The Chronicle of Higher Education
May 18, 2017
It’s been more than three decades since a Democrat was elected to represent the 19th Congressional District in northwest Texas. The district is 35-percent Hispanic and has a median household income of $41,000. And it votes so reliably conservative that last year, the Republican who now holds the seat, Jodey Arrington, ran unopposed by any Democratic candidate.
But two professors at Texas Tech University think now might be the time for change. Miguel A. Levario and Daniel J. Epstein, an associate professor of history and a visiting instructor in political science, respectively, have each announced their candidacies for the election next year. (Mr. Arrington, a first-term congressman, hasn’t announced if he will run for re-election.)
Though voting day is more than a year away, the nascent campaigns have already seen pushback. The local Democratic Party headquarters was vandalized, and a conservative political-research firm, America Rising LLC, asked Texas Tech to turn over information on both professors, including their disciplinary records.
The candidates will eventually oppose each other for the Democratic nomination, but so far they’ve worked together, cooperating on such events as a jointly hosted “die-in” to protest the vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with the American Health Care Act of 2017, a move Mr. Arrington supported. Both cited Donald J. Trump’s election and Mr. Arrington’s voting record as motivations for their candidacies.
“The congressman who serves my district ran on a xenophobic and misinformed platform that I found personally appalling and offensive,” Mr. Levario wrote on the Facebook page “Pantsuit Nation.”
(In a statement, Mr. Arrington said he believes America’s diverse population “is a key attribute to American exceptionalism. But we are also a nation of laws.” A Texas Tech alumnus and former vice chancellor of the university system, he added that work must be done to secure the border and improve the nation’s immigration system.)
Mr. Levario, who specializes in the history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, is the author of Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy. A native of El Paso, he calls himself a product of the border. His academic knowledge of the economic, cultural and political realities of life on the dividing line, he says, could help him craft immigration policies that respect America’s sovereignty while being compassionate.
Mr. Levario spoke to The Chronicle about running for Congress and how campus life differs from life on the campaign stump. These interviews have been edited and condensed.
Miguel A. Levario, Associate Professor of History
Q. Academics are sometimes accused of being in an ivory tower. Now you and another Texas Tech professor have announced you’re running for Congress, for the same seat, in fact. Does the phrase “ivory tower” have new resonance to you or does it feel inaccurate?
A. It just depends. At least from what I can understand, it’s not terribly common for professors or scholars to go into public life. Yes, we have had some very famous ones, Condoleezza Rice, Henry Kissinger, among others.
Q. Elizabeth Warren.
A. Elizabeth Warren, definitely. It’s not necessarily unusual, but it just depends on the professor, on the scholar. There are some who are very dedicated to the discipline, so the concept of doing community activism doesn’t necessarily fall into place. And then there are people like your Elizabeth Warrens and your Condoleezza Rices and myself and others that feel like, No I don’t want to reserve my scholarship for just the ivory tower. I respect and obviously want to contribute to the discipline, but I believe that our scholarship should also be made available to help more people and not just the intellectual pursuits of academia.
Q. You mentioned that the register of your language has changed a little bit, because as an academic you can speak for longer, be more specific, be very nuanced. How has that adjustment been? Do you feel like you lose something when you talk as a politician or is it a change that you’ve adjusted to?
A. It’s just a change. I don’t think it necessarily loses anything. You’re naturally going to lose broader and deeper contexts with just a 10-minute stump speech. However, in class we’re limited to a certain amount of minutes per session. It’s a 50-minute class, three times a week, so you can’t get through all of U.S. history in four months.
It’s just using a different register so that people don’t think, Okay that’s an academic word; that’s not necessarily a popular word. For example, using a word like “holistic.” That’s not something you hear everyday on the street. You may hear “comprehensive,” you may hear “overall,” but nobody ever says “holistic.” I’ve been spending the last 18 or some odd years speaking in that academic register, and am trying to change it to be more recognizable outside of an academic context.
Q. College campuses have become a flash point for political issues lately, from sanctuary campuses to free speech. Did the backdrop of these issues playing out on college campuses inform either your decision to run or your different policy platforms?
A. There’s no question. I’ve been engaged in those topics throughout my graduate-school career and my professional career. The fact that they are continuously present in our public and political discourse has certainly influenced my willingness to run for public office because it’s obviously something that hasn’t been resolved.
There is a lack of sensibility. [We need] somebody who can provide some sense into how we approach complex problems, and not look at it from a partisan point of view. When I said I never thought of myself as being a politician, I mean I’m running as a Democrat and I’m proud to be running as a Democrat, but the way I look at my service is that it’s going to be for the betterment of people. If it doesn’t necessarily fall 100 percent along party lines, I’m sorry, but I represent the district. That’s part of the reason we have so much divisiveness in this country. People are very partisan without understanding that there needs to be compromise.