The Tyler Loop Interview: Neal Katz, candidate for Texas House District 6

Texas House District 6 candidate Neal Katz. Photo by Jamie Maldonado

With two months to go before this November’s midterm elections, The Tyler Loop is reaching out to candidates running selected major Texas races who aim to represent Tyler and Smith County at the local, regional, or statewide level.

This week we’re talking with Neal Katz, the Tyler rabbi running as an independent candidate against Republican Matt Schaefer. Katz, who’s served in a slew of community leadership roles in Tyler and Smith County but has never held elected office, has surprised some with his fundraising success and the endorsement of Republican former lieutenant governor of Texas Bill Ratliff.

We’ve also reached out to Katz’s opponent for an interview. Schaefer, who has represented Texas House District 6 since 2013, ran unopposed in 2016 and captured nearly 90 percent of the vote against a Libertarian opponent in 2014.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

If you represent Texas House District 6—and Tyler—in the next legislative session, how would you directly impact the lives of Tyler residents?

One of the most pressing issues has to do with our public education. That’s a morale issue with our public education community. They feel under attack, and they feel they don’t have support in the Texas legislature.

There’s a concerted effort to mess with public schools by way of funding. Texas legislators have creatively figured out a way to not keep pace [in state funding] with current enrollment growth and inflation. The gap is made up in local property tax revenue. So, my goal is to support strong public schools, but there’s also a strong economic connection as well, because everybody pays those property taxes.

Public education is my number one push. There are plenty of great Republican public-education advocates [in the Texas legislature], and I want to be working with them.

Your opponent has represented this district since 2013. What makes you think we need a change?

In January of 2011, the Tyler paper called out then-state Rep. Leo Berman for pulling a stunt against the Speaker of the House. [Berman was involved in an unsuccessful move to replace Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, who Berman considered insufficiently conservative.] Leo had run on the promise that he was going bring all kinds of goodies back to East Texas. But then his stunt undid any goodwill that he had in Austin, and it really set the stage for the primary challenge that Matt won the following session.

Matt went down there with this new hope that we were gonna have an effective voice in Austin. But for the last six years, he’s basically done the same exact thing: he’s been pulling a series of stunts. He’s built no strong relationships with the majority of the representatives. He represents the Texas Freedom Caucus [a small group of ultra-conservative Texas lawmakers], and that’s good for him, but it’s not good for East Texas. Many representatives that I’ve met with, Republicans and Democrats, completely disrespect him because he’s either killed their bills, or he’s done legislative actions that have prevented things from coming up. They don’t want to work with him.

So when our community needs a voice for roads, or for lowering property taxes, or public education advocacy, it’s not there. I think that we can do better. East Texans can agreeably disagree on the issues, but I know that in our hearts, we want effectiveness more than we want partisanship.

You’ve put energy into causes and organizations some people in Tyler might associate with liberal or progressive values, such as the Art of Peace and the Texas Freedom Network. You talked about this a bit, but I’d like to ask you the question directly: do you think of yourself as a liberal or progressive?

I’ve never considered myself one or the other. My dad’s a Trump Republican, my mom’s a Democrat, so that’s how it works in my family. At my core, I’m a spiritual person, and I lead a religious community.

Religiously, I’m drawn to peace, so that pushes me to Art of Peace. I’m drawn to religious freedom, individual liberty, and public education, and that’s why I’m connected to the Freedom Network [a statewide watchdog group involved in oversight of school textbooks, among other things]. I know that when the legislature oversteps their bounds on religious freedom, the Freedom Network will be there. When the Texas State Board of Education is unattended, and they start messing with curriculum, the Freedom Network is there. That’s why I support them.

I know that’s the big push against me, that I’m connected with a “hyper liberal” organization. But I wouldn’t identify myself as liberal or progressive. I’m a fiscal conservative, and I’m open to everybody in the community. We live in a world of labels, and people are going to assign what they want on me.

Obviously, you’re trying to reach everybody, and you aim to represent everyone. But who do you need to work the hardest to win over?

I know that there are Republicans who are interested in supporting me and are actively supporting me, because they trust me. That’s a group that historically is the hardest to win over. They need to be proven that I’m a fiscal conservative, and the truth is, I am. You can’t spend what you don’t have. I appreciate their fiscal conservatism. I think it’s one of the things that makes East Texas great.

But there’s no narrative discussion in our community about anything that’s not Republican. They run the tax narrative. They run the social agenda narrative. No matter what your proposition is for the community, it’s always about appealing to that base.

I know I have to earn Democrats’ votes as well. But Democrats know I’m not going down there to run a social agenda. I’m not going down there to bully gay kids or to demonize Hispanics. I’m not going down there to help underfund our public schools. I’m going down there to be a voice for East Texas and make a better Texas.

We put this question to Beto O’Rourke recently, and we’re putting it to all of the candidates we’re speaking to, whether they need to turn out significant numbers of minority voters or not. Tyler is diverse—half white, 25 percent black, 25 percent Latino—but white voter turnout is most dependable. What will black and Hispanic voters get if they show up and vote for you?

I hosted a luncheon in May for twenty-five black leaders. It’s the same thing that [Governor Greg Abbott] did, but the difference is, I’ve known these people for fifteen years. I’ve worked with them. I used to run the MLK march. I’ve gone up to their churches, and they’ve come to my temple. So these are twenty-five friends, and it’s not an overnight thing.

Before we began the luncheon, somebody made a comment that in their recollection, no one running for state office in the last twenty or thirty years had come specifically to the black community and asked them: what do you need, what are your concerns, and how can I be of help?

Then you get to the Hispanic community. I’m the only one who’s running locally that has a Spanish-language video and Spanish-language push cards. Of course, there’s no such thing as “the white community” or “the black community” or “the Hispanic community.” These are fragmented communities, so I have different relationships, and we’re going to do different pushes into different areas. But it’s important to me they all know to get out to vote—and how to vote for an independent.

To the question of what will they get for it, the question really is, what do they want? That’s been fascinating to me. What they want is the same thing that everybody wants. Strong public schools. Safe communities. They want great roads and great job opportunities. That cuts across all communities.

I was told very early on, do not engage the black community, do not engage the Hispanic community, and ignore the millennials. I was told by political strategists and local “experts” to focus only on the people who’ve voted in the past. But then you’re caught in the trap of only talking to white people about their concerns.

I wanted to make sure that whatever I did as a campaign included the voices of the wider community. First, because it’s the right thing to do. And second, because numerically, we’re a community with a majority-minority [meaning that while white Tylerites remain the largest demographic group in town, they now make up less than half of the total population]. Their voices are just as crucial. I hope that converts to votes in November. But I will not regret spending any energy in those communities, because they need to know that they will have a voice as well.

Your opponent has proven to be adept at using savvy legislative tactics to get what he wants in Austin. In the last session, Schaefer successfully pushed through SB4, the so-called “show me your papers” amendment. He also helped force a special session vote on the “bathroom bill,” which he has championed.

Whether you agree or disagree with the policies Schaefer is backing here, he’s learned the rules of the game. You’ve never held elected office. Are you ready—or willing—to take on the sort of cutthroat maneuvering your opponent demonstrated in the last session?

In 2015, Matt was called one of the worst legislators in Texas Monthly. In 2017, he was one of the best. The article was an honest critique of the fact that Matt is savvy. I’ve never claimed that he’s dumb.

But the question is, what do you do with that capacity? I’m glad he knows the rule of the game, but what did he use it for? To bully gay kids and to knock down pieces of good legislation that took lots of people months to put together, including a school-lunch bill [aimed at helping students who have trouble paying for lunch]. He wasn’t targeting that bill specifically, but it was one of the casualties of the tactics that Matt used to try and push us into a special session. I don’t see that as a badge of honor, personally. I think that’s disrespectful to all the other legislators who worked hard to get bills put together.

My concern is that ultimately, all politics is relational. That’s my strength. I get along with everybody in the community. You don’t have to agree with my politics all the time, and I don’t have to agree with yours. But I listen, and I work with people. I think that’s been a weakness of our current rep—the relational is put aside for the ideological.

Donor disclosure: Neal Katz is a supporting member of The Tyler Loop. He donates $15 a month to support The Loop’s journalism.

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.
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