BY Patrick Svitek
A group of progressive Democratic operatives is looking to draft one of the state’s top organizers of the Latino vote into running for U.S. Senate, a move that could further shake up Texas’ still-unsettled primary to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.
The group is focused on Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the founder and executive director of Jolt, a nonprofit she started three years ago to mobilize young Latinos in Texas politics. She also is a co-founder of the Workers Defense Project, an older Austin-based group that fights for labor rights.
Tzintzún Ramirez is not publicly commenting on the Senate race. But among those encouraging her to run are Ginny Goldman, founding executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, and Zack Malitz, field director for Beto O’Rourke’s blockbuster U.S. Senate campaign last year, according to Democratic sources.
Tzintzún Ramirez’s fans see her as the right person at the right time — not unlike O’Rourke, a congressman who went from statewide obscurity to coming within 3 percentage points of the state’s junior GOP senator, Ted Cruz.
“I think she would be a very strong candidate,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Houston-based Democratic strategist who is not involved in the draft effort. “There are people that have the kind of background, life history, that fits the time in which we are. Those people tend to take off, and we saw that in Beto O’Rourke. … It was just the right timing and the right place to be. When I heard her name, I thought the same thing.”
Tzintzún Ramirez declined to comment for this story. However, people who have been in touch with her believe she is thinking about the race and has not ruled out a run.
The effort to recruit Tzintzún Ramirez underscores how the primary is still taking shape, even after MJ Hegar, the former U.S. House candidate, entered the race in mid-April and raised over $1 million. Former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston has since made clear he is running, and the field is likely to grow further in the coming weeks. State Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who is viewed as likely to run, has scheduled an announcement for July 22. And Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards is also moving closer to a campaign.
“I think there’s a lot of room available in this primary where there’s not one like Castro who ran and it would’ve been a done deal,” said veteran national Democratic operative Gilberto Ocañas, referring to Joaquin Castro, the San Antonio congressman who decided against a run earlier this year. “I think you have a lot more open.”
As for Tzintzún Ramirez, Ocañas said she has “great potential,” pointing the two influential organizations she helped build at relatively young ages and her ability to appeal to not just Latino voters but millennial Latino voters who hold the keys to the state’s political future. Ocañas’ wife, Ana “Cha” Guzman, is on Jolt’s Leadership Council.
Of course, Tzintzún Ramirez would face the same challenges just about every other declared and potential primary candidate faces: being able to put together a viable, well-funded campaign in a massive state. And when it comes to reaching primary voters further to the left, one Democratic contender is already making those appeals: Sema Hernandez, a self-styled “Berniecrat” who ran in 2018 and got a stronger-than-expected 24% against O’Rourke in the primary.
Yet Tzintzún Ramirez would bring a far stronger resume to the race. She spent 12 years at the helm of the Workers Defense Project, helping turn it into a group nationally known for its labor and immigrant advocacy. The group recently helped to lead the charge for paid sick leave ordinances in Austin and other cities. She founded Jolt in November 2016, shortly after President Donald Trump’s election, setting out to register and mobilize Latino voters.
Associates describe Tzintzún Ramirez as one of the most data-driven, knowledgeable organizers in Texas when it comes to the Latino vote — and someone whose political outlook goes far beyond the current election cycle, regardless of whether she decides to run for Senate.
“I think Cristina is intent on building a sustained movement of progressive and young Latino voters, and any decision that she makes is about not only their vote in 2020 but especially their vote in 2022 and 2024,” said Eugene Sepulveda, chairman of the Jolt Leadership Council. “Any decision that she makes will be at least as much about the next governor’s race as this senatorial race.”
Disclosure: Gilberto Ocañas and Eugene Sepulveda have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.