Claire Barnett: her oldest daughter is doing incredible musical theater performances
Stephanie: studying soil rehabilitation, permaculture and climate issues in whatever format she can find
Claire Campos O’Neal: RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars on Paramount Plus
Nichole: Beyonce’s Lemonade album
Claire Barnett and Stephanie Phillips from Blue Horizon Texas share their similar stories of deciding to run for the Texas House. In both cases they found themselves asking who was going to address the issues they saw in their communities and realizing it needed to be them. They shared their experiences of connecting with voters and how their presence changed and expanded conversations in their respective districts. Stephanie and Claire founded Blue Horizon Texas to address the lack of Democratic candidates running for office in rural red Texas. They discuss why, regardless of one’s political affiliation, an uncontested race is bad for democracy. They are working together with the community they’ve built to actively address the most pressing issue of preserving democracy in the state of Texas by preparing nontraditional candidates to run for office.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
The Women of Blue Horizon Texas Explain How Uncontested Races Hurt Democracy (Elections)
Thank you so much for joining us for this episode. In this show, we interview Claire Barnett and Stephanie Phillips. They created this incredible organization called Blue Horizon. The whole mission of their organization is to help support Democratic candidates who are running in very Red rural areas. As we learned from our Chris Tackett episode, in a lot of these very Red areas, you don’t have a Democratic challenger in the race. They are helping to get more people on the ballot.
As a reminder, we are trying to be a nonpartisan show but we thought they would be great to have on this show because we need to have more people on the ballot. We need to have more options when we’re voting so that we have a better opportunity to select someone who reflects us and our values. When it’s only one party, that is collectively not great for Texas.
We wanted to invite them to share a little bit about who they are, their organization, their mission, and how they are helping encourage more people to run and also thinking differently about winning and how when you’re a candidate, you have to think a lot about what are the goals you want to achieve if it’s unlikely that you’re going to win. It was fun hearing about their experience and the things they learned along the way because they also ran for office. Nichole, what did you think of this conversation?
It was an important one. It’s so great to get a different perspective. It’s easy and tempting because the most attention goes to big races and urban areas. It’s important to hear from folks who are in more rural areas and their experiences and also demystify what I personally would have imagined that experience would be like, which I thought it would be contentious, ugly, difficult, and demoralizing.
It turns out that’s not the case at all and that there is a lot of hope in those areas and a lot of ground for changing the conversation and opening up the conversation. It was super great to hear from a completely different point of view and important when we look at the big landscape of politics in Texas and frankly, nationally too but our focus is Texas.
They did such a great job of addressing the challenges that some of these candidates come up against but still, being bold, putting your name on the ballot, and running, and how folks in these areas appreciate having a candidate come out, talk to them, and have that dialogue, and how important that is at the end of the day that we have candidates and elected leaders who are accountable to the public, authentic, and firm in their values but have open ears and are willing to hear from everyone who they could potentially be representing. This is a fun one. It’s very informative. I hope you enjoy the show.
We’re excited to have Claire Barnett and Stephanie Phillips with us. They are the founders of Blue Horizon. We thought they would be incredible guests to talk with so we can get to learn a little bit more about getting more people to run for office. Ladies, thank you for joining us.
Thanks for having us.
We’re so excited to get to know more about your organization and your experiences running for office. We always like to start from the beginning and learn a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, and what you were like as a child. Are you from Texas? What things brought you joy when you were younger?
I pretty much grew up in Texas in the Austin area. I’ve lived out in the Hill Country here in a very rural area for about twenty years. My joy as a child is reading. I was a total bookworm and music. I played the piano and other instruments.
Do you still play?
I took piano lessons but I was terrible at practicing. I can play.
Stephanie might be underselling, “Does she play?”
Give us the scoop then and tell us what Stephanie does.
She’s a professional musician.
How about you, Claire?
I was born in Houston mostly. We moved around a lot when I was growing up but most of my core formative childhood was in Fort Worth. I have Texas roots although we lived all over the place. My joy growing up is reading also. I also was a total bookworm. I have a daughter who has followed in my footsteps and who will only read to her younger sisters. It’s a great frustration. I’ve always been a family-oriented person.
That’s great. I’m curious. We always like to know because you are in the political realm. Was this something that you grew up with in your family? Did you have conversations around the dinner table about politics? Was that something that you didn’t dive into? What was that memory like for you?
We talked about politics. While I was growing up, my dad was a Libertarian. He was disaffected by both major parties. He ran for State House as a Libertarian in 1992. We talked about politics but other than his one quixotic run for office where I remember we had a pancake breakfast at one point during his campaign, that was my only real close encounter with politics until post-2016.
That sounds intense. Claire, I’m going to ask you this because I would imagine many people reading aren’t very familiar with what the Libertarian Party stands for. Could you give us a little cheat sheet?
This was years ago. The Libertarian Party now might be a little bit different. I certainly know what my dad thought the Libertarian Party stood for. It’s that idea of personal freedom and that if the government wasn’t involved in our lives, then it would allow everybody to be more compassionate towards our neighbors. He’s one of the most giving people I know.
That was part of what I grew up thinking of as Libertarianism. It’s not something that I now understand to be the driving ethos. That was the Libertarianism of my childhood. Once I emerged from that and learned more about what other Libertarians were saying, I moved in a different direction. Ultimately, my dad was voted in every Democratic primary for the past few years, which he never would have done before.
That’s so cool that you had a firsthand example of someone running for office. I always wonder when we talk to our guests. Did they see that from their parents or other family members? Were they like, “I’m going to try this all on my own and see what happens?”
It still felt like that.
How about you, Stephanie?
My folks, my dad, in particular, were activists in the ’60s and ’70s, not necessarily running for office though they were organizers for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the ’70s. There were lots of protests, organizing, and that kind of stuff.
Do you remember going to protest with them when you were younger? Was that part of the weekend activities?
Yeah. I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. Dad was the campus minister. Apparently, one of them worked in the morning and one of them worked in the afternoon. There was a daily anti-war protest at that point. Mom said she would bring me in the bassinet and go to the protest, and then dad would take me home.
It’s in your blood.
That’s so interesting. Claire, I’m curious. What was your experience like running as a Democrat with your dad? Was he involved with your run? Was he excited to pull out his old material and be like, “Let’s do this?” Was there a lot of involvement from your family when it was your turn to put your name on the ballot?
He was a proud dad. He found his business cards from when he ran. At the first fundraiser, my sister hosted for me. It was a campaign kickoff fundraiser. My parents at that point lived in Austin. They drove down. He was a proud dad there. He pulled out the cards at the fundraiser. That was early in his starting to vote for Democrats. He was a proud dad. He would walk with me at times. They weren’t local at that point but they would come down on the weekend.
Sharing that experience and being able to talk about what it felt like is cool. Stephanie, I bet your parents too were probably like, “We’ve got someone ready.”
My dad was incredibly proud. He passed away. When I was going through the closet and stuff like that, I found where all my extra-large t-shirts from the campaign ended up. I didn’t realize that he kept getting more t-shirts because I was like, “Dad has five t-shirts.”
There’s one for every day.
That was pretty sweet. There was more than once when he was in the hospital that a doctor would come in and dad would go, “This is my daughter. She ran for House District 73.” He was super proud.
I’m sure it was very meaningful to have that parental support because when you run, it’s not easy. You know it personally, and I’m sure you know this now that you’re connecting with people who are running. It’s so great you have that experience to be like, “We were there. We know what you’re going through.” Before deciding to run for your particular races, what was your involvement like within your communities? Was there something in your community that you were activated by like public education, infrastructure, or healthcare? Was there a particular issue that you felt called to make a difference in?
In this particular area of environment and education, I work with a nonprofit in Title 1 schools in Austin. I could see the educational disparities and the ways that we could better support our students, particularly in communities of color. That was certainly one thing coming in from the education standpoint. I could see that a huge change was needed. In the past, I had still been more involved on the protester or activist side than the, “Let’s try to take the wheel and do something about it,” side, which is running for office.
My partner was my campaign manager. There were several times when I would be about to post something on social media or something when she would go, “You have to decide. Are you a candidate? Are you a protestor? Are you a rabble-rouser?” It made me see those differences, “Are we trying to tear something down? Are we trying to say what we can do to make it better?” It’s a different mindset to start thinking about. It segued us into this organization that Claire and I have built because we had to put our minds toward how we could lead and make this better. It was a transition for me in terms of getting to know this particular area because I hadn’t been involved with politics locally.If you are running for public office, you must decide if you are a candidate or a protestor. Be clear with yourself if you want to tear something down or make something better. Click To Tweet
Could we take us a step back? You both ran for state representatives. Can you tell us the district that you ran in, a little bit about that district, and what the demographics are like in that area, urban, suburban, or rural so we can help visualize where in Texas we’re talking about?
Mine was State House District 73. At that point, it has been redrawn since then. It was Comal, Kendall, and Gillespie counties. It’s largely rural but one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, New Braunfels, mostly is in the district. It’s a real mix between retirement, rural ranches, some lakes, beautiful nature, state parks, and stuff out here. There’s a retirement community, which is older and largely White. Fredericksburg is in the district. It has become incredibly expensive but there are also younger residents, especially in the schools. The public schools are 50% Hispanic throughout the district. There’s a huge change coming.
That’s an interesting mix of folks. What are the driving issues for the community that you were connecting to? I’m trying to wrap my mind around the different pieces of that puzzle.
It was pretty segmented. The big opportunity for pickups here is organizing particularly the more urban but also the rural Hispanic communities and immigrant communities in the district. There are a lot of people who don’t participate and don’t vote or don’t feel safe participating. My precinct, which is out North of the lake, is largely White. Our turnout here was 75%. They vote almost 80% Republican, whereas the parts of the district that are more diverse would likely have a much higher Democratic turnout, except they don’t turn out as well. That’s something we see across the state of Texas.
We haven’t had local candidates for the most part turnout.
There are no local candidates in the county.
We will get into that. Claire, can you tell us a little bit about your community involvement prior to running and then a little bit about the district that you did end up running in?
There wasn’t a particular issue that motivated my involvement. My involvement in politics began after 2016. That presidential election galvanized a lot of people. Certainly, there are issues that I cared about but I had never been an activist in any sphere before. My community involvement was I ran a breastfeeding support group for many years in the community. Maternal health was certainly of interest to me in my first campaign. It was something that I organized around.
With young kids, education was something that I was able to talk to. My professional background is in adult education and curriculum design. I was able to pull on that. My active involvement in politics and community organizing began after that election. I got engaged through Indivisible and then found a city council campaign to volunteer for. Leading up to the decision to run was looking across the country at what was happening in Virginia in 2017. The state legislatures are where the action is and needs to be. That’s where my focus started to narrow in. I was looking for a candidate to support.
You looked around and you were like, “Me.”
I didn’t say, “Me.” I was asking, “Is anyone running? Have you heard if anyone might be running?” I was asking in enough places. People started asking back, “How about you?”
That’s incredible. Sometimes you have to go for it. Something that I think about a lot, and I’m sure you do as well in having run for office is, at the moment, the goal is to win and become the state representative but what I would love to see is a reframing of the idea of winning and how winning can be so much more. You have started this incredible organization. I’m sure this would have never happened had you not run and then met each other. I ran. You have to be very brave. I was like, “Let’s do this show, Nichole. I already did one brave thing. What’s another?” Can you tell us about some of the experiences you had and some of those winning opportunities you saw because you ran for office?
Stephanie and I, like a lot of candidates running on the types of races, we’re working to support, not all the candidates but most of them go in. We certainly went in with our eyes open that an election night win was very unlikely to near impossible. That’s not why we did it. We recognized why it was so important. I live on the North end of San Antonio. It’s largely suburban to some exurban areas. It has rapidly changing demographics but it had been a longtime Republican stronghold that is shifting.
There was a popular Republican incumbent who had run unopposed for this office several times. I said, “We can’t let this continue to happen. Everybody deserves a choice when they go to vote but knowing that I’m going in and unlikely to win, what are my goals?” That’s something we’re talking about with our candidates now. What are achievable goals? You can say, “I did this. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t run.” It’s personally important to me. It’s also important for my community.
For me, especially on my first campaign, it was speaking out on certain issues. That was the height of the refugee asylum migrant crisis where families were being separated and kids were taken away from their parents to the border. I organized a panel discussion with experts from various perspectives on what is this doing to families and what role the state has to play in this. I wanted to make it clear, “This is a Federal issue and Federal policy that’s being implemented but the state does have a role. What is that?”
It was in the wake of the Parkland shooting and then the Santa Fe shooting here in Texas. I organized a press conference on the steps of the Texas Capitol. I organized a few dozen candidates for office to sign onto a joint statement and call for a special session of the legislature to be able to speak out on issues that my incumbent was never going to say anything about. Even though he was perceived as moderate and he might have disagreed, he was never going to say anything. To be able to push those kinds of conversations was important to me.
That makes me think a lot about the conversation that we had with Chris Tackett and how his whole mission is to help understand money coming into political races and how there’s a lot of dark money. The people who are pushing a lot of these candidates are very Far Right but it doesn’t matter even if their candidates don’t win. They move the conversation where they want it to go. We appreciate that you are saying, “We deserve choices and more folks in the race because that helps democracy and that helps people feel more invested in participating.”
I want Stephanie to tell her story of pushing that conversation. There are actual metrics on her. It’s amazing. Stephanie, talk about your environmental policy.
Please tell us that and then also some of the goals that you had and what you were able to achieve by running.
It was similar to Claire, “Somebody needs to run.” In the last few years, one other person ran in this race. That’s ten cycles. Every two years, only one other person ran. He had passed away. I couldn’t even talk to him about it. That was years prior. There were so many issues with the incumbent. He ran completely unchallenged. He was elected with no Democratic challengers in 2016. There was a lot of scandal that he got past and things like pictures where he dressed up like a Nazi and organized anti-Muslim rallies in Fredericksburg because that’s needed.
I was like, “There has to be a choice. He can’t be elected with no challenger at all.” I originally signed up because of the, “Someone has to do. It has to be me,” platform. I got more into the issues of the district and came to realize how important the Comal Springs is. It’s the largest network of springs in the Southwest United States. It’s the way development goes. The rock quarry aggregate industry that’s trying to eat up Hill Country and all of these things completely impact the economics, health, beauty, and natural integrity of the area.
I crafted a message around both a conservationist in terms of the face of the development and also around the business needs or the economic needs of not destroying this area. The incumbent was an Empower Texans-recruited candidate. He was expected to be pro-oil and pro-extraction. It’s an automatic blanket vote on all of these things. I ran against the same person twice. By the time I got to the second one, his talking points were pretty much the Heartbeat bill, seceding from the union, and the most Right-wing Tea Party things.
In the end, he would go, “Preserve our Hill Country environment,” and then use sentences from my website about why we had to care. He’s like, “I sound like an environmentalist here but this is a good old boy thing.” There’s a scorecard for environmental votes. In his first term, he was rated 17 out of 100. By the next cycle, his second term after I ran against him on an environmental platform was 67. He ended up with a lifetime score of 47, which was one of the more pro-environmental Republicans in the state legislature. You can see how we have so much talk about messaging, “The Democrats need the right message. We have the wrong message.”
If you don’t have a Democratic candidate, then the messenger is the Republican party. The messenger about what the Democrats believe is Fox News and the Republicans. There’s no message if there’s no messenger. That is an incredible role that we can play in these races even though I would have been thrilled to break 30%. I was not naive at all about the potential but it was incredibly important to get people talking about these things and to know that when there’s a campaign that’s challenged, the League of Women Voters, the newspapers, and the Rotary will have events that have both sides. If we don’t have people, those events don’t happen.If you don’t have a Democratic candidate, you are letting the Republican Party become the messenger. There is no message without a messenger. Click To Tweet
They happen. It’s all Republican voices.
That’s a great point. I’m sure some of these folks feel alone in these communities where they don’t have someone whom they can somewhat identify with. That leads to more cynicism and opting out because if you have no choice, why pay attention?
It’s something we hear in the suburbs all the time here. I would be knocking on doors. People are like, “They’re not Democrats. I’m the only one.” I’m like, “I’m knocking on 40% of the doors on your block. This page tells me differently. Those houses are all Democrats.” In some places, there’s a real physical fear. There’s certainly a social fear of outing yourself as a Democrat in this perceived highly conservative area. You’re not alone. They feel lonely, isolated, and then afraid to talk to their neighbors about what they believe.
That’s so damaging all around.
The freezing effect of that is incredible to think about. It’s that isolation. There’s no talking across these barriers. Nobody can even perceive what’s true in terms of what the numbers are because everybody is so scared.
That’s a reason why there’s a status quo belief that the way we move the needle in conservative areas is to have a conservative candidate because the perceived target is those middle-of-the-road people who might be willing to peel off for a Democrat. I would say, “Maybe,” if it’s a place that could flip but if it’s a race like Claire and I did where we know what’s going to happen, it’s better to have a candidate who’s going to organize, excite, and help people come out and who are solidly Democratic or progressive.
You’re building that social community where people find each other and gain strength from that but when everyone is isolated, you knock on a door, and they’re like, “You’re a Democrat,” they start to cry because we have had people cry. I’ve been to ranches, gated communities, and stuff. Sometimes I would call ahead. I know a strong Democrat. I would call ahead and be like, “Can I stop by?”
They call up to the main house. The whole family is up there. Suddenly, there are fifteen people who want a photo because you’re the first Democrat who has ever shown up. That causes people to then get engaged. It’s a catalyst. That’s the first step rather than the first step being to go out there with my cowboy hat and talk about how I’m a veteran but a Democrat. That’s what we are used to.
The type of candidates you are and the ones that you work with seem to be from a different mold than the incumbent you ran against, Stephanie, who you said was recruited by Empower Texans, which is the pack that we talked about earlier in our Chris Tackett episode that’s funded primarily by Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, these billionaires in West Texas.
It sounds like that person was handpicked whereas you decided, “I’m part of my community. I want to see community involvement and those voices to be heard.” The candidates themselves are coming from a different place than some of these other folks who are in power or hand-selected to be in power potentially down the road. That’s interesting.
That happens on the Democratic side too. They are handpicked. That’s not unique but that’s not happening in areas where Democrats don’t think they can win.
Nichole, do you have a thought?
I want my brain to take that in because this feels like a big highlight moment of this conversation. What you’re speaking to is campaigning on what you believe in for your community in an unapologetic way, not this tentative, “I am here on the other side. I’m a little Blue but you can welcome me in.” You’re being much bolder and truthful about what it is that you stand for in offering this safe place. It might not seem safe at times but it’s almost like a safe place for people to see that you can be fully whatever you identify with in that community.
There’s something so powerful about that. I don’t want this to be a little moment in this conversation. I want it to be a big one because it does feel like it’s flying in the face of what we would believe or what we have been trained to believe about how to make changes, “That has to be teeny and incremental. Don’t push people too hard or too fast.” That’s all. I want to put an exclamation point on this moment and these testimonials that you’ve both given.
We’re saturated with deceptive and manipulative media. Authenticity goes a long way. Authenticity and truth cut through. What I’ve found is that you can make connections with people who think very differently than you if you make a human connection. In one of my counties, the county that was the home base of the incumbent, a lot of people who knew him well were not happy with him. In that county, I received more Democratic votes than any Democrat ever.
In both 18 and 20, the record for Democratic votes goes to my campaign. Some of that is massively because the incumbent was a terrible person. People knew him. Their kids went to school with his kids and all of that stuff. My district sent six busloads to the January 6th, 2021 event, including the incumbent. There are photographs of him on the capitol steps. They don’t have a Republican float on the 4th of July. They have a Tea Party float in the 4th of July parade.
To be able to go into that area and be like, “I believe these things. It’s upsetting that the pipeline development has seized a corner of your ranch and torn it all up. I would try to do something about that. “We should talk about this,” made a real connection with people. A lot of people were like, “Okay.” the only way you can do that is by meeting people and going into Republican spaces.
It’s scary to be around people who think differently than you but once you break through that, it can get fun because most people are not that well-informed. I would think it was a completely Republican space, and then they would back off. I’m more independent and not that political. They would backtrack so quickly but we’re afraid of conflict that we don’t want to have those conversations. We need to be willing to go into churches, PTAs, and all of these different areas. Don’t silence your values because otherwise, people don’t hear them.Don’t silence your values. Otherwise, people will never hear it. Click To Tweet
There’s this messaging narrative that Democrats need to fix their messaging, especially in rural areas, Democrats need different messaging. Stephanie and I would challenge that. We were looking at Democratic voters in rural areas. It’s not that their values on abortion, voting rights, or some of these other key issues that are resonating with Democrats across the country are different. They line up but there are issues and priorities of people who live in rural communities regarding their infrastructure, their environment, and their access to healthcare and schools.
We do need candidates who can articulate that in a way that resonates. They clearly understand the problems and have solutions to address them. This whole conversation about the problem with Democratic messaging is missing the mark. There is a messaging problem. 1) We often don’t have a messenger. 2) It’s not that the values are different but the priorities of how I live my daily life are different.
Speaking of the messenger, let’s use that point to transition into Blue Horizon, the organization that the two of you founded. Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of that and what made you decide this is something that we need to help get more candidates out there? Ultimately, what our show is trying to highlight is the importance of protecting our democracy. A big component of that is having more people running. That’s what we have been saying. Can you tell us a little bit about how Blue Horizon came to be?
The very beginning was a Facebook group that I started with Claire and other candidates in 2018 when we first filed and realized there was nobody there to help us. I started adding people to a Facebook group that I called Team Blue Texas. We would answer each other’s questions, “What do you put on a sign? Where should you get it printed? What do I do to file this campaign finance report?”
That was amazing because it was all we had. My local party didn’t know, or their information was inaccurate. The state party doesn’t help candidates who aren’t the ones they want to focus on. They would like to. They don’t have the resources and the capacity. We don’t get the priority of necessarily having the resources or support. We realized there was nothing there.
The problem with the Facebook group is that we were all guessing and filling out the form. Someone was like, “The answer to number 5 is 42.” Everyone is like, “Let’s all put 42.” It felt like midnight cramming for the exam instead of an actual legal campaign finance filing. There were multiple things like that. We kept feeling this free fall. It kept being more astonishing how little there was.
After 2018, I was so puzzled, stunned, shocked, and traumatized about the race, what happened, and what didn’t happen. I had been fully prepared based on the status quo that we have talked about on who the candidate should be. I was prepared for the possibility that I would get ten points below all the other Democratic candidates. I was prepared that I could have an embarrassing number because I had talked about reproductive justice, the Bathroom bill, and all of the hot-button things you’re not supposed to talk about. I talked about them.
I got more votes than Beto in Gillespie County and ran even with the other top people who had spent millions of dollars. I thought, “I don’t understand what happened.” I called Claire and then others. I called over 30 different candidates who would run for State House in rural areas and talked with them about their experience. It was statewide. We saw these systemic problems. For the next cycle, Claire and I talked through a lot of what could be done differently but I don’t think at that point we were thinking that we were going to do it.
You advise other people.
It was more like, “They should do this. Why don’t they do this?”
It mirrors your story of deciding to run for office. You’re looking around, “Who’s going to do this? It’s me.”
You have the gall to do something. It’s like, “Why are you doing that?” It’s because it’s not being done.
I’m curious. How do you encourage people that you see in communities to run who you see some of yourself in? How do you help push people over that edge? Do you do that so that we have more candidates running and more people thinking about the goals that they could accomplish if they ran even if winning seems so unreachable? How do we get more candidates and better candidates to put their names forward?
When we first launched Blue Horizon Texas, we weren’t going to focus on recruitment because our experience was that we had these candidates that would either volunteer, or somebody would recruit them, and then they would be pushed off the cliff. We were like, “There has to be a net to catch them.” It was after the filing deadline in December of ’21 when we saw how many races were uncontested. Over half of counties in Texas have zero Democrats running for county office. That’s not half the population because the population is concentrated.
We saw that the recruitment that we think is happening is only happening in certain areas. There is a lane for us there. We haven’t fully engaged with that yet. That’s our goal for 2023. After November 8th, 2022, that’s when we’re going to shift, “Let’s work on building a candidate pipeline and finding candidates to run for these local offices.” We’re starting there instead of at the top.
Some of the things we have been doing already are former candidate conversations in webinars with other candidates who have run to have similar kinds of conversations we’re having. The stories are so inspiring. Hearing somebody else talk about that experience can open a door for somebody else to say, “That is something I can do.” One thing is hearing the stories. You recognize how important storytelling is in that. That will certainly be something we continue.
We’re also going to be partnering with both national and state groups to work in different areas of the state for different offices. There’s some interest in county clerk and county commissioner races because of the influence they have over elections administration. The other part of that is educating people about what these offices do because people, especially at the local level, don’t understand what a Justice of Peace or a county commissioner does. “What is this role?”
Let’s put all the tools in place and have things available as soon as somebody starts considering the idea so that they can know what to do because all that information is kept behind the gates. It’s either a monetary one, “If you pay me enough money, I’ll tell you the answers,” or it’s a power gate, “I want to keep this information because it’s my sphere of influence. We keep this closed to anyone who’s outside what I perceive as my sphere.” We want to open those doors and break down the gates to the information.
People could read between the lines and figure out the mission of Blue Horizon Texas but I would love it if you stated it as simply and plainly as you can.
It’s to recruit, prepare, and support Democratic and progressive candidates running in rural, exurban, and traditionally Republican areas.
The more candidates we have, the better off our democracy is because you’re going to have more people knocking on your door, trying to win your vote, and educating the electorate about what they’re doing and why they’re running. To have it at that level, you don’t see a lot of people who are saying, “I should try doing this.” Claire, you talked a little bit about some of the barriers that are in the way of making people think it’s even possible to run. You mentioned the gatekeepers, whether it’s monetary or power. Are there other things that you’ve noticed that get in the way of someone imagining themselves as a candidate and that it is an actual possibility for them?
We have talked about a new generation of candidates, more diverse candidates, and what the barriers are.
One of the things that we know but we don’t always realize is that the traditional historically successful candidate is usually an upper-middle-class White man in his 50s or 60s. He’s a professional. There’s a whole entourage of support that walks in the room with that person. They depend on it but they don’t realize it. They’re not the one who has to pick up the dry cleaning, make coffee, or make copies. They’re not the ones who are organizing the volunteers or picking up the kids after school.
As a culture or a progressive Democratic community of people, we are asking different people to run than that. We’re asking moms, students, women, teachers, parents, people of color, people that are more disenfranchised, or working-class people. We’re saying, “We want you to run for office.” The challenge challenges that infrastructure doesn’t exist. We’re used to the candidate themselves walking in the door with the ability to have fraternity brothers who will write them a $20,000 check or these different business partners.
They pay someone to do things.
They pay someone to do everything. They have wives or mothers who will call and say thank you to everybody who made a donation. That is part of that unconscious privilege. When we think about supporting the candidates of now, we have to bring into the picture that they might be one of our friends who ran out in Waller County, Texas who’s a goat farmer. It would be great to have a woman farmer in the Texas legislature. I would love that. She had to be home every night at a certain time to milk all the goats because you have to milk goats when you’re a goat farmer. Claire had to be available after school to pick up her kids.
We have to be able to work the real lives of the candidates into the system that exists for running for office, which is on the evenings and weekends. You’re expected to drive all over the place, which means you need a car, gas, insurance, all of these assumptions, and things you can’t necessarily write off in the campaign. You have to wear the right clothes. You have to speak in a certain way. Depending on your background and level of certain kinds of education, there are language issues on Facebook and different things where you can instantly get discounted if you use a word wrong, and you don’t have somebody to be your communications person. There are so many things.
The flip side of that is that a lot of times, people who come from lower-income communities or communities where there’s more of an implicit connection to sharing and community building are more capable of having a campaign built on in-kind donations. You’ve got a friend who builds your website, another friend who will loan you clothes, and another friend who will loan you a car. We can help train people how to utilize their communities and ask volunteers to do actual things like that to make the space for someone to say, “What I need is for someone to pick up my kiddo after school.”
It’s to train our communities to do that too. If more people ran, they would be used to, “I have to help so-and-so because they’re running. This other neighbor is going to run this time.” That would make a difference because I noticed a lot of our attorneys. Attorneys seem to get the game, “You write a check. This is what you do. If someone asks for money, here’s a check. It’s no big deal,” because they have trained their communities. It would be great if we could do that.
The other thing that we’re talking about here is changing who runs for office and then hopefully who holds office so that we can also change the system that they are taking part in so that it can be more responsive and able to withstand new voices with new priorities. That’s an interesting tension that we’re talking about. I’m so grateful that you are on the frontline trying to make that happen. We have talked to a couple of candidates like James Talarico about the pay that a state representative makes and who’s eligible to hold that office.
I’m so glad we’re having these conversations about how to change the way this can look because I’m going to do that thing, Claire, where we talk about the nonpartisan nature of what it is that we’re talking about. This is the true building of democracy. It’s a government that is representative of the people. It so happens that in Texas where that growth needs to happen is on the Blue side. No matter what your political affiliation is, this is healthy for all of us if we want to maintain democracy.
It’s having a better balance because we don’t have that currently, unfortunately. We’re going to wrap up a little bit here. What do you think voters want from their elected officials?
Ultimately, people want elected officials to solve real problems as opposed to manufacturing problems. That’s universal. There are real problems that everyone agrees on that need to be addressed and solved. There are all sorts of different ideas about how to do that. There are the manufactured problems, “Let’s create a solution for something that’s not a problem. Let’s create a problem by implementing something.”
We’re seeing a lot of anger in 2022 where other states have had elections. We have seen some shifts in how people are voting. It remains to be seen how widespread that is but there are lots of Republicans who are angry about Roe v. Wade going away. There are lots of Republicans who are very angry about school shootings. When the voters of Kansas rejected a change to their state constitution, which protects abortion, we can see what voters do and don’t want.
That’s different than showing up and voting for a Democrat. We see this with states where they put a question directly on a ballot initiative, “Let’s do an independent redistricting commission to do redistricting.” That is hugely popular with voters. Republicans and Democrats support that. When those questions are put to the voters, there’s less disagreement than everybody thinks but we have these cultural divides that lead people to continue to vote for one party or another. Everybody wants their problem solved.
I’m sure everyone wants like clean air, clean water, a grid that works, and good schools. The list goes on and on but we get flubbed into certain parties. It would be nice if we could return to these things that do impact our everyday lives and matter to many of us, find that common ground again, and get rid of some of that fear because it sounds like you encountered a lot of people who were fearful. That doesn’t help us feel like we’re in this together. The separation works to some people’s advantage but collectively, it is so damaging.
We’re hearing so much this fear threat that’s reverberating, “We could lose our democracy.” At the same time, we are at this pivot point where we could gain a real democracy for the first time. Rarely on the planet if ever for a brief time have we had a representative government where power was divided between men and women. We haven’t had representatives of LGBTQ and nonbinary people. We haven’t had a representation of diverse ethnicities and religious beliefs. Has that ever worked anywhere for very long? In a lot of ways, that’s the challenge that we’re facing.
It’s the cusp, “Can we bring the full body of the American experiment together and make decisions?” We see blips of that coming through with some of the leaders that are getting elected. That’s what people are excited about. They have a taste for that possibility. If we could put our focus on the direction we’re going, then that’s part of why fascism is coming down on us, “Let’s not have elections anymore.” It’s because we’re on the cusp of something incredibly exciting.
It’s the backlash that always comes with progress.
I love that hope reminding us to reframe it.
We have a big election coming up on November 8th, 2022. What do you recommend folks do to help inform themselves and pick the right candidate for them when they’re unsure or when they’re like, “I don’t identify with a party. I’m part of the exhausted majority,” which a lot of folks identify in? If they’re ready to vote, how can they find the right person for them, assuming that they have people to choose from?
Access to information is one. It’s not even who the right person is but, “Where do I vote? Who’s on the ballot?” Especially in urban areas, we take for granted that it’s ubiquitous and everywhere, except if you’re working 24-hour shifts. Transportation is an issue. Put that in a rural county. You have to drive 45 minutes to get to your polling place. You don’t even know where that is or what the hours are. There’s no place to find that information. That’s the first. We need to find ways to make that information ubiquitous and more available. It seems like it should be because we have the internet but not every website is updated.
Some places don’t have Wi-Fi access.
Broadband internet is the same. That’s the first thing I see.
A lot of us do get stuck in these assumptions, “My experience is your experience,” but it isn’t. We live in different areas. We have access to different things. I’m glad that you reminded us of that. For some people, it is so much harder to vote. We’re going to have a conversation with someone in one of these episodes where they talk about the actual administration of elections because it is different county by county, who’s making these decisions, and who’s trying to make it easier or harder because that’s another potential barrier for folks. It’s good to be aware because there’s so much I’m realizing that we assume or imagine. We need a basis and some facts so we can be good communicators and good messengers about what things are on the ground.
It’s understanding the positions you’re voting for and what that sphere of influence is, “What does that position do?” It can help you as you’re trying to figure it out. The JP or the Justice of Peace in Texas oversees all the evictions. When I’m going to vote for the Justice of Peace, I’m going to listen to this candidate and hear what they have to say about how they think about and would treat tenant-landlord disputes.
That’s another educational piece. We need to do a better job of letting people know why they’re important. We don’t need to tell them who’s the better candidate. We need to tell people, “Here’s what this position does. Here’s why it’s important.” They can listen to a candidate. They can make a judgment, “For that position, this person makes sense or doesn’t.”People don’t need to be told the best political candidates to support. They must know the important details and let them make their own judgment. Click To Tweet
I love giving people credit. You know what your values are. You know who aligns with them but you’ve got to be able to hear from them and understand what the job is before you can make those decisions.
Nichole, do you have any last thoughts?
I have 1 million thoughts. Per usual, I will be leaving this thinking for the rest of the day. My mind will be worrying about all of the implications of the things we have talked about. I’m so grateful for this conversation. Once again, I have a reframing of the way I look at things. I feel super fired up for rural elections. That’s it for me.
I’m also thankful for this conversation because I’m noticing even in my questions jumping to a certain place and then having to remember, “We have to back up and correct this before we go there.” With our show, that’s what we’re doing with a lot of these issues. Before we can have conversations about what’s good or bad, better or worse, we have to understand what we’re dealing with and get everything out on the table.
It’s helpful to wrestle with it and talk to you about it because you are so informed and great at understanding this, putting that into practice by finding great candidates, and figuring out how to support them so that at the end of the day, we have a stronger democracy because we have more people participating. We’re thankful for that. Thank you for the work that you do. This is such a needed organization.
If people want to support you and if they also believe in your mission, what is the best way to support you? Where can they find you?
Our website is BlueHorizonTexas.org. There’s lots of information there on what we’re doing. There are different ways to help people who have the financial means and want to make a financial donation. Those are always welcome. In the nonprofit and political world, we rely 100% on donations. That is welcome but we also have a growing volunteer network of volunteers all over the state and the country who want to help in other ways, either to work on a project for Blue Horizon or directly for a candidate.
I connected a volunteer with a campaign. A campaign needed a research task done. I found a volunteer who was not local but had lived in the area and said, “I know how to do that task.” That’s getting taken care of now. For anyone who’s saying, “Maybe I could run for office,” we have an intake form on our website or a little survey for people who are interested or considering running for office to put them in it. We would do a follow-up with them, get them in our pipeline, and get them tools, resources, and information to help them along the way. You can find us on social media @BlueHorizonTX or @Blue HorizonTexas.
Thank you. We will be sure to pass all that along to anyone curious. Take that first step. You never know where it could take you. Be brave. That’s what we try to do here too. To wrap up, we will do our attention mentions where we mentioned something that has our attention like a TV show, an article, or a candidate that you’re enamored with. Those are great too. Does anyone have anything ready to go?
I have one ready if you want me to kick it off.
Go for it, Nichole.
It’s a weird party that I’m late to but I have been listening to Beyoncé’s album, Lemonade, which is not her most recent. It’s great. It has some angry moments and sad moments. It’s a very emotional album. It was in response to some relationship issues she was having with Mr. Jay-Z. That has my attention.
I’ll piggyback on yours because I have one that’s a little bit late to the party too. I got access to Paramount+. They have RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve been watching the All-Stars season. It’s incredible because they’re all winners. When they’re competing, they’re all at the highest level. They’re so fun. It’s great. That show brings me joy. I love it. Get Paramount+.
A music theme is a little closer to home. My older daughter has been taking music lessons of various kinds. What has my attention is when she is singing and doing her voice lessons. Her grandmother takes a video of her very musical theater moves.
Those are great.
That sounds like a treat.
That’s delightful to look back on.
The fourth graders did their Texas-focused musical performance at the PTA meeting. She was very expressive.
We love it. How about you, Stephanie?
I’m going to be the outlier. I’m not on media much lately at all except for updating the business and the Facebook page or something but I’m learning more about permaculture. Climate issues are very present for me. I’m thinking about where we are and what we can do. I’m all about soil rehabilitation.
That’s cool. I don’t know much about that but I’ll google it.
Soil is the actual answer to climate change. It’s regenerative agriculture and land use. If I’m going to watch a bunch of stuff on my phone or my iPad, it’s some of the stuff that’s going on in Sudan and other places on regenerative agriculture so that we cannot go extinct in the near future.
If you have an article or a particular YouTube, send it our way. We will watch it ourselves because now I’m curious. I want to save the planet. Let’s do it.
Thank you. We need some hope these days. Thanks again for chatting with us, Claire and Stephanie. We appreciate so much all the work that you do. We’re excited about November 8th, 2022. It’s a great opportunity for people to be very involved by voting. Have your voice heard that way. Thank you.
Thank you so much for having us.
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About Claire Barnett
Claire is a two-time Democratic nominee for Texas State House District 122, where she steadily increased Democratic vote share and pushed the Republican incumbent left on issues such as public school funding, Medicaid Expansion, and voting rights.
About Stephanie Phillips
Stephanie is a two-time Democratic nominee for Texas House District 73, where she ran unapologetically progressive and low-budget campaigns and performed as well or better than up ticket races with six- and seven-figure budgets.