“I Want to Raise a Free Black Child”: Brittany Packnett Cunningham and Reginald Cunningham on Parenthood

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Brittany: Hey, y’all it’s Brittany. I’m still out on maternity leave. So, I’m co-hosting this episode with the fabulous Treasure Brooks. 

Treasure: Thanks Brittany. This week on UNDISTRACTED, we’re going deep into the laws and the people of one state. 

Brittany: We’re going to Texas, y’all. 

Treasure: Texas has always been large in the life of America.

It’s the largest of the continental states and often boasts that it was once a nation unto itself. Texas has given us four presidents and more importantly, Beyoncé. But last fall, Texas gave us something else. An abortion ban that prohibits the procedures shockingly early in a practice. Other states like North Dakota and Georgia had tried similar six week bands, but the courts had always overturned the laws. They’re unconstitutional under Roe V. Wade. Which despite what you may have heard last week is still the law of the land in May, 2022. But Texas banned abortion in the cruelest possible way. The antiabortion law includes a new provision that allows private citizens to sue people for money if they get an abortion after six weeks. And now Idaho, Oklahoma, Missouri, and more states are following suit with similarly structured abortion bans.

That’s not all that’s happening in Texas under Beyoncé’s wide and high very sky, the state has also threatened to bring child abuse charges against parents who help their trans kids get gender-affirming medical care. And like clockwork, Alabama and Idaho have followed suit. So we decided to take a closer look at Texas because what’s happening there is coming for all of us. Voter suppression, bands on teaching history, the loosening of gun laws. Texas matters, and we’re paying attention.


Treasure: Today, an episode, we’re calling “What the Fuck, Texas?!”. We’re talking to congressional candidates Jasmine Crockett and Jessica Cisneros, and potentially the next governor from the state of Texas Beto O’Rourke. 

Beto: What happens in Texas does not just stay in Texas. This fever dream of radical fringe extremism is being exported to the rest of the country.

Treasure: The first step to stopping that trend is to understand it, which is what we’re going to do this week.

Our first guest today is running in the democratic primary against Texas representative Henry Cuellar. He’s the last anti-choice Democrat in the House of Representatives. In fact, Henry Cuellar is pretty far right on a lot of issues, not just abortion. He’s also voted against climate legislation, received an A rating from the NRA, and voted in favor of building Trump’s Border Wall.

Those factors led Jessica Cisneros to challenge Cuellar back in 2020. And when she came within three points of beating him then, that gave her the fuel she needed to challenge him again this year. Now her odds may be even better. 

Last week’s leaked draft of the Supreme court decision that will likely overturn Roe V. Wade has put Cuellar’s antiabortion position in the spotlight. We wanted to talk to Jessica Cisneros about her primary, the 20th House district in Texas, her work as an immigration attorney, and her surprising connection to her opponent.

You’re running in a primary runoff against your former boss. How did that come to be? 

Jessica: I interned for my current opponent Congressman Cuellar  when I was in undergrad at the University of Texas in Austin. So back in 2012, when DACA had been announced, I was at an internship at the immigration clinic that’s there at the law school.

And I was like, Hey, I got this fellowship. It seems like immigration reform is on the horizon. I want to have a front row seat to see if it actually gets passed in the House and in the Senate. So I’m going to take this opportunity to work in capital health. And I think a lot about this experience, especially when I was deciding to run.

Because as someone who, um, was doing this, like very plugged in, right into politics, it took me having to be in my congressman’s office to actually find out what his political stances were. And you know, how out of sync he was with the values of the district. Like I found out, you know, how, how anti-labor, how anti-reproductive rights, anti-choice.

All the lobbyists that were walking into the office, not being reflective of. like. people back home. There was just so much that I, it was kind of eye opening and, you know, looking back, I was like, well, this isn’t something like it shouldn’t have to take working for your congressmen to find out, you know, what he’s actually doing on Capitol Hill and like how he’s not representing us.

I think the most heartbreaking thing was that I went there, you know, to try to get immigration reform passed. And he was, like, advocating for a piecemeal legislation that, you know, would just throw a lot of people from our community under the bus. But the, the inspiring thing that I did experience while working on Capitol Hill was that I noticed that there was a bunch of 20 something, 30 something years that we’re basically running our government. 

Right? And to me that was like really inspiring because you have a bunch of like these aides and staff on people in people’s congressionals offices. And, you know, it’s amazing the kind of work that they do and the pace that they do it at, and they’re hardworking people.

And to me, when I decided to run, I was like 20 and 30 year-olds run Washington, DC. They run this country. I’m qualified to run for office because, you know, I have the personal and professional experience to be able to advocate for people back home. 

Treasure: Well, I want to lean into that for a second because running against your former boss would be intimidating for literally anyone, but Cuellar is the nine term incumbent.

So could you just tell me a little bit about how you deal with the skepticism around your age and experience level compared to his?

Jessica: I really let my policy and my experience speak for itself. Like, yes, I might be a young attorney, but when you’re talking about professional experience, I just mentioned that I went into immigration advocacy back in 2012.

It’s almost going to be 10 years. Right? Also my personal experience is something that a lot of people, when they decide to vote and trust this campaign, it’s because of that, right? The fact that I was born and raised in this district in Texas 28. In Laredo, Texas, I’m the daughter of immigrants. Like so many people here in this district, it seems like everyone has their own immigration story and we all have our own healthcare story.

And, you know, people are tired, right? That they have to go to Mexico for any kind of healthcare that, you know, we have children. I, my experience was that at 13 years old, I had to fundraise with my family to try to pay for my tia, her, um, cancer treatment. And we just couldn’t afford it. Right. And those are still some of the stories that happen day to day.

And, you know, to let people know this is a policy choice and explain to them why we deserve better. So that really is, you know, our sticking point in our campaign that we deserve someone that’s close to the struggle that understands what that struggle is like, but also understands what the solutions are because obviously the status quo isn’t working for so many people here.

Treasure: The most recent census shows that the Latino population in Texas grew to 40% of the state over the last decade.

And that’s a really important set of voices to hear when we talk about Texas’ influence on America, just the rest of the country at large. Can you talk about how the attitudes about immigration in the state have changed from when you were growing up to now, when you’re out there talking to people in your district? 

Jessica: You know, here in Laredo, it really does seem like everyone has their own immigration story, whether it’s themselves or their parents or their grandparents, like we’re right next door to Mexico.

Um, a lot of my childhood was spent, you know, going back and forth, visiting family, but always sleeping at home. Right? ‘Cause it’s just a very transnational area of the country. And beautifully bicultural. And I don’t think personally, like people have changed. I have noticed, obviously since Donald Trump was elected.

But a lot of the media coverage has definitely changed. And there seems to be a very hyper fixation on what’s happening here in the border. You know, we kind of get seen as like an area of the country where, um, migrants or immigrants come through to make it into, deeper into the United States, but they don’t really talk about what border community life and you know, is like. Right?

We’re not just a gateway for immigrants, which is something that we’re proud of because again, of our history, but we also have a community that just lives here and prospers here. And a lot of the focus that I have in any kind of work that I do, whether it be, you know, being an immigration attorney or talking about, you know, what life is like here on the border is that I don’t want people to forget that, you know, we live here and have communities.

Um, and to see us as part of this country that deserves, you know, continued investment and more investment and not just look at us as a place that has to be dealt with, or that the only kinds of investments that we are worth are, you know, further militarization and more surveillance and you know, more private prisons.

Like, no, we deserve more education. We deserve, you know, more infrastructure. We deserve investments in our health care. 

Treasure: I want to understand a bit better in regards to how the country at large is viewing the situation at the border. What is the state now? What should we understand about the border now that we still don’t even following the Trump presidency?

Jessica: I mean, there’s a lot of politicians that just for, you know, political points, um, continue using us as like a punching bag and the news that came out that Greg Abbott was calling for further inspections, um, along the bridge. And, um, for that, that for us means like our life gets interrupted, right? Because it adds additional traffic time.

And I think that for us, it’s really disheartening, um, to continue seeing a lot of the things that got started under the Trump administration at the stroke of a pen are really difficult in practice to be able to stop them. And I want people to know that, you know, we didn’t get here overnight. What made Trump possible?

A Trump presidency possible didn’t happen overnight. It was a lot of action and inaction that led us to this point, despite Trump not being in office anymore. An example of this is that there’s still parts of the border wall that are going to go up here in my hometown. We’ve never had border wall, a border wall here.

Um, but because of, you know, steps that Donald Trump took while he was in office, it became really difficult for us to be able to stop it. Um, despite, you know, efforts on behalf of the Biden administration. And it’s infuriating for us to know that our congressmen had part in that, right? 

That he voted to approve border wall funding along our district multiple times. And although he pays lip service to say like, no, I’m against the wall. When you take a look at votes like that is not the case. And right now we’re at a really good position to, you know, still try to prevent, you know, Donald Trump or the next Donald Trump from taking over our country, especially with our democracy on the line.

Um, right now, But we cannot let this opportunity pass.

Treasure:  I want to understand a bit better what differences you’ve seen in the Biden administration regarding border policy. 

Jessica: There were some changes that made it, um, a little bit. I don’t want to say easier, but people became more, more reasonable, I guess when it came to advocating for immigrant families and for people in detention.

Whereas before, it was nonsensical. Like I truly cannot describe it because even I, as like an immigrant, as someone that has been doing immigration work for a very long time, when I first started working on this, um, kind of human rights work, I truly could not comprehend like what I was supposed to do on behalf of my clients, because when you read the law and then figure out what the Trump administration’s interpretation of it was, it just absolutely did not make sense.

It was like upside down world, essentially. A lot of immigration attorneys, like very, very close to burnout because we literally felt like our hands were tied and we couldn’t do anything on behalf of people that we cared about versus now. I mean, it’s still very, very difficult because a lot of those interpretations that I mentioned that didn’t make sense in immigration law are still there, but I think what people are bracing themselves for obviously 2024 is still a couple of years out.

But, you know, if we do get another Trump presidency, if that is a possibility, like, what does that mean, right? On behalf of our clients, on behalf of the work that we do. 

Treasure: In regards to Texas politics in general, what is the future progressive politics there? Your opponent has been endorsed by speaker Nancy Pelosi, even though he tends to vote with Republicans and as she put it, she supports all the incumbent Democrats quote from right to left.

There is obviously a giant rift between the old guard and the new, between moderates and progressives in your party. So what do you think Democrats need to do to up their game in Texas? 

Jessica: I think it’s also very motivating to me and inspiring to me to think what effect this campaign could have, not just to like in two years, But a win here, what it could mean for the next decade for progressive politics here in Texas and in south Texas, the reason why we have been very successful I think is because of two things and both of them are centered around people.

The first one is obviously our people-centered policy, which, you know, we are fighting for Medicare for all. We are fighting for a $15 minimum wage. We’re fighting for our reproductive freedom. We’re fighting for, you know, safe and livable environment. And that includes clean water, which unfortunately you would think that that’s a basic right, that everybody should have access to, but there’s areas in the country, including Laredo, Texas, where we don’t have, you know, very reliable access to clean water.

But the other thing that I want people to also take a look at is our people-centered campaign. To see people that originally started off maybe two years ago, you know, being really shy. That was their first kind of political event that they had gone to. ‘Cause they were like, I don’t know if politics is a space for me.

All of a sudden being at these events and they’re frequent, uh, supporters that come out and that’s exciting because that means that there’s growth. Like we meet the effort to let people know that this space, because they are residents here because they live here, they belong in these spaces because these are spaces where policy is being created or being talked about.

That is going to affect them. 

Treasure: I’m wondering what other sort of precedents you think are possible through this campaign? Because other states have recently been looking to Texas as a sort of legislative role model and following in its footsteps, mostly for somewhat negative policy. So we’ve seen it happen with copycat attempts to ban abortion and to arrest trans people more recently.

But do you think that there’s potential for Texas to lead, you know, in a really positive way to offer a blueprint for radical unnecessary change 

Jessica: Part of the challenges, um, that we have been facing as a grassroots campaign here is, um, the lack of political infrastructure and Cuellar has never been in a runoff, like what do we expect?

But I do hope that, you know, when we are successful, that people kind of take a look that despite the odds, despite people telling me from the very beginning that this was going to be impossible, um, that we showed them that it is possible. And if we can do it here in south Texas, it could probably be replicated elsewhere in this case.

Treasure: Jessica that gave me chills. Cuellar never been in a runoff. I think it’s, I think that’s so interesting because everyone’s focusing on the ways that this is, you know, unprecedented territory for you and you being new to this and relative to him, but really this is, this is new for everyone involved, which means that there’s such robust possibility for Texas, regardless of the outcome, though.

I personally cannot wait to see what happens on May 24th. It strikes me that like a few guests on our show. Cori Bush from Missouri, Morgan Harper from Ohio. You lost your first race and decided to run again. Is there anything that you would want a young person, maybe, especially a young woman who’s interested in politics that is listening to this episode to know as they consider a career in politics?

Jessica: Yes. That they can do it. That there’s no specific roadmap to get involved in politics. As long as you are someone that exists where you exist, like you should be able to have a say in the policy that affects you and those around you, I’m not your traditional politician, right? I’m a young 28 year-old Latina from the border. 

But I know that my professional and my personal experiences are valid. And that’s what I tell our fellows. And, um, you know, any young volunteer for a campaign that your lived experience is valid and like, no one can take that from you. No one can take your experiences from you and you can talk about that. And people always tell you that things are going to be impossible.

You just got to say, watch me, right? Like, I’m going to be able to do this. I know that I can do that. I am really proud to lead a team that’s composed of young people. You know, sometimes we like sit down, we get along really well. We sit down, we look around and we’re like, isn’t it funny? We’re like striking fear into the heart of, you know, so many older people, um, who have told us that, like we can’t, you know, do this.

And to be as successful of a campaign that we’ve been able to, to get so close to winning is just really validating and gratifying. And we just owe it to like all these people that are supporting us every single step of the way. From here until election day, which is actually going to be my birthday. I’m turning 29 on May 24th.

Um, it’s going to be an exciting day and it’s gonna, it’s gonna be a beginning for so many things that’s gonna happen here in south Texas. 

Treasure: Yes, it’ll be your birthday. That’s so, that is a good sign. And anyone who has any reservations about your age, you’ll be at least one year older when you finally step into the role

Jessica: That’s right. 

Brittany: Thanks so much, Jessica. 

Jessica: Thank you so much.

Brittany: Jessica Cisneros is a candidate for Congress in Texas’ 28th district where she faces a runoff election in the democratic primary on May 24th. She’s been endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Treasure: Coming up, Brittany will be talking to Jasmine Crockett about the Texas lawmaker walkout to protect voting rights. And Beto O’Rourke will join us to tell us about his vision for a new Texas and his campaign for governor. That’s right after this break.

And we’re back. There’s another Texas-sized election happening on May 24th. Like Jessica Cisneros, Jasmine Crockett is also in a runoff election. For her, a seat in Dallas and its southern suburbs. She’s been endorsed by the outgoing Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson to succeed her. Jasmine currently serves in the Texas House where last year she was one of the lawmakers who left the state to try to block the passage of new voting restrictions.

A bill called SB1, eventually though, SB1 did make its way through the pink dome, that’s what Texans call their State House, to become law. It limits voting by mail and introduces the threat of jail time for election officials who distribute applications for mail-in ballots among other restrictions. In short Jasmine and her colleagues were right.

It’s a disaster and it matters way beyond Texas’ borders. Brittany talked to Jasmine about what she’s doing about tht. 

Brittany: Listen. I mean, the people need to know we are both from St. Louis, which means we had automatic kinship when we met, but we were like sitting on a rooftop about to do “The Cross Connection” on, on MSNBC, our girl, Tiffany Cross’ show.

And we both looked at each other likeI know you. And it turned out not only do we know each other, we knew all the same people. 

Jasmine: Absolutely. People wouldn’t believe it if we told them, but like literally, like we both not only grew up in St. Louis, but we went to somewhat of rival high schools. 

Brittany: I know, listen, when you are Black and going to private school, you end up connecting no matter what.

It’s like, we gotta, we gotta look out for each other, right? 

Jasmine: Absolutely. 

Brittany: Ain’t too many of us, it ain’t too many of us, but you took that good St. Louis fire all the way to Texas where you have been doing some incredible work, um, in the state legislature. And I think you might be familiar to some of our listeners because you were part of the delegation of representatives that left the State House in order to block a proposed voter suppression law.

Tell me about that move. What were you opposing and why did you have to take it that far?

Jasmine: Yeah. You know, what’s so funny is that the Republicans kept saying, oh, y’all are just being dramatic. And people really did not understand how bad things were in the Texas House. And so with me being a freshmen, with me being a civil rights lawyer. 

And with me being the only Black person that was newly elected to the State House, I didn’t understand what was going on. I was like, is this what y’all do every session? Like y’all just violate rights all the time. Constantly making this state not be as great as it should be by turning back the hands of time?

And so what people don’t get is. And maybe they did after the fact, right?  But like there was an attack on reproductive rights. There was an attack on trans children. There were, um, terrible gun laws that they were passing. Like they were doing so many things not to mention as a civil rights lawyer, how hard I fought a bill that actually increased the punishment for protesters from a misdemeanor to a felony. 

And so there were just bad laws everywhere you looked. And no one was really saying anything. It was like, well, this is business as usual. And so for me, I was like, this feels like an abusive relationship. I really feel like we need to stand up, if for nothing else, democracy. 

Like we may not be on the same page on guns or repro or whatever, but can we at least be on the same page as it relates to our democracy itself? And so that was when, it literally was an uprising. A number of us were like, um, we may need to go. And ultimately we did.

Brittany: I’m amazed that people act as though the most fundamental right of being able to have a voice in one’s democracy and the direction of one’s country is being dramatic. Especially, with the fact that some folks call Texas the most difficult place in the country to vote. I mean, during the primaries, we saw some precincts had to close for part of election day because they didn’t have enough poll workers and in the county where Houston is 35% of mail-in ballots we’re rejected, likely because of a new confusing rule about which ID you can use to vote. So, I guess really the question is what is the status of voting access in Texas right now?

Jasmine: We kept saying this is voter suppression. And so you’re right, now ultimately the bill looked a little different when it finally than what they initially tried to do. But still it had plenty of daggers. It was still really awful. As you already stated, Texas already made it harder than any other state to vote. 

And what I kept trying to let people know is just that so long as Texas goes blue, the Republicans never get the White House back.

Like they don’t, there is no map for them. So everyone was invested in making sure that Texas doesn’t start to reflect who they are. Because when you look at the demographics of Texas, our demographics more closely aligned with California than they do Mississippi. Okay. And so with that diversity that we have, you know, 95% of the growth in the state of Texas in the last decade was due to people of color.

That’s what was so scary for them. They also recognize that Trump only won this state by five points. That was a really scary thing for them. And so they decided let’s make it more difficult. 

Brittany: I mean, this moment that the democratic caucus leaves the state is to show how definitely serious you all are about protecting and preserving democracy and protecting marginalized communities.

It’s also part of the reason why we wanted to name this episode “WTF, Texas” because there’s just so much happening there, right? I mean, it’s voting issues, like you said, it’s abortion and reproductive justice. It’s immigration, climate, trans rights, critical race theory, history, education, textbooks, like everything is happening in Texas. 

And the GOP is really using Texas as a battleground in, in the culture war that they want to create and then try to win. Right? And so you’re in the midst of a primary runoff campaign. What has it been like campaigning, especially during this time when Texas is a microcosm of every culture war the GOP is fighting on in every front..

Jasmine: Yeah, so it’s so interesting because you’re right. We left the state, went to DC and so I really have been away from home. Home for me now is Dallas. And so I wasn’t. I wasn’t communicating like face-to-face. Right? Like I wasn’t seeing my people to know, like, do y’all see what’s going on. Because like, when you’re under the pink dome, like you don’t know who’s paying attention.

Most people aren’t streaming the floor. And so as I’ve been out, it has been so encouraging to hear from people, things like thank you for what you’ve done. People are like, we can’t believe as a freshmen, you went down there and you were so bold, but I was like freshman or senior member, I was elected to do a job.

And my job is to represent for my district. 

Brittany: Yeah. I am continuously amazed by the kind of pushback that folks like, you get just trying to do the right thing because of the size of Texas, the history of Texas, the incredible diversity of Texas. If you all can reverse the trend and start to get it right, then you all really have the potential to be a role model in a positive way for the rest of the country.

Jasmine: Oh, absolutely. We absolutely could. I mean, you know, listen, everybody thinks of Texas and they think of oil and gas, right? Most people don’t recognize that we actually lead in wind production, as well. And so, yeah, it’s crazy that in the energy producing state, we couldn’t keep our lights on. No one thinks about Texas potentially being a leader on, on climate, but we absolutely have everything that we need to be a potential leader, even in that space.

Brittany: Let’s talk about teachers for a second. So in December, Texas Republicans passed a law that restricts educator’s ability to talk about what they call critical race theory. We of course know that CRT is not actually what’s being targeted here, but it’s because it’s not generally taught outside of, you know, some law schools, not even all.

But this legislation is actually going to stifle the teaching of history in this country about enslavement, about racism, about queer folks, about the contradictions that were present at the founding of this country. I want to read a quote from the new law. It says “a teacher may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs”. 

So it just has the potential to restrict a huge range of learning that can be defined after the fact, like if a school decides slavery is controversial, you know, a teacher can just toss it out. Is that what we’re really talking about? I just, I want to know your thoughts on this and what the, what the ramifications of a law like this have for future generations of Texans.

Jasmine: No, you’re, listen, you hit the nail on the head. Part of what they’re doing with these laws is they are leaving them very wide and ambiguous, so that whomever wants to do whatever, um, they are allowed to do it. Right? So, and by that, I mean that the enforcement piece of this is left up to whomever to say, well, I don’t like you talking about that.

I remember when the law first passed about critical race theory, most people, first of all, it’s not critical race theory. I just want to put that out there. 

Brittany: Hello.

Jasmine: I just want to put it out there. It is the umbrella of what they’re calling it, but let me talk about what the law actually does beyond even what you just mentioned.

You know, this law actually takes away the ability of students to receive credit for, say working in my legislative office, which I had 26 interns, um, they’re not allowed to do that. We had EMTs that were very upset by this law because now those students that would have been earning credits for trying to work towards getting certified as an EMT, they’re not able to do that either because of the way that this law written.

None of this has anything to do with critical race theory. So I do want to be clear that this law does so many other things that literally have nothing to do with race, but on top of that, we’re experiencing a teacher shortage.

Imagine that, right? Like they just can’t do the job because they can’t survive or they’re doing the job and they’re trying to survive, but they’re constantly having to take their money and pour it in to make sure that their students have they need, right? So we were already having problems, right?

Like already a multitude of problems. And now you’ve decided that you want to tie their hands and you don’t want them to actually teach.Those teachers that care about that part., those are the ones that are like, I’m done because that’s not why I came to do this in the first place. And to threaten them with potential incarceration or fines and things like that.

I mean, you are, you’re making it impossible. And literally the governor the other day, maybe like a week or two ago, put something out about the teacher shortage. Well, duh, like it, because it’s even worse now. Like people are like, forget it. Like we’re good. Like we don’t wanna deal with that. 

Brittany: Going back to voter suppression for a second.

When we talk about the most disenfranchised voters, we’re talking about your constituents currently, your future constituents potentially. Um, because we’re talking about Black voters, I’m curious, what’s at stake for Black voters in Texas, even beyond voter suppression. Um, in the 2022 general elections in the fall.

Jasmine: Yeah. I mean, what I’m probably most perturbed about besides just kind of the voter suppression really is everything that happens when it came down to redistricting, uh, that truly silenced us.  That was the point and they got it done. Right? As I mentioned before, 95% of the growth was due to people of color, yet when we got the two new seats that were earned because the state of Texas did grow, I think we added about 4 million people in the last decade.

And so with that growth though, they decided that the two new seats were going to go to Anglo majorities. And if this is what your state officials do with you and did it boldly unabashedly. So imagine what they do when no one’s paying attention. Right? And so, you know, for me, the stakes are so high because we are talking about so many equity issues.

I talked about education. Was there a disproportionate effect on Black and Brown students? There, there absolutely was. Right? Um, these schools already were behind. They already were even more underfunded than some of our other schools. Even when we talk about repro rights, when we look at who is disproportionately affected in a negative way, it is going to be Black and Brown women.

Right. And so what we’re looking at is more policies along the lines of what we got. 

Brittany: Yeah. I, I do want to end on a hopeful note. What do you think, uh, Texas has to offer other states by way of example? Uh, what do you think Texas has the potential to really be a leader on? 

Jasmine: So definitely I think we have the potential to be a leader in the green space.

I mean, when you look in Texas, the reason for our growth has been that we’ve been able to attract so many businesses. Now, granted, they don’t want those people say from Tesla in California to participate in the electoral process. Right? But we were able to attract Tesla 

When it comes to technology overall, Austin is one of our huge leaders. And then I had an opportunity to sit down and have dinner with the ambassador from Taiwan just this last week. And so I also was able to learn about some of the Taiwanese companies that are right here in Texas. So let’s get smart about who we trade with. So it’s those kinds of things that we really could be doing better on.

And I think Texas can lead the way on those things. 

Brittany: Jasmine, I always appreciate talking to you and thanks for all that you are doing, Not just for Texas, but to drive all of us forward.

Jasmine: Absolutely. Thank you so much.

Brittany: Jasmine Crockett is a civil rights attorney and a candidate for Congress in Texas’ 30th district.

Treasure: This whole episode, we’ve been talking about the ways in which Texas has been a testing ground for repressive policies and laws and the ways in which it could be leading instead. Now we turn to Beto O’Rourke. He’s run races up and down the Lone Star State. He served in Congress, nearly beat Ted Cruz for a Senate seat, threw his hat in the ring for the presidency in 2020, and is now running to unseat Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

Abbott has become a national figure for his cruel policies on trans children, reproductive rights and more. Beto was hoping to reverse those injustices. Brittany sat down with him to hear more.

Brittany: So I guess the real question for starters is like, why governor and why right now?

Beto: Texas is a state whose governor has prohibited women from making their own reproductive health care.

Texas is a state whose governor is pursuing the families of transgender children at a time that we actually have a real crisis within child protective services, 30,000 kids in the foster care system. Texas is a state that, that literally could not keep the lights on. When temperatures dropped last year and more than 700 Texans lost their lives during that time.

So there’s a lot of bad things going on, but there are also a lot of great things that we could do for one another. Namely, focusing on the things that bring us together at a moment that Texas, as well as the country has never been more divided or more polarized.

Brittany: Are there specific lessons from these last two runs that you feel like will benefit the people of the people of Texas this time around, especially, I mean, to your point with just so much on the line. 

Beto: It’s all about people. And as long as that is the focus, the, the people of Texas, by whom, with whom and for whom we are doing this, we’re going to win.

And we’re not only going to win, we’re going to be able to get this state on the right track. And that was a huge lesson learned from 2018 that we didn’t defeat Ted Cruz. We really transformed the electorate of the state of Texas. You had young voter turnout up over 500%. You helped to flip control of the United States Congress because we helped elect new Democrats, replacing Republicans there. 

12 new democratic state legislators, 17 African-American women elected to judgeships in Harris County alone. It was extraordinary, Brittany; and it was all made possible by the people who reached out and connected with their fellow Texans. They decided their own future, our own future together.

Brittany: Yeah. I mean, you can hear it just like coming out of your pores, how much you love Texas. I like Texas too. Right? I’ve been, I’ve been all over the state. San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston. I haven’t been to your beloved El Paso, hopefully very soon, 

Beto: We’re waiting. We’re waiting.

Brittany: But sometimes, I’m like does Texas like me, right? Because from where I sit, I keep watching Texas be the sort of testing ground for pretty much every culture war facing the country.

You’ve talked about, a bit of it, abortion, critical race theory, trans rights, immigration, the climate. So much of it seems to start in and center on Texas and then other states will follow suit in some of the worst ways possible. Why has the GOP been using Texas as, as a ground zero of sorts?

Beto: Yeah. You’re so right.

And everything you enumerated, um, is right on the money. And I would add to that our gun laws, or I guess, lack thereof have produced, uh, one of the worst situations for any people in any state in terms of the level of gun violence. All of that producing, obviously, more gun violence today. So your, your very excellent question is why in the world is all this happening and is that reflective of who we are in the state of Texas? I think this is all a result of more than 30 years of nearly unilateral Republican control of the state.

Um, a Republican majority and Republican governor that have severely constrained the electorate, like literally functionally disenfranchising millions of Texans. Brittany, in 2020, obviously the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes, 7 million eligible Texans did not cast a ballot. And it’s not because they’re lazy.

It’s not because they don’t love democracy. It is because we’ve literally drawn our elections in such a way that we disempower voters, primarily voters of color, young voters, very old voters, voters with, um, hardships and disabilities and make it harder than in any other state for them to participate in their own democracy.

But you’re also right that what happens in Texas does not just stay in. This fever dream of radical fringe extremism is being exported to the rest of the country. And so what happens in Texas is of critical interest to anyone anywhere across the United States of America. But my bet and the bet being placed by the people in this campaign is on the people of Texas, because our government is not who we are.

Certainly not right now. And I’m convinced that if enough of us register, turnout, and vote, we’re going to see a Texas that’s far more reflective of who we really are at our best, focusing on the big things that bring us together and rejecting these radical policies and the culture war stuff, and people trying to make you afraid of others in your own community.

Finding a way to bring us back together again, and represent with pride, who we really are. 

Brittany: I mean, we’re talking about your vision for Texas. But we still gotta, you still gotta get elected first, right? Like this is, this is the work of right now. How do you sway conservative voters who believe flat out that the establishment or anyone who doesn’t agree with them is lying.

And also progressive voters who may have justifiably lost faith in the system or the establishment ability to execute on the things that matter, I mean, is, is bringing those two groups together, even part of your strategy?

Beto: It’s not as impossible as many might think. I have found as I’ve traveled the state and listened to the people of Texas, that there’s a lot more that we hold in common than would otherwise separate or divide us.

So Brittany, this last week I spent in some of the smallest and most rural and some would say reddest counties in the state of Texas. And as you know, Brittany, one of the, uh, one of the things I talk a lot about on the road is the need to end the prohibition of marijuana. To make it legal and to expunge the arrest records of anybody who was caught in possession of a substance that’s legal, and most of the rest of the country.We were in this town only, and this guy approaches me at the end of the meeting and he’s a Republican, he’s a barber.

And he says, I’m the only barber in 50 miles. And he said, you would not imagine the hoops through which I have to jump to get my license, just to cut people’s hair in this community. And he said a lot of that has to do with the fact that in 1970, more than 50 years ago, I was arrested for possession of marijuana.

And now anytime I’m trying to get a loan Anytime I’m trying to get certified for anything, anytime I’m trying to get a license for anything, I’ve got to check a box saying that I’ve got that conviction. So here was another guy, a Republican in a rural community who said, hey, this guy Beto is talking about my life.

And what’s important to me. 

Brittany: When you talk about going to some of these places, a progressive politician is going to have a very different experience than a politician in, say, a solidly blue state might talking about some of those issues that are not the bread and butter issues. Right? So conversations about critical race theory or the teaching of accurate history. Is there less opportunity to get into nuance and kind of more table setting that has to be done to get everyone on the same page?

Or is there a, a particular approach that you take to having those conversations? 

Beto: It’s such a, it’s such a thoughtful question. Yes. I mean, this is an issue that demands thoughtfulness. And yet we are in an age where, you know, you say anything beyond 30 seconds. I don’t know if people are still paying attention afterwards.

And it’s why these attacks from the right on socialism on, um, you know, policing and crime on, uh, You know, CRT are so damn effective because they don’t require much thought. They require an instinctual emotional response based in fear. And so it’s interesting, I just got this question about fully learning and understanding our history and our story.

And I said, look, El Paso of all cities in the state of Texas has so much damn amazing history that we are proud of, that we should make sure that we teach. And I talked about Thelma White who in 1954, graduated from the all Black, uh, high school in El Paso because it was the only school she was allowed to attend, try to enroll at Texas Western College. Was rejected because of her race.

Then, uh, employed Thurgood Marshall and along with the NAACP, uh, fought the segregation in public higher ed in Texas and won the battle and was able to integrate all higher ed in Texas. She was 18 years old. She had just graduated from high school and I said, listen, if Thelma White in ‘54 was strong enough to lead that battle and just absolutely change what was possible in Texas. 

Then our kids certainly are strong enough to learn her story. And so let’s stand up for ourselves at this moment and let’s acknowledge that part of what makes us so great as a country is our ability to learn our history. And part of what has made this such a challenging time is a rejection of history and understanding people’s stories and the full, true story of this country.

We’re never gonna make it. We’re never going to get better if we don’t take the time to listen and learn. So we’re strong enough for this. So yeah, it’s a conversation we need to have. And when we lay out the facts and when we speak with pride about who we are, even in learning the things that are really difficult and even sometimes shameful, I think we’re going to find that there’s a majority there who wants to do the right thing.

Brittany: Uh, before I let you go, I have to ask, what do you hope will be true about Texas, say like ten years from now, right? Where does your, your political imagination take you in terms of what’s possible for your home state? 

Beto: You know, right now, at least in our political leadership, we really seem to be defined by fear.

You have a governor echoing the former president who warns of invasions of people coming here from other countries. You’ve got a governor who wants to scare you about transgender kids, and in fact has criminalized those families. This outline of abortion in the epicenter of a maternal mortality crisis that is three times as deadly for Black women. 

This is not making us better. This is certainly not bringing us together. And this is absolutely unreflective of who we are, certainly who we are at our best. So here’s what I hope for. And here’s what I think we’re going to be able to make happen in the state of Texas. 

A state that is defined not by its fears, but by its ambitions and the aspirations of its people, a state that wants to lead in every category for the best reasons, the kinds of jobs that we’re creating, our ability to expand our energy leadership beyond just oil and gas to the renewable energy resources that make us energy independent from the rest of the world and allow us to confront a climate disaster before it’s too late. 

A state that realizes this country’s foundational aspirations. Like the fact that all of us should be treated equally under the law.

We’re nowhere close to that yet, but we can be, I would love Texas to take the lead in this regard,  I want this state to be defined by its great size and a reminder that we are big enough for all of us and for our dreams and for the hard work that it takes to bring those dreams to pass. So I think there’s so much to be excited for, uh, in, in our future here in Texas, but we have to do the work now to make sure that we can realize it. 

Brittany: Thanks for everything that you’re doing as you crisscrossed the state and talk about not just your vision for what Texas can be and what America can be, but all of the many ways that you are employing the imagination of the people to get you there. I appreciate you.

Beto: I’m really, really, really grateful to you. And not just for this opportunity to talk with you over the course of this interview, but just over the years, everything that you helped me to understand and to learn. And thank you again for letting me join you on this, on this show today,

Brittany: Beto O’Rourke is a candidate for governor in Texas. In his attempt to unseat Senator Ted Cruz, he set the record for most votes ever cast for a Democrat in a Texas midterm election.

Beto is so right. So much about our political leadership is defined by fear. If fear is dangerous for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it feeds on itself. If you can be made to be afraid of people different from you, instead of feeling bonded to them, tied to them, then you can be divided. And if you can be successfully divided, then it’s easier to ignore or even support policies that deepen those divisions. 

And when the deep divisions are protected by statute, the powerful get even more and the rest of us get shit. And it really is all the rest of us because in the end, if they can come for trans rights and abortion rights and voting rights and school curriculum, then they can come for you, too. If you think you are protected from the people who want to steer the ship to turn a profit for themselves.

You are sorely mistaken. To those powerful forces, we are all expendable. The path forward has to be lit with the leadership of a new era of politicians who aren’t concerned with profit with people. Beto, Jasmine, Jessica— they’re vying to be those kinds of leaders. The kind that gives people hope, which is the only thing that can drive out fear.

So I’ll be watching Texas all year long and I hope you do too, because what happens there matters. I’ll be rooting for hope. 

That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow.


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

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Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. And thanks for doing.  I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham.

Let’s go get free.