Cristin Padgett decided she wanted to run for the Texas State House when her district’s current representative, Republican Scott Turner announced last summer that he would not be running for re-election. Padgett figured the best strategy when running in House District 33 (which includes the cities of Frisco and Rockwall) would be honesty about who she was and what she believed.
So before anyone could “out” her, she came right out and let everyone know she was an atheist:
… Padgett is going out on a limb to let voters know from the outset that she has “no religious affiliation or belief in a higher being.”
“I don’t want to make it a big deal, but I do want people to open up and think critically about it,” Padgett told the Observer…
She said she wanted to get the question out of the way early in her campaign. “It’s going to be a concern for people,” she said. “People are afraid of what they don’t understand.”
I loved that she wasn’t trying to hide it. But she still had a very uphill climb. She’s in a predominantly Republican (and heavily gerrymandered) district where “Democrat” is almost as dirty a word as “godless.” In 2012, Turner won with 85% of the votes against a Libertarian candidate. In 2014, he ran unopposed.
But we don’t win any of these elections unless we run, and the anti-atheist stigma doesn’t go away unless more people are willing to embrace the label. Padgett ran on a platform of defending civil liberties, improving education, and bringing back economic stability. She may be an atheist, but she wasn’t interested in pushing her non-belief on her constituency. And that may be the best (and only) way to win over voters who may be turned off by the fact that she doesn’t believe in their God.
The first hurdle, however, was getting through the primary, where she was up against fellow Democrat Karen Jacobs. While the District 33 results are not yet fully tabulated, Jacobs has the clear edge (77% to 22%, as of this writing) and Padgett has conceded the race, writing on Facebook:
The election results are in for #SuperTuesday and while I was not unveiled as the victor I have had an experience that bars none.
With help of my campaign staff, and the tools we had available, together we let people know they are not alone in Collin County as a Democrat nor are they alone in Texas as an atheist (secularist, humanist, etc.).
Our campaign has inspired at least one person, a millennial, to run for office in the next election cycle. And if I ran this campaign for no other reason than that, I am proud.
Reflecting on our campaign strategy it is clear that we fell short on the ground. As a full time working woman, with campaign staff that either work full time or are full time students, it proved difficult to create the efforts necessary to counter my retired primary opponent and her retired campaign staff’s efforts.
Karen Jacobs For Texas is a great candidate. She has the knowledge, skill, and desire to get the job done. I fully and wholeheartedly endorse her as the Democratic Candidate for HD 33. If you voted for me in the Primary please shift your vote to Karen Jacobs in November. Together we can bring Texas in to the future.
To the people of Texas, you have not heard the last from me.
Until we meet again.
As I said earlier, this is not going to be an easy race in November, and it wasn’t going to be easy night tonight either. But losing the primary is hardly a reason not to have run in the first place. I hope she and other atheists run again — and they’ll have more experience under their belts as a result of her campaign.
One more point: Texas is one of seven states where the Constitution still technically has a ban on atheists in public office. It’s not enforceable, due to the Supreme Court case Torcaso v. Watkins, but Article 1, Section 4 still says:
No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.
Those bans tend to stay in place, even when they’re nothing but relics of an older time, unless someone forces the change by getting elected. (It’s the reason Herb Silverman ran for Governor of South Carolina decades ago.) A Padgett victory could have led to that clause requiring belief in God to get wiped away… but for now, it’ll remain there a little longer.
***Update*** (3/2/16): Padgett sent me this statement via email:
I want everyone to know I didn’t lose because I came out as Atheist. I lost because my name was second on the ballot in both counties, which matters because most people don’t know who they are voting for so they just pick A). Secondly Karen Jacobs is retired and so were all of her volunteers. They had the extra spare time to block walk and phone bank while I had to work full time to support myself, same as my volunteers. If you look at most candidates that run they run their own business such as Law Firms or Real Estate Agents, or they are retired. Running a campaign takes a huge amount of time and money. Karen had more than I did and she won.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)