Former Austin City Councilman Greg Casar has already charted a different course than many Democratic elected leaders in Texas.

In an election cycle dominated by talk of guns and abortion rights, he won a seat representing Texas’ 35th Congressional District by focusing on societal inequities like income and access to health care that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

If there was any question about his political influences, Casar put them to rest campaigning alongside U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) at Texas State University in San Marcos in October, declaring the Democratic Socialist former presidential hopeful an inspiration for the next generation of progressive leaders like himself.

“This young man who you’re going to send to Congress, in my view, is going to be one of the outstanding political leaders in this country,” Sanders said of Casar at the event.

Casar, 33, got his start working in organized labor as a policy director for the Workers Defense Project, which represents immigrant workers in the construction industry.

In 2014 he became the youngest person elected to Austin’s City Council, where he pushed for policies such as paid sick leave, changes to police funding and allowing homeless people to camp in the city. He also worked closely with city leaders in San Antonio throughout the pandemic and on issues related to negligent landlords.

“I would reach out to him and he would reach out to me when we would face similar issues at the municipal level,” said San Antonio City Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), who worked with Casar on housing issues and supported his Congressional bid. “He has a proven track record of collaboration with this community, even though he represents a lot of the Austin community.”

When population growth necessitated the creation of a new Austin-based Congressional district, Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett chose to run for that seat, leaving the 35th open. Casar quickly tapped his labor connections to build support across the barbell-shaped Austin-to-San Antonio district and went on to win outright a four-way primary that included state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and former San Antonio Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran.

“[Casar] was so highly recommended by my friends in Austin, people that I respect in the labor community … I put [a campaign event] together for him within within 48 hours” of Doggett’s decision, said Bob Comeaux, a San Antonio labor leader and longtime friend of Doggett.

Casar’s Congressional district encompasses part of south Austin, runs along Interstate 35 through San Marcos and connects to northern San Antonio. It loops together a heavy concentration of the region’s Democratic voters, while bordering one of the delegation’s most conservative officeholders, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Dripping Springs).

Casar easily defeated Republican Dan McQueen, who did little campaigning, on Nov. 8 with 72.6% of the vote.

His victory comes as organized labor is trying to make a revival in Texas. Westside San Antonio voters sent staunchly pro-union leader Teri Castillo to City Council last year, and labor held its biggest block walk in city history this October, Comeaux said.

It also comes on the heels of consecutive disappointing election cycles for Texas Democrats. Beto O’Rourke, their standard-bearer in both 2018 and 2022, lost to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott by roughly 11 points this month, despite raising more money than any Democratic statewide candidate in Texas’ history.

Shortly before the election the San Antonio Report asked Casar about how he planned to represent San Antonio, his ideas for navigating a Republican-controlled House and his thoughts about the future of Democratic politics in Texas.

A map shows Texas’ 35th Congressional District, which will be represented next year by Democrat Greg Casar. Credit: Courtesy / Google Maps
A map shows Texas’ 35th Congressional District, which will be represented next year by Democrat Greg Casar. Credit: Courtesy / Google

San Antonio Report: You know Austin well as a former councilman, but what can your constituents living in San Antonio expect to see from you in Congress?

Greg Casar: The East Side of Austin down to the West Side of San Antonio is all connected by our need to have more pro-worker, progressive policies at the federal level. 

Every day through the pandemic, I and council members in San Antonio and council members in San Marcos were all working to try to save lives and take care of people and make sure people can stay in their homes. But in many ways … local officials are putting bandages on what really is oftentimes caused at the federal level, where we need to better address crises like pandemics and winter storms. We have to be able to take on the climate crisis, and then be able to make sure that people have secure jobs so that any one given disaster doesn’t knock your life completely off track.

In Congress, I’ll be fighting to bring infrastructure and good union jobs to San Antonio [as well as] to raise the quality of life for working people. We know that the Jeff Bezoses of the world are doing just fine, but that working people in San Antonio are struggling to pay the rent, struggling to pay the mortgage. And that’s why we need to raise wages and improve working conditions for people here.

SAR: You talked a lot about pocketbook issues during an election cycle where other Democrats focused much of their attention on social issues. What do Democrats need to do differently to be successful in Texas?

GC: It is critically important for us to make sure it’s clear that we’re the party of working people. That is how we built a progressive Texas under [former president Lyndon B. Johnson], where Democrats overwhelmingly won elections when we made it clear that we are both for civil rights, but also for making sure that working class people are doing okay. 

To me that means we have to have a clear message on economics. The idea that Republicans are somehow better on the economy, and for the economics of working people, it’s just so wrong. We need to have that clear message for working people and on economics, in addition to being the party of civil rights.

SAR: What kind of changes do you think are possible under a divided Congress? (Though this interview was conducted before the election, Democrats now narrowly control the Senate, while Republicans hold a slim majority in the House.)

GC: I know that in my career, if the voters continue to send me to Congress, that there will be times that we’re in the majority and some times that we are in the minority. But what I am so inspired by is how new, young, progressive members of Congress are able to make change, regardless of the political circumstances. 

[Missouri Rep.] Cori Bush, a freshman member of Congress from St. Louis, I think is a great example of this. She staged a sit-in on the steps of the [U.S.] Capitol that created the opportunity for [President Joe Biden] to sign an extended eviction moratorium. She didn’t have to negotiate with [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell or [West Virginia Sen.] Joe Manchin, she managed to generate public attention and get the president to help keep thousands of people, including people here in San Antonio, in their homes.

If it weren’t for people like [Massachusetts Rep] Ayanna Pressley and [New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren, I don’t think you would see the cancellation of $20,000 of student debt for lower-income working-class people, and that is a huge benefit to people in San Antonio. 

So I believe that in the majority and in the minority, it is incumbent on those of us in the Democratic Party to push a bold agenda, inspire people long term and get things done that help our veterans, that help our seniors, that help people that are at risk of eviction. We can do that regardless of who controls the Senate, and regardless of who can end regardless of who controls the House, we have to be able to keep on advancing good policy.

SAR: Texas really prides itself on being pro-business and No. 1 in job creation. When we talk about reforms aimed at helping workers, you often hear reluctance from both parties leaders to do anything that creates an additional burden for business. How do you combat that?

GC: I think that most people I’ve talked to … they’re not just looking at the stock market going up and down. They’re looking at how their own bank account and how well they are being taken care of, and it is so clear that those folks at the very top are making so much [money] even in this time of economic hardship. 

I think the way to counter that extremist Republican message is to make it clear that we are looking out for the economics of the working person, not just at the economics of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. When we see Republicans talking about wanting to balance the budget, I would be happy to sign on with them onto bills that actually tax windfall profits, or tax the wealth of people making billions of dollars. 

I think we need to make it clear that there’s that difference. [Democrats] are also for good job creation, but we’re for creating jobs that take care of your family. Republicans seem to care about making jobs and that ultimately [are] about creating wealth for the owners of those companies, rather than the workers.

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.