Lawmakers may be at home for the holidays unwrapping gifts from lobbyists, but progressive activists are still hard at work. Here are a few important headlines before we get to our main story, an interview with Eliz Markowitz, the Democrat running in the huge special election in Texas next month…
The push to expand Medicaid is transforming state politics and driving turnout for Democrats, in red states especially.
Meanwhile, in Oregon, activists are pushing a ballot initiative to decriminalize most drugs and increase addiction treatment and rehabilitation services.
Last week, I noted that some Democrats in New York were itching to push for single-payer healthcare, but that Gov. Andrew Cuomo would be a hurdle. Right on cue, the big guy went and vetoed a bill that would have simply regulated pharmacy benefit managers, handing a big win to drug companies.
A Texas-sized opportunity
All political analysts’ eyes are on Iowa and New Hampshire right now, but they should really be looking at what’s happening down in Texas: On January 28, the state will hold a special election runoff in the 28th district of the State House of Representatives. Why is it so crucial? Democrats are now down just nine seats in the chamber, as we’ve noted before, and this one is a great flip target.
The fact that Dems have the good fortune of running such an impressive candidate in the district makes it an even more exciting race. And given Eliz Markowitz’s backstory, it’s very easy to want to chip in and support her.
In 2018, Markowitz ran what she calls a “one-woman show” during her first-ever campaign, an uphill battle for a seat on the Texas State Board of Education. She served as her own campaign manager and “ran around Southeast Texas,” she says, pushing herself in a longshot race in a very red gerrymandered district and pulling to less than a 10 point margin.
She bounced back and ran a strong race in a special election for the State House this fall, qualifying for the District 28 runoff against Republican Gary Gates, a perennial loser best known as a “slumlord.” Now, her campaign has a bit more help — Beto O’Rourke has been working on her behalf, and Michael Bloomberg visited on Sunday. Build it and they will come.
Yet in conversation, Markowitz prefers to focus on the issues, including education, healthcare access, and gun violence. She’s not running for the notoriety or power, a fact confirmed by the roundabout way she got into politics in the first place.
Markowitz began her career in computer science, working for the Princeton Review. She thought she was going to go down the corporate path, she says, and got her master’s degree in business. Then tragedy struck. “My mom unexpectedly passed away and I moved back to Houston to be with my dad, who is my best friend,” Markowitz explains. “My mom had suffered from addiction for her entire life, and so I wanted to do something that was actually helping people from falling through the cracks of our healthcare system.”
Instead of pursuing the private sector, she went and got another master’s degree, this time in healthcare informatics. Then Markowitz received federal grants to work on electronic medical records, a major Obama Administration priority. Her goal was to reduce the number of deaths due to medication errors with new software. Good news: The research paid off, the technology was implemented by hospitals around the country, and deaths caused by bad reactions to medications have fallen.
Turns out, Markowitz really liked public service, and while she was still working at the Princeton Review at the time (when she slept is unclear), she started noticing students failing on a far too regular basis. Markowitz had a feeling it had to do with standardized testing, which Princeton Review has a big hand in, so she decided to go and learn more about education policy so she could make a difference in that field.
Naturally, she got her doctorate — putting her at a dual bachelor’s degree, two master’s, and a Ph.D. — and received an opportunity to teach at the University of Houston. But she had designs on helping even more people and saw that David Bradley, the absolutely maniacal, corrupt, and right-wing Evangelical Republican who had held the state Board of Education seat in her district, was finally stepping down. It was a highly gerrymandered district, and no Democrat was even bothering to run. The decision was easy.
“I thought it was essentially my duty to make sure that someone was trying to run for the students of Texas,” Markowitz says. “And because many states adopt Texas textbooks and curriculum, it was not only Texas, but the country as a whole.”
As we noted, Markowitz fell short in her one-woman campaign, but she made a huge dent in the party gap and learned a lot about the state’s political process. She’s blunt about what she discovered, calling the whole scene in Austin “sophomoric” and “cliquish,” like something out of middle school with a generous dash of elitism, on both sides of the aisle. “If you're not born into a political family or you don't have the pedigree that they deem necessary, it's very hard to gain traction with the allied organizations,” she says.
Honestly, that’s no surprise, given how ineffective Democrats have been in Texas over the last three decades. Only now are they mounting any legitimate campaigns for legislature and statewide office, and that’s thanks to candidates like Markowitz more than any state party. The fact that the state’s demographics are changing so rapidly helps — District 28 is not only Texas’s most populous district, but its fastest-growing too — as does Marquez’s incredible habit of actually listening to her neighbors.
“We’ve made a point of ensuring that we reach out to all the minority populations, to make sure that their voices heard. Because quite frankly, they haven’t been heard, ever,” she says. “It’s been a good old boys club in Texas and we're striving to change that narrative.”
What she hears is the demand for public education funding that ensures equal opportunity and textbooks that don’t deny climate change or the separation of church and state; finally expanding Medicaid after nearly a decade of holding out; and ending the senseless gun violence plaguing the state.
“I think that the two mass shootings in August in El Paso and Midland-Odessa really hit home for a lot of people,” she says. “In our district, we've had a number of active shooter alerts during the first half of the school year. I know that parents are concerned about sending their children's school. And it doesn't end at school.”
One constituent she met on the trail said she went shopping at Walmart at 6 AM because she figured that she was less likely to face a mass shooter early in the morning than in the afternoon. People are living in constant fear, and yet the solutions that Texas Republicans propose mostly involve arming teachers. That’s obviously absurd — instead, Markowitz pitches smart, proven solutions and further research, befitting her history.
“I think we need to immediately Institute universal background checks, have red flag laws put into place, and safe storage laws,” she says. “We need to treat the crisis of gun violence as the public health crisis that it is and actually invest in research to figure out what the actual trigger is and how you can combat this scourge.”
Imagine that: A public official in a historically red wanting to enact smart, reasoned based on research and actual constituent opinions. That future is in reach. And if Democrats win this race, it’ll create a narrative that gives the party momentum going into the rest of 2020.
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