This week I talked on the phone with Sema Hernandez, who ran for Senate vs. Robert (Beto) O’Rourke in the Texas Democratic Party Primary. Sema, a self-described “Berniecrat,” ran on a progressive platform very much in line with the one that Bernie Sanders used in his run during the 2016 Democratic Primary. She was able to secure nearly 25 percent of the vote while spending less than $10,000 on her campaign, while her opponent spent over $4 million. We discussed her race vs. Beto, how she was treated by the Democratic Party, her recent meeting with O’Rourke and what the future holds for the first time candidate.
GC: First off, congratulations on an amazing race!
SH: Thank you.
GC: You are very welcome. Can you talk about how you were so successful with so little money spent, a complete media blackout, and an opponent that would not debate?
SH: Certainly. Just running for office has its challenges. You need to be willing to get the message out regardless of obstacles and I faced many obstacles. I am an activist, so I already had connections in the community that helped get my message out there. We called people and shared the message, word of mouth. I teamed up with local Water Protectors who were at Standing Rock, Civil Rights Groups, and Environmental Activists. Those connections only mean something when there is trust and the message is genuine. People volunteered from their homes and college campuses. We also had down-ballot candidates that knocked on doors and that would spread the word about my campaign. Our campaign was the definition of a grassroots campaign. I also supported, blockwalked, and endorsed progressive candidates all across Texas.
GC: The Democratic Party claims to be the party of the people, an inclusive party that promotes equality. There has recently been a call for women to run for office by Democratic Party members. So why did the party ignore the first Hispanic woman to ever run for Senate as a Democrat in Texas?
SH: The most simple way to answer that is, talk is cheap. I am not one to fall in line. I am not someone who will support their message if it goes against my own beliefs and against the people I’m running to represent. The truth is they cared more about raising money and controlling the message than having the first latina running for Senate in Texas. I called the Texas Democratic Party and informed them I was running before Beto made his announcement. They gave me the runaround for months and continue to do so to this day. The Party has still yet to acknowledge that I even participated in the race for Senate. I tried to attend Democratic clubs and meetings and I was ignored or blocked out by a majority of the clubs. It was really heartbreaking. I faced racism from Democrats at the top to the local clubs. I will say the handful of Democratic Clubs I was invited to were very welcoming, I will never forget them.
GC: Two part question – Would Bernie have won?
SH: (laughing) Hell yes! Bernie would have won!
GC: (laughing) Wait for part two, would Sema have won? Or, what do you think would have happened had you been given equal exposure as Beto?
SH: Well, yes, Bernie would have won. For all the reasons we know he could have won. He was robbed from the nomination. So many things happened and it is a shame the Party hasn’t learned a thing! As for part two, I would have had a better chance had I not been ignored by even so-called progressive news outlets, like TYT. They ignored me and gave Beto a platform.
GC: Wow, that is rough. Even TYT ignored you?
SH: Eventually Cenk mentioned there was someone else in the race, but wouldn’t even say my name.
GC: Were they the only ones?
SH: The Justice Democrats were close to nominating me, but for Texas Congressional District 29. I explained I already nominated another candidate for that House Seat and he was already accepted to the Justice Democrats slate. After the confusion, they told me that I should run for a lower office. They even went as far telling me that I should consider running as a Republican. I would have fared a lot better had I not been ignored by TYT, Justice Democrats, [had] O’Rourke accepted the debate, had the party played fair. [The] Texas Democratic Party had their splash page with O’Rourke picture at a campaign stop. [The] Texas Democratic Chair, Gilberto Hinojosa, campaigned with O’Rourke across Texas. The Democratic Party did put all their weight on the scale to favor O’Rourke in the primary race.
GC: Speaking of Beto, I heard you met with him recently, can you tell us about that experience? Was he open to your progressive proposals?
SH: We talked for an hour and a half about the primary election, real issues, and I gave him advice. I have actually met him before. I asked him if he remembered meeting me for the first time and he told me that he did. He said I made an impression on him. I boldly went to meet him and shake his hand, told him my name and I wanted to meet him before the primary race since we are both running to unseat Ted Cruz. I was surprised he did remember.
GC: (laughing) I would remember that, too.
SH: Then I asked him, “Why didn’t you debate me?”
GC: And what did he say to that?
SH: First, you should know that we invited him to debate several times. He ignore the first two. Finally, we scheduled a debate for February 21 and asked him and Edward Kimbrough to confirm. Mr. Kimbrough did, but O’Rourke’s team wanted to reschedule it for after early voting closed. I refused. So, when I met him, I asked O’Rourke why he refused to participate. He said his team sent me his preferred date and that I did not attend. I responded that I could not debate on a Monday in El Paso when I have 4 children that I take care of every day. I don’t have the luxury of a nanny. He then said you could have rescheduled. But the other date offered was after early voting, which takes away a huge chunk of the voting population.
GC: What did he say to that?
SH: Not much. I told him that he didn’t need me. He pushed back that he did. I told him I can’t make people vote for him, he has to earn every vote by talking about the issues that matter.
GC: That makes sense. His response?
SH: He kept staring at me with his hand to his chin. I told him, “How do you expect people to vote for you, if you vote against us? If you vote for a seven hundred billion dollar military budget that is not earmarked for Vets? When that money could have been used for Medicare for all or college for all or a list of other things.” I mentioned I didn’t like how he followed the DCCC script on Medicare for all. He countered that he does not follow Party lines. He took offense and explained why he did not sign on to H.R. 676 because private health care would not get paid. I asked him to cosponsor H.R. 676 even if he doesn’t think it will pass. It’s a show of good faith and support for Medicare for all. He told me that he was not going to sign H.R. 676 just because it is what people want or because it is popular. Then I told him Medicare for all is my top issue among other issues. I let him know that I had more to fight for than he did, that I had more reason to run for Senate than him.
GC: You told him that?
SH: Yes, I asked him to explain why he was running, why he got into the race. I don’t have healthcare. I do not have a good paying job. Our families and our communities are impacted more than he is.
GC: What did he say?
SH: He said he is running because he believes every Texan and person in the USA deserves affordable healthcare, schooling, and ways to support their family. I expected a candid response and I got his campaign speech. I wanted to get to know him as a person and instead I got what you see on television, a politician. I treated him with respect, I was honest and blunt. After all of that I wanted more out of him. My campaign may be over, but I still want to fight and help our communities. My fight isn’t over. I told him he needed to do the right thing for us, not to throw our DREAMers under the bus. “What do you mean I threw them under the bus,” he asked. I said, “You did, by voting on a bill that did not include them. You voted with Republicans because you didn’t have the votes.” I continued, “I have more to fight for than you do. You may never understand because you come from a life of privilege. You don’t understand what we go through every day.” He admitted he was born lucky, and that he uses every advantage in his life to help and give back. And I said, “Great, if you want to give back, healthcare, Medicare for all, that is what we need. At the very least Medicare for all, that would help us a whole lot.” I kept going back to healthcare. There are families that work two to three jobs who can barely afford their health insurance premiums, deductibles, copayments, and prescriptions. We need Medicare for all for a healthier, happier, and productive society. I also did tell him that he spent WAY too much money on the primary. $4.8 million is way too much money!
GC: Yeah, that is a lot when you spent almost nothing. What was his response?
SH: He just smiled, because I also pointed out that I spent $4,000 and earned a quarter of a million votes. He was certainly impressed. Maybe, he thought I would be weak or defeated. But I was not!
GC: Did he seem receptive? Did anything positive come of it?
SH: He listened, he was reserved, he didn’t look me in the eye. I told him to sign on to the important bills especially those on the People’s Platform. Additionally, I told him to be more relatable, not the congressman, but a human being. The working class can’t relate to millionaires in suits. We want to know that you understand our struggle. So humanize yourself, show that you are vulnerable. I told him that the difference between he and I was that when I lost our race I went back to my low income area where we struggle every day. We are poisoned by the refineries. When you lose, you go back to your millions or go back to a job on Capitol Hill because of your connections. He needs to give people something to vote for if he really wants to represent us and unseat Ted Cruz.
GC: Powerful. How did you end things?
SH: He wants to keep in touch for advice. I told him he needed to look around and listen to what the people want. He needs to go around the state and see how people are living for himself. I asked him to sign the Fossil Free Fast Pledge, refusing money from [the] fossil fuel industry, not just PACs. Again, he stayed silent. He did take notes and did tell me that he would follow up with Keith Ellison on discussing healthcare. I am still hoping he will come through on H.R. 676 and I will follow up with Keith Ellison to find out if he does. He asked what I do for a living when I’m not running for office. I responded, I am a mother of four boys, [I] coach baseball, [I’m a] founder of a nonprofit organization, [an] activist, [I’m] politically involved locally and on my spare time I research. That’s how I educated myself on government and running for office. Anyone can run for office.
GC: Do you support Beto vs. Ted Cruz? If so, to what extent will you support him?
SH: I will support a candidate who represents the people wholeheartedly. At the moment Beto is the only option. While I do not endorse him, if he is the only option to unseat Ted Cruz I will vote for him.
GC: Is that because of how terrible Ted is?
SH: Here is the tough part. We all know who Ted is: he is real bad, we know what we are getting and what to expect from Cruz. Beto is a Democrat, we expect him and other Democrats to be on our side, but then he is not, look at his voting record. Look at what some Democrats are doing to enable Trump. We don’t know what to expect from Beto in the Senate seat. We know that he hasn’t voted for the people’s interest while he’s been in the House.
GC: What is next for you politically?
SH: I will help candidates get elected if they are genuinely good people, strong progressives, have a strong platform, and consistently represent their constituents. As for me personally, I am going to run again in 2020 to unseat Sen. John Cornyn. I have to wait and see what happens with the Democratic Party to decide what our relationship will be in the future. I showed what I can do without the support of the Democratic Party and only the support of the people, not just in Texas, but across this nation. I appreciate the support, every donation that got me on the ballot, and every volunteer who helped achieve this historic and record-breaking election.
GC: What do you think the future holds for progressives in Texas?
SH: Progressives and/or reformers can win in states like Texas and it doesn’t take millions to win. What I went through is something future candidates can learn from. It is not about me, it’s about all of us. It is about what is going to happen if we don’t have someone fighting for us on every level of the government. I want more activists running for all the right reasons. I don’t think I’ll ever stop running for office. We need to remain politically engaged. I don’t want the next generations to become complacent.
GC: (laughing) Yeah, look Donald Trump is the President.
SH: Right, We need to elect people that are not going to be sellouts. It also has to be more than about following party lines. This weekend, I felt that the March For Our Lives was co-opted by the Democrats here in Houston, Texas. There was a lot of people wearing Beto campaign gear protesting Ted Cruz instead of being about the movement which is about, school shootings, justice and equality. We should march about the school shootings, but also what about injustice all around? What about our unarmed brown and black brothers and sisters getting gunned down in the streets? We need to make it about the bigger picture. About the people, not about the Party.
GC: What advice would you give them or others running in the future, people that want to run a truly grassroots campaign?
SH: For one – DO NOT BE FOR SALE. Don’t sell out. Secondly, have a genuine platform that represents what you believe in, but also what the people want. Stay on message about the issues and never be afraid to show your genuine self, to show you are a human being, a vulnerable person. Do not be a politician, be real. Don’t use your family as a prop. At the end of the day it is you who are serving, not your family. You can share stories about them, but do not use them as photo opportunities. And we must work together to break the oligarchy that controls our government through an agenda that protects Wall Street instead of the people. Also, don’t ask people to do things that you would not do yourself. And NEVER IGNORE YOUR OPPONENT! NEVER. (both laughing) Never back down from a debate.
GC: Can you elaborate on not asking people to do things that you would not?
SH: Yes. Be hands on, make phone calls, talk to your volunteers firsthand. Make sure those helping your campaign or voting for you know you care about their concerns. Being accessible is key.
GC: Before we close, is there anything else you would like to tell us about your discussion with Beto?
SH: I told Beto, people matter, don’t vote for military spending that takes away from social programs. Earn every vote. I said, “When they ask you about Russia, can you do me a favor and instead talk about the issues? Let Mueller take care of Russia. You need to talk about the issues that affect people each day, in their work and in their homes. Russia didn’t cause mass incarceration, Russia didn’t cause income inequality. You have to do more than say you are better than Trump or better than Cruz. I don’t want Cruz to win, but if you really want to win, you need to work for the people!”