Progressive firebrand and Austin City Council Member Greg Casar is likely to run for Congress in Texas’s 35th District, he told the Texas Observer in an interview.
“It’s very likely that I’m running,” says Casar, who has formed an exploratory committee to examine a run for the district that runs from Austin to San Antonio. “The maps haven’t been signed into law yet, but shortly after they are, I will make things much more official.”
The seat is currently held by Congressman Lloyd Doggett, an Austin Democrat who was first elected in the 1990s. However, Doggett announced Monday afternoon that he will be running in Austin’s new 37th congressional district, which Republicans drew as part of their redistricting plans and covers a swath of Austin west of I-35. That means that the predominantly Hispanic district is now up for grabs.
If Casar wins, the Democratic Socialists of America member and Bernie Sanders supporter would join the ranks of left-wing politicians like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush who have shifted the national Democratic Party leftward. As candidates, they have used their experience with community organizing to run grassroots campaigns fueled by armies of volunteers and small donors.
That’s how Casar says he ran his city council campaigns and envisions the same for the 35th.
“I always run a campaign as hard as I can and not just to win, but also to get people engaged and get people out to vote,” he says. “If I hop into this race, I’d run a campaign that has hundreds of volunteers knocking on tens of thousands of doors because that’s just the right thing to do.”
Under the GOP’s new map that the Legislature sent to Governor Abbott’s desk Monday night, the 35th still stretches through the east half of Austin into San Antonio while connected by a more narrow strip of growing suburbs—including Kyle, Buda, and San Marcos—along the I-35 corridor. But Republicans cut the number of Hispanic eligible voters in the district from its current majority of nearly 53 percent down to 48 percent.
The prospect of a newly open seat in a heavily Democratic majority-minority district sets the stage for a potential primary battle.
State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, who’s served in the Legislature since 2003, is reportedly “taking a hard look” at a run for the 35th; his southeast Austin state House district sits almost entirely within the new 35th boundaries. Also, longtime San Antonio Representative Trey Martinez Fischer requested that lawmakers draw him into the 35th, indicating that he may also run. Claudia Zapata, a progressive activist in Austin, is currently the only officially declared candidate. Casar’s home and his north-central council district are in the 37th, right along the border with the 35th.
Casar says he is a natural fit for the district, even if it’s outside his city council base. “The communities I’ve been organizing in have been in East Austin and San Marcos and San Antonio,” Casar says. “So those are the neighborhoods and the parts of the state where I feel like I’ve built the most relationships and done the most organizing work. So that’s really what I’m looking at.”Greg Casar speaks against SB 4 outside the Capitol during the regular legislative session in 2017. Sam DeGrave
Since becoming Austin’s youngest city council member in 2015, Casar has helped advance a series of progressive policies in the booming capital city—repeatedly drawing the ire of Greg Abbott and Republican lawmakers who have sought to undermine the power of Texas cities. The 32-year-old got his start as an organizer for the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, where he helped secure rest and water break rights for construction workers. On council, Casar has helped enact local ordinances that ensure fair hiring practices for people with felonies and paid sick leave, doubled the minimum wage for city employees and contractors, decriminalized public camping, and reallocated a significant portion of the Austin Police Department budget to “alternative forms of public safety and community support.”
Casar noted that he has also tackled Marijuana decriminalization and immigration. In 2020, he helped pass a city council resolution that sought to end arrests for marijuana possession, then worked with criminal-justice organizers and San Marcos City Council members to enact a similar policy. Amid the Trump administration’s ICE raids, Casar and the Austin City Council created a legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants. Casar then worked with his counterparts on the San Antonio City Council to follow suit.
“Over seven years, we’ve gotten a lot of results despite the state trying to fight back and interfere,” Casar says.
But the Republican-controlled Legislature and courts have repeatedly blocked and preempted local governments’ attempts to enact progressive policies. That anti-local crusade is likely to only get worse as Republicans try to lock in their dominance of state government for years to come.
“The Legislature and people like Greg Abbott are going to continue to just pander to the far right and to big companies,” Casar says. “We need Congress to step in and override that and help the people out who are just trying to make ends meet at the local level.”
Since Texas Republicans have refused to consider raising the state minimum wage and tried to ban all local labor ordinances like paid sick leave, Casar wants to go to Washington “to override them.”
Casar’s exploratory committee touts a broad coalition of support throughout the district, including elected officials from Austin, San Marcos, and San Antonio; labor leaders; civil-rights advocates; criminal justice activists; and African-American pastors. Elected officials include Austin Mayor Steve Adler and many of his city council colleagues, including those from East Austin: Natasha Harper-Madison, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, and Vanessa Fuentes. He also is supported by the San Antonio City Council’s two new progressive members, Jalen McKee-Rodriguez and Teri Castillo.
“I have support from across from them up and down Texas 35,” Casar says. “We know that working Texans and Black and brown Texans all up and down I-35 … all have to rely on each other.”
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