Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a longtime organizer of immigrant, worker, and Latinx communities, has pressured Texas politicians to enact progressive policies from the outside for years. Now, she’s looking to to enact change from within the system. On Monday morning, Tzintzún Ramirez announced that she’s joining the crowded Democratic primary to unseat U.S. Senator John Cornyn in 2020.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramírez on Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at The Summit on Race in America at the LBJ Presidential Library. LBJ Library photo by Ralph Barrera
Over the past 12 years, Tzintzún Ramirez has built a reputation as one of the foremost progressive organizers in the state of Texas. In 2006, when she was 24, she co-founded and led the Workers Defense Project, a labor advocacy organization that first made a name for itself by organizing immigrant workers in the Austin construction industry in winning a mandatory rest break ordinance. After Trump’s election in 2016, she founded and led Jolt, a political organizing group aimed at mobilizing young Latinx voters in Texas.
Through those roles, she’s helped lay the political groundwork in the increasingly progressive urban areas that former U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke tapped into as he came within a hair of ousting Senator Ted Cruz in 2018. Tzintzún Ramirez was heartened not just by how close O’Rourke, but by how he did it. He refused to shrink from the issue of immigration, and instead embraced a bold and progressive style of campaign that helped mobilize the state’s increasingly young and diverse voters.
“That should be a lesson for every single Democrat,” Tzintzún Ramirez told me shortly after the 2018 election. “It’s not enough to point to the other side and hope we’ll be sufficiently disgusted … That’s not a long-term strategy.” Tzintzún Ramirez’s greatest concern, she told me, was that Democrats would fail to internalize that lesson as they approached 2020.
Her entrance into the U.S. Senate Democratic primary race came at the behest of a group of progressive political operatives—including one of O’Rourke’s top 2018 campaign staffers—who became concerned that Democrats had indeed forgotten those lessons.
Zack Malitz, O’Rourke’s 2018 statewide field director, Ginny Goldman, founder of the Texas Organizing Project (another powerful progressive group), and others began an effort to draft Tzintzún Ramirez into the race, the Texas Tribune reported in July. Last week, she stepped down from her position as Jolt’s executive director.
Malitz was largely responsible for harnessing the grassroots energy of the O’Rourke’s campaign into an organized effort. Malitz also became convinced that Democrats needed to double down on the strategy employed by O’Rourke and embrace bold progressive politics. As he tweeted in July, “If we want to win in 2020, we need candidates … that embody and embrace” O’Rourke’s campaign style. “That means rejecting the standard DCCC/Rahm Emanuel assumption that a candidate should be a middle-of-the-roader with a malleable political ideology. We might win a few districts that way, but we sure as heck aren’t going to win the state.” As Malitz explained to the Observer, he and other progressives did not believe any of the current 2020 Senate candidate that could fill that lane.
Several Democratic candidates have already announced their campaigns to unseat John Cornyn. Military veteran MJ Hegar, a 2018 congressional candidate who came close to ousting a Republican from a previously safe red district, appears to be running as the more prototypical red-state Democrat who can take on Cornyn. State senator Royce West, an African-American centrist Democrat from Dallas, is also running, and has played up his bipartisan credibility as a longtime member of a GOP-dominated statehouse. Both of them consulted with Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer before running, according to news reports.
Other contenders include former Houston Congressman Chris Bell, Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards, and Democratic Socialists of America activist Sema Hernandez, who also ran in the Democratic Senate primary against O’Rourke in 2018.
Tzintzún Ramirez is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant and an entrepreneur from Ohio and, as a self-described “proud Irish Mexican American,” grew up as “part of two very different worlds.” She declared in her announcement video, that President Donald Trump and Cornyn, a close ally, have divided Americans with a “narrative that paints us as not equally part of this country allows people to treat our lives as less human, as less equal than theirs.” As she said, “For me, it’s a tragic consequence of the politics of hate. That kind of hatred, that kind of vitriol, that kind of targeting, allows people to feel like they can target us on the streets of our community.”
Goldman, the Texas Organizing Project founder, said in a statement, “By building powerful, multi-racial coalitions in the state’s major metro areas, community organizations like the Texas Organizing Project, Workers Defense and Jolt laid the foundation for Beto’s historic Senate run in 2018. Cristina is the only candidate in this race who can build the kind of statewide political organization capable of mobilizing young people and people of color behind a bold agenda for change that it’ll take to win statewide in 2020.”
While Tzintzún Ramirez may be a relative latecomer to the crowded field (the primary is still more than six months away), she’s already got a built-in campaign team—much of it coming from O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign. Malitz will serve as the campaign’s senior advisor. Katelyn Coghlan, who was Beto’s deputy statewide field director, will be the campaign manager. Middle Seat, the digital fundraising and ad firm that worked for O’Rourke, will also work for Tzintzún Ramirez.