Current Affairs

Interview: Heidi Sloan on Running a Left Campaign in Texas

The DSA congressional candidate talks about how to organize effectively in a “red” state.

Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson recently spoke to Heidi Sloan, Democratic Socialist candidate for the Democratic nomination for Congress for the 25th district of Texas. The transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity. Transcript by Rachel Calvert.

NATHAN J. ROBINSON:

Your seat is currently occupied by a Republican, but you have dared to believe that a leftist can win. And I am so excited to talk to you about what I think is an incredible campaign. 

HEIDI SLOAN: 

Thank you so much, I’m so excited to talk to you as well. We are having way more fun than we deserve to have on this campaign, and I can’t wait to fill you in on what’s happened since we last spoke. 

NJR:

Yes, I was fortunate enough recently to get to go out to Austin, and to give a rousing speech introducing you, at a packed fundraiser. Lots and lots of people came out. And I think it was the kind of thing where you look at it and you think, “This wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.” 

HS:

Yeah, I think that’s probably right, and credit where credit is due. It’s not a campaign that was put together by kingmakers, or political elites. It is certainly the most grassroots I can imagine, coming from people who have been organizing for the fights that affect their lives for a lot of years, coming together and saying, “If we can do that, we can do this too.” 

NJR:

Well, and your background is not especially political. You were a teacher of special needs children for a long time, as I understand. And then, also, you have a background in farming. 

HS:

It’s true! Both of those are true, yeah. I taught in a classroom for children with disabilities, as well as children without disabilities. It’s a PPCD classroom. It’s a preschool space, and I loved that work—the creativity, and the integration that happens, and then the outcomes that are so much better across the board—just the sense of community that it always created for me. But I got a wild hair after about six years teaching, and decided to become, as you say, a farmer. And land is not cheap, so that looked like finding-a-job-farming. And I was very fortunate to find a position at a nonprofit where we have a housing community on about 51 acres of land, and in the middle of that permanent supportive housing community we grow food. My co-farmers are folks who have experienced chronic homelessness, and who are living in that housing, growing food for our neighbors, the people that we care about the most. So it’s a really incredible lifestyle. It’s also, of course, really eye-opening into the root causes and the long-term effects of homelessness. 

NJR:

Well, I do want to ask you about that. But first, I was just wondering—when you joined the Community First! Village, did you have any experience of farming? Did you grow up on a farm, or was this kind of something you had to really pick up?

HS:

I was that Texan little girl who loved horses. My family is very, very working class. My dad, when I was a kid, he delivered pizzas, and then he drove a truck, and then he worked for the phone company. And so we didn’t have horse money. So I was that kid who was always cleaning the stalls before I got to go out and ride, which was awesome, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I actually followed that passion through college. I worked on a farm so that my horse could live there, but fell in love with vegetable and goat farming, and sold my horse and continued gardening and raising goats, chickens, and just following farmers around for a long time. 

NJR:

Let me just ask you this question: What do non-farmers not know about farming that they ought to know? 

HS:

That is a great question. I think maybe the first thing, and this is true for so many people, more than it is even for me, that farmers do a lot more than grow food. That most farmers can rebuild their tractor, that most farmers can write a spreadsheet for crop rotation that would blow your mind, that most farmers are in charge of the sales of their farm, that most farmers are also raising their families onsite, and keeping ties with the community. That farmers are an exceptionally gifted and hardworking group of people, and I think that we sometimes just focus on one aspect of that work. Whereas, they, everyday, are running a whole ecosystem to itself. 

NJR:

See, I knew that question would have an interesting answer. So, it seems to me like over the course of your life, first you sort of growing up in a working class family, working with farms, working with the homeless, working in schools,  it seems to me like all of those are things that probably gave you a very strong perspective on class and injustice in society. And I take it that this congressional run is kind of the outcome of a worldview shaped over the course of those experiences.

HS:

For sure! Yeah, that for me, growing up in a household that was centered around my mom’s needs—to be honest, and not in a negative way,  just that her needs were very big, and very largely unmet—and knowing what care work was from as long as I can remember. And then moving through these systems in which I thought I was just sort of accidentally falling into work that continued to provide care, that continued to center more marginalized communities. And then waking up one day and realizing this is actually who I am. This is how I’ve been shaped. But in all of those experiences, not feeling like I’m going to do this on behalf of, but knowing that sustainability and real power comes from those folks who have been, or felt, marginalization, speaking up for themselves given the space to lead. And to be able to follow in the campaigns that I’ve been part of the lead of so many people who are directly affected, the most powerful people in the world. ‘Cause their lives are on the line. Their dignity, it is their hope, and, yeah, that’s where this all started, for sure. 

NJR:

On the left, we use the word “marginalized” a lot. But I feel like to people who don’t see it up close, it can become an abstraction. But you’ve really seen what it actually means in people’s lives—especially through your work with the formerly homeless—what the real content of that word is. 

HS:

Definitely. In the context of homelessness, for sure. When we did our decriminalization campaign here in Austin to stop people experiencing homelessness from being ticketed for sleeping outside, when there are not enough shelter beds available in Austin for everyone to sleep in, and when we were pushing back for a city ordinance to be changed around that, we really took the time to ask people who were living that experience right now to organize and be the center of organizing. And folks were so inspired by the stories that they were hearing, but it also made a whole lot of people uncomfortable—literally, they didn’t have experience sitting in the same room with someone who didn’t have access to the same resources that they did, that they do consistently in their lives. And so it is true marginalization when your mere presence causes someone to do a double-take to reconsider whether they will be part of something. 

But it’s not just homelessness, right? When we were doing the paid sick days campaign, to pursue earned, paid sick time for all workers here in Austin, in Dallas, and in San Antonio, I got to go canvass, and we did the thing called “shop floor blitzing” which is like a throwback term from labor days. And I would go and walk to fast food restaurant workers. And over and over again, when I would broach the subject, people would say to me, “I actually don’t know what you’re talking about when you say ‘paid sick.’ Like no one in my family has ever had that.” So marginalization not just at an individual level, but exists as these generational and community-based trauma and poverty systems. Marginalization is when even this terminology is unfamiliar, has never been applied to this space. 

NJR:

One of the big problems in advocacy has long been that the people who are doing the advocating are not the people who are affected. And it’s professional activists and nonprofit groups rather than people really working on their own behalf. What I like, what’s so exciting about some of what Bernie’s doing, and some of what a lot of the contemporary left is doing, is they’re saying, “Well, what if we stopped talking on behalf of people, and we really started actually believing that people could be politicized, and could come to fight for their own interests.”

HS:

A hundred percent. When we were working on the Medicare for All campaign to get Representative Lloyd Doggett to sign onto H.R. 1384, it was like month 17 of 19 when we started doing filmed interviews of folks we had met by knocking doors, of them just telling their story of how their life would be different if they had guaranteed, publicly available health care. And that is when we got the most traction. 

It was a really profound experience, ‘cause these were not folks who in other ways were highly politicized demographics. They were regular folks, they were students, they were tech industry workers, they were sons and daughters, and they would just share what had happened to them. But they spoke up and said, “I thought that this was my fault. I thought that my medical debt meant I had done something wrong.” And to have thousands of people respond to them and say, “Actually, this is what happened to me as well.” To point to a system that is broken, rather than an individual experience that is isolating—and makes you feel so much despair—that was the power of that moment. And we’ve tried to keep that really strong in this campaign. That, yeah, at doors definitely we have to say “Heidi Sloan” and “running for Congress,” but we ask our volunteers to start by saying, “This is why I’m fighting. This is why I’m fighting.” And so having 750, or however many volunteers now, that’s 750 stories that are getting out to more and more doors, and bringing people in, because they resonate. 

NJR:

I want to get to your phenomenal organizing work on this campaign, but I do want to talk about that paid sick days campaign, because that was an incredible victory. I mean, you won! I know it’s been held up, and that the Texas legislature, I take it, has done everything possible to stall it, but this is an example of something where you started with something that seemed kind of impossible, or seemed at least very, very difficult, and it got through. 

HS:

It did. It was really incredible. I just want to just highlight the leaders, folks like Greg Casar, who is a local city council member here in Austin, who set a table that brought me in personally to this work. It was a stakeholder table, or a series of meetings of stakeholders for paid sick days, and rather than it just being the bosses who would have to figure out how they were going to cover this for their employees, it was actually also service industry workers, and construction workers—which are the two main sectors that are affected by lack of paid sick time here in Texas. 

It was us showing up en masse because we were invited for the first time that a lot of people can remember, invited to a political space to advocate for ourselves. My partner has worked in the service industry his whole life, and in that industry never ever had paid sick days offered to him in any workplace whatsoever. And so we jumped in. And we started organizing with this group in coalition with and alongside construction workers and alongside nonprofits and activists as well, and brought it to city council. And it passed there. And then immediately a lawsuit came up from business associations in Texas. So while Austin’s paid sick day legislation is still tied up in the courts, Dallas and San Antonio organizers were able to pursue similar ordinances in their cities. So hundreds of thousands of workers in Texas have won this right in those two cities as well. Austin sort of set this precedent, planted a flag and said, “Texas and the South generally—this is the first time this has passed in the South—can do this.” And then they jump on board, and built off of those campaigns, and now are actually enjoying the material gain that the Texas State Legislature actually tried to threaten to come back and preempt as they do so many of our municipal level policies—but we showed up at the capital, in Dallas, and Austin, and San Antonio. It is labor leaders, it is construction workers, service industry, it is reproductive justice folks, and folks who advocate on behalf of survivors of domestic violence. These are the intersectional issues here. 

And we were so loud. I just remember being outside—and I’ve been to a lot of rallies. But the passion of people who were there to say, “Absolutely not. We have worked long and hard for this, both in our actually working lives, and on the organizing trail, and we are here collectively to say ‘You are not taking this from us.’” We stayed up way past midnight giving testimony, calling them out on the argumentation that they were putting forward, and they didn’t do it. They didn’t vote to preempt paid sick days. So it’s just in the courts right now. It could very well continue to build policy around this across the state. 

NJR:

And if it goes through at last, what exactly does it guarantee people? What does it do for people?

HS:

So it’s an earned paid time policy, which means for every eight hours that a person works, then they accrue an increment—and it varies by city—of paid time off to use at their own discretion. I think we were able to eliminate all of the “you need a doctor’s note” or “you need verification” of how you’re using your time off. 

But it’s an increment of time earned for every amount of time worked, for every single worker. So a lot of people get confused that this would just be city employees, and that’s not the case. It is every person who works within the city limits of these areas. Whether they live in that area or not, it is the employer who is providing the benefit, and so it is the jurisdiction of the employer. If they’re working in the city, then they can accrue that time in the city. And there are a couple of different rollover mechanisms for the different municipalities, but it has some guarantee about being able to accumulate and hold onto paid time off.

It also has a lot of good infrastructure on reporting violations and grievances against bosses who try to prevent people from using their time off. This was a big sticking point that threatened to take all the teeth out of the policies. That if there was no repercussion for an employer who did not provide what they were required to, that it wouldn’t matter, all the work we had done. And so we managed to get teeth on all of the ordinances and all of the municipalities, that there would be different levels of reporting mechanisms, and different levels of fines to make sure that—the service industry and construction workers both are industries that have a lot of already vulnerable populations, and so we didn’t want anyone to feel placed at-risk in how they had to report. So we made that as accessible as possible. 

But a really incredible victory—I guess some crafty business people who really wanted it to go the other way… 

NJR:

Well, this is one thing I want to ask you about, because we talk about “organizing” people, and we talk about beating the powerful. But then on the ground, how do the politics of a thing like this work? When you say you had to fight the business community, what does that mean? What do they do, and how do you overcome that opposition?

HS:

Yeah, there are a variety of mechanisms, and some of them are more blunt. The business community tends to have the ear of more politicians, by and large, from being donors, to being supporters, to being more known in the community than regular working class people. But it is the more hegemonic, the more “narrative creation” aspects that I found really fascinating in those spaces. Because while we did have conversations with business leaders, and we had more conversations with workers that would be affected, what we had to push back on in that space was a narrative that said, “If my employer has to provide this benefit, then the company is gonna go under, and then I’m gonna be out of a job.”

So finding receipts that say, “Actually, this is how much the person that owns this business makes per year.” And finding receipts also that say, “this is instituted in cities across the country, and by and large those cities have employee retention rates that outweigh any risk.” So you don’t have to retrain people, because folks are willing to stay at jobs longer that treat them like whole human beings.

And then the narrative idea that comes from competitive workplaces, that if we use things like paid sick days, if we take a day off of work, then we are either weak, or we are burdening our coworkers. Right, so as an educator, I remember what it was like when a substitute teacher was called in. That was a really hard decision for the teacher who was normally in that place to make, knowing that it would make all of the systems around it more trying and complex that day. But you look at the service industry, and a lot of folks would say, “If I call out, then they’re just running short-handed, and there’s no one else who’s gonna go in.” And they felt the burden of having to compensate for their coworkers’ conditions falling on themselves, which leads to a broader conversation about collective bargaining and workplace democracy on the whole, that that’s actually not your job, that actually being fully staffed is the job of the employer. 

But being able to balance those two things and to say, “we’re not advocating for an undue burden that is gonna economically cripple Austin, or Dallas, or San Antonio. What we’re asking for is a little bit of that profit to go back to the people who generated it in the first place.” So it’s fascinating how much work we did on the worker side, on the directly affected people’s side, to push back against narratives that had been deeply ingrained in them by those same workplaces. It was less direct communication with the bosses and the corporate leaders themselves than it was with those workers. 

NJR:

It’s the same argument every time, right? If we have a union, it will destroy the company. We’ll go out of business. If we raise the minimum wage, it’ll destroy the company. We’ll go out of business. Paid sick days, it’ll destroy the company, and we’ll go out of business, right? And it’s a very effective thing, because it’s hard to prove false, even though we know it’s false, and it’s a real fear that people have. 

And that second thing, you have to sort of raise people’s expectations, and convince them that they deserve things that they’ve been told that they don’t deserve, or that they’ve been told they should feel bad about. You have to feel bad about being sick. You have to feel bad about not being able to work. 

HS:

Yeah. But in fact though, we are fortunate in that we can always say, “If you don’t do it for yourself, you should do it for your neighbor.” And that’s a much more Texan mentality, that we take care of each other, that we are strong on behalf of those who are not strong right now, those kinds of things. It works out fine.

NJR:

I want to ask you about your congressional campaign. So, how, as a farmer, did you decide to run for Congress?

HS:

Gosh, so these policies—healthcare, housing, workers’ rights, environmental and the Green New Deal—these policies in the great state of Texas have been completely undermined by the Texas legislature. And at the end of each of our minor victories that we have been able to accomplish, local and state levels, is the looming fear that the governor, or the leg, or the Texas Supreme Court is gonna come back and take it from us, that actually, we don’t have the leverage that we need to not just decriminalize homelessness, but to build public housing. And I am happy to exist in that space and to continue to work on it, but after the Medicare for All campaign, a couple of people approached me, and just said, “You should think about running for office.” And I said, “No [laughs], that is never, ever going to happen. Please, don’t bring it up again.” 

And then a couple more people said things like, “Run for city council,” which sounds nice, except for that my city councilmember is fantastic and she votes for justice the right way every single time, and I wouldn’t want to run against her. I think she’s doing a great job. And then one day, a friend approached me and said, “Texas’ 25th district is currently, it’s your district, and it’s represented by Roger Williams, and here are his funders. Here are the policies that he’s advocating for. If you go to Congress, then you can actually work on Medicare for All. Then, you can actually make substantive federal change for the Green New Deal.” And I said, “Well, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll talk to 40 organizers from Texas, from across Texas, and if any of them say no, then I don’t have to do this.” And he said “Okay, that sounds like a good deal.” So I called 40 people, and I threw this idea at them, and none of them said no, which is pretty frustrating [laughs]. 

And by the time we each had gotten done talking, they were all already really pumped about the idea that we could do this together, and it’s hard to back out of an idea you’ve planted in the brain of someone who is a doer, and a go-getter, and organizer. And so we started laying the plans to kick off, and here we are. 

NJR:

One of the things we have to overcome is the fact that the people that you’d most want to have power are the people who would least want it. That is to say: Who are the people getting into Congress? They’re the people who seek it the most. And so you really want the reluctant people, the people who are like, “well, who am I to have that level of control?” 

So how do you do it? How do you go about then, as a Democratic Socialist, as someone who does not have a giant, political organizing apparatus, as someone who is not bankrolled by anyone other than a number of small donors, how do you go about building an actual organization, a real campaign?

HS:

It has been a really incredible opportunity to test our theory of change: Will people apply the same idea that we can show up for the fights that affect our lives in an electoral space? If we build trust to know that my name is on the sign, but this campaign is our campaign, will people show up then? Can we overcome the obstacles that are very appropriately already in electoral campaign spaces of mistrust, of fear, and do something bigger and better with it? So we have done a lot of coalition work, bringing in organizers from other groups and asking them to organize on their own behalf, on their group’s behalf, in this campaign to say, “We can get to Congress, but unless there are people still here organizing for Medicare for All, it’s not gonna happen.” To say to the Sunrise Movement, “We could get to Congress and pursue the Green New Deal, but if you don’t grow, it’s not gonna happen. Can you grow with us?” 

We’ve done a lot of community organizing in conjunction with the campaign. Everything from organizing to get a stay of execution for a death row prisoner named Rodney Reed who is almost certainly innocent of the murder that he was convicted of—and we got to do that by bringing more people in, by organizing in that space, and by asking people to do more than just vote. And then we have run that campaign to build trust by asking people not just to show up and to tell my story, but to share their story, to knock doors and introduce themselves, why they’re fighting, what their life looks like, why this matters to them, and then to ask the same thing of the person on the other side of that door. It’s strange for me, because I’ve never been part of a campaign where I couldn’t take a step back in the same way, and know that the folks around me would pick up, and we were doing this together, and you’d step up and you’d step back naturally. So electoral politics is strange in that way, but at the same time – 

NJR:

It’s all about you now! [laughs]

HS: 

But at the same time, it really has not been. We now have 13 people on staff, and only one person has ever worked for a campaign before. These are folks who volunteered with us, who are now organizing. And some of them want to do this for the rest of their lives, to keep building policy and political campaigns like this. And they’re just regular folks like us, and I think it’s important to say, “I’m not gonna win these things by myself. I’m not gonna win this election by myself, and I’m certainly not gonna win the world we want by myself.” And so both now and for the foreseeable future, I’m just modeling the behavior that we collectively know that we have to each be pursuing, that we have to put ourselves out there and bring more people with us, whether it’s to congress, to city hall, or into the neighborhood. 

NJR:

And that’s clearly happening in your campaign. I mean, I was so impressed by all the people I met at your fundraiser, and there was such a palpable sense of excitement and joy, and a feeling that we can really succeed at something. For so long, being on the left just meant failing over and over again. But no, it was such a tremendous atmosphere, and all these brilliant, brilliant people.

I just want to ask you about your agenda, what pitch you’re making to Texans and how you frame that in a way that you think can work in a place like Texas?

HS:

Yeah, for sure. So, obviously, we have organizing conversations with folks that we are hoping to get involved, or to encourage to vote, that run like your standard organizing conversation. And that goes, “What do you want? What are you hoping for? What is keeping you up at night? What are you worried about?” And people’s responses are their own, right? Because they have their own lived experience. And for some people it is they’re worried about rent, or student debt. For some, it is a worry about climate change, and for others it is aging and wanting to stay in their homes, or to have access to the healthcare that they need.

But the second question that we always ask, no matter what the answer to that first question is, “How come you don’t have that? How come things are like that?” And there are two answers that make up that vast majority of responses. And they are either “Because someone has power over me,” or “Because someone is making a profit off of me.” And so it leads us to our third question—and you’ll notice this is standard labor organizing questions. The third question is, of course, “What do you think it’s gonna take to change that?” And our volunteers—having been fully immersed in this campaign that asks them to step up and lead—are very clear and willing to say, “Electing one person isn’t gonna change that. You voting is important, but honestly it’s not gonna change that. You joining your union, you showing up for your school board, you getting to know your neighbors, you building a collective, a mass movement, you are what is going to change that. It’s gonna take all of us organizing together to change that.” And I think that that’s a really refreshing message after years of either the outreach being so siloed, or that the politics centers one group of people, and not all of us, not the collective, or the outreach being so focused on one individual that we are supposed to trust, that we are supposed to put all our faith in. I think people know better, and are willing to really hear that truth.

And when we draw those lines around our policy knowing all of these experiences that people are sharing with us at their doors and in their volunteering work, we’re drawing lines that are not left, right, conservative, liberal, but are top and bottom. Our Green New Deal is not just about divestment from oil and gas, and transition to renewables, not just about taking the taxes out, or the federal level support out of the oil and gas industry and applying it to renewables. Instead, it is about making sure that when we make that investment, it doesn’t burden working class people. It is about saying we need a federal jobs guarantee, because there is so much work to be done, and resolving the climate crisis can only truly happen with climate justice, and that means everyone. It’s saying that Medicare for All can’t leave anybody out, because if someone is left out, then we are divided once again, whether it’s immigration status, or it’s by workplace, whether it is by the kind of care that we need at that time. And I think that while it’s a longer conversation to have with somebody, that we’ve been divided up for too long, that we have to center the needs of the working class as a whole, it is also a thing that makes a lot of sense.

Going out and talking about immigration reform in very rural, white Texas—we can talk about abolishing ICE and closing detention centers, and sometimes we do, that’s part of our policy platform. But what we talk about first, is the fact that until we’re able to offer workplace justice to migrant workers, that they earn the same kind of income that other workers do, that they have the kind of safety regulations and anti-oppression laws in their workplaces, then we are all vulnerable to the exploitation of migrant workers. That when we solve this, it has to be for all of us, because it actually does affect all of us. And that’s a different line. Policy doesn’t bring everyone in right now, but we’re building a trust to make sure that we don’t leave anyone out, that we don’t say that your voice doesn’t matter in this space because it means we do so to our detriment. 

NJR:

I was just reading an interview with your opponent in the primary, who has signed onto a number of the basic policy things like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, but then said something like, “oh, but Democratic Socialist, Democrat, these are just labels, what’s the difference” And I thought, “Well, hang on, there’s something more than the policy agenda in what you’re doing that is different.” And it is what you just described, which is having something that is more than just a set of policies, but is an actual social movement that talks the language of organizing. 

HS:

Yeah, for sure, and it is saying that I don’t need to explain the tax code around Medicare for All to people who are worried that their children cannot get the care that they need. We know that Medicare for All is gonna save families of four that are making $50,000 a year $10,000 a year, and that’s great. But what we’re talking about is people’s right to demand that they live in dignity and security. To demand that, to make that their own fight. And that’s entirely different than saying, “I know how to manipulate the tax code on your behalf.” 

NJR:

Well, Heidi Sloan, I think it’s one of the most exciting campaigns in the country running right now. I thought that before I went to Texas and saw it for myself, and then I saw it for myself and I feel it is tremendous. Where can people support your campaign?

HS:

[Laughs] Well, if you’re in Texas, we’d love you to come knock some doors with us. It’s what we do best, and we’ve got another 30,000 to knock before March 3. But if you’re not, you can find us at Heidisloan.com, and all of our issues are there, as well as ways of plugging in. And we’re all over the social media as well, which is a great way to get to know us and to turn people onto the campaign. 

NJR:

Well, best of luck to you. We’re really, really rooting for you here at Current Affairs headquarters. 

HS:

Thank you so much. It’s been really great. 

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