzuela, a mom from suburban Texas. Like a lot of women across America, the events of November 8, 2016 changed her political world.
CV: I dropped off my son at his daycare, and a lot of the folks there were people of color. They were not inclined to talk about politics, but you could see it on their faces. And that day, I was taking a little bit of time off of work, because my husband had this huge work dinner that night, and I was going to get my hair done that morning. And I went to a Dominican hair salon, and the manager had to do my hair, because nobody wanted to come to work that day. It was — it was like a bomb hit.
RG: Today on the show, we’re looking backwards at the four years since the last presidential election. This is Julie Oliver, another suburban Texan:
Julie Oliver: We told her, our daughter, and she started crying. She thought Hillary was going to be the first woman president, and she woke up to a very different reality.
RG: And this is Annie Weaver, from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania:
Annie Weaver: I remember stopping at the WaWa and I couldn’t even look anybody in the eye. I just felt like this couldn’t be the world we were living in.
RG: The right-wing activist Phyllis Schlaffly is often credited with creating a movement of conservative women who were able to stop the Equal Rights Amendment in its tracks and roll back women’s liberation. But more accurately, she took a network of women who were already engaged in their communities, largely through schools and their churches, and politicized them — radicalized them.
Trump has done the same, in reverse. Women haven’t just moved away from him and begun voting Democratic, they’ve thrown themselves into politics with everything they have, and they’ve transformed both parties as a result.
Let’s get back to Candace, who was born and raised in El Paso, where she experienced homelessness before making it through college and on to suburban Dallas, which brings us back to that Dominican hair salon, where the manager had to explain to her that she’d be the one doing her hair that day.
CV: And she said, “I didn’t have the heart to yell at them, to tell them to come to work, because I don’t feel like being here, but I need to make sure this place runs. So, here we are.
It was just such a surreal feeling. I was committed to doing everything it would take to change the structure of the politics around me. I didn’t know what that would entail just yet, I didn’t think, “Now, I’m going to go and run for office.” I said, “There’s a big red wall here in Texas, and I’m gonna throw myself at it.” [Laughs.] That was the only thing that came to mind.
And so I just started hanging around organizers and learning how to organize, and before I knew it, I was trying to find somebody to run for my local school board. And I was looking at it, I was looking for somebody older, I was looking for somebody more established to run for this seat, and as somebody who had been in education for years, as someone who had studied government as policy in college, I started to realize that I was in love with that job. I was in love with education policy. I was in love with making changes. And I ended up running for my first office.
RG: What was the board of education race like? Who was the incumbent that you were taking on?
CV: So I was taking on an 18-year incumbent and his wife, I think, was the president of the local Republican Ladies Club. He’d been active in Republican politics for quite some time. And I think one of the first times I’d ever heard him speak, he was talking about test scores going up in one of the local elementary schools after they bulldozed the local apartments. [Laughs.] And I took issue with that.
As somebody who grew up, bouncing around from place to place, at certain points in my life, I was living in those apartments, I was one of those kids who may not have had the most stable living situation.
CV: And, you know, there were times where we were at candidate forums, and I think one time they asked us about how parents aren’t getting engaged enough with the PTA, I think this was at a PTA forum. And my opponent was talking about parents just not caring anymore. And I had to talk to him — I had to talk to all of them — about the fact that millennial parents, Gen X parents, and now we’re in a generation of Gen Z parents, are working a lot harder for a lot fewer real dollars. And the option to have one parent at home all of the time making cupcakes is out of reach for far more families than ever before.
So it wasn’t because they didn’t love their kids that they weren’t showing up to PTA meetings at odd hours of the day. They love their kids so much they had to work to support them.
RG: What was the campaign like?
CV: At the time, as I mentioned, I had a young son. And there were times I would drop him off at daycare, I would work all day, and I would pick him up, I would nurse him in the parking lot — I was still breastfeeding — and then I would hand them off to my husband and I would go to a candidate forum. There are other days, I’d pick him up, I would nurse him in the parking lot, and then I would take him to knock on doors with me. I would strap him to my back, I had a baby ergo [?], and I would grab a bag of literature. And he would have to listen to me talk to voters for as long as he could stand it, or for as long as I had diapers.
There was one night, and it was toward the end of the campaign, he was getting closer to two years old. And I was toweling off his little head after a bath. And he looked up at me and he said, “My name Candace Valenzuela. I run school board.” He was very sure of himself. [Laughs.]
CV: I don’t think it really occurred to me that I might win until, I think, a week into our two-week early voting period. I just woke up one day and said, “Oh my god, I think this is going to happen!” [Laughs.]
And I just kept being invested in the process. And then one night, Election night, I didn’t even have a watch party. I dropped in on watch parties for up-ballot candidates, people running for city council, a couple of folks running for mayor in certain areas of my district, my district has six cities — and, I won.
RG: So, what was serving on the school board like? You know, what’s the thing that you take away from that?
CV: What I took away from that is a passion about campaign finance reform. And you’d think: Why would you think that? Well, because even as I have some deep, fundamental differences with a lot of the Republicans that were on my board, and there were many, because again, this is still suburban Texas, I could have conversations with them about policy, from a reasonable perspective, because they weren’t being influenced by tons and tons of outside money. They were being influenced by their convictions. And when their convictions came together with mine about providing for the kids, or providing for the folks working in the schools, or providing for the teachers, we were able to get things done.
A lot of folks love to talk about the polarization from D.C. as if it were something that came out of the ether and it’s just bad people not behaving properly. But they can’t see the tens of hundreds of millions of dollars — billions of dollars — affecting the process, affecting people’s behavior. And when I think about many of the Republicans — and, again, I don’t necessarily agree with them on anything, but if I would want to see somebody advancing within their party and and ascending to a higher office, those folks I was working with wouldn’t, simply because they had the convictions of their community in mind, and not big moneyed interests.
So we’re seeing this — I love political discourse. I love having a country of varying viewpoints. But I feel as though discourse is completely suffocated in an atmosphere that’s completely dominated by money.
RG: And so in 2018, were you active in the midterms, either at the state legislative level, working for candidates there or at the national level trying to flip the House Democratic? Beto O’Rourke, actually was the phenom in the Lone Star State that year.
CV: He was. And he did a lot to build out Democratic infrastructure in the area. And I did have the chance to talk to his campaign; I did do a roundtable discussion with them on education and ending the school-to-prison pipeline, because that was something that I was actively doing in my work on the school board.
But I was very focused locally. I was focused on making sure that our kids had equitable access to full-day pre-K and access to better facilities, which meant that I needed better state reps. And so I worked really hard for Julie Johnson, who’s in the southern part of my school district to get her in, and she helped to recoup $37 million of our taxpayer money so that we can better provide for all the kids in our district.
I was very focused on getting a new bond passed. It was hundreds of millions of dollars, again, so that the incredibly poor elementary school up the street from my house, one where there are a lot of apartment kids, brown kids like me. And the school hadn’t seen updates in a couple of decades. And so I was working really hard to make sure that that money was going there. And I was successful; me and my board really pushed for that bond to pass. And that’s where I was laser-focused, even as I was trying to help in partisan races.
RG: Mid-2018 was also when the child separation scandal erupted, which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez helped launch, you know, as a national scandal by calling them concentration camps down at the border. What was your reaction when you first learned what was going on down down at the border and what was the reaction in the community?
CV: I can actually just tell you the moment. I was in my first trimester of pregnancy; and, this is embarrassing but I’m gonna share this with you anyway. I was in my first trimester of pregnancy and I was at a Game of Thrones convention.
RG: No shame, no shame.
CV: (laughs) Thank you. I happened to glance at my phone for some reason. And I saw the pictures of this bus filled with car seats. And the news that they were taking away small children, en masse from their parents, they were just pulling them away from them. And I had to go find a place to be alone, and I just cried. I was just beside myself and I was very upset. You know, I am an attachment parent. You know? I nursed my baby until he was two, my first baby.
CV: I think a lot about that early childhood development and how critical it is. And to see so many families who love their children so much that they would carry them for miles and miles, and not have their children anymore. And I didn’t even know how bad it would become.
When I thought about the fact that ,you know, I was born in El Paso, Texas, to a Mexican mom, and the difference between myself and some of those families who were separated was luck. I was born 20 minutes north, you know?
CV: I could have been one of those mothers. It’s something that haunts you.
I think that our members of Congress were doing a great job at being insistent on going to where they were keeping these children and shedding light on the conditions. I’m really proud of how bold they were. But it was also maddening because to see how powerless they were as well.
RG: Right. The Democrats still didn’t have a majority then. Was that around the time that you started thinking: Maybe I should go to Washington and do something about this?
CV: Absolutely not. [Laughs.]
And, again, you get these big feelings and you try to figure out well, how do I best work to solve this problem? And I don’t think a lot of women first think that they should solve the problem by being in charge. It’s one of the issues that we have in this country that needs to be changed, that needs to be fixed.
CV: So after the 2018 election, the person who ran for Congress here got very close. And I got my bond, which is what I was concerned about. I went to lunch with some friends of mine, some of whom had staffed political campaigns, among them was Beto O’Rourke’s campaign. They’d been traveling the entire state for the last year and a half.
And I’m sitting there with my Korean food. And they said: “You know, this district, it almost flipped.” I said, “Yes!” And they said, you know, “Beto won this district.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s really cool. Can’t wait till it flips next cycle.” They said, “You know, it would really flip with a strong woman of color.” I said, “That’s fantastic. Let’s find her.”
[Laughs.] See, I was eight and a half months pregnant. And they said, “You know, we’re talking about you!” And I was going to tell my husband about this. I said, “Listen to this crazy thing these folks told me.” And he said, “Of course, you should do this!” [Laughs.]
I said, “Sir, you’re gonna have” — at that point, we had a three year old, and I said, “you’re going to have a three and a half year old, you’re going to have a newborn baby, you’re going to have to do a lot of the heavy-lifting with the kids if I’m going to be going through this process.”
It was hard with the school board, even as I had my son with me, for a lot of it, it wasn’t all of it. There were a lot of late nights my husband had to rock a screaming child to sleep. And he said, “We’ll figure it out. You would best represent this district.”
What finally convinced me was watching the folks who were coming into the district to run — and there were several of them. And they were looking to run as generic Democrats; they thought that a Democrat can win this seat, and so I’m a Democrat, and that’s perfect. And coming from the place I came from, someone who’d experienced childhood homelessness, someone who worked in education, someone who knew that these families were the kinds of folks who did everything ostensibly right — they crossed their T’s, they dotted their eyes, and they’re still not seeing a return on their investment in the American Dream. I felt like it was a responsibility to work hard to represent them the right way, with the urgencies that they’re feeling. And that’s why I ended up launching a congressional campaign with a four year old and a three and a half year old.
RG: One of those opponents was Kim Olson, who we’d covered at The Intercept, I guess around the time that she launched. People listening now might even remember her a little bit from this viral kind of launch video.
Kim Olson: Kim Olson here. They say true warriors rarely pick their battles; they’re chosen for them. When I joined the Air Force, I wanted to fly jets. But they said I couldn’t go to flight school because I was a woman.
RG: And it’s part of a genre now of a female fighter pilot, you know, who’s going to be a tough boss and, and is going to bring that military spirit to crack some heads in Washington.
KO: We didn’t choose this battle. It chose us. And if you believe it’s a battle worth fighting, be a warrior. Join us.
RG: But you know, as you listen, you see that there actually isn’t, like you said, there’s actually nothing behind it. It’s just I’m going to be a good representative for this district because of my background. But not telling you why — like what you stand for.
A lot of people in Washington looked at that race at that time when, you know, her ad went viral and tons of money came flooding into her coffers. And she, everybody in Washington said, “Well, that race is over. That’s going to be the Democratic nominee. We’ve seen this movie before. We know how it ends. That’s who they’re going to go into the general election with.”
What was your reaction to seeing her launch? And did you think: I’m done for! There’s no way I can compete with this!” Or did you think once this campaign gets started, people are gonna pay real attention.
CV: I think it was somewhere in the middle of those two things. It would have been ridiculous if I weren’t a little bit intimidated by the fact that she came off of a statewide race in which she campaigned with Beto O’Rourke across the state. A lot of folks knew who she was.
RG: Right. She had run for Agriculture, is that right?
CV: She ran unsuccessfully for Agricultural Commissioner during the 2018 cycle. And she actually didn’t win the district running for Ag Commissioner either. So I thought it was an interesting choice to jump into this district that was, I think, 70 miles away from where she lived.
It was hard fighting; I felt like it was fighting upstream against stereotypes, particularly from out-of-district and out-of-state donors. So they look at this lady who is this, you know, Air Force lady who looks like she’s going to go to Washington D.C. and kick ass and they’re like, “OK! White Air Force lady. That fits rural Texas.”
And I’m not in rural Texas. I am in the suburbs. I tell folks there are more PhDs in my district than there are cows. And they couldn’t grok that or the fact that this is a majority-person-of-color district: one in four people here are Latino. They still could not — even being presented with the facts. They could not get around that. They said “No, this is Texas. This is what Texas looks like.”
RG: Right. [Laughs.]
CV: [Laughs.] And, as the campaign progressed, as folks got to know both of us, particularly because I had a history of serving folks in the district, it slowly began to emerge that I’d better represent it.
CV: I’m humbled by the election results.
Newscaster: Former Carrollton Farmers Branch ISD trustee Candace Valanzuela defeated retired Air Force pilot Kim Olson in the Democratic primary runoff. Valanzuela now takes on Republican and former Irving mayor Beth van Dyne for the open seat.
CV: I mean, one of the things is that I was running in a race with other members of my community against this person who came in from outside with outside money. So there was this person with all this money and then some of the folks that might have been in coalitions with me later. I think a lot of it was just folks getting to know both of us, folks getting to hear our thoughts on our policies. And as we were seeing the difficulties with COVID-19, as we were reckoning with race in this country, in a fresh way, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we were able to better flesh out who we were in this campaign and what we were intending to do for the communities. I think it paved the way for me to win there.
RG: Well, Candace Valanzuela, thank you so much for joining us on Deconstructed.
CV: Absolute pleasure, Ryan, thank you so much for having me.
AW: Hi, I’m Andrea Weaver, and I live in New Holland, Pennsylvania, in Amish Country, and I’m a teacher. I’ve been an elementary teacher for 33 years.
RG: I first spoke to Annie Weaver back in 2018, and she was a major subject of a long article in “The Intercept” then, and later my book, “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.”
Weaver hadn’t considered herself a political person before the 2016 election, but she had been active in her church and had even done missionary work in Japan. Like Candace, Annie’s life was changed by Trump’s election, but things haven’t gone as well in Lancaster County as they have in Texas.
[Like Candace, Annie’s life was changed by Trump’s election, but things haven’t gone as well in Lancaster County as they have in Texas.]
AW: I just felt like this had to be — this couldn’t be the world that we were living in, that that many people couldn’t stand for the things that he was saying he stood for. And so, it was a really difficult time, just not really wanting to engage with anyone at all, because I just felt so disappointed in those around me.
I was deeply depressed. It’s kind of a depression I’ve never experienced before. As I said, I was especially suspicious everywhere I looked, thinking my colleagues, my community, everyone around me voted for this person, and I just don’t understand why. And so it was very, very depressing, and I —
RG: And you said your church, too, even, right?
AW: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. I mean, that was a huge part of it for me was the fact that Lancaster County and Pennsylvania had had just fallen all over Trump and supported him, and a lot of people that I respected, I just couldn’t understand what they saw in him, and the values that I was seeing in his campaign, and that that was something that they supported.
So it was, it was really a dark time for me. And it was only until I started seeing posts about the Women’s March that I just made up my mind immediately. It was probably, as soon as I saw it, that was the thing that I thought to myself: I need to go to Washington, which I’d never done for political reasons. And I just knew. And I thought: If I have to go myself, I will go myself. I was going to find a way to get to Washington. And that was kind of what held me together. I don’t know, it just seemed super, super important to make my voice heard that this was not OK.
And it was a day that I will never forget.
Newscaster: The Women’s March on Washington saw more than one million people in the streets in protest.
Newscaster: It has sparked what some could call the start of an enduring opposition. We’ll see if that happens, as we get further down the road.
RG: What did you see there? What was it like?
AW: It was amazing, because I think everyone had the idea that it was going to be a very, I don’t know, scary day, dangerous. There was just a lot of things that people put out there that they were concerned about, they were saying that everything was going to be shut down. So it was going to be difficult to get around.
But what I saw that day, just everybody coming out of their homes, and supporting us, and just — and just how many people there were. I don’t think I really understood how many people there were going to be. Lots of women have, obviously, but also a lot of men too. And people of all ages, races. It was such an uplifting day.
And all the speakers that we heard and just all the experiences that we had with the people that — it was just like we were among friends. And that was exactly what I needed. Because I felt so alone here in my community that to go somewhere and see that I wasn’t alone was just exactly what I needed — and also super, super inspiring.
And in that moment, I just thought — I have to do something beyond this day, they kept saying that, you know, if it’s just about this day, then it’s not really going to help anything but if we can go back to our communities and keep that motivation going that it would mean something. I needed for it to mean something.
Newscaster: More than a million women, the first mass demonstration that reached all seven continents, the Women’s March on Washington became the Women’s March around the world, with a question now lingering after possibly the largest protest in U.S. history, what’s next?
AW: So much for me, you know, is blurred in the timeline, just because there’s been so much that has happened. But my next step was to get involved with Lancaster Stands Up, which had been the group that had organized their mass meeting directly after the Election. And I started going to events that they were holding in Lancaster.
I think one of the first ones that I went to was for refugees. And that was something that really resonated with me. It was really surprising to me: I post a lot on social media, and even something as simple as supporting refugees, the backlash that I saw from people I, at that point, considered friends and from family members, it was once again just that reality that I was living in a different world, or something, then so many of the people that I was surrounded with, because they could find something offensive about something which I thought was such a beautiful thing, helping refugees. I didn’t realize that was going to be such a controversy, you know, in the moment.
RG: Right. So once you had hooked into this group, what did 2017 and 2018 look like for you?
AW: Well, I was involved on-and-off with — it was probably about a half a year later. Well, the first thing that I ended up doing, actually after the meeting with the Lancaster Stands Up group and everything, was to start my own group.
So I put it out there that women could come — and actually some men came too, but that women could come to my house and it involved, you know, writing postcards and just having a place to vent and talk with each other. So it was just kind of a little group that met periodically, and I kept giving them updates and things about things that they might want to get involved with that I was finding from Lancaster Stands Up.
And then in the fall of 2017, that was the first time that I ever canvassed. And that was, again, something that if you had told me before that that I would ever go knock on people’s doors, I would have said that that was never going to happen. [Laughs.]
And then it kind of morphed into helping with the Jess King campaign.
Newscaster: Jess King officially announced her candidacy for Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional District tonight at Penn Square, making the Democratic race a log-jam a year out from the primary.
AW: That was kind of the natural next step.
Newscaster: Right now Pennsylvania has no women representing us in Congress. We’re working our hearts out and not seeing people get further ahead. It feels increasingly like it’s a band aid on a broken system.
AW: A big change for me was realizing that those like local elections are so important. I think I was one of those people that thought just about the presidential election. And of course, that’s what had pushed me into this arena anyway. But it became abundantly clear that our state elections matter. And our local elections matter. And I think that has kind of carried through, even to this year.
I was devastated when she didn’t win. I mean, I’m just going to be perfectly honest, because if there was ever a perfect candidate, it was her. After Jess lost, I mean, I was once again heartbroken. And I felt like we had worked so hard and run such a great — I shouldn’t even say we, but she ran such a great campaign. And the people that I worked with at Lancaster Stands Up had worked so hard, and so many people had done so much.
RG: How is Pennsylvania looking now? And how do you feel about the state when you see the polls showing Biden with these 7-8-9-point leads over Trump?
AW: Well, it’s still very difficult because the polls said that four years ago. And I’m one of those people that just is afraid to assert, and it’s not that I don’t want to believe them. But I get hopeful that it’s going to be the case. And I know there’s tons of places in Pennsylvania where Biden is doing well. It’s still very hard to be a Lancastrian, someone who lives here in Lancaster County, and see the support that is still there for Trump.
RG: Is your sense that even as Democrats have made such huge gains in suburbs around the country, that in places like Lancaster, Trump may even have solidified his positioning — it might be even stronger than four years ago.
AW: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Again, I’ve been having conversations with family and friends for four years, and they see reason to continue to support him. They are stronger than ever. Yes, absolutely.
RG: Do you know anybody who has gone from not voting or voting libertarian to now supporting Trump?
AW: I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head. Most of the people that I’m thinking of were Republicans, have been lifelong Republicans, and have made every allowance for Trump and made every excuse for him for anything in order to remain, you know, steadfast in their support of him. Yeah. So that that’s mostly the people that I’m thinking of that have been Republicans.
I mean, I do have family members that are Republicans that didn’t vote for Trump and continue to not support him. But I’d say the overwhelming majority of them still support him.
RG: Right. Right. So have you been mostly part of this small-dollar army that has emerged?
AW: Yes. Oh, my goodness. Yes. That has been one of the ways that I felt like I could continue to help through COVID. I mean, this is a different topic than the Election, but I did go to at least one of the protests in Lancaster for Black Lives Matter.
I just needed — just like back, going to the Women’s March, I needed to make myself seen and heard there, but I wasn’t as comfortable because of COVID being in large groups of people. I was one of those masked supporters, social distancing supporters, and it was hard not to feel like: Well, if we’re going to gather together, you know, I know it’s for great causes and for things that we need to stand up for, but just finding that line between wanting to show that I believe in science and, and wanting to keep us all healthy, and also, you know, being somebody who stands up for social justice issues.
RG: Right. If Democrats do take the White House and the Senate in 2021 what do you think your year will look like, activism-wise?
AW: Oh, gosh. I’m sure that will be super-motivating for me to continue to be involved, because again, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of losses in the things I’ve been involved in. [Laughs.] You know, I’m overdue for a win here.
RG: Annie, it was great to talk to you again. Thank you so much for joining me.
AW: It was great to be able to talk with you again, Ryan. Thank you so much.
JO: I’m Julie Oliver, and I’m the Democratic nominee for the 25th Congressional District here in Texas.
RG: For our final guest, we have another suburban Texas mom — who also, coincidentally, experienced homelessness as a child.
But on that night in November 2016, she was watching the Election returns like everybody else.
JO: Hindsight is 20/20, so there’s no way I could have even envisioned him doing the things he’s already done. I mean, I think I thought the ACA, the Affordable Care Act, was going to get lobbied hard to be repealed, but I don’t think I could’ve ever imagined him writing executive orders that would ban an entire religion from our country.
In my mind, I think I kept thinking: Well, he’ll eventually do the right thing, once he’s taken the oath of office, which, you know, that didn’t happen.
So we went to the Women’s March. I actually think my husband found it — it was either on Twitter or Facebook, but on social media, we found it. We took our youngest daughter to it. And I’d never even been involved in a march before. Nothing. You know, I’m busy raising children. I’ve got four kids, and my oldest was born in 1990. My youngest was born in 2010. So I’ve had little kids, you know, most of my adult life.
RG: How big was the Austin Women’s March? And what was it like to be there?
JO: Oh, my god, it was huge. It was huge. Oh my gosh, it was amazing. It really, truly was amazing: 100,000 women, I think, showed up in Austin. And it’s not been the same sense. You know, we’ve had a couple since then. But the numbers haven’t been there.
But I realized, you know, what happens is when you poke a mama bear, she’ll come out and fight. [Laughs.] And it honestly wasn’t until July of 2017 when, you know, Congressman Williams took the vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, that I looked at my husband and I said, “You know, this mama bear has now really been poked. And I’m going to run for Congress.”
I actually said something more like, “I have a terrible idea, honey. I need you to talk me out of it.” And he didn’t. But it is because one of my four kiddos has faced a lifetime of healthcare challenges. And he really has been fighting just to be healthy. And to do something that affects so many people — millions of people will be left without health care coverage. And I get the ACA is not perfect. It’s not even what I advocate for. But it’s all we’ve got right now, and at least now, it protects folks who have pre-existing conditions from discrimination by an insurance company, if they’re lucky enough to have insurance in the first place.
RG: So what does a person do when they decide to go from zero to 60 like that? What are steps like, one, two, and three? After your husband failed to talk you out of it, or didn’t even try to talk you out of it, did you Google “How to run for Congress”?
JO: Well, I did have to Google “what are the filing requirements to run for Congress?” So, yes, that was part of it. But I also realized that you know, as connected as we are, through our devices, our telephones, our laptops, we’re really not connected in an interpersonal way. And so I got in my car.
And through using digital means, I started going to little Democratic club meetings throughout this entire district. You know, consultants will tell you to stay in the most populated part of your district, and only primary and campaign there. I didn’t have a consultant, and I didn’t know that that was a strategy. So I actually started driving to all 13 counties, and visited them many times over before our primary.
In my primary there, it was a five-way primary. I didn’t come in first in the primary, but the person who did come in first didn’t cross over the 50 percent threshold. So I was put into a runoff. And I’ll tell you, spending all of that time in 13 counties really paid off in the end. It motivated people who had not seen a Democratic candidate in over 20 years to get out and vote and to fight for this campaign. And I’m really grateful that I did that work.
I miss it. I miss getting out. You know, in the pandemic, I miss getting out and talking to people on their front porches and going places.
RG: What did you see like on those front porches, and as you were going door-to-door and in 2017 and 2018 among these democrats, who were in an area of Texas that had been, you know, it was Republican, and that was considered to be kind of hopelessly Republican for the foreseeable future?
JO: Well, I think initially, again, they were shocked, and maybe perhaps even thought, “Well, isn’t that cute that she’s running.”
But eventually, I showed up again, and again, and again. The northern part of my district, which is about three hours away from my home, in the span of 13 months drove there 40 times.
And, you know, you create what feel like familial relationships, and when you have that level of trust, and familiarity, people will advocate for you, people will step out of their comfort zones.
I used to say that a good club meeting in one of the rural parts of town, about the most you could get them to do was go to a, what they called, “Drinking Liberally” dinner. You know, one Friday night, they’d go to a restaurant, and they’d all just, you know, hang out together, but they wouldn’t talk to other people. But to get people to actually go block walk with me, and to make phone calls, and to actually organize, that was truly outside of their comfort zone. But they started doing it.
And, you know, two years ago in the 2018 cycle, where get out the vote might have been maybe in four counties at one time this election cycle, we’re in 10 counties, like every weekend. It’s grown. It’s just grown. You know, that’s all!
RG: From the time that you launched your first campaign back in 2017 and now, have you kind of been able to see the explosion in population before your eyes? Or is it so gradual, that you just kind of wake up one day, and there’s more developments? Or when you drive around your district, do you just constantly see “homes coming soon,” “new headquarters coming soon”?
JO: Well, there’s a tremendous amount of development in Austin. I mean, it’s one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. But speaking of demographic shifts, and people moving here, that is definitely part of how this district has evolved over the last, you know, nine years — almost 10 years. That is part of it. But part of it also is, I think, people realizing that, you know, desperate times call for desperate measures, even if that desperate measure in your life is you don’t vote but you’re suddenly going to go vote.
So I think that is part of it. And we were really intentional. I’ll share with you: In 2018, when I went out block walking in Killeen, it is a very integrated, diverse community. We only have three precincts in Killeen, less than 30,000 registered voters in those three precincts, but they vote in high Democratic proportions.
I was out there in October block-walking and knocking on the door, and people would be like: Oh, I moved here five months ago, so I’m not registered here and still registered in California, and I’m going to mail in my ballot.
In Texas, you have to be registered for an election 30 days in front of the election. So in 2020, what does that look like? If you moved here on October 6, from Oklahoma, you can’t vote in Texas on November 3.
And I learned that too late last time. We weren’t going to make the same mistake twice. So we have been doing voter registration at scale, by mail. And what does that look like? That looks like taking the national Change of Address database. And when somebody moves into my district, and taking the national voter file, if they have a high partisanship score, we send them the voter registration form.
And the efforts of sending out voter registration forms in my district alone have topped 30,000 voter registrations.
RG: In the last three years have you come across many people like yourself who weren’t terribly engaged in politics before but now it’s kind of their life’s work?
JO: Yes. Oh, my goodness, I would say that for the majority of women I’ve met that is absolutely … you know, we’ve all said, if there’s any silver lining to a Trump presidency is: one, that we’ve all become politically active; and two, we’ve all become really, really good friends. So a large group of women across this district who are taking this very seriously.
And, you know, I feel really grateful to run alongside someone like Mike Siegel for two terms. I don’t know what his political aspirations were before stepping into the ring in 2017. I suspect it was like me, it was just like, “Oh my gosh, I gotta do my little part to help right-course our country.”
But once you run with people, it’s almost like you become battle buddies or, you know, brothers and sisters in this, and people I met in 2018 who ran who didn’t make it across the finish line. I still consider them some of my closest friends.
RG: There are people on the left who look at the kind of rising Democratic coalition and the swing of the suburbs towards Democrats with some reticence because they worry: OK, it’s good that this is going to help Democrats beat Donald Trump, but what if it hems in Democratic ambitions? You know, what if the people who have health care, they have health insurance, try to stand in the way of universal health care, or people who have good incomes resist taxing upper-income people, so it’s harder to reduce inequality, and so on. What’s your guess on that as a progressive who’s running in a district like this?
JO: Well the ideals that we are campaigning on are actually incredibly popular. That’s why I’m so excited for some of the people who made it out of the Democratic primaries who are going on to Congress, because the general election is not really where their battle was, it was the Democratic primary. We’re increasing — we are increasing a number. That means our voice is louder. When you think about the progressives who were elected in 2018, it was just a handful. But look at how people focused on them. And the things that we were talking about two years ago that seem so radical, don’t seem so radical today. We’re living through a global pandemic.
RG: And to me, and let me know, if you think of this, it’s almost beyond electoral politics, that regardless of how the individual elections wind up, what you’re talking about here is a kind of awakening, almost a cultural awakening that’ll reshape this country for years to come.
JO: Yeah, I agree with that wholeheartedly. I think that’s what a lot of us were doing. We were sleeping. I mean, in full disclosure, I used to vote for people that I didn’t know who they were! I’d go by name — like typically gender and name. That’s a horrible way to pick your candidates.
Now that I’ve run for two cycles, I actually know everybody on the ballot, which is a much better place to be. And I know a lot of people who know everybody on the ballot. There’s still a significant number of the population who doesn’t know everybody on the ballot. So there is still an awakening to occur. But I do think that we are beginning to, you know, push awake that slumbering giant, and hopefully, at least for my lifetime, and hopefully my kids’ lifetimes, we don’t ever fall asleep again. We will be bound to repeat this mistake again, if we fall asleep again.
RG: Julie Oliver, thank you so much for joining us here.
JO: All right, have a good one.
RG: That was Julie Oliver, Annie Weaver, and Candace Valenzuela — and that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.
If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at [email protected] Thanks so much!
See you next week.