Signal Q&A: a conversation with Houston attorney Manpreet Kaur Singh

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We recently spoke to Manpreet Kaur Singh, a Houston lawyer and member of the Texas Progressive Executive Council, about the GOP proposal to appoint judges, Houston as a leader for women in politics, and the 2020 elections in Texas. Below is an edited conversation for length and clarity.

Texas Signal: Hey everyone we’re joined today by a guest we’ve been trying to get for a while: Manpreet Kaur Singh. How are you?

Manpreet Kaur Singh: Good.

TS: She wanted me to say she’s a native Houstonian.

MKS: I am.

TS: And on your Twitter page you said you’re the biggest self promoter of HTX.

MKS: I’m just in love with this city. I was born here. And I don’t look old, but I’m really old and I’ve watched the evolution of this city, I’ve seen the growth of this city, the mindset of the city change. So I just fall in love with it every single time. And a lot of my friends, especially across the nation or whenever I travel, I always tell them, because they’re like ‘why Texas?’ and you know, cowboy boots or whatever, and I’m like no, it might not be a destination but the people really make it and I’m really proud of who we are.

TS: You wrote a piece for us on Republicans now all of a sudden it seems wanting to appoint judges in Texas instead of electing them. Talk a little about that, and also, why now?

MKS: So to me, like I understand when we elect judges it feels kind of awkward or odd that it would be any type of partisan ticket anyhow, right? Because we’re asking judges to be fair and impartial kind of like what we ask juries to do. And so as it is people kind of already feel like a little bit ‘this is weird, we want somebody who is fair and impartial.’ When you have appointments, you have the governor favoring whoever it is in their party, for example. I think that it’s a reflection on the Republican party, now they’re kind of panicking to figure out what they need to do to change the system, because any time something doesn’t go in their favor, they try to change the system completely to help in their favor, like straight ticket voting being eliminated and all the rest.  

TS: Well I mean, they’ve been losing, right?

MKS: Yeah.

TS: A bunch of judicial races they lost last year, especially here.

MKS: I mean, a bunch. There are no Republican judges on the bench.

TS: What drives you? It seems like you have a strong sense of social justice or whatever phrase you want to use. I know you did the opening prayer for civil rights icon John Lewis here in Houston in January. Tell me where this comes from.

MKS: I don’t know the where. Culturally from my religion, we have to be advocates of social justice so I had that backbone kind of there too. My parents are immigrants. And they literally had that same story where you came in with $8 in your pocket. When you come through the U.S. they only just give you $8, they won’t let bring anything else in the late ‘60s/early ’70s when my parents came. And I know that they came, because the U.S. specifically recruited that they wanted more professionals and to diversify the U.S. so they were recruited and said ‘you come here to diversify the country.’ So that was the premise they came in. Along the way, with the other immigrants, because my Sikh community is so small, I’ve met so many different immigrants that have come. Because they’re seeking asylum, or they think there is the American dream, so I’m exposed to so many other people, with so many different visions of this country. 

TS: As you know there is still a long way to go for gender equity. Not just on the pay equity piece and sexual harassment but if you take a bigger look at it in terms of women in politics in Texas, we were talking before, there have certainly been some successes [of more women winning elections] the last year. You were telling me that Houston is the leader on that topic.

MKS: I know it’s hard for people to imagine, because when you see the long game and how far we are and the things that we have to do, people forget to see the good things and kind of like use that as a pedestal or stepping stool to get to those next levels. So while we don’t agree with Kathy Whitmire because she was Republican, she was our mayor back in the ‘80s here in Houston. And obviously Annise Parker, a lesbian mayor, we’ve led the way in large part of having women lead the city, and it being the fourth largest city for a number of years too. So I think in that regard, when we look at city politics and our city council, we’ve always had a good diversity within that, and if you take that and you say look, if we can do that in this major city in Texas, we can do that in the rest of Texas or maybe take that model or take that acceptance or the successes we’ve had here and duplicate them elsewhere as well.

TS: And obviously there’s a big, pronounced partisan difference. Republicans have a whole problem on that, no question about it, but also, I would point to whether it’s Lizzie Fletcher here, Sylvia Garcia, Veronica Escobar in El Paso, I think you would agree with them going to Congress last year, the 17 African-American judges here all of whom are women…

MKS: All are women. Nineteen Black women.

TS: Yeah, so that certainly fits your thesis, right?

MKS: It does. And not only that, but their dynamic, right? You look at Lizzie Fletcher and she ran on the piece of let’s bring everybody together. Which, actually, a footnote – I don’t think that’s how the election of 2020 is going to be. I actually think that it was a great theme and it worked for 2018 because 2016 showed so much division, but I actually think in 2020 it’s going to go further apart. I think people are going to go in their camps a lot more, and the hate is going to be a lot more prominent, because when one side spews so much of it, I think we can only say we’re going to come together so much and we’ll start saying ‘You’re racist, you’re this,” we’re starting to label the other side so much as well. So I think it’s going to be a lot more divisive in 2020, and I don’t think we’re going to hear a lot more of that ‘let’s come together’ thought process that we have that affinity for.

TS: There are a lot more women running in the Democratic primary for president, do you have a favorite yet? Women or men.

MKS: When you talk about women in general, like obviously I love Kamala Harris. She’s been someone I’ve watched she was prosecuting and all the rest, and she came and spoke to Annie’s List a couple of years ago here for a luncheon and she’s great. I love Elizabeth Warren, and I know we make fun of that fact that she has a plan for everything, but she literally has a plan for everything. And I think that her plans resonate with the things that I think about. I just wish she was a bit more dynamic, and I think that we got the right sense of who we are putting up there but I think the whole package is something, and sometimes I think we do put up people just to check the boxes, to say yes we have a woman out there. But we have these qualified women, I just want them to be the woman to make it. And I’m not saying that in a harsh way, like it’s the same standard I would have for a male. For example I love Beto, but I don’t think he’s got that presidential vivaciousness that he needs right now for 2020 for example. So I apply the same standards for both just to point out that it’s not something that I’m judging women on a harsher standard for or anything like that. But I also love Joe Biden but I feel like our party is going to go against him a little bit more, even though he’s polling so high, because they don’t want him to be white and a male and older, and because we want to get away from those classifications. I think that the party will push him further away than he should be, because he is qualified and would be really great and an extension of Obama, maybe I’m being dreamy but that’s the way I kind of looked at it. 

TS: Hey people were dreamy back then with Obama…

MKS: Oh I know.

TS: And everybody was saying he wasn’t going to win and it was going to go nowhere, right? But speaking of dreamy, it’s not a dream anymore that Texas is a swing state. 

MKS: Yeah, who would have ever thought, like literally, I did not think this would ever happen. Ever.

TS: Do you remember a time where it’s ever been this possible for Democrats to win?

MKS: Never. In fact I remember you know, again I’ve always been geeked out about government and politics and just the world in general and the way we fit in it. And I remember being excited about voting for the first time at the University of Texas when I was 18, and I just… All my friends would say ‘what’s the point, we’re a red state, there’s no point.’ And that’s kind of the mantra I’ve heard year after year. It kind of never felt like it was ever going to be blue. I never felt like there was a chance it was ever going to switch over even during Ann Richards. I mean it was kind of just like we got somebody who was really great for that time period but I just never thought for presidential that we would actually ever go that direction. So I feel excited that we are in this position, but I think that you are absolutely right. I think Democrats don’t realize the power that we hold right now and for our lack of organization skills, if we don’t have it together, we could lose that. 

TS: It’s been a great conversation. Thanks for joining us.

MKS: No thanks for having me.

TS: You bet.

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