TribFest Explores the Political Spectrum

In three days of late September, Texas’ popular online and non-profit news source, the Texas Tribune, left the confines of the internet and briefly inhabited the Omni Hotel, Paramount Theater and streets of downtown Austin for the organization’s annual Texas Tribune Festival.

By Nathan Adam Spear

This article was featured in the Fall 2023 issue of ACCENT Magazine.

In three days of late September, Texas’ popular online and non-profit news source, the Texas Tribune, left the confines of the internet and briefly inhabited the Omni Hotel, Paramount Theater and streets of downtown Austin for the organization’s annual Texas Tribune Festival. For 13 years – without any pandemic-related exceptions – TribFest has sought to bring important and often contentious conversations about recent politics directly to the people it affects. The multi-day event hosts a long list of in-person panels, interviews and – since COVID19 – zoom meetings with notable authors, politicians, journalists, and other speakers that are thought to be relevant to today’s news.

Topics for 2023, included discussion on Texas’ recently ended and remarkably divisive 88th Regular Legislative Session, the acquittal of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial, the ongoing fight for civil rights, issues with border control, party agendas and upcoming election plans. ACCENT Student Media received an invitation to join in these weekend festivities to share some of the student interest found in the state and country’s modern politics; here are just a few of the influential political speakers that attendees heard from at this year’s festival through “One on One” interviews.

Opening Keynote and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu

The event’s first day consisted mostly of a few interviews and networking opportunities at the Omni Hotel – but setting the mood for its remaining weekend was a Keynote interview with the Republican Governor of New Hampshire Chris Sununu. Texas Tribune’s new CEO, Sonal Shah, and the site’s founder and previous CEO, Evan Smith, gave opening addresses prefacing the interview, and the whole of the three day event.

Shah, who assumed leadership of the Tribune this year, introduced the panel and the upcoming days by saying, “you’ll come across ideas that challenge you, and hopefully give you a chance to think deeper about topics you care the most about.” Before adding later, “We want you to hear what we hear, participate in the conversations, and make your own decisions. Journalism is the bedrock of democracy.”

Before conducting the Keynote interview in front of the hundreds of listeners that lined the velvet seats of the Paramount Theatre, Smith took time to explain his presence despite the recent announcement of his retirement – he said, quoting Brokeback Mountain, “I just can’t quit you.”

Smith then went on to explain more seriously, “When I look out at you staring back at me, I know the potential for live journalism has been realized. How could I not be here? The need to gather like this has surely grown exponentially over the years and it’s at its peak right this minute.”

Following a lengthy introduction, Smith welcomed Chris Sununu to the stage to begin their informative and occasionally comedic conversation about Sununu’s political career and ideas for the Republican party in the upcoming presidential election. 

Right off the bat, the topic of interest was drawn to the infamous elephant not in the room, Donald Trump. The New Hampshire Governor had made news recently for not running in the next election as well as for his outspoken opposition to Donald Trump being the Republican candidate. At TribFest, Sununu repeated his thoughts about the former president and the ideal strategy for Republicans regarding Trump in the next election; specifically referring to an Op-ed in the New York Times he wrote in August on the topic titled, If Republicans Narrow the Field, We Will Beat Trump.

“Voter’s have to have the say and all that, but then the [Republican] candidates need the discipline and responsibility to get out,” Sununu explained, “because one on one, he loses [the Republican primary election] there’s no question about that.”

Beyond further thoughts on the state of both parties, Sununu’s interview was brought to local politics as well. Sununu referred to the recent impeachment trial of Ken Paxton as, “embarrassing” and as seeming like a “baked in vote before it started.”

Sununu also said that he gets “really emotional” about the homeless population nationally and specifically here in Austin. “Walk your own streets here guys… all this money is being spent. Wonderful. Go ask the record number of homeless you have in your own city how it’s doing for them.”

He then broadened his statement by adding, “Stop giving politicians credit for spending money; that’s not a result. The result is less homelessness… better test scores in schools… [and] seeing your opioid epidemic deaths go down. Demand they get better results.”

Texas Tribune Cofounder Evan Smith interviews New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu during the Texas Tribune Festival. Photo taken by Gabriella Plasencia on Sept. 21, 2023

He also gave advice on the purpose of government in response to a question from Smith about the modern definition of a conservative. Sununu truly reflected the ideas of Texas founders when voicing his ideas about, “low taxes, limited government, local control… [because] the government isn’t here to solve your problems,” – a sentiment which even received a brief applause from some people in the audience.

“Like my job, I don’t know what your needs are; I don’t know what your business needs are; I don’t know what your kid’s needs are in education,” said Sununu. Emphasizing the need for decision-making at a local level before connecting his work up north saying, “I’ve come from the ‘live free or die’ state, man. You do you. You decide what door is best for you, not me… Our town meetings can be real battles… [but] we don’t let that completely polarize us. You fight hard. You win some, you lose some.”

The moderate Republican’s politics served well to appease a diverse audience and, when wrapping up, he even conceded that, “Frankly, the next generation is mostly Democrats. I don’t believe in their politics necessarily, but I believe that they know how to use technology, social media, and they’re taking a better approach to a lot of these issues that my generation, frankly, screwed up.”

Stating repeatedly his withdrawal from future elections, Sununu still seemed to garner a general feeling of optimistic support from the festival’s vocally blue crowd upon leaving.

Dolores Huerta –

The famous feminist and labor activist, Dolores Huerta, joined the conversations at TribFest – specifically speaking downtown at St. David’s Episcopal Church which had several extravagant halls reserved for the weekend festival. Many stained-glass saints and religious figures watched inanimately from the windows as Huerta recounted her experiences growing up, her relationship with Catholicism and her time advocating for the United Farm Workers labor union as a trusted partner of Cesar Chavez – the person, not the street – in the 60’s through 70’s.

Now 93 years old but maintaining her activism, Huerta also works currently as member of the advisory board for Ms. Magazine, a feminist news publication that had been sending speakers around the country throughout 2023 to celebrate its 50-year anniversary.

Additionally, the longtime icon has a now 20-year-old nonprofit group named after her; the Dolores Huerta Foundation for Community Organizing aims to encourage and facilitate the progress of other local activist groups that are seeking their own specific civil or social justice.

“I call it ‘Democracy 101’. I think people need to understand that they have power; they have to get engaged if they want people to vote,” Huerta said about her eponymous foundation in Bakersfield, Calif. “I want people to understand that they have the power to solve problems in their own communities, and they don’t have to wait for someone to come from outside.” She explained further how the foundation informs and encourages people seeking action on issues like, education or infrastructure, so they can learn that “they can actually do it themselves.”

Huerta’s origins are in her birthplace of Dawson, N.M. which was owned by the Phelps Dodge mining company during her time in the early 1900’s to 1920’s. Huerta’s family “lived by 14 generations” in the area and she added that, “there were 513 miners that were either injured or killed during the course of [Phelp Dodge’s ownership]. And then of course, what they did is they leveled the town.”

This experience and, later, the “racism” she and Cesar Chavez faced during their time working in California – despite she says, her American-born ancestry and even “grandfather [who] was actually in the Civil War, on the union side,” –, is what led the pair to establish the United Farm Workers union and its goal to advocate for the needs of low-income working communities. Commonly regarded as Chavez’s right-hand, Huerta had high praise for her late collaborator’s work and character, repeatedly describing him as “pretty much a genius” despite lacking a traditional education.

‘[Chavez] believed that poor people… [and] people of color don’t have opportunities, and that’s what we need.” said Huerta. “So, within the union, we were able to train people to be mechanics, carpenters, printers and attorneys within the organization; and these are all poor people that never had a chance to go to high school like he never had a chance to go to high school.”

A further question of interest for Huerta was about Chavez’s past thoughts on women and the feminist movement in general – especially given the organization’s male-dominated leadership and the labor head’s reputation for excessive control. “Well, actually, Cesar was a great supporter of women,” responded Huerta, “they would ask Cesar why he had so many women in leadership in the United Farm Workers, and he would say, ‘because they do the work’.”

For the anniversary tour of Ms. Magazine, TribFest had also been showcasing the non-profit’s newly published book, “50 Years of Ms.: The Best of the Pathfinding Magazine that Ignited a Revolution”, which was being sold as a large red hardcover in the Capitol Factory room of the Omni Hotel – where Huerta later offered book signings and smaller-scale conversation.

Huerta recounted meeting Gloria Steinem – a co-founder of Ms. – in the 1970’s, when the esteemed journalist was a “great supporter of the Farm Workers movement,” while Huerta was one of its leaders. “I don’t think Gloria gets enough credit because she was a civil rights activist even before Dr. King.”

Feminist and labor activist Dolores Huerta speaks at the Texas Tribune Festival to celebrate 50 years of Ms. Magazine. Photo taken by Gabriella Plasencia on Sept. 22, 2023.

Meeting and becoming “close” to Gloria Steinem, is when Huerta says that she herself was driven further towards feminism and specifically towards supporting, “the right of women to have an abortion.” Huerta said, “Of course, [abortion] was a big issue for me, being a Catholic right? And we know that it takes a while for religion to catch up with science; so, I had the option to catch up with science to realize that… it’s absolutely important for every woman to have that right, to decide for her own body.”   

In a fitting place to discuss Catholicism, Huerta said she has a “spiritual” instead of “practical relationship with the church.” Voicing her observation that “many of us are disappointed [with the Christian church],” Huerta questioned, “What do they do for children? What does the church do for women? Sometimes it’s hardly anything, except that they cast the church in the forefront of fighting against women’s reproductive rights.”

Her fight for the right to an abortion – as well as her activism for other notable and progressive topics that have made headlines recently – has led to her admiration for and even occasional acquaintanceship with members of the modern Democratic party. During her interview, Huerta gave vocal support for the Biden Administration and several politicians of the Democratic party including Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama. Huerta identifies the target of her ongoing history with activism as being in opposition toward the growth of “fascism.”

To her audience in the echoing church hall she explained her thoughts on the current political climate, “We think of what the word fascist means, and it means to hurt, and it means to punish, and that is what is happening. People are being punished because they’re women, because they’re gay, or lesbian, or transgender… At the end of the day, we are losing our democracy to some of these fascist movements and tendencies.”

U.S Senator Ted Cruz –

The midday interview with notoriously controversial U.S Sen. Ted Cruz had a very interested audience – but perhaps not in a politicians ideal way. Cruz answered questions on some of the past year’s most divisive topics in Texas and national politics, sharing his right-leaning thoughts on partisan issues like immigration, gun control and abortion, as well as his own controversial political history and current agenda for bipartisan outreach. With the audience reconvened to the Paramount Theatre, the interview might as well have been considered typical entertainment, providing popcorn and soda as Cruz’s responses were met consistently with audible unrest from the festival attendees.

Texas’ senator in Washington was elected for his second term in 2018 after a nail-biting race against the Democratic candidate, Beto O’Rourke, in what Cruz said, “was the most expensive Senate race in U.S history” at its time. He added that the “very close election” in 2018 – which concluded with Cruz’s victory by only “200,000 votes out of more than 8 million votes cast,” – was difficult for Cruz because of increased spending from Democrats to raise voter turnout.

“[O’Rourke’s team in 2018] increased Democrat turnout from 1.8 million to 4 million,” said Cruz. When his data was met with unintended applause he added, “I think half of those are here in this room today. That’s okay. We’re in Austin.”

Now running for his third term – despite openly supporting term limits – , Cruz says that he and his team are taking his third reelection “deadly seriously,” but still portrayed a clear confidence when talking about his specific competition from the Democratic party. In regard to the upcoming primary election he said, “At the end of the day, I’m not terribly worried about who wins [the Democratic primary] because… they could nominate a ham sandwich, and they’re going to raise $100 million to run against me.”

Cruz said, “if you are a partisan Democrat, after Donald Trump, there’s nobody in the country you want to beat more than me.” After being “surprised that didn’t get a cheer,” he added, “So, we’re going to see a serious fight but at the end of the day, I believe we’re going to win this fight.”

Part of Cruz’s strategy this election season seems to be emphasizing his less debated actions in office, where he said he has been “delivering bipartisan, meaningful wins for the state of Texas, pro-jobs and pro-growth,” and has, “been doing [so] since [he] arrived.” Cruz referred to “just a couple” of the 94 bills he authored in his 11-year history with the senate, that he said, “made a real difference for the people of Texas.”

The Senator recounted his “first wins” like passing a “bill to stop Hamid Aboutalebi, who’s a known terrorist,” from acquiring a diplomatic passport, which was signed into law by former President Obama in 2014. Cruz also referenced his other early work of securing a Purple Heart award for Fort Cavazos – he used its former name, “Fort Hood”, — to honor the “14 innocent souls” that “Nadal Hassan murdered” in “cold blood”. Cruz added that the Obama administration “denied giving those service members who were murdered or who were injured the Purple Heart, [and] they refused to recognize that that was international terrorism.”

In a more recent reference to his actions, Cruz spoke about his voting against the CHIPS act which he said would “spend tens of billions of federal taxpayer money” to fund new fabricating plants for semiconductor manufacturing. “I don’t like the idea of giving taxpayer money directly to giant corporations,” he explained.

He also reported his work to “to assemble a bipartisan coalition in South Texas,” consisting of equal Democrat and Republican representatives, to develop commerce with Mexico by constructing bridges after Biden introduced new environmental requirements for infrastructure that crosses the southern border which Cruz said, “delayed every one of these projects two, three, four years”.

“The Biden State Department didn’t listen. So, I introduced legislation to mandate that they expedite these bridge permits.” Cruz said, “When those bridges are completed, that will mean tens of billions of dollars of new trade and commerce, thousands of new jobs in Texas for farmers, ranchers, manufacturers.”

Cruz’s further ideas about the border might set him back on “bipartisan support” however; questions about Abbot’s handling of immigration were brought into discussion and met with Cruz’s support of the conservative Texas Governor’s divisive policies at the border.

Cruz said, “Abbot is trying to use whatever tools he can to respond to the crisis and chaos that Washington has created.” The Senator pointed specific blame for the “humanitarian crisis” at the border toward Biden discontinuing the wall’s construction as well the Trump administration’s previous “Remain in Mexico” policies, which required people seeking citizenship at the southern border to wait in Mexico for processing.

During his interview, U.S Senator for Texas Ted Cruz shares his goals for the upcoming election.
Photo taken by Nathan Adam Spear on Sept. 23, 2023.

His support for Abbot and his actions in the recent legislature also continued into the recent debate around “school choice” which Cruz proclaimed himself a “passionate defender” of. The Republican’s desired legislature would utilize public money to increase access to private schools which are not as regulated by the government. At TribFest, Cruz even went on to say, “Listen, if when I die, my tombstone says that Ted played a meaningful role in bringing school choice to the kids of Texas and the kids of America, then I will die a happy man.”

At the event, the Senator stood by his more conservative beliefs on gun control and abortion as well. Cruz shared that he is “pro-life” but agrees with the Constitution that it is a decision for state legislatures. Encouraging awareness of “the proposition that you and I want to save lives,” Cruz also argued that mental health resources instead of gun restrictions are the solution for gun violence. “Every time there’s a mass shooting, you see elected Democrats, their approach is they want to take away the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” Cruz said. “There is zero evidence that doing so protects any lives.”

He also provided his defense for the recent claims of corruption made toward two Republicans holding office. Regarding the impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Cruz emphasized belief that Paxton “has built a record as the strongest conservative state attorney general in the country.” And when an audience-submitted question referred to Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas participating in donor events, Cruz remarked with ill-reception, “there’s a particular hatred that the left has for a black man who dares to be a conservative.”

If it wasn’t clear from his series of debate podcasts, Cruz especially emphasized the importance he places on people leaving their “echo chamber” to hear opposing viewpoints peacefully. “So, I want to actually take a point to thank everyone who’s here who doesn’t agree with me,” Cruz said to most of the audience near the beginning of the interview, “you may leave with [your] ideas reinforced or you may change your mind on something, but I appreciate you coming in and listening and being part of a conversation with someone you don’t necessarily agree with. I think we need a lot more of that.”

The TribFest Experience –

Luckily, “a lot more of that” is what TribFest aimed to provide, with the many speakers and panels who presented at this year’s festival – spreading coverage on many more topics than previously mentioned here. The festival also hosted free panels on its final evening that were found along South Congress Ave. Referred to as “open congress” events, live artists and tents from various contributors lined the street – including Texas Monthly magazine which provided panel topics ranging from issues with House Democrats to changes in local barbecue.

If you missed the discussions this year, don’t worry; this likely won’t be TribFest’s last appearance in downtown Austin, due to the Texas Tribune’s ongoing quest for accessible journalism. Ticket prices are even reduced for students, so if you’re in town next year think about joining in on the informative – and often entertaining – conversations to be found at the Texas Tribune Festival.