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This Policy Wonk Thinks He Can Take Down Pete Sessions

Who the heck is he, and why does this Dem think he can beat the longtime incumbent? Meet District 32's Don Quixote.
By Eric Celeste |

Ed Meier remembers when he decided to run against U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions for his seat representing Texas’ 32nd District. It was Presidents Day weekend, mid-February, and the still-reeling former Hillary Clinton transition team co-executive director wanted to get out of Washington, D.C. He took his family sightseeing in Philadelphia—to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the whole Revolutionary tour. While there, he recalled what had happened a few months earlier, the day after Clinton had lost the presidential election. On the car ride from New York to D.C., his 8-year-old daughter had broken the silence. “I thought that bullies didn’t win,” she said.

Now Meier wanted to show his daughter and young son that if a bully knocks you down, you get back up. You can probably figure out the rest. In the cradle of U.S. democracy, his heart fills with civic pride. He looks at his kids. He smiles and tells his wife, “Let’s do this.” They hug, the orchestral music swells, end scene.

If you’re making the movie, you then show Meier moving back to his hometown of Dallas and meeting with influential donors who promise him loads of campaign cash. You might even include a scene where Sessions—a 20-year North Texas legislator who hasn’t been seriously tested in an election since Martin Frost, in 2004—stupidly chastises voters at a raucous town hall in March with the line, “You don’t know how to listen.” Perhaps a tight shot of Meier would come into focus as he recalls Sessions’ outburst with his own campaign-ready line: “I am running against a congressman who thinks his constituents don’t listen to him—when he’s the one who should be doing the listening.”

To this point, it’s a feel-good story. But if you’re honest about Meier’s chances, your movie would smash cut to some spoilsport wonk talking nervously as she outlines the long odds facing Meier in his bid to win his own party’s primary, let alone go on to defeat Sessions, a powerful bureaucrat with a huge campaign war chest. If she were honest, she might even tell the campaign staff, “First, we’ve got to answer a simple question for voters: who the hell is Ed Meier?” That’s an easier question to answer than the next obvious one: “Does Ed Meier have a chance in 2018?”

Meier, 40, is a baby-faced policy-nerd political nobody, albeit one whose résumé is impressive. Meier was born just north of Inwood Village, near Lovers Lane. At 6 years old, he and his two older sisters moved to Nigeria with his parents, who were medical missionaries. He returned only for grades five and nine in Highland Park, as Park Cities Baptist Church offered housing for their family. During middle and high school, he lived 10 hours from his parents’ teaching hospital in a boarding hostel with 15 other kids. His class had 30 kids representing 10 different nationalities. To keep in touch with his parents, he got a ham radio license. On Sunday evenings, Meier would call ham radio operators stateside to get college and pro scores for the football fans in his school.

Undergrad was George Washington University with a focus on international relations (studied Arabic, did a semester in Cairo) and an internship near Capitol Hill. Then he got his master’s degree in Middle East studies at the University of Oxford outside of London.

“That’s when I really wanted to ground myself,” Meier says. “I was really ready to come back to the States, come back to Dallas, reattach my roots to Texas.”

Here is the rundown of Meier’s path, post graduate degree: field organizer for Regina Montoya’s campaign against Pete Sessions in 2000; legislative aide for Texas State Representative Helen Giddings; seven-hour, friend-zone first date with eventual wife in Austin; UT law school; consultant at McKinsey & Company; adviser to the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, focused on military-to-civilian transition in Iraq; COO at Dallas-area education nonprofit Big Thought; director of policy outreach for the Clinton campaign, then co-executive director of the Clinton transition team; interim executive director of Big Thought through this year, until he can find his successor and concentrate full time on his political bid.

In a nutshell, that’s who Meier is. He is someone who at press time, in early April, was looking to buy a house in East Dallas and transition from a behind-the-scenes policy and management guru to public politician. He seems ready for the basics of such a conversion. During our talk, Meier’s messages already sound well-rehearsed but genuine, punctuated with all the right buzzwords: “values,” “hard work,” “opportunity,” “social contract.”

The question, though, is not whether Meier or any Sessions opponent can run a strong, professional race. The quality of candidates looking at the race is impressive. Besides Meier, those eying the race include rising Democratic star Miguel Solis (Ed. note: Solis indeed eyed the race, and kindly declined to join it. This went to print well before that announcement.); former NFL linebacker and current civil rights attorney Colin Allred; and longtime politico and attorney Regina Montoya. The Dallas Morning News has floated names like former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller and former Dallas City Councilwoman Angela Hunt.

It’s a star-studded list, and the top-level players in this potential race are emboldened by an important fact: even though Dems didn’t even field a candidate against Sessions last year, the district turned blue for Hillary Clinton. In 2012, Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama 57–42 percent in District 32, which runs from the Park Cities, through conservative North Richardson, into Rowlett, and down through Mesquite. But Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump 48–47 percent.

That could be due to Trump’s unique unpopularity among some moderate Republicans. Either way, Sessions is not scared, at least not according to this quote from him: “If the Democrats want to think they can take their party, that is dead, and resurrect something in Texas 32, bring it on.”

Defeating him may indeed be a pipe dream. Democrats have a lousy track record in overcoming Republican incumbents here. While District 32 doesn’t span all of Texas, it’s worth noting that no Democrat has won a statewide office since 1994. Meier thinks he has a shot at breaking through in his little corner, at least partly because he believes Trump’s victory has awakened a formerly complacent liberal spirit in District 32. “It’s a fantastic district,” Meier says. “There are people who have been involved for years who’ve been frustrated because we haven’t been able to elect a Democrat in this district. But there’s a lot of new energy that’s coming out in the district. I think that we’ve really got to focus on harnessing that energy, continuing to grow and motivate and excite the base, and get new people registered to vote in this district.”

Solis says he thinks Sessions is indeed vulnerable because of Trump’s historic unpopularity, and because moderate Republicans want anyone in office besides a Trump cheerleader. Perhaps more important, since 2010, the demographics of the district have begun shifting in the Democrats’ favor, with the Latino population growing, a fact that newcomer Victoria Neave exploited to win a Texas house seat in an area that overlaps much of 32, in areas like Mesquite and Rowlett.

“Rep. Neave’s victory proved that when you place a highly qualified, common-sense candidate in front of voters in this district, well, anything is possible,” Solis says. “But this race is more than any one candidate. It’s a fight for the soul of America. … It’s a fight that will require hard work, but it is winnable.”

Political hyperbole aside, this is a fight that Texas and national Democrats point to when they imagine a path toward reclaiming a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Breaking the GOP lock on the state’s Congressional delegation—both senators and 25 of 36 representatives are Republican—is daunting, but given town hall performances like Sessions’, it’s not out of the question. More important to Meier is proving to his daughter that he can get up off the mat and take his swing.

Does he make it out of the Dem primary? I do think Meier and Solis would be the clear favorites in terms of appealing to big-cash donors, Solis because of his work in education reform and his skill at developing a grass-roots Hispanic pipeline of political talent, and Meier because big-check writers feel better when a candidate has a national pedigree and ties to a previous administration. In other words, someone who has been around folks who’ve been elected to national office, someone who knows what it takes to do the same.

And make no mistake. What it would take for Meier or any Democrat to win is millions of dollars, a well-planned field operation, and a message that resonates across party lines. Knowing how to listen won’t be enough.

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