Katrina Pierson isn’t who most people picture when they think of the tea party.
The movement is, according to a recent poll, 83 percent white, and the 37-year-old political activist is an African-American woman who, given her multiracial background, might have been derisively described by fellow Texan Ted Nugent as a “mongrel” — just as he referred to President Barack Obama, also biracial, a month ago.
But demography aside, Pierson is all tea party. She hails from a deep-red state, favors term limits, wants to “audit” the Federal Reserve and is “a normal person,” in her words, who “just wants the federal government to leave us alone.”
Pierson was recently endorsed by Sarah Palin, who, in her uniquely alliterative style, called Pierson “a feisty fighter for freedom.” And if this were 2010, that alone might be enough to get Pierson to Washington. But she’s running against an established GOP incumbent, House Rules Committee Chair Pete Sessions, and as Slate has reported, tea party coattails aren’t as long as they used to be.
Pierson’s outsider status is one of the reasons FreedomWorks — one of the big national tea party groups — also is endorsing her. As its outreach director, Deneen Borelli, another prominent black conservative, says, Sessions is one of the “establishment politicians” who are “simply in office for themselves.” And FreedomWorks considers Pierson “a clear upgrade, policywise,” says Jackie Bodnar, its communications director Jackie Bodnar.
Policywise, though, Pierson’s platform is mostly tea party boilerplate: “NSA invasion of our privacy,” Obama is “completely lawless” and immigration reform will “completely destroy the black community.” When asked which part of the government social safety net she thought needed to be cut, Pierson didn’t give specifics, only offering that “they all need to be reviewed.”
But even if Pierson’s ideas don’t stand out from the pack, her story definitely does.
Nowadays she’s a regular on Fox News, but in the final weeks of her campaign she’s had to turn the recent revelation of her 1997 shoplifting arrest into a political asset by using it as a jumping-off point for the story of her formative years: how she survived being “surrounded by gangs, drugs and gun violence” in the Dallas metro area, and being brought up by a mother who gave birth to Pierson at age 15, gave her up for adoption and then re-entered her life, but who, Pierson says, couldn’t provide her with the guidance she needed as a young woman. For a long time, she said, she lived in an environment where the “government-assistance system of welfare” meant living in “a cycle of poverty” and “a society where government is in full control.”
She’s less specific about what she believes to be the nexus between her personal struggles and the government, but she’s not the only black conservative who inveighs against the social safety net with her upbringing as a backdrop. As GOP rising star Chelsi Henry wrote earlier this month in The Root, her family “received government assistance” when she was a kid, but she now believes in “less intrusive government,” and that her own success was in spite of, not because of, federal help.
The difference, perhaps, between their stories — in the context of well-worn Republican tropes about the perils of welfare dependency — is that Pierson’s mother is white.
When I asked Pierson about the specific concerns of black voters, she was most animated on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform, which she opposes and believes, if passed, will put more immigrant workers in competition with African-American workers for blue-collar jobs.
On voter-ID restrictions, she dismissed my suggestion that state legislatures were enacting laws designed to suppress voter turnout, and insisted that GOP support for voter-ID laws was “solely based on voter fraud.”
When asked to name the issue on which she most disagreed with the president, Pierson said, bluntly, “I don’t like any of his policies.” But on the question of whether he deserved any credit for turning negative into positive GDP growth and overseeing a more than doubling of the stock market during his tenure, she deadpanned that she had no problem giving him credit for that, since “he’s been taking care of the Wall Street bankers, like previous presidents.”
Clearly, she’s not a fan. But it’s not just Obama who’s in her sights. “Republican leadership,” she says, “just isn’t interested in governing in a conservative manner, and it’s our duty as Republicans to hold our elected officials accountable.”
Pierson is the underdog in next Tuesday’s Texas Republican primary against incumbent Sessions, partly because Palin’s approval, while still coveted on the far right, isn’t worth quite what it used to be. Also, as of last month, Sessions reported well over $1 million in his campaign coffers, while Pierson’s campaign had only $50,000 on hand.
In this race, she’s got the backing of tea party true believers. She'll find out next week if it’s enough to win over GOP primary voters in Texas’ 32nd Congressional District.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root.
© 2013, The Root