There are rising fears that America’s democracy is in peril. Voter suppression, gerrymandering, growing extremism and all-around political malfeasance seem to be the order of the day as we head toward the November mid-terms.
But for a small group of candidates for state office in Texas — all of them candidates of color and many running for the first time — the answer is to lean in and grab democracy by the reins.
“Democracy is in danger,” said Dr. Suleman Lalani, who is running for Texas’ House District 76 in Fort Bend County near Houston. “But we need to get off the sofa and get up and participate.”
Lalani was among a panel of candidates who spoke during an Oct. 27 briefing for ethnic media in Houston designed to shed light on the experience of candidates of color running for office this election cycle.
The event was moderated by EMS Executive Director Sandy Close, who noted in opening remarks that the speakers “represent an exciting expansion of the pool of candidates at a time when people of color are seeking fair representation.”
And it was that theme of representation that emerged again and again in remarks from the speakers, all of whom hail from Fort Bend and neighboring Harris counties, both of which have seen dramatic demographic shifts in recent decades.
Representation is “very important, because the future, our children, they need someone to look up to,” said Daniel Lee, who is running for State House District 26, one of a number of districts that were newly redrawn following the 2020 Census. Lee’s campaign website notes the newly drawn congressional lines marginalize Democratic voters.
Born in Texas to immigrants from China and the Philippines, Lee’s parents were restaurant owners and as such, he says, they struggled with many of the issues confronting small business owners, crime and racism top among them. Language and cultural barriers made it difficult for them to find redress from their local elected officials, Lee noted, an experience that prompted him to pursue a career in law and later to seek elected office.
As an attorney whose clientele is primarily Asian and Hispanic — Lee’s wife is Hispanic — he sees many of those same issues today and says the problems are rooted in “bad laws” and government leaders who are unresponsive to the needs of his community.
“After 15 years of explaining this to my clients, I said no more, we need to make changes,” Lee said, pointing to gun violence, the economy and health care as three priority areas for his campaign.
“When I started this race, I didn’t run as an African American, but as the campaign came along, I realized I would be the first African American treasurer in Harris County,” said Dr. Carla Wyatt, who is running for Harris County Treasurer. “I have two nieces, a grandniece… and I believe it is very important to blaze a path for those behind you.”
A graduate of Texas Southern University, Wyatt has worked for Harris County for more than two decades, beginning as an intern working on public infrastructure and later for the County Commissioner, among various other roles. In that time, she saw much she wanted to change, including a lack of transparency for voters wanting to know where and how their tax dollars are being spent.
Wyatt says she wants to bring information technology and finance together to create a platform where residents can easily track how local funds are being used. “To me it’s not about red or blue,” said Wyatt, “it’s about your green, and understanding where your dollars are going.”
She spoke from inside her car, where she was on lunch break from her work, a reality for Wyatt and the other candidates on the call, all of whom agreed that running for office is akin to taking on a second full-time job.
“I am taking a financial cut,” Lalani said of his decision to downsize his practice as a physician to pursue his campaign. But, he added, “I am blessed to have family and community support.”
Like Lee, Lalani pointed to health and public education as among his top issues, along with gun legislation. “As a health care person, I see gun trauma every day… Prayers and thoughts have their place. We need policy change.”
A Muslim, Lalani’s religion has been made an issue by opponents of his campaign, including on Twitter, where messages noting his faith in all caps intended as a warning have been posted.
That same bigotry was directed at Sonia Rash, who is running as the Democratic candidate for Justice of the Peace for the 3rd Precinct in Fort Bend. The position entails adjudicating traffic fines, evictions and small claims cases, all of which touch the lives of residents on a daily basis.
“I want to have online hearings” for people having to come to traffic court, says Rash, a mother of two and a practicing lawyer who was born in Houston. “You can do your hearing from home if you’re a mother or father taking care of kids.”
Rash’s campaign signs were recently vandalized across much of Fort Bend County. The daughter of immigrants from India and Pakistan, she said the experience only made her “want to work harder… we need to show our kids these things are not right.”
For Cameron ‘Coach Cam’ Campbell, running for Texas’ HD 132, those kids come front and center. A former college football player and current Play Safe coach, a key piece of Campbell’s agenda is what he calls STEME, an extended acronym for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum, with an added ‘E’ for Entrepreneurship. “It’s a wise investment,” explained Campbell, who wants to see vocational opportunities become a more central part of public education. “We strengthen education and our local economy.”
Campbell echoed the other speakers, acknowledging the stakes in this election. “Our democracy is fragile,” he said, pointing to recently enacted laws like SB 1 which have already led to the rejection of thousands of ballots from voters of color. “It should raise alarm bells.”
But for Wyatt and the other candidates, the response seems clear. “My answer is to be a part of the solution rather than just talking about it.”