Down-Ballot Victory for DSA Member in Austin, Texas

DSA members Glenn Scott, Julie Nitsch, and Claudia Corum.

By Bridget Tobin, Richard Croxdale, and Glenn Scott

In a remarkable, unexpected down-ballot election victory in Austin, Texas, DSA member and Sanders campaign activist Julie Ann Nitsch won her runoff for Austin Community College (ACC) Board of Trustees on December 13th.

Nitsch started her campaign at a clear disadvantage. It was her first electoral campaign and she lacked name recognition. Meanwhile, her strongest opponent had served as ACC Trustee for the previous 6 years, had a long resume of community activism, and received endorsements from most local Democratic elected officials and leaders.

But Nitsch did have the strong backing of a huge Bernie movement in Central Texas, a DSA chapter whose large membership provided block walkers and phone bankers, and the full support of Our Revolution (the national organization that grew out of the Sanders campaign) in the runoff election that would follow.

Nitsch’s leadership in the Sanders campaign gained her the respect and support of hundreds of volunteers. After volunteering for the campaign in the summer of 2015, Nitsch became the Austin Organizer of Texans for Bernie for Travis County and, later, one of 5 Austin DSA members who served as Sanders delegates at the DNC.

Following Bernie’s loss in the primary, Nitsch’s campaign manager and digital director Elisabeth D. Webster said “we realized we were no longer alone. We didn’t have to fight on our own.” She adds that in the wake of the Democratic National Convention in August, “These people were fired up and needed a candidate and Julie was the real deal. She was ready to do it and she was ready to stand up for them.”

People were also drawn to Nitsch by the strong progressive agenda she outlined for ACC, which is the 3rd largest community college in Texas, with over 40,000 students spread over three counties. Nitsch was the first ACC candidate to advocate for creating child care services for students, for offering reproductive health care, and for improving affordable transportation for the rapidly growing student population. As a former student and former employee at ACC, she incorporated the spirit of Sanders national agenda and his democratic socialist vision into her platform.

“I want to improve access to higher education by removing the obstacles that affect working class people,” Nitsch said when Our Revolution endorsed her campaign in August of 2016.

Nitsch’s progressive vision and strong support base made for a vigorous, people-powered campaign. According to Austin DSA Co-Chair Danny Fetonte, “DSA members provided the foot soldiers for the campaign.” DSAers staffed phone banks, attended Democratic Clubs and union meetings with Nitsch, block walked, did mailings, and put up signs at member’s homes and at friendly businesses.

Our Revolution also played a pivotal role in Nitsch’s victory. They contacted thousands of supporters with text messages and calls during the campaign. Volunteers say they often followed up after initial contact to remind voters and made sure they got to the polls.

Also crucial to the campaign was Nitsch’s digital strategy. Campaign manager Webster, who also worked on the campaign’s graphic design, ensured that when voters heard Nitsch’s name, they would be able to Google it and see a highly professional website and online presence with consistent, powerful messages.

Another key player in Nitsch’s win was the Central Labor Council, who endorsed Nitsch early on. An important step to winning the Labor Council’s support was earning the backing of the ACC-AFT local, the ACC faculty and support staff union. Although Nitsch’s chief opponent, Guadalupe Sosa, had served the previous 6 years as Trustee in a different at-large seat, the AFT local passed over Sosa and delivered their endorsement to Nitsch. According to Webster, Nitsch received the endorsement “by really being there,” and because “her candidacy stood out. They had seen her be such an active part of the Bernie movement. She had a consistent message in advocating for the working class.”

ACC-AFT also supported Nitsch for her insistence on transparency and the need for the board to receive clear information from the administration. They felt Nitsch would listen to the union’s position and would allow their issues and voices to be heard.

The final element of the winning coalition was a local Bernie-inspired progressive group called Left Up to Us (LUTU). According to their website, several Sanders staffers and volunteers started the group with the mission to “answer the call for a progressive political revolution by actively organizing to engage and educate the community.” For Nitsch’s campaign, LUTU activists helped by phone banking, block walking, and text banking.

In the General election on November 8th Nitsch delivered a strong second place finish with 32% in a four-way race, while Sosa took just over 38%. With no candidate receiving over 50% of the vote, the race went into a runoff election on December 13th. The 5-week period between these dates gave the Nitsch campaign a renewed path to victory. Our Revolution hosted statewide and out-of-state phone banks to get out the vote for Nitsch, their only endorsed candidate in a runoff.

On the ground in Travis, Hays, and Williamson Counties, the Nitsch campaign targeted mostly Democratic known voters, a noticeable departure from Nitsch’s general election strategy of reaching out to voters disengaged from the political process. The campaign focused on the neighborhoods where they could win and turn out the vote, which meant talking to the roughly 10,000 people who had the most consistent voting records. Ultimately, Nitsch’s strong grassroots support and pivot in voter strategy led her to a stunning 2 to 1 runoff victory.

The Julie Ann Nitsch Campaign is a case study of successful local organizing and grassroots campaigning. The value of having a candidate who people see as believable and capable in representing their community cannot be overstated. Despite her well-supported opponent, Nitsch won 59% of the vote because, as she’ll tell you, “you just can’t replace passion with money.”

Bridget Tobin, Glenn Scott, and Richard Croxdale are members of Austin DSA. 

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