Texas Tribune CEO: In an urban state, rural Texans still have political clout

Steve Nash
Brownwood Bulletin
Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith speaks at the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce's economic summit Friday on the Howard Payne University campus.

Evan Smith, CEO of the Texas Tribune digital news organization, brought a lively presentation about population and politics at the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce's 2022 Economic Summit, held in the Faith and Life Leadership Center at Howard Payne University.

Smith, the keynote speaker, was followed by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar and Brownwood Municipal Development District Director Ray Tipton. 

Smith  first talked about his background, saying he was president of the magazine Texas Monthly when he helped start the nonpartisan Texas Tribune in 2009. "I was concerned that there were a number of newspapers that were folding around the state, and there were fewer reporters at the newspapers that were left," Smith said.

"The number of reporters at the capital in Austin is about a quarter of what it was 20 years ago. I know people feel strongly about the media, in good ways and bad. The problems and opportunities in this state are more complex than ever. The issues that all face in our daily lives are more voluminous than they've ever been."

Smith said he'd been asked to talk about population in Texas. “This is the subject, that over the many years I’ve been in Texas, has animated me the most," Smith said. "I love the vertical subjects – public education, health care, immigration, transportation. Those are all important. The horizontal thread that runs through all of those is the population of this state.”

Smith said Texas had 16 million people when he arrived in 1991. The population is now 29.5 million and is expected to reach 47 million by 2050, Smith said.

He said the state is growing in three ways: in numbers, in becoming more urban and demographically.

The urban-rural fight “is over in Texas and urban has won," Smith said. "Rural Texas is still really important both culturally, economically, politically. “Each of these things – fast growth, big numbers, urbanization and diversification — all  have an impact on the economy of the state of Texas.”

Smith said Texas has more big cities than any other state, and five of the nation's 12 largest cities are in Texas. "The battle of urban versus rural has been decided and it’s an urban state," Smith said. "Much of the growth over the last 10 years has been in urban areas. Most of the state’s population is in the urban areas and most of the growth over the next 30 years is in the urban areas.”

Smith said Austin has gotten so unaffordable that "people are having to leave to go north to Williamson and south to Hays (counties)  and they’re taking their votes with them. “ Those counties are turning "purple, if not blue," he said.

“You would think if the Democrats had any competence at the state level that they would be able to leverage this politically to this advantage. But the state is not turning blue any time soon."

In 2022, the Hispanic population is larger than the white population, Smith said. “This has all kinds of implications," he said. "The Hispanic population of Texas is four times a likely to be uninsured as the average American and twice as likely as the average Texan.  Four of the five most uninsured counties in the countries are on the Texas-Mexico border. We underinvest in the majority of Hispanic communities in public education, higher education, basic infrastructure, transportation, broadband. Disparities made worse during the pandemic.

"The change in the population has profound policy implications. As the population changes, we have to ask ourselves are dollars following people or are we still funding on the basis of a population that no longer is in Texas.  Of 254 Texas counties, 215 got more diverse over the last 10 years. We have to accept, acknowledge and ideally follow that knowledge with action to try to meet the population of Texas where it lives. The consequence of this population growth is that we end up with more clout in Washington. Now we hate Washington except when they’re giving us our money back without strings.”

Smith said The Texas Tribune and the University of Texas conducted a poll in 2015 asking if population growth in Texas was good or bad.

“We love it when people come to Texas, we love it when they relocated their business, we love it when their employees come, and their families come, and isn’t it great to be a place  that everybody wants to live," Smith said. "And all of us who’ve lived here for awhile know the blessings of this state.  And also we have a choice. Are we going to invest in health care, in public education, in higher education, in transportation, in broadband access?"

Growth requires investment, Smith said. "Are we going to sufficiently create infrastructure underneath all this growth or are we at risk of collapsing under our own weight? That really is the question before us as it relates to population statewide.“

Smith noted that 87 percent  of the state's population live east of Interstate 35, an area that contains one-third of the land.

 “The reality is, we are no longer a rural state or ranching state or an ag state exclusively," Smith said. "We will always be to a degree  but we’re an urban state at this point. There are still 3 million people in rural Texas. Three million is still more than the populations of 18 states. Anybody who dismisses the size of rural Texas or the importance of rural Texas misses the fact that if rural Texas were its own state, it would be larger than the populations of 18 states."

To illustrate the political power of rural Texans, Smith referred to the 2020 presidential election. In the state's five largest urban counties, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 912,000 votes, and Biden won the south Texas counties by 152,000 votes, giving Biden a margin of more than 1 million votes over Trump, Smith said.

But in rural Texas, Trump's margin over Biden was 1.7 million votes, and rural Texans elected Ted Cruz, Ken Paxton and Dan Patrick, Smith said.

“You all have more power than you know, and you should use it because the policy challenges that I talked about – inadequate access to health care, inadequate funding of public education and higher education, the economic challenges that you face as a consequence of us not investing in sufficient infrastructure — that allows you simply to leverage the opportunity that you have," Smith said. "All of that. You have so much more political power than you realize.”

Smith said Democrats' belief that Texas is turning blue is not correct. "Until Democrats figure out how to talk to people in rural Texas in a way that gets them into conversation, they’re never going to win statewide elections," Smith said.

"Republicans are campaigning in areas that they had ceded to Democrats before. Democrats have got to do a better job of going into communities where Republicans don’t listen to Democrats and try to make their case. I think it’s a hard case to make. That’s why this whole narrative about Texas turning blue makes me laugh, because they don’t make enough of an effort to get that margin down. … you all have so much power than you know."