Greg Casar Wins Congressional Primary, Defying Attacks on Criminal Justice Reforms He Championed in Austin 

His victory comes at a complicated time for the policies on homelessness and policing he pushed in his hometown.

Michael Barajas   |    March 2, 2022

Greg Casar/Facebook

Greg Casar has long been a rising star for Texas progressives. Since becoming Austin’s youngest city council member in 2015, the former labor organizer has pushed to decriminalize marijuana and outdoor camping for unhoused people in Texas’s capital city, and to reduce funding for the local police department, prompting attacks by the state’s GOP-dominated legislature.

Now Casar is likely heading to Congress, riding his local notoriety as well as endorsements by the country’s leading left-leaning politicians to overwhelmingly secure the Democratic nomination in a safely blue congressional district on Tuesday. 

Casar’s leading rival Eddie Rodriguez, a longtime Texas House member from Austin, made the election into a referendum on the policies Casar had championed in the city. Rodriguez attacked Casar for supporting lifting the local ban on camping in public, sending voters fliers echoing GOP talking points and calling Casar’s policies “disastrous” for the city. Primary voters apparently disagreed, with Casar trouncing Rodriguez and two other challengers with 62 percent as of publication. 

“Our campaign has built a movement of working people, from San Antonio to Austin, who are ready to fight because our futures depend on it,” Casar said in a press release on Tuesday night. “Progressive policies are popular. And we’re going to pass them for Texas working families.”

But Casar’s promotion to Washington, D.C., comes in the wake of the rollback of some of his signature policies back home—in part due to statewide Republicans who regularly target the local progressive policies championed by Casar. 

After the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Casar helped make Austin one of the only cities in the nation to steer significant levels of police funding away from cops and toward other city services. But the state GOP passed a law effectively strong-arming Austin into restoring police funding, which is now a record high $442 million, and preventing other Texas cities from ever reducing police spending. During Casar’s tenure on the council, Austin also required private employers to provide paid sick leave but the all-Republican state supreme court knocked down the ordinance.  

Casar told the Texas Observer last month, if he is elected to Congress, he will aim to turn the tables and “override the legislature” instead. 

The policing reforms championed by Casar and his allies have also been hotly contested in Austin. In May 2021, after the city council decriminalized homelessness with Casar’s push, a conservative group put an initiative on the ballot to walk back the move, and voters approved it, fueling talk of a backlash against the council’s policies. 

Other progressives lost their own bids further down-ballot in Travis County on Tuesday. Bob Libal, a longtime activist who ran for county commissioner opposing a multi-million dollar jail construction project, lost by a wide margin to an incumbent who supported new jail spending. Andrew Hairston, a candidate for the office of justice of the peace who vowed to fight evictions and was endorsed by the local DSA chapter, also lost to an incumbent.

Casar, Libal, and Hairston all  hoped to build on a string of major progressive wins in Travis County in recent years, including the 2020 district attorney’s race that ushered in José Garza, who like Casar is a former labor organizer and was endorsed by national progressive leaders. Last year, Libal and other local activists successfully pressured the county to pause its plan to build a new jail, and Austin voters overwhelmingly rejected a fearmongering campaign asking them to super-charge the city’s police budget. 

Two weeks ago, Garza announced indictments against 19 police officers accused of assaulting and injuring protesters during the 2020 Black Lives Matter marches, an unusually strong move by a prosecutor that local progressives celebrated. But one of those 19 indicted officers likely secured a runoff spot on Tuesday in a Republican primary for a state House district that encompasses parts of Austin and has been drawn by the GOP to be safely red. Governor Greg Abbott, who easily won his own Republican primary race on Tuesday, recently floated offering pardons to Austin cops convicted of brutalizing protesters, a reminder of the preemption hurdles local progressives could continue to face. 

Celebrating his win Tuesday night, Casar credited the larger organizing that he says helped usher him to victory. And he did not shy away from uplifting the local policies and movements that prompted Republican attacks for years and were demonized by some in his own party during the primary. 

“We built this movement, here in Austin down to San Antonio, up and down I-35, throughout this state we built this together,” he told supporters in Austin. “We built it striking at fast food restaurants fighting for $15, we built this fighting for survivors of sexual assault, we built it fighting for sick days, we built it fighting for our unhoused brothers and sisters. We built it marching in the streets for the movement for Black lives. We built this through wins and losses.”