In Houston, a far-left insurgent challenges a Democratic incumbent on Israel

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a moderate Democrat, faces a primary challenge from her left in Pervez Agwan, a climate activist who has made opposition to Israel an early focus of his campaign

A Democratic primary in a Houston congressional district is shaping up to be the next battle over Israel in American politics — or at least, that’s what the far-left insurgent challenging a moderate Democratic incumbent in the state’s 7th Congressional District wants. 

Pervez Agwan, a first-time candidate and progressive climate activist, sees an opportunity to unseat Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX) following the state’s redistricting process, which changed the 7th District from the suburban battleground Fletcher flipped in 2018 to a heavily Democratic, majority-minority district. 

In July, Agwan went on the offensive against pro-Israel activists and politicians, and pledged to end American support for Israel in what has so far been his only interview with a national publication. He slammed Fletcher for her connection to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, which endorsed her in 2022 and in next year’s primary. (A spokesperson for Agwan declined to comment on the race.) 

“Most people want the United States not to be sending aid to countries that violate human rights,” Agwan told The Intercept last month. “It starts with electing people that aren’t going to be bought off by any lobbying group. So I think Lizzie really needs to start shifting her stance, and she won’t do it, because she’s funded by AIPAC.”

Agwan, who recently earned an MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was not on the radar of many Democratic activists and local political experts before he decided to challenge Fletcher earlier this year. He hasn’t yet earned the endorsement of any elected officials, and Fletcher maintains a strong base of support among both local Democratic leaders and her Washington colleagues.

But political insiders in Houston caution that it’s too soon to write off Agwan, who is already mounting a heavy ground game with door-knocking and in-person campaigning seven months before the March primary. 

“Under the previous configuration of the district, she had a very solid message to the primary electorate, that, ‘I’m a Democrat, and I’m your best chance to maintain District 7 in Democratic hands,’” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “Now that’s gone, because whatever Democrat wins is going to win District 7. Republicans don’t stand a chance.” 

Agwan, who swore off corporate support, has raised $220,000 this year from individual donors. He entered the third quarter with $77,000 on hand, well below Fletcher’s $1.6 million war chest, a signal that the incumbent is taking her primary challenger seriously. 

Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher greets her supporters as they celebrate her win over John Culberson in the race or the 7th Congressional District seat in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, in Houston. (Photo by Brett Comer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

“She’s somewhat vulnerable, just because [the district] has changed so drastically,” said Renee Cross, senior executive director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, who pointed out that Fletcher could also face criticism for her ties to Houston’s oil and gas industry. Agwan has made the Green New Deal, which he has dubbed “Green New Hou” in his campaign messaging, a focal point of his campaign.

“If I were his political consultant, I would say that would be the issue that I would try to tell him to jump on. I think it would probably resonate with more voters,” rather than his recent messaging on Israel, Cross said.

The son of Muslim Indian immigrants, Agwan has made his support for Palestinians — and opposition to Israel — a priority. In April, he appeared at an anti-Israel rally outside the Israeli consulate in Houston. His campaign office has a Palestinian flag hanging in it.

One political consultant who used to work with the Texas Democratic Party suggested Agwan’s early and vocal opposition to Israel could have some sway with the district’s Muslim population, which is now a larger share of the constituency in the district. But they added that it is more likely intended to reach a national progressive audience.

Pervez Agwan for U.S. Congress

“I think that it’s an easy way to establish his uber-progressive bona fides early on, get some national name ID which is intended for raising real money once he gets out of his personal network, and to try and have that catch fire moment when he can become the next progressive crusader against, you know, the ‘bought-off corporate elite Democratic establishment member,’” said the consultant.

The 7th District contains Meyerland, the historic and current heart of Houston’s Jewish community. 

Karen Bernstein, an engineer and political activist in Houston’s aerospace industry, only learned of Agwan’s candidacy when her college-age daughter was looking for opportunities for summer internships, and she saw a listing on his campaign. But Bernstein — a Democrat and supporter of Fletcher’s who is also active in the Houston Jewish community — has been turned off by Agwan’s aggressive style.

“He seems highly, highly partisan and pulling on issues that I don’t think are relevant to this congressional district,” she told JI. Bernstein described herself as a “pretty liberal Dem” who doesn’t align with either AIPAC or the more liberal J Street. “But I also don’t think that we need to stop any kind of aid [to Israel],” she said.

“There aren’t that many progressives in the district who are going to be compelled to vote for someone because they have a starkly anti-Israel message,” said Jones. “But there are a significant number of voters in District 7 who are going to interpret that message as being antisemitic.”  

An AIPAC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Rachel Rosen, the chief communications officer at Democratic Majority for Israel, said the group is “following the race closely” and is “very concerned about [Fletcher’s] opponent’s views,” but declined to say whether DMFI’s political action committee will get involved in the race.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.