Deep in the heart of Texas Penny Morales Shaw fights for justice
Penny Shaw campaigns at a retirement home where everyone listened intensely. They vote! Bernard Sampson/People's World

HOUSTON—Deep in the heart of Texas, or more specifically this city, the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) is pushing political activism and policies to benefit the under-represented and often-overlooked minorities in the Lone Star State’s biggest city.

And so is Penny Morales Shaw, the Democratic nominee for the Precinct (District) 4 seat on the Harris County Commissioners Court. Harris includes Houston and many of its suburbs.

TOP, which is also active in Bexar (San Antonio) and Dallas Counties, has as its objective getting Latinos and African-Americans not only to register and vote on Nov. 6, but also to train them in political activism and in effectively making their voices heard on issues that matter in a personal manner: Decent schools, affordable housing, well-paying jobs, among others.

At a Texas Organizing Project (TOP) meeting in Sunny Side where activists discussed getting the vote out, criminal justice reform and gentrification. Bernard Shaw/People’s World

“We are going after the unlikely voters. Our goal is to grow the electorate,” says Mary Moreno, TOP’s communications director. A larger electorate can reorient county priorities by ejecting anti-minority officeholders – including the county commissioners. “We call it the Drive for Democracy.”

The Harris County Commission has a big say in priorities, via the $2 billion budget it has to work with. And with African-American Democrat Rodney Ellis outvoted by four white Republican “good ol’ boys” as Morales Shaw calls them, Houston’s minorities and their priorities get very short shrift.

That was the point of Morales Shaw’s Oct. 14 pep talk to an overflowing room of TOP organizers before they headed out to register people to vote and to make sure of future contacts so they could get those thousands to the polls. TOP’s organizers previously got a similar talk from Democratic Precinct 2 nominee Adrian Garcia, who’s challenging another of the GOP’s 4-man bloc.

If the two win, and join Ellis, they’ll be able to redirect Harris County’s spending. And that’s important to minorities, she said. “Ed Emmett’s worst nightmare is that on Election Day, we’ll all vote and he’ll be swept out of office,” Morales Shaw says of the commission chair, formally called a county judge, a Republican who also faces the voters this fall. Democrat Lina Hidalgo is challenging Emmett.

Morales Shaw pitched particular issues important to her, TOP and minority voters. As a mostly pro bono attorney for minorities for 18 years, she could change lives case-by-case, she told them. “But as a public official, you can make policies that aid thousands.

“You all are fighting for the people in jail, for the people who lost their homes in Hurricane Harvey and in other floods,” she exhorted the crowd. “They make the laws, and there is a bunch of people who feel they have no hope.” Organizing, agitating and voting can – if it’s big enough – change that, she declared.

One change she would advocate: Establishing pre-trial intervention programs to take troubled youths out of the school-to-prison pipeline, thus saving both lives and money. “Let’s give them opportunity, not just throw the book at them,” Morales Shaw, a widowed single mother, said

Another is expanding early childhood education “by having the county directly pay for pre-K and ECE.” Though Morales Shaw did not say so, expanding ECE is also a big goal of national teachers’ unions.

Putting the kids into ECE “is directly empowering people” by both giving the kids a better academic start and by freeing parents from worrying about the costs of childcare, she notes. The parents get a chance to earn more, too, she adds. They can work while the kids are in pre-K.

And Morales Shaw noticed that in some parts of the city, the world-renowned Baylor College of Medicine has set up free clinics in high schools, to expand health care. She’d lobby to bring that to high schools in Precinct 4. That would not only help families and kids “but provide career development opportunities” for workers who want to get into the healthcare field.

By contrast, the ruling Republicans on the Harris County Commission want to make voting as hard as possible for minorities – a goal, though Morales Shaw did not say so, in line with the national GOP’s voter suppression efforts. Both repressions target minorities, women, students, the elderly and workers.

“They don’t want minority communities to be organized. And at one meeting, one of the commissioners said ‘We don’t want them to have good schools. We want people who will just listen and follow instructions,’” she told the crowd.

Their criminal justice policy is “No bond! No bond! No bond!” and throw people in jail.

And the incumbent Republicans use that $2 billion budget “as their personal piggy bank,” not in terms of taking cash themselves, but in terms of rewarding their political friends and backers, Morales Shaw said. Meanwhile, “our potholes don’t get repaired.”

TOP is countering that GOP attitude with boots on the ground, both registering new voters but also with innovative ways to remind them to cast ballots. One is to get each new registrant to fill out a self-addressed postcard. When early voting starts on Oct. 22, TOP will send the cards as reminders to vote – and then follow up with three more personal visits from organizers, and arranging rides to the polls for those without cars, too.

TOP’s got a fertile field to work with. Census data show Harris County is 42 percent Latino and 19 percent African-American.

Morales Shaw needs those registration efforts, reminders and boots on the ground to get Hispanic and African-American voters to the polls. She also has the endorsement of the city’s leading newspaper, The Houston Chronicle, and has both party and Democratic foot-soldiers in her corner.

Her GOP foe, Jack Cagler, has incumbency and money. As of July 31, he had outraised her, $400,485-$10,363. He had outspent her on media ads by $45,000-$4,700. He also has the Texas GOP machine behind him.

“I’m not going to raise $2 million to win a seat nobody knows about,” Morales Shaw commented. “But dollars don’t win elections. People do.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.