Politics

Why Joy Diaz Is Challenging Beto O’Rourke in the Democratic Primary for Governor – Texas Monthly

In March, Joy Diaz and her 10-year-old son Fausto became ill with COVID-19, each suffering through it in their own rooms in their home in southwest Austin. Joy, a journalist who was 44 and not yet eligible for the vaccine, thought she might die. “And so faced with my own mortality, I decided that if I lived I was going to try to fix the state and that is done in the governor’s office,” Diaz told a campaign town hall over Zoom on Sunday night. Asked in the session why she didn’t aim lower and run for city council or a lesser state office, Diaz said, “I don’t know how much time I have left on this earth, and in that time, I want to make a difference.”

After recovering in April, Diaz gave her notice, effective in November, at KUT-FM, Austin’s public radio station, where she had been a reporter and producer off and on since 2005. She promptly joined the second class of the LBJ Women’s Campaign School at the University of Texas, a nonpartisan, issue-neutral program that trains women who want to run for office or manage campaigns. Whatever hard truths were imparted in the eight-month school, none dissuaded Diaz from pursuing her campaign to win the Democratic nomination for governor. “I’m running with all my might and zero dollars to be the nominee,” she told Texas Monthly in an interview last week. (This week she began working with a fund-raising team.)

For that to happen she would have to defeat former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke, which doesn’t seem even remotely possible. When O’Rourke announced in mid-November that he was running, many Democrats thought their prayers had been answered: he’s a fund-raising juggernaut who has experience mobilizing Democrats to turn out. Governor Greg Abbott, who formally announced his candidacy for a third term as governor in McAllen on Saturday, is already acting as if O’Rourke is a given to be his challenger, should Abbott survive a primary of his own. Abbott’s campaign, savoring the prospect, launched an ad attacking “wrong-way O’Rourke” a month before the congressman even entered the race. The governor was tapping into the widespread antipathy toward O’Rourke among Texas Republicans and independents, an animus supercharged by the candidate’s leftward lurch during his ill-fated run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, in which he famously called for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons. 

While Diaz is focused on defeating Abbott and not O’Rourke, she can’t do one without the other, and her appeal to voters in the March 1 primary is that she would be a less polarizing and more electable Democratic standard-bearer. Her message to voters is that if they don’t like the way an Abbott-O’Rourke race is shaping up, she offers a way out and a viable alternative. “I am the person who will put reason and pragmatism ahead of ideology,” she asserts on her campaign website.

In a poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas conducted in October, before the field was set, O’Rourke was the choice of 70 percent of Democrats, with 5 percent shared among other candidates and 25 percent not having thought about it enough to form an opinion. The primary ballot will include three candidates aside from O’Rourke and Diaz—Seguin’s Inocencio Barrientez, Beaumont pastor Michael Cooper, and attorney and engineer Rich Wakeland. Diaz, whose name wasn’t included in that October poll, has received the most press of O’Rourke’s four Democratic rivals, most likely because of her experience at KUT, where she has become a familiar voice and helped created Texas Standard, its daily news magazine show, and also because she has an interesting story.

Diaz was born and grew up in Mexico City, the daughter of Juan and Velia Ramirez. Her mother is Mexican, and her late father was a Puerto Rican New Yorker. Together they were missionaries who tended to the poor living in the garbage dumps of Mexico City, buying land and eventually building medical and dental clinics and an elementary school. As a teenager, Diaz worked in a hospital for people with leprosy in Puebla, Mexico. She then studied journalism at Universidad de Cuautitlan Izcalli, where she met her future husband, Luis Diaz. They moved to the United States in 1998, when her husband, an engineer, was transferred to Virginia. In 2005, they moved to Austin where they live with their children, Camila, 14, and Fausto, now 11. Her mother also now lives in Austin, where she’s a pastor at a small church.

Texas Monthly spoke to Diaz  about why she chose to enter a race with such long odds, why she feels O’Rourke is not her party’s best bet to win the governorship, and how Greg Abbott, whom she once held in high regard, lost her respect.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Texas Monthly: You’ve said you decided to run for governor after suffering through COVID. Why?

Joy Diaz: It was one of those experiences that you think, this is it or this could be it, I’m dying or I am about to die. I was having these moments where I was desperately gasping for air and just not being able to get it. We know that life can be short, we know it can end at any moment, but we don’t think that that moment is near. And having COVID made me feel like that moment was nearer than I thought, and that my son could die. And I thought about all the efforts that the governor made against the recommendation of health officials, and it was just like the last disregard that I could take. 

As a reporter, I’d been biting my tongue for a long time because I didn’t want to seem like I was biased. I just couldn’t do that any more. Not when it was life-threatening. So after I was cleared for work again, I sat with my general manager and I said to her, “I cannot be unbiased, I cannot pretend that I don’t have this fire burning in me. So I need to quit. And I’m going to go into public office.” 

TM: Why do you fault the governor for his pandemic response?

JD: In the early days of the pandemic he had a sensible attitude toward it. But in the summer of 2020, my husband and I went to work from Mexico City. Masks were mandatory in Mexico even for children. You could not go to the grocery store as a family; it was one person only. There were hand sanitizer stations at the doors of the grocery stores. They were taking your temperature. They were writing your name down and your email and your phone number for contact tracing. And when I came back to Texas, I was just like, what are we doing here? 

The pandemic keeps evolving and everything keeps changing, but if there is one word that I would use to describe the way Governor Abbott has been behaving in the last eighteen months, it’s “chaos.” When it came to the pandemic, when it came to the border, when it came to the special sessions, it’s just chaos, chaos, chaos. Maybe that’s a script from the book of Trump or maybe he came up with it. 

TM: How was your relationship with the governor in your years as a reporter?

JD: In 2005, when I moved to Texas, I did a story about nineteen families in the Montopolis area [in Austin] who had bought homes, or thought they had bought their homes, but it was a fraudulent deal. They didn’t speak English. They were immigrant families. It was a big mess. It was one of my first big stories, and an hour and a half after it aired in the morning, I got a call from the attorney general’s office. [Greg Abbott was Texas attorney general from 2002 to 2015.] “We’re calling you from the AG’s office. We think we can help these families. Is there a way you can connect us?” And they solved it. 

So I had great respect for that office. Abbott was a sensible AG. My relationship with him has never been hostile. I was always amazed at how he used consumer law to protect immigrants without documentation. But now, his creativity has turned sour. 

TM: When did you notice a change in Abbott?

JD: When SB 4, the “show me your papers” law, passed. [Abbott had made legislation banning sanctuary cities and requiring local law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration officials, an emergency item for the 2017 legislative session. SB 4, the law that passed, also gives police officers the right to request proof of citizenship and inquire about the immigration status of anyone they detain, even in a routine traffic stop.] When SB 4 passed, my mother-in-law [in Texas on a tourist visa from Mexico, where she lives] was helping me with the children during the summer, and I was petrified that she would be pulled over and deported before anybody asked questions. 

And then when we had the voter purge in 2019. [In 2019, David Whitley, whom Abbott had named Secretary of State, led a botched effort to remove nearly 100,000 alleged noncitizens from the voter rolls that was abandoned after it was revealed that it had targeted tens of thousands of duly naturalized citizens.] The voter purge just felt so personal because Luis is a naturalized citizen. And I was petrified that my husband’s vote would be considered an illegal vote and that we would be embroiled in a legal battle. It would have made for a hell of a story for public radio, but it’s an attack. 

People I knew were on that list. It just felt like an attack on people who look like me and who look like my family. The man he is as a governor is a different man than who he was as attorney general. He has embraced this persona. If I had him in front of me I would say, “Who have you become and why have you forgotten your job?” I don’t feel served. I feel attacked. I feel like my family’s been attacked.

TM: Why challenge Beto O’Rourke for the Democratic nomination?

JD: My fight is not with him. But the thing is, I’m worried, right? I’m worried because of his statements in the past. I’m worried because of his two losing candidacies. When you look at the numbers and you look at Bill White, or if you look at Wendy Davis, they had better numbers than Beto has right now. 

[Polling on an Abbott-O’Rourke race varies widely. A University of Texas poll in October found Abbott ahead of O’Rourke by 9 points, while other polls have found the race to be anything from a dead heat to one Abbott leads by fifteen. For comparison, a University of Texas poll had Wendy Davis, who would go on to lose to Abbott by 20 points in 2014, trailing Abbott 40 to 34 percent in October 2013, and had Rick Perry leading a generic Democrat 34 to 33 percent, in October 2009, before a contest he would win by nearly 13 points the following year. But Beto’s biggest trouble is his favorability ratings: 50 percent of voters have unfavorable opinions of him.]   

TM: So, you haven’t said, “I’m going to come and take your guns?”

JD: No, I don’t want anybody’s guns. What for?

TM: Beto made that statement in the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting at the Walmart in his hometown of El Paso.

JD: Oh, of course. He’s a good man. It felt personal to him. It felt personal to me, and I wasn’t in El Paso, but it was an attack on Latinos. It was an express attack on Latinos. So I know it was from the heart, and I know it was a gut reaction. But he said it. I didn’t say it. So that’s the issue that’s haunting him, right? 

The thing is, Democrats need to win. And the challenge is that you cannot win just with Democratic votes. You have to win with Republican votes as well. I believe someone who knows the heart of Republicans and respects the heart of Republicans as well has a better chance of winning or of uniting a bigger coalition. 

My mother is a Republican. So is a lot of my family. And when we talked about me running, she said, “Baby, you know I’m a Republican, right?” I said, “Yes, but I am the woman you raised, right?” And she said, “Yes.” So we are confident that if we can work together and love each other, the rest of the state can do it too. I am not an ideologue.

TM: The primary is March 1. Early voting starts February 14. You’ve never run for office before. You’re starting out with no money. The state is vast and most Texans don’t know who you are. How do you mount a serious campaign?

JD: When you are unconventional do you have to go by conventional standards? We say things like “competitive” or we say  “serious,” right? “She’s not a serious candidate.” But how much more serious can you be than when you quit your job? How much more serious can I be when I am facing the most powerful man in the state and I’m telling him, hopefully in his face, you’re not doing a good job, you’re hurting us, you have forgotten that your job is to serve us? How much more serious can I be than when I say there is a better way? I say Texas needs Joy and it sounds like a grandiose use of my name, but think about it—don’t we?

TM: Why do you think Republicans are making gains with voters in the Rio Grande Valley?

JD: There are a few answers I have heard from people. The culture of the Border Patrol agents along the border is a very strong one. People like to see that their work is valued. And the Republican Party has told Border Patrol agents, “Yes, we support you wholeheartedly.” That’s one of the things that I think we do need to change. When we look at Border Patrol agents with disrespect, how do you want them to react to your policies? The truth is that the majority of them do an invaluable job and are supporting their communities in a way that is just unbelievable. So yes, I don’t blame them for not wanting to support the Democratic party.

TM: Do you think your background living on both sides of the border gives you particular credibility in talking with border communities?

JD: I think so. The border is not foreign to me. I’ve been crossing it since I was a little girl. The border is not a political toy. The border has real needs and we need to listen to the people on the ground, to what they’re telling us. They’re not telling us they want a wall. They’re telling us they want safety. When the people on the ground tell you what they need and you don’t listen then that’s a problem.

Chaos has been strategically created at the border for political gain. Abbott has been very creative with his theatrics at the border, involving the media at every point. Nobody believes that putting shipping containers at the border [as a makeshift wall] does anything, but it’s great TV and it’s great theatrics. The substitute for that is hard work. You actually need to invest in the border. It will require partnerships with the governments of Mexico and the United States—which is great because I am a bicultural, bilingual candidate. I spent almost half of my life in Mexico and half of my life in the United States. So I understand both cultures. I can speak respectfully to both sides. 

Another thing that we need to do is respect that constitutionally the border is the responsibility of the federal government. [Some of Abbott’s challengers in the Republican primary believe Texas should not cooperate with federal immigration agencies. Abbott joins them in believing that Texas should not wait on Washington to seal the border.] We need to respect that, but we can be useful partners. I cannot bring TV cameras to make that exciting, but that is what the border needs. It needs order. 

TM: You’re the daughter of missionaries who served the poor living amid the garbage dumps in Mexico City. Does your religious faith, sense of mission, and belief in miracles animate what you are doing now?

JD: Yes, it does. I’ve always lived a life of miracles. Growing up I just saw my parents do so much with nothing, always swimming against the current, always working with limited resources, always strapped and yet producing great results. The ideas that this is something you shouldn’t do, or you don’t have $54 million in the bank or, you don’t have the qualifications—they don’t scare me and they don’t stop me.

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