Beto O’Rourke’s campaign undeniably carried energy that got people to move their feet. In the wake of his Senate run, talk has often turned to what Beto will do next, but I think “What will Beto do?” is the wrong question.
The real question is: “What will we do?”
Many of the people I met who were stumping hard for Beto were young and appreciated him for decent reasons. They liked his rejection of corporate money, his position on criminal justice reform, healthcare, student loans, etc. Sure, they like the Whataburger and skateboarding and all of that, but they also liked him because he inspired young voters to cast their votes.
Now, there’s a vacuum left by the campaign about what everyone will do next. Right now it seems like a lot of people are talking about what Beto should do next.
I challenge that we should focus less on that and more on what we can do now, together.
Because really, it wasn’t about Beto; even Beto said as much in his concession and gratitude letter. All of the campaigning and knocking and calling and donations were a grassroots effort to replace Ted Cruz because Ted Cruz’s agenda with one of hope because Cruz hurts so, so many people and because there was someone likable to many voters, so canvassers could feed off of that energy. The strategy almost worked. To come within three points of beating a Republican Senator, even in a wave year in Texas as it currently stands, is remarkable.
But Beto fell short.
Even if he had won, though, Senator Beto O’rourke wouldn’t single-handedly solve our problems. It never works that way and can be counterproductive to think it does. Rallying around a personality will always do you in in the end. It doesn’t matter what environment you are in, if everyone depends too heavily on that, you get a top-heavy cult, not a democracy.
Many of the people who were in college ten years ago were ecstatic at the possibilities after fighting to get President Barack Obama elected. They thought the whole world would change forever! The Democratic Party stopped knocking on doors and let the President do what he was going to do. On-the-ground, neighborhood organizing receded in spite of organizations such as OFA, an organizing training outfit started by Obama and his allies.
With Trump, the explosion in activism has yielded new opportunities for everyone to engage. It’s lifted the wool off of the eyes of more people than ever before. Beto was seen as a symbolic response to the Trump presidency because he spoke like a person depending on hope as opposed to fear.
But Beto still lost. And we don’t know what he is going to do next. And if we wait around here hoping Democratic Leadership, particularly at a national level, will bail us out, we’re in deep, deep trouble.
Because at the end of the day, the symbol to counter Trump isn’t Beto.
So here’s what I suggest:
If you were excited to get into civic engagement because of Beto O’Rourke, and you have energy, and you either knocked a ton of doors or want to learn about how to do that, become a precinct chair.
Precinct chairs are party officials and organizers that make up the decision-making body of the state party. They are asked to organize their precinct- small, bordered areas that make up larger districts and counties- to help get out the vote for their candidates. They also serve as representatives on behalf of the party to the community.
It’s a hard, unpaid job you can take on either by running for it or by being selected as a vacancy chair. If multiple candidates want to chair a particular precinct, they appear on the Democratic Primary ballot in an election for the position. Half of the vacancy chairs in the two major parties are empty. Precinct chairs even get to vote on the rules of the county parties and sometimes select officeholders in case of sudden resignation or death. They also select the county chair. Enough precinct chairs can revolutionize the party for good.
A precinct chair who takes the job on properly can learn a lot and do a lot of good in their community. My precinct has 7000 people in it. Many still can be registered to vote. I have tons of apartments, a park, some great restaurants, a church, and at least one school. And I care about my community and can bring that care to my neighbors. A precinct chair who is not doing their job should likely be challenged or helped. And while you have to live in the precinct to chair it officially, you can also adopt a precinct, or serve as a right hand of a chair, also known as a precinct captain.
Precinct chair is a true community organizing position. And by organizing our communities, it just so happens we will have not only all of the skills we need to survive and help one another but will also grow a new generation of organizers, activists, advocates, operatives, and candidates from the ground up. In turn, we’ll be able to win elections and still hold public officials accountable as representatives of the community. Precinct work teaches you how to represent people, listen to them, map out a field plan, mobilize volunteers, display people power for issues and campaigns, and even budget. It has been the first job of many elected officials who go on to higher office.
Best of all: when each of us does something like that, it makes sure all communities have stewards: individual people who care and have the capacity to cover the ground they take on.
That way, we’re not waiting for Beto or anyone else to save us.
We’re doing it ourselves.
If you cannot be a precinct chair, help organize the precinct in other ways. Bake the cookies. Write postcards. The revolution needs everyone.
But if you have the energy to do something big and want to get going, becoming a precinct level organizer and potentially taking on the precinct chair position is one of the best ways you can take action, make progress, and safeguard democracy.
- This video is a great video from Texas Outreach Coalition on what a precinct is.
- Here is a chart of all the precincts in Harris County with names of known chairs at the time the map was made.
- Indivisible Guide 2.0 focuses on building community and electoral offense. It’s worth a read.
- Swing Left TX-07 is a wonderful grassroots organization doing excellent fieldwork. There is a lot to learn from them.
- Here is a weird story about a handful of precinct chairs electing a state rep.