Editor's note: Southwest Austin wasn't always blue. Barb Colvin was one of the first Democratic precinct chairs in SW Austin to organize her precinct with Block Captains. As Democratic chair of Precinct 354 (Travis Country) for about a decade, her grass roots organizational efforts were absolutely instrumental to turning her precinct into a Democratic stronghold, as well as setting an example for others neighborhood-level organizing.
What was Travis Country, Precinct 354, like politically when you first became the precinct chair?
Bob and I moved to Texas to be near our daughters and granddaughters in 1997 after I retired from practicing law in Illinois. In 1999 we moved to Travis Country in Precinct 354. Although I had always been a faithful voter, I had never been involved in politics; but when George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, I knew I had to do something. So I asked some Dems I knew from Austin Newcomers to join me in volunteering at the TCDP office. From that grew the women’s organization Women for Good Government (WGG) and my efforts in Precinct 354.
I did some research and learned that Precinct 354 is large— it has about 4800 registered voters. A map showed the borders of my Precinct, and from Glen Maxey I got a list of voters (in 2004 the Voters Activation Network did not exist). Info from the Travis County Election site showed that in 2000, Precinct 354 Republicans voted 18% straight ticket versus Democrats voted 11% straight ticket; Bush got 56% v. Gore 34%; Rs won all down ballot races except for Lloyd Doggett (US Congressman) and Gonzalo Barrientos (then State Senator) and a few judgeships. It was thought by TCDP to be a reliably Republican stronghold.
How quickly were you able to organize your precinct - what was that like?
The Precinct 354 organization model was made up as we went along, although I attended several workshops along the way and found some good stuff from Colorado. The first thing I learned about Precinct organizing is that you can’t do it alone. I found about 20 enthusiastic yellow dogs (a term I’d never heard, but soon learned was pronounced “YELLA — yella dogs”), and we set to work. We divided the precinct into 43 Blocks and looked for Block Captains for each Block. The BC job was: 1. Find Democrats, and 2. Get them to the polls. We came up with a detailed BC handbook and Andy Brown (TCDP Chair) asked us to write the handbook for Precinct Chairs.
Which election did 354 flip?
In 2004, after working a few months, Precinct 354 Rs still won the most straight party votes and most down ballot races, but by smaller margins than in 2000 (see above). But In 2006 (off year election), Ds turned the tables and won the straight party vote by 8% as well as a number of down ballot races. Dems didn’t field candidates in many judicial races. In 2008 we hit our stride in P354 -- Ds won the straight party vote by 30%, plus almost every race in which they fielded a candidate. Rs didn’t field candidates in most of the judicial races.
Over 500 Dems attended the Precinct Convention and 69 of us represented P354 at the County Convention. But I think the biggest high for me was in September, 2008 when we organized our first COMING HOME picnic and 300 P354 Democrats attended. People looked around in disbelief, saying “I thought I was the only Democrat in the neighborhood". Except for one year we’ve had a picnic every year since. (This year's picnic is Sunday, September 29.)
How do you feel about being held up as the "example" of how to organize a precinct?
I am so proud of the work of literally dozens of Block Captains, Steering Committee members, everybody who has pitched in with block walking, delivering flyers, suggesting great ideas, and served on committees. I want to thank our Picnic Angel, Jerry Walker, our great Precinct 354 Chair since 2014, Lynn Kurth, and most of all, the Democratic voters who have stood in lines, sometimes for hours, to turn Precinct 354 Blue since 2006 — and kept us there all these years!
What is it like to see SW Austin become a solidly Democratic area?
A dream come true! Many thanks to Blue Action Dems!
Are you ready to become a block captain? Contact your precinct chair - it is easy and fun -- and will make a difference in the next election! Join Blue Action Dems to support our work in getting more Democrats elected.
Paul Kurth and Barb Colvin at the annual Precinct 354 Picnic.