Meet the Progressive, Latinx Community Organizer Running for John Cornyn's Senate Seat

Texas U.S Senate candidate Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez and her two-year-old son Santiago
Screenshot: Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez/YouTube

Last year, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke narrowly lost his campaign for U.S. Senate to incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, but ended up setting the record for most votes ever cast for a Democratic candidate in Texas history. Now, Texans are lining up to take on Cruz’s senior counterpart, Sen. John Cornyn (first elected in 2002), but only one of these candidates, Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, has the backing and resources of the campaign that gave voters the hope for a brighter, bluer Texas.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez is a statewide organizer for Texas immigrants and Latinx youth. She began her career working with immigrant workers in Ohio, then moved to Austin, TX, where she co-founded the Workers Defense Project, a membership-based organization fighting for low-income workers. She served as WDP’s executive director from 2006 until her departure in 2016, and in 2017 she founded Jolt, a Texas-wide network organizing and advocating for the priorities of Latinx youth.

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Splinter sat down with Tzintzún Ramirez at her East Austin home on the day of her panel at Saturday’s Texas Tribune Festival. With her two-year-old son Santi playing around their backyard, Tzintzún Ramirez spoke about the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, exciting Latinx and young voters, and why she embraced requests to run.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


The Texas Democrats have said that their plan for 2020 is to register another 2.6 million voters, and then get another 1,000 people on the ground. Where do you fit into that?

As you know, I was asked to run—it wasn’t something I was looking to do—by folks that ran Beto’s Senate campaign, and some folks that run the largest voter registration mobilization efforts in the state. With the recognition that we are so close to flipping Texas—and the political outcome of flipping the state won’t just change the election outcome of Texas for an election cycle, it’s going to change the political outcome of our country for a generation and that’s what’s on the line. But to do that, there is no way any Democrat does that without driving up voter registration and turnout amongst young voters and Latinos. Then obviously I’ve spent my career doing that in the state and I’ve had a pretty big impact pretty quickly. And so I see my job as making sure that not only do we run the best campaign that brings all voters together and doesn’t ignore voters, but also puts front and center outreach efforts and registration efforts of the voters that are often ignored, but actually so critical to flipping the state—so young voters, Latino voters.

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What have you adopted from the people who ran Beto’s Senate campaign, and what have you brought to the campaign yourself?

So there’s two parts of our campaign infrastructure, which are really important. The first part is that the people on my campaign and that recruited me are the folks that ran Beto’s digital and field operations, so the largest volunteer operation and “[Get Out The Vote]” effort in the state’s history, and they learned a lot very quickly. And then my campaign chairwoman, Ginny Goldman, is the co-founder of Texas Organizing Project, which has run the largest voter mobilization efforts in black and brown communities here in Texas, and for many cycles has had a budget bigger than the Democratic Party of the state. And so we’re bringing together the best of a massive volunteer scalable operation, which with the intention of having upwards of 20,000 volunteers working on this campaign once we’re in the general, but also the ability that Ginny and I bring of doing deep and scalable grassroots efforts with black and brown voters and young voters in the state.

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And then the other thing I think was important about why they asked me to run, and why I decided to run, as I feel like we live in a moment where people are looking for authenticity, where people are looking for someone that will stand up and fight for them, that understands the economic realities that they go through every day. I guess I can say I brought you into the “gated community” of my backyard, but I live in the communities of the voters and look like the voters that we want to turn out to vote in this state. As someone that’s not held elected office but knows how to bring people together that are often ignored or underestimated by those in power to actually make government work for them, that’s I think what’s exciting about my campaign. You will always know what I believe in and where I stand on every single issue, because that’s exactly how I believe you should win, that you should win on that based on the merit of your ideas, and by working harder than anybody else, and that’s what I intend to do.

Chris Hooks has written in the Texas Observer about the problem that Texas Republicans are having, specifically the fact that Trump needs them in order to win, but they have to distance themselves from Trump in order to stay in office. Where do you think there’s an opportunity for Democrats within this disillusionment of Republican voters?

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Texas will be the epicenter of the 2020 election, and the question won’t be, “Will Republicans recognize that?” The question will be, “Will progressives recognize that?” And that so much of the debate around the rise of the politics of hate and Trump is about who we become as a country, about who gets to be American, about who gets to have the say, and then in a state where people of color make up the majority, where one in three of us are like me, we are immigrants or children of immigrants, that also my candidacy—my mom’s from Mexico, and as a woman of color and Latina—will very much be debated.

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And then especially in a state as diverse as this, that our current senator doesn’t understand that he should embrace the diversity of the state, but that is where our strength comes from. So you are going to have Republicans very much struggle in this state, ‘cause John Cornyn, Donald Trump, and the majority of the Republican Party do not represent that diversity, and they will suffer because of that.

Have you heard from Republicans here or across Texas that feel disillusioned and are looking to candidates like you?

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Yeah, I think there are Republicans that are disillusioned, and there are also so many voters—young people, people of color, low income people, first-time voters that would not have voted in 2018—and those numbers are going to go through the roof. We have one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country. So yes, it’s a question of moving independents, but it’s also a question of turning out huge numbers of young people, people of color that feel disaffected, that don’t feel represented, that don’t feel heard by either political party.

And I know from doing this work—my work in this state that built a very strong movement very quickly of young Latino voters that were engaged, that were ready to fight back, that we’re ready to stand up for themselves and their families and communities—that Latinos aren’t apathetic. Our elected leaders on both sides just haven’t been listening to them or paying attention to them. And I recognize that the strength of my campaign comes from ordinary people that don’t see themselves reflected in either party. And I don’t mean independents. I mean there are progressives that don’t feel like Democrats have been fighting for them.

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Your family is mixed-immigration status, is that correct?

Yes.

Is that something that concerned you when you were considering running?

Right now I’m just raising Santi by myself, it’s just me and Santi. But I also think that if you look at the shooting that happened in El Paso, that communities of color and Latinos in the state are under attack. And no matter how many generations our families have been here—like our president just told four Congressional U.S. citizen women to go back to the countries where they came from, most of whom are from here. So I know that there is very much a target on my back, on my community’s back. It was also a huge reason why I decided to run. I always believe in supporting the candidate that has the best ideas regardless of their race or ethnicity, but I also know that in a state where we make up 40 percent of the state’s population that we needed a strong Latino candidate to run statewide.

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You often talk about the concept that Texas is already a purple state, it’s just that we don’t have the registration necessary to show that this is where the political power is. What is your process for mobilizing Latinx communities and communities of color?

So we’re just going to start launching the components of the campaign that I’m really excited by. So you’re going to see our next ad coming out with me standing in front of a bunch of girls in Quinceñera dresses that say: “We take power in tiaras.” Every year, 200,000 Latinos turn 18 in Texas. Some politicians are afraid of us and they should be because we’re going to flip Texas in 2020. So speaking to the power that we have, the culture and community we have. We’re starting our statewide college campus tour now to drive up the youth vote. I’m also going to be doing events focused on issues that particularly impact moms, cross-racial, ‘cause I think there are some key issues around violence in schools, being able to afford college and healthcare that impact families of all different kinds of backgrounds, and also focusing on the issues that particularly black communities face in our state, whether that’s around racial inequities, economic issues, criminal justice reform, and also poor outcomes on healthcare because of racial disparities in our healthcare system that even based on income, have nothing to do with income and everything to do with race.

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When elected, what will you focus on? 

So I think the part that’s most exciting about running for office in Texas is that we are such a big state, so I think we can dream big, and that a state of 29 million people with 36 congressional seats and 38 electoral votes...So that on all of the major issues that I think are considered some of the toughest issues in our country, if you talk about climate change, healthcare, immigration, or gun control, that no state has more to lose or gain on those issues than our state. And as a state as big as ours, we can actually step up and tackle those problems, and that you have to do that with big ideas that actually go to the root cause of those problems.

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So that’s why I’m supporting the Green New Deal because in a state that has such a huge oil and gas industry, I want to make sure that our state is positioned to lead on this transition. And I know my opponent, John Cornyn, has criticized the Green New Deal, but I think that’s probably because he hasn’t read it. But I wouldn’t be surprised that he hasn’t read it because, apparently he didn’t read 20 years of climate science reports, because he just realized climate change was real. But what the Green New Deal essentially says is that we’re not going to leave behind any oil and gas worker, and we’re going to create millions of good new jobs, and then we’re going to government and private sector focus to solve this. And it’s also why I’m supporting Medicare for All because it is the most cost effective, the most efficient, and best way to make sure that Americans get the healthcare they need.

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Those are ideas and pieces of legislation that are already in the works or are largely being talked about. What about immigration?

So for immigration, we have built an economy in this country that has been willing to accept undocumented workers’ labor but not their full humanity. So we, one, to have to allow people to come to this country legally and safely. We have to honor the fact that we need immigrants and then we should accept not only their work, but accept them as families, accept them as community members, and then we need to overhaul our entire legal migration system to actually allow people into this country for the workforce needs we have...I would prefer to see billions of dollars to fund the counties and communities in this country that have the highest uninsured rates, the greatest need for infrastructure and investment, and that’s along our U.S.-Mexico border.

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And then I think we also have to start talking about what the debate around immigration is truly about. I don’t think the Trump administration is just afraid of people like my 62-year-old immigrant Mexican mother, but they are deeply afraid of me, her U.S. citizen daughter that can vote and has a dramatically different vision for my country. That the debate about immigration has everything to do with race and voting power, and who gets to be an American. That whether they’re trying to talk about cutting legal migration in half, under-counting immigrants and their children in the U.S. census, or purging U.S. naturalized citizens from voting, that these are the same old tools of poll taxes and literacy tests, and they are just being repackaged for the same purpose of denying communities of color the right to vote, and the right to be full Americans. That’s everything immigration debate is about. It’s not about who has the right papers or how many people came here the right way. That’s not what it’s about.

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I was having this conversation yesterday with a friend about how two-thirds of Texans do not know who John Cornyn is. What is your game plan for showing Texans that John Cornyn is not representative of them?

I don’t think John Cornyn is at all representative of who Texas is today. John Cornyn and the Republican Party of the state have been happy to hold power and win by having a minority of voters go vote. I plan on winning by a mandate. I plan on winning by the merit of my ideas. I plan on winning by showing Texas voters that their vote matters because I will fight for them. And if I were John Cornyn, I’d be embarrassed to have been the senator of the state for nearly two full decades when we have the highest uninsured rate in the country. We have the highest childhood poverty rate in the country. That he has stood alongside Trump who has attacked, demonized, and insulted the majority of our population, who are people of color and children of immigrants. So I think he has no business being our senator anymore.

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When I was first introduced to you last year, you went by Tzintzún. Is there a reason you’re going by Tzintzún Ramirez in your campaign?

It’s my married name, and it was changed before I was even asked to run. [Ramirez is] my husband’s name.

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And you said you’re raising Santi on your own right now. Would you feel comfortable elaborating on that?

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I love the father of my son very much, like many families that are experiencing divorce, and I really appreciate—one of the reasons I’m running is for this little guy [Santi], because I want him to have a future where climate change is dealt with. I want him to have a future where he’s not being trained in his school how to play dead and having gun drills instead of tornado drills. I’m really appreciative of people respecting the privacy of our personal life, you know, why I’m having a divorce, but it’s something that lots of families go through. I’m really proud that I’m also running a modern mom campaign, that I’m taking my little guy with me everywhere on the road that I go, and that I know he’s going to be really proud to see his mom fight for him and fight for like a Texas that he could be proud of.

And I would also say Tzintzún is more Mexican than any Garcia or Lopez or anything. Tzintzún is an indigenous group in Mexico. We were the only group not defeated by the Aztecs so I come from good lineage. So I’m used to fighting against odds that are not in my favor.

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I think there is a usually a huge misconception about what it means to live in a Southern state, and this popular narrative that people from small communities don’t matter or that because they vote Republican, that they don’t matter.

I just want to say, Texas is an incredibly diverse state, and that there is a long tradition of economic populism and progressivism in our state, and that the thing I’ve learned that Texans appreciate the most is someone that tells the truth. And with my campaign, you will always know where I stand on every single issue. And that if I’m learning about something or formulating what I think, I’m going to be clear about what I’m weighing and thinking through and I think that that sets me apart from the entire field.

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About the author

Samantha Grasso

Splinter Staff Writer, Texan