It’s been more than three decades since a Democrat was elected to represent the 19th Congressional District in northwest Texas. The district is 35-percent Hispanic and has a median household income of $41,000. And it votes so reliably conservative that last year, the Republican who now holds the seat, Jodey Arrington, ran unopposed by any Democratic candidate.
But two professors at Texas Tech University think now might be the time for change. Miguel A. Levario and Daniel J. Epstein, an associate professor of history and a visiting instructor in political science, respectively, have each announced their candidacies for the election next year. (Mr. Arrington, a first-term congressman, hasn’t announced if he will run for re-election.)
Though voting day is more than a year away, the nascent campaigns have already seen pushback. The local Democratic Party headquarters was vandalized, and a conservative political-research firm, America Rising LLC, asked Texas Tech to turn over information on both professors, including their disciplinary records.
The candidates will eventually oppose each other for the Democratic nomination, but so far they’ve worked together, cooperating on such events as a jointly hosted "die-in" to protest the vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with the American Health Care Act of 2017, a move Mr. Arrington supported. Both cited Donald J. Trump’s election and Mr. Arrington’s voting record as motivations for their candidacies.
(In a statement, Mr. Arrington said he believes America’s diverse population "is a key attribute to American exceptionalism. But we are also a nation of laws." A Texas Tech alumnus and former vice chancellor of the university system, he added that work must be done to secure the border and improve the nation’s immigration system.)
Mr. Levario, who specializes in the history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, is the author of Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy. A native of El Paso, he calls himself a product of the border. His academic knowledge of the economic, cultural and political realities of life on the dividing line, he says, could help him craft immigration policies that respect America’s sovereignty while being compassionate.
Mr. Epstein is a more recent transplant to the area. He grew up in Vermont, received a Ph.D. from Harvard, and taught political science at Colgate University for six years before leaving to work on U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Mr. Epstein pointed to the lack of local options in the 2016 election cycle — where Lubbock County saw no Democrats on the ballot for positions in the Texas Legislature or the U.S. Congress — as a driving force behind his campaign. "As somebody who had experience working on a national campaign, as somebody who’s been committed to studying and putting into practice how campaigns go, and as somebody who lived in this district where no Democrat had shown up to be on the ballot," Mr. Epstein says, "I felt really called."
Mr. Levario and Mr. Epstein spoke to The Chronicle about running for Congress and how campus life differs from life on the campaign stump. These interviews, conducted separately, have been edited and condensed.
Miguel A. Levario, Associate Professor of History
Q. Academics are sometimes accused of being in an ivory tower. Now you and another Texas Tech professor have announced you’re running for Congress, for the same seat, in fact. Does the phrase "ivory tower" have new resonance to you or does it feel inaccurate?
A. It just depends. At least from what I can understand, it’s not terribly common for professors or scholars to go into public life. Yes, we have had some very famous ones, Condoleezza Rice, Henry Kissinger, among others.
Q. Elizabeth Warren.
A. Elizabeth Warren, definitely. It’s not necessarily unusual, but it just depends on the professor, on the scholar. There are some who are very dedicated to the discipline, so the concept of doing community activism doesn’t necessarily fall into place. And then there are people like your Elizabeth Warrens and your Condoleezza Rices and myself and others that feel like, No I don’t want to reserve my scholarship for just the ivory tower. I respect and obviously want to contribute to the discipline, but I believe that our scholarship should also be made available to help more people and not just the intellectual pursuits of academia.
Q. You mentioned that the register of your language has changed a little bit, because as an academic you can speak for longer, be more specific, be very nuanced. How has that adjustment been? Do you feel like you lose something when you talk as a politician or is it a change that you’ve adjusted to?
A. It’s just a change. I don’t think it necessarily loses anything. You’re naturally going to lose broader and deeper contexts with just a 10-minute stump speech. However, in class we’re limited to a certain amount of minutes per session. It’s a 50-minute class, three times a week, so you can’t get through all of U.S. history in four months.
It’s just using a different register so that people don’t think, Okay that’s an academic word; that’s not necessarily a popular word. For example, using a word like "holistic." That’s not something you hear everyday on the street. You may hear "comprehensive," you may hear "overall," but nobody ever says "holistic." I’ve been spending the last 18 or some odd years speaking in that academic register, and am trying to change it to be more recognizable outside of an academic context.
Q. College campuses have become a flash point for political issues lately, from sanctuary campuses to free speech. Did the backdrop of these issues playing out on college campuses inform either your decision to run or your different policy platforms?
A. There’s no question. I’ve been engaged in those topics throughout my graduate-school career and my professional career. The fact that they are continuously present in our public and political discourse has certainly influenced my willingness to run for public office because it’s obviously something that hasn’t been resolved.
There is a lack of sensibility. [We need] somebody who can provide some sense into how we approach complex problems, and not look at it from a partisan point of view. When I said I never thought of myself as being a politician, I mean I’m running as a Democrat and I’m proud to be running as a Democrat, but the way I look at my service is that it’s going to be for the betterment of people. If it doesn’t necessarily fall 100 percent along party lines, I’m sorry, but I represent the district. That’s part of the reason we have so much divisiveness in this country. People are very partisan without understanding that there needs to be compromise.
Daniel J. Epstein, Visiting Instructor of Political Science
Q. You are running as a Democrat for Texas’ 19th Congressional District. The district hasn’t elected a Democrat in more than 30 years. Is now the time?
A. I do get a sense that now is the time. We’ve seen a real dissatisfaction with, in many ways, the two-party system. You look back to the 2014 midterm election, we saw the lowest turnout in the country since 1942. If we look at the 2016 election in our district, nearly 37 percent of eligible voters came out to vote. In the district, when we see that kind of apathy towards politics and we see no Democrats running, we’re talking about a disenchantment with a stranglehold the Republican Party has put on this district. With so few people showing up to vote, this is really the moment for a sea change. And the place where I am, there’s nowhere better to try and bring new people into the process who have been made to feel unwelcome, in a lot of cases.
Q. You related the lack of turnout of Democratic candidates to, it sounded like, apathy among voters. Is that what you connect it to, that there’s a lack of civic engagement in the district, or is it that the district is fundamentally conservative?
A. It is, historically, fundamentally conservative. If we look at this district, we see a pattern that we see in lots of places across the country with districts that have been gerrymandered to favor Republicans, and the Democratic Party is unable to call upon the same corporate resources the Republicans have and generally don’t want to invest in districts that look like they will be an uphill battle.
It’s really unfortunate that money ends up being the metric by which we look at candidates unless we have some polling data. It’s hard to raise money; I know, I’m in the process now. But you have to really be serious about what is the scope that you’re up against.
So much of the competitiveness and uncompetitiveness in districts like this and dozens of others across the country is the perfect storm of gerrymandering and scarce financial resources that leads to lots of districts’ being just given up on by the Democratic Party. The Republican Party has done this too in certain districts.
Q. You are a political-science professor, and your research focuses on political parties, electoral competition, and political culture in developing countries, with a particular focus on Russia and Brazil. Did your research and academic background influence your reaction to the presidential campaign and election, and your decision to run?
A. It definitely influenced how I look at these things. One of the most important things for the success of a candidate is a capacity to resonate and to connect with people. Max Weber — whose theories my work depends on a lot — his work on charismatic authority is something I thought of [looking at the candidates in the presidential campaign].
A lot of people were unable to see this kind of X-factor of charismatic capacity to resonate with people that someone like Donald Trump seemed to have, in spite of all the reasons that he is otherwise unpresidential and ought to have been unelectable. Somehow there’s this thing which can’t be taught and can’t really be messaged. You’ve got it or you don’t, and no one really knows if they’ve got it or not unless and until they are in that position of being on the stump.
In any candidacy there is going to be a potential for someone who is untried to have that capacity to connect. You saw it in even Vladimir Putin, who’s not filled with loud braggadocio like traditional ideas of charismatic leaders, but he does have that capacity to resonate with the Russian electorate.
That’s a huge factor of uncertainty I think the Democratic Party and progressives in general ought to embrace: putting people up there and seeing who resonates as opposed to trying to always calculate the optimal candidate and then clear the field for that person. That definitely made me think, What is there to lose by putting myself out there? Maybe I’ll resonate with people and maybe I won’t. If there’s a chance I will — even if some people might think, Oh as a Democrat you can’t do that in West Texas — well, it’s worth a try.
Shannon Najmabadi writes about teaching, learning, the curriculum, and educational quality.