What it takes to win in Texas
Battleground Texas’ Executive Director on how the group is changing the state + overcoming challenges
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Electorally, Texas has been something of a “reach” goal for Democrats and progressives for several election cycles now. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke narrowly lost to Ted Cruz in the state’s U.S. Senate election, and in 2020, the Biden campaign spent last-minute ad dollars there, in hopes that the state could flip for the first time in decades.
If Texas is ever going to become a true “battleground,” it will be due in no small part to organizations around the state doing year-round voter engagement work. One of those is Battleground Texas, which was founded in 2014 to expand the electorate. For this week’s Campaigner, we spoke with Terry Bermea, a former organizer and now Executive Director of the group, to hear about their work.
Q&A with Terry Bermea, Battleground Texas
Campaigner: How’d you get your start in politics?
Terry Bermea: I grew up in South Texas in a non-voting household. My mom was very busy working multiple jobs to even think about voting as something she should do. When I got to high school, my best friend’s aunt was running for State Representative here in the Rio Grande Valley, and she just kind of brought me into her campaign and registered me to vote. She got me to go block walking with the campaign and just threw me into that world. It was very intimidating, but it was also like really empowering to talk to people and have them listen to you about a candidate that you believed in. That was my first real taste of politics!
After I went to college and grad school, I had the opportunity to either work for the nonprofit I had interned for, or go to this organizing job that I had no idea what it was about, but it was with this organization called Battleground Texas. I just kind of jumped at the opportunity, started organizing, and it was a really cool experience.
I started my career with Battleground Texas, and it's really crazy that I get to lead the organization now. That was kind of the intention of the organization coming into Texas and starting up – to get the state to a place in organizing that people that were from here would eventually lead the work. I'm so glad that I get the opportunity to do this work every day.
Campaigner: For people who aren’t familiar: what is the goal of Battleground Texas and what does your day-to-day look like?
Terry Bermea: Our goal is to create lifelong voters and to build a Texas that's as diverse and powerful as our communities. We do voter registration – which we call “voter creation,” because our work isn’t done after the initial step or registering them. Our work doesn’t end there – we work to register, and then turn out voters during elections.
It’s kind of just like my story: I got started in organizing because someone brought me into the process. That’s the story of many Texans, not only here in South Texas, but just across the board. We don’t realize how much power we actually have. One of our goals is to be in the communities to empower and have those conversations with them and provide resources and tools to help them organize their own communities.
Right now in Texas, we see that the people making the decisions don't really reflect our values. Our goal is to make sure that people see the ability to change that by mobilizing other people and bringing more people into the process. That’s what we need in Texas - It's not just us doing the work - we need to train and teach other people how to bring more people into the fold.
Campaigner: Texas is a huge place. Can you talk about your staffing and organizing structure a bit?
Terry Bermea: Texas is a huge state! We have regional organizing teams in several places. It’s really difficult to take a statewide approach to organize here. For instance, Latinos are a big demographic that many groups and campaigns are always trying to mobilize. That said, Latinos here in South Texas are very different than Latinos in Dallas or Houston, and we care about different things. That’s why we have regional teams and different programs that we run in each of these regions. Here in South Texas, we’re running a relational program, where we’re doing voter registration and we're using an app called Reach to do that.
Then we have regional staff right now in Houston and Dallas. Those individuals are also working to organize their communities and are doing voter registration events at festivals, at college move-in days, door-to-door block walking, anything you can think of to register voters, we're trying to do that.
We also have a statewide campus program, where we have students on campuses doing voter registration and mobilization, and they also do relational organizing work. In the most recent primary, they did a lot of “vote tripling “ where they were standing outside polling places and getting people that were coming out to text three of their friends to come vote.
We’re currently in the Rio Grande Valley, Dallas, Austin, and Houston. Obviously, we would love to be in more places than we are now, but we have to be strategic with our budget and resources.
Campaigner: Compared to short-term electoral organizing, why is long-term organizing so important?
Terry Bermea: What we've seen in the past are these large influxes of funding and resources that have come in around election time, and groups just kind of deploy people. I think now we're seeing that having people that are from the local community actually organizing is so much more impactful.
The relationship component has just become so crucial. I also think when you're working in communities of color, there's a significant trust element. People don’t trust random strangers as much as people who have been here, working with them and providing them resources.
Another thing that’s really important is training. We want to teach people how to do this work, so that when these rapid response situations or opportunities come up, they know how to mobilize their communities, know how to organize around putting a rally together or a protest or something. We’re seeing much more of that these days, but we're still very far from where we should be.
Campaigner: South Texas has been in the news a lot lately - whether it was a shift towards Trump last cycle, the competitive Democratic primary in #TX28 or a Republican recently flipping a Democratic Congressional seat. What's happening down there?
Terry Bermea: I talk about South Texas all the time. One of the things that we've seen here is that like you historically have seen a lot of voter engagement around a primary election. Then, after that, everything just kind of stops. We’re starting to see that civic engagement infrastructure is needed not only for primary elections but also for general elections in the fall. We need to have organizers and investment on the ground as much as possible.
There’s this narrative that South Texas is turning conservative. In my opinion, it’s just like the rest of the state: we say Texas isn’t a “red state” - it’s a non-voting state. We’re trying to change that by putting long-term organizing infrastructure in place.
Campaigner: What have been some of your favorite wins or achievements for Battleground Texas?
Terry Bermea: One of my favorite examples of our impact is this: if you look at so many other progressive or civic engagement organizations across the state, you will see that there's likely at least one Battleground Texas alumni in a leadership position. That’s really something that we’re so proud of, because it shows that our organization is not only focused on registering a ton of voters and mobilizing them - but we’re also training the next generation of organizers to lead. Working in Texas is not easy, you’re just constantly bombarded with different challenges and hurdles, and the fact that so many people have stayed in the work is really incredible.
Also, we’ve registered over 225,000 people since Battleground Texas started. That’s 225,000 actual voters - and in 2020, over 100,000 of those people had turned out to vote a second time. Creating lifelong, consistent voters is something that we're seeing happen more and more as the years progress.
Campaigner: You mentioned the hurdles and challenges that organizers face in your state. Obviously, the state legislature has been in the news lately for making it extremely difficult to register voters (and vote). Can you talk about how you overcome those obstacles?
Terry Bermea: First, we just have to make sure that our staff is constantly being trained on the rules and how to do things correctly. We have to always provide additional training to reemphasize the rules and the new things that have come about. It’s difficult, the state has tried to make it intentionally so much harder to do basic things. We just work really hard to make sure that we're providing our staff and our volunteers with as many resources as they have so that we don't have to really feel the impacts of it.
That comes in the form of a lot of training and coaching and quick corrective measures if they're needed. We’re coming up on a big voter registration deadline in around 100 days, and we know there's gonna be a lot more scrutiny on our work - so that training is critical.
In Texas, in order to register voters, it's not just like you do training once and you're done - you have to get “deputized” in every county that you want to work in. So if you wanted to register voters all across the state, you have to go to 254 counties and make sure you’re in compliance. If you're working a big festival and voters are coming from all over the place, If you're only deputized in one county, you can't register someone from another if you don't have the certification. It’s all so crazy.
The rules vary from county to county. Some make you do actual receipts for voter registration, others don't, and you have to know all of the rules all the time.
By contrast, when I went to do some similar work in Virginia for a bit in 2016, I remember I got there and we just had to do some training online, and then we were good to go. (laughs).
Campaigner: What’s something you wish folks outside of Texas paid more attention to?
Terry Bermea: I’m excited that more organizations are now paying attention to Texas earlier. Out-of-state groups are having more conversations with organizations that have been doing the work for a long time on the ground. That has been really cool.
The thing I wish that more people paid attention to is just how hard it is to do organizing here. For example, If you're running a voter registration program with an outside organization and they're asking you for data, that data might not be available because the voter file hasn’t been updated. There are obstacles and structures that are put in place here to make it difficult to do the work. Some people don't know that you have to get deputized in 254 counties if you want to register voters all across the state. Some people don't know that you can't take a photocopy of a voter registration form because that's illegal. Some people don't know that you have to turn in the voter registration forms within five days after you collected them to make sure that you’re compliant.
The other thing is that the earlier that we can get interest, funding, and resources into our work, the better - it goes a long way. It takes time to train volunteers and staff, so as early as we're able to start building our programs, the better. Early resources go a long way to be able to hire and have that infrastructure built in time.
One last thing from Arena…
Check out Arena Managing Partner Lauren Baer’s powerful op-ed in Newsweek about the end of Roe and where we go from here. Read and share>>
These interviews are meant to highlight different voices from across the campaign ecosystem. The views expressed therein are not necessarily reflective of the views of Arena or FWIW Media 🇺🇸