For our second installment of The 1900, we spoke with Julie Ann Nitsch from Austin, Texas. Not only did Nitsch work on the Sanders campaign and serve as a national delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, but she answered the call for more progressives to run for local office. On Tuesday, Nitsch won in a runoff election for Austin Community College Board of Trustees, Place 9. On the heels of this victory, Julie shared what she learned from running her own grassroots campaign in Texas.
Thanks so much for talking with me today. Congratulations on your successful run!
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.
Let’s start with a little backstory. What was your history in politics/activism before the Bernie Sanders campaign?
Being in Texas, I was primarily involved with reproductive justice through volunteering with Planned Parenthood and serving on its leadership and advocacy council. I also had a stint with Occupy.
What led you to the get involved in the Bernie 2016 campaign?
The message resonated with me. Like a lot of people, I had been following him for a long time. At the beginning of the primary, I thought, “Well, it’s Hillary’s turn. She’s going to be our first woman president. Yay!” Then one day I was attending an action called the People’s Veto and someone told me, “You know Bernie Sanders is running?” My initial thought was, that’s great but they’ll never elect him. Then I went home and thought about it and figured, it’s a long shot but if there’s someone I can get behind it’s Bernie. So I got behind Bernie.
Any reflections on your experiences working on the Sanders campaign?
Working on the campaign was one of the best learning experiences of my life. I went from being a super volunteer to being a staffer. The experience taught me so much about how to run for office and about meeting people. Even though I live in Austin which considers itself a liberal bastion, you can still feel kind of alone. I remember being in fourth grade and telling a teacher that I was ashamed of my generation because they didn’t understand a petition I made up against a dress code! The Bernie campaign made me realize that others did care. The “apathy” I saw wasn’t really people not caring or being misinformed, it was anger. A lot of people feel like their vote doesn’t really matter because neither of the two choices they’re going to get will actually represent their voice. They feel like no one is listening and that politicians are just paying lip service.
The biggest lesson I learned about talking to people was: Don’t talk; just listen. When you’re talking to people, ask questions. When they finally say what’s wrong, I tell them, “So you know about all the problems and you’re not voting? Isn’t that exactly what they want you to do?” Those folks turn out to be some of our best volunteers.
You heeded the call to carry on the political revolution by running for office. What was the process that led to that decision?
People had suggested I run before and I thought no, I never could. I don’t have the money. I don’t know how. But then I went to a training for pro-choice women wanting to get into politics and I asked one of the leaders of the training how you know if you’re qualified. She said, “With all due respect, that’s a girly question. Shut up and run. You’re qualified.” Women often have to be asked to run. They question their qualifications. They don’t have that same sense of worthiness that men have. So I talked to my partner and we agreed on how we could make it work and I filed and I ran and out of the woodwork came volunteers and an amazing support group. The tip of it was when I hosted the Our Revolution kickoff party in Austin and didn’t even know that I’d been endorsed. I was running around taking care of things and when there were only 10-15 people left, someone said, “I can’t believe Bernie endorsed you.” That was the first I’d heard of it!
What advice do you have for people thinking about making a similar leap?
Before I ran- and I highly recommend this- I called people and asked if they’d support me. I knew I needed people who understood and knew how to run a campaign, people who could do graphics, build a website. People who would volunteer their time.
And don’t just reach out to Bernie folks. Go to the Democratic clubs and meetings. I spoke to a lot of those folks. A great number of Hillary supporters were able to put the primary aside and support me. It’s a lot of work to go to all the meetings and get the message out there but it pays off. There are lots of people out there who want change both socially and economically, who are in it for the greater good, want the Democratic Party to be the party of the working poor, and understand how a party can change. Those are not the ones posting things on Facebook wishing Bernie dead.
I believe that Bernie’s campaign gave us a glimpse into a new way of campaigning that breaks with tradition. It’s this new terrain that establishment folks, especially, seem to be struggling to understand and navigate. Having successfully won a grassroots campaign, what is your advice to others?
I say campaigning is not so much about the method as it is the message. A lot of candidates get up and talk a bunch without saying anything. There’s a formula. “Here’s my backstory, here’s a sad spot, here’s where I overcome, here’s a message of hope, let’s do it.” It’s all very generic. The common wisdom is to avoid making promises. Just make people feel good.
People don’t need to feel good anymore. People have information and they’re angry, and you can get up there and say I’m successful and I care but that doesn’t resonate with a lot of people. They want to hear what you are actually going to do. They want you to talk about the issues. Politicians don’t want to promise things because they’re afraid they can’t get it done. I understand and share that fear. But I’m going to fight and you’ll see what I fought for. The unions came out strong for me because I have a history of advocating for worker rights.
I’d also tell people thinking about running that we followed Bernie’s model very closely. Traditional campaigns focus on raising a lot money. My campaign earned over 1200 individual contributions of about $5 a piece. We were able to get people who had never voted in a primary before to start phone banking and block walking. Some walked their apartment complexes in the rain. Some hosted get togethers. We earned 74,000 votes in the primary and actually won Travis County. And Our Revolution came through very strong in the run off and supported us in reaching 31000 voters by phone, text, and block walking. 61% of those people went out and voted.
Do you have any calls to action for our readers?
Get involved in the upcoming legislative session. There are several bills coming up to stop municipalities from passing local actions just like the fracking ban in the last session.
Become a precinct chair.
Keep fighting. The only way we lose is if we quit fighting. As long as we stay involved, we will win. They’re small victories now but they will get bigger over time. We have to fight not just for the social issues, but also the economic ones.
Try to earn allies. Winning arguments does not earn allies. A lot of people think, if you’re not with us on x, y and z, you’re against us. But we can find ways to meet with people and that’s on the economic issues. Speak to issues in a fiscal way and you’ll find that people have a lot more in common with you than you think.
Most of all, remember that it takes more than voting. Don’t just support. Get out and work.