Texas Latina progressive Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez aims for the U.S. Senate

“It’s no secret that no Democrat wins unless they drive up voter turnout among young and Latino voters,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who's running for the Senate.
Image: Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez is running for United States Senate in Texas.
Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez is running for United States Senate in Texas.Cristina for Texas

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By Suzanne Gamboa

RICHARDSON, Texas — The timing wasn’t right for Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez when, at six months pregnant, she decided to start mobilizing young Latinos after Donald Trump won the White House in 2016.

With a baby on the way and little startup money, she was frightened.

“But it was much more frightening to imagine sitting on the sidelines during a Trump administration and doing nothing,” Tzintzún Ramirez, 38, said about founding the young Latino-focused group Jolt in Austin.

Four years later, Tzintzún is running for the U.S. Senate, one of a dozen Democrats, including two other Latinos,hoping to electrify Texas voters as Beto O’Rourke did in 2018 in his race against Republican Sen.Ted Cruz.

But Tzintzún Ramirez and the others also want to do what O'Rourke ultimately couldn't do — beat their Republican opponent, who this year is the state's senior senator, John Cornyn, and help Democrats in the Senate push back on Trump's agenda.

Tzintzún faces tough odds, starting with the crowded primary. The national Democratic Senate leadership has chosen decorated military veteran M.J. Hegar, as its favorite, backing her with staff and money.

But after a career mobilizing young Latino voters at Jolt and organizing construction and other workers as executive director of the Workers Defense Project, Tzintzún Ramirez said she's "learned the recipe" to drive up voter registrations.

While at Jolt, the group blasted into the national spotlight with a quinceañera protest of Texas' law SB4, which gives law enforcement more power to question people on their citizenship status. Jolt, which has endorsed Tzintzún Ramirez, is now tapping the iconic quinceañera ceremony as a way to register voters.

“It’s no secret that no Democrat wins unless they drive up voter turnout among young and Latino voters," she said.

“I also have a real deep commitment to investing in communities of color and voters that are often an afterthought and should be front and center to a strategy to win in Texas," she told NBC News during a drive from her home in Austin to Dallas.

In its annual report, Jolt said it registered 7,851 voters in 2018, its first year doing voter registration. It had a goal of registering 10,000 last year; the 2019 numbers will be released this summer. It hopes to register 55,000 in 2020, the group said.

Two more Latinos are in the race: Sema Hernandez is a Houston-area activist who finished second to Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 Democratic Senate primary, and Adrian Ocegueda is a principal at a Dallas-area private equity firm.

Of the three, Tzintzún Ramirez is leading in fundraising, $459,183 through Sept. 30, 2019, compared to Hernandez’s $7,551 and Ocegueda’s $1,039 for the same period.

Tapping Texas' young Latino vote

In a 2016 report, Pew Research Center said a third of the state's eligible Latino voters were 18 to 29, compared to 24 percent of all Texas eligible voters in that age range.

Meanwhile, about 210,000 young Latinos — 95 percent of them U.S. citizens — turn 18 each year in Texas, a Jolt study found. The state is about 40 percent Latino and is on track for Hispanics to become the largest population group in the state by 2022.

In the 2018 Democratic primary, O’Rourke came up short in several Hispanic-heavy counties, losing to Hernandez. But in the general election, O’Rourke’s greatest support was in counties with high proportions of young people, according to a study by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Tzintzún said she was proud to have written O’Rourke’s plan for getting out Latino voters in the general election. A former O’Rourke campaign adviser confirmed that O’Rourke had asked her for such a plan and that it was used, although some additions were made as the campaign went on.

Juan Proaño, a Democratic consultant and the founder and CEO of Plus Three, a technology group, said Tzintzún Ramirez has a chance to win the primary, but not without a runoff. She could have an advantage in a runoff because progressive voters turn out for them.

Can turnout close the gap?

But if she eventually wins the primary, she'll have a tougher time in a general election, given the state's size and conservative bent. O’Rourke raised $78.9 million and visited every one of the state's 254 counties. He still lost by 214,921 votes.

“It’s going to take a massive voter turnout effort coupled with a major voter registration drive to close this gap,” said Proaño.

Democrats will need to register 400,000 voters to make that happen, said Proaño, and it will cost about $16 million. Billionaire presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg plans to spend $15 million to $20 million to register 500,000 voters in five states, including Texas.

There has been an uptick in Latino voters: A Dallas Morning News analysis of census voting data found 830,000 more Texas Latinos voted in 2018 compared to 2014, and polls found 75 percent of Texas Latino voters supported Democratic candidates in 2018.

Democrats have poured more money into Texas as it's become more competitive, said Abhi Rahman, Texas Democratic Party spokesman. Democratic National Committee spending in Texas has tripled, and they've registered 2.6 million voters since 2016.

The party plans to run "the biggest coordinated campaign in Texas history," said Rahman, vowing to register new voters and "turn out infrequent ones."

Democratic consultant Gilbert Ocañas said national politics will have an impact. Cornyn is part of Sen. Mitch McConnell's team, which has been strongly supportive of Trump and his agenda. For many Texans, “his embracing of Trump, I don’t think plays that well."

Cornyn raised $13.5 million for his campaign by the end of September.

Running with her feet in two worlds

Along with her activism, Tzintzún Ramirez has been invoking her multiethnic background and indigenous roots on the campaign trail. Her mother is an immigrant from Mexico and her father is of Irish descent.

Growing up, she saw differences in how people treated her parents, Tzintzún Ramirez said. In seventh grade, a teacher refused to allow her mother to sign permission slips for her because he thought she didn't speak English, she said. But she said “my Anglo and Mexican families had more in common than at odds.”

Texans want their children to be safe and healthy and go to great schools and be educated, she said. “Every single Texas family can have that,” Tzintzún Ramirez said.

She recently came under fire for telling a north Texas group that her last name, Tzintzún, “is more Mexican than any García or Lopez.” Garcia is the most common Latino surname in Texas. After some backlash, Tzintzún Ramirez apologized.

When she talks about the Senate race, she talks about her pre-Colombian ancestors. Her mother’s surname, Tzintzún, is Purépecha, an indigenous people from Michoacán. Their ancient capital was Tzintzúntzan, which in the Purépecha language means hummingbird. They are the only group not to have been defeated by the Aztecs, she likes to point out.

As she weaves her story of the underdog who will prevail, her target is bigger than Cornyn.

“I come from very good lineage,” she said. “And I am ready to defeat Trump.”

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