Back around 1900, the popular American humorist Kin Hubbard joked that, “Now and then, an innocent man is sent to the legislature.” Hubbard’s impish observation still sadly applies to most U.S. legislative bodies, now so corrupted by big money politics that they’re little more than crime syndicates run by and for corporate donors. But here’s a bit of news that might lift you up and get you excited: America’s grassroots progressive movement is making the election of “innocents” more than an occasional oddity.
These newcomers’ innocence rests not on naivete, but on rejecting the money-paved political path that has led so many elected officials–of both major parties–astray. Instead of being drawn to politics by the perks and prestige of “holding” office, these newbies come from strong backgrounds of progressive activism; their ambitions are driven by community needs.
It’s been my good luck over the years to know a few inspiring examples of such true democratic officials. Paul Wellstone was one. The scrappy Minnesota senator, along with Sheila, his wife and political partner, had been longtime community organizers, and they joyously carried that fiery grassroots spirit like a torch, right into the inner sanctums of Democratic policymaking.
Another was John Lewis, a civil rights icon who, at 20-something, was a frontline leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, directly confronting the blatant, bloody brutality of Jim Crow racism. Elected to Congress in 1986, the Georgian used his House seat as a pulpit and organizing forum to press relentlessly for economic and political justice for all. He was an ethical giant, an exemplar of how to behave in high office. Even approaching death, he challenged us: This July, with only days to live, Lewis penned a missive to the next generation of progressive activists, warning that the movement fails if it gets comfortable in power. He implored all involved in the long fight for real democracy to keep that outsider spark firing within them. Even when, especially when, you win and go inside, “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble,” he urged.
The most encouraging political change in decades is that progressive candidates in the Lewis mold are emerging directly and in increasing numbers from local grassroots insurgencies. Rather than upscale professionals, they tend to be single moms, poverty workers, climate change activists, immigrants, etc. Mostly young, the upstarts are rapidly altering the substance, structure, strategy –and success–of progressive politics. With no big money and few big-name backers, their campaigns are an extension of democratic movement-building, grounded in long-term, street-level organizing around kitchen-table issues. Their key goal is not merely to elect a new set of officials, but to effect actual policies to benefit the great majority: Medicare for All, worker and consumer rights, criminal justice reform, a Green New Deal, civil rights, clean elections, etc. It’s percolate-up politics. And here’s the big news: It’s working! Since 2016, “good trouble” campaigns have been challenging business-as-usual, lobbyist-funded candidates and win-ning hundreds of local, state, and congressional seats.
A few of these wins have been high-profile, particularly the startling upsets in 2018 by four savvy, proudly progressive women of color. Having run separate-but-similar outsider campaigns against the moneyed powers, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (MI), Ayanna Pressley (MA), and Rashida Tlaib (MI) almost literally burst into Congress.
Dubbed “The Squad,” they were widely depicted by pundits as electoral aberrations, shooting stars with no staying power or influence. But–hello, condescending cognoscenti–all four were re-elected, defeating well-funded establishment attempts to oust them. Moreover, another five overtly progressive movement campaigns defeated corporate Dems in primaries for congressional seats this year: Cori Bush (MO), Jamaal Bowman (NY), Teresa Leger Fernandez (NM), Mondaire Jones (NY), and Marie Newman (IL).
This momentous political upheaval is underway beneath mass media’s myopic radar. Scrappy groups–such as People’s Action, Sunrise Movement, Our Revolution, Black Lives Matter, Poor People’s Campaign, Progressive Democrats of America, Working America, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), MoveOn, JOLT, the Working Families Party, and numerous others (many of which didn’t exist before 2016)–are on the ground, running well-organized, aggressively progressive campaigns that are remaking the established political order. In practically every state, a record number of outsider campaigns are being run for state legislature, county positions, DA, city hall, courts, and other seats that old-line political powers have long considered their own property.
This down-ballot push represents a welcome maturing of the progressive movement, for these offices matter, are winnable, and build a foundation to support future success up the political ladder. This is a path that Republican heavy hitters (the Koch brothers, Karl Rove, et al.) took after Obama’s win in 2008. While the Dems were focused almost exclusively on the Washington scene, the GOP quietly invested loads of money and operatives into flipping state legislative chambers. In only eight years, Republicans added 942 state legislative seats, so that by 2017 they controlled 32 legislatures to the Democrats’ 14. With this new dominance, the GOP quickly moved to gerrymander state and congressional districts, enact blatant voter suppression provisions, and impose laws to enthrone plutocratic corporate rule.
But wait! The Yogi Berra rule is now in play: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” As Joan Walsh recently reported in The Nation, insurgent grassroots efforts by progressive Democrats in 2018-19 have already clawed back 450 of those legislative seats and taken back control of 10 state chambers!
And just in time for a January’s new nationwide redistricting round, many more wins are possible this November:
- In North Carolina and Arizona, both the state house and senate are flippable.
- In Texas and Michigan, control of the lower house is within reach. (After Texas Dems flipped 12 house seats in 2018, they need only 9 more to gain control.)
- In Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, one or both legislatures are in play.
Who are these people?
For millions of voters, November’s presidential election is a long- awaited chance to defenestrate Trump from the White House and allow America’s abused democratic soul to recover. As singer/songwriter Allison Moorer sang in a 1990s number: “Does the blues have you convinced the end is certain/ Well, be strong ’cause it’s gonna feel good when it stops hurtin’.”
Removing the affliction, however, is just one step. Restoring actual health to our body politic requires progressives to push harder than ever for fundamental policy cures that put people over profit, community over corporations. Thus, what’s especially exciting to me about next month’s elections is that a multitude of issue-based, local and state campaigns are indeed presenting remedies that would revitalize our nation’s unifying democratic ideals of economic fairness, social justice, and equal opportunity for all.
Rather than futilely petitioning lobbyist-controlled governments to install those basic values as public policy, a grassroots people’s movement is on the move to become the government–ALL of government, from national policy chambers to the most local positions.
In Texas, for example, Our Revolution activists have a candidate vying for a seat on the Fort Bend County Drainage Commission. Who cares? You would, if you were one of thousands who in 2017 lost homes, livelihoods, and loved ones in the surging floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey. In every state, ordinary people are mounting extraordinary rebellions that add up to a spontaneous uprising of American egalitarianism. Of course, we can’t cover all these very promising campaigns, but here’s a baker’s half dozen that reflect the movement’s diversity, broad reach, and bold spirit:
It’s one thing to take on Trump Republicans, but in her bid for an Omaha-area congressional seat, Kara Eastman must also fight constantly against the pusillanimous corporatists in her own party. When this feisty social worker upset their conservative choice in the 2018 primary, the corporation-hugging Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (the House Dems’ funding arm) essentially shunned her as too progressive to win. Yet, with a team of volunteers enthused by her bold progressivism, the first-time candidate came within 2 points of knocking off the GOP incumbent. This year, Eastman is going after him again–and yet again, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) went against her, recruiting a wealthy former-Republican to run in the May primary! Unapologetic about being progressive, Eastman ran as an “Authentic Democrat”–and won 61% of the primary vote.
A 30-year-old public service employee and son of Somali immigrants, Omar Fateh of Minneapolis, was given no chance against Minnesota State Sen. Jeff Hayden, a powerful longtime incumbent. But incumbency can lead to a terminal case of “aloofitis,” and Fateh sensed that the senator was, indeed, out of touch. Sure, Hayden was a powerhouse at the Capitol, but he was increasingly a stranger in his own district, which was rapidly changing in demographics and political expectations.
A grassroots activist, Fateh was very much “there,” in touch with neighborhoods and people’s needs. Offering a broad program of structural reforms, he rallied a new, multiracial coalition of working-class Minneapolitans (largely renters and young people) whom party regulars had long disregarded. While the state’s top Democratic officials embraced Hayden, Fateh drew energetic volunteers from such groups as Sunrise, DSA, and Our Revolution. With a record turnout in August’s primary, the insurgents scored a stunning 9-point win.
Charmaine McGuffy had been a stalwart officer in the Hamilton County (Cincinnati) sheriff’s office for 33 years, rising to the rank of major. The Ohio legislature hailed her as Officer of the Year in 2015 and Public Citizen of the Year in 2016. But in 2017, her boss, Sheriff Jim Neil abruptly fired her. Her crimes? Being openly lesbian and speaking out about department officers using excessive force against women prisoners.
With her lawsuit for wrongful dismissal still pending, McGuffy chose a more direct path to justice: She filed to run for sheriff against Neil in April’s Democratic primary, campaigning not only on her mistreatment, but also on a sweeping progressive program of criminal justice reforms. “He fired me,” McGuffy said, but “after about a year of contemplating, I decided I can do a better job than him.” The people agreed. She defeated Neil with a whopping 70% of the vote.
In many places, the progressive movement moves forward because more progressives are moving in, offering fresh ideas and out-organizing the entrenched political powers. Nikil Saval, a 37-year-old journalist/community organizer, whose parents immigrated from India decades ago, helped build such a movement in South and Central Philadelphia. Active in DSA and Bernie Sanders’ first presidential run, Saval co-founded Reclaim Philadelphia in 2016. A savvy grassroots group, it has been key to a progressive revival in Philly politics, scoring several upsets. This year, the insurgents backed Saval for state senate.
Victory seemed not just uphill, but impossible, given the well- funded, old-line Democratic machine that had locked down the district and the seat for decades. The reigning boss assailed the upstart as “a real a-hole,” dog-whistling him to “go back to your Socialist Party and to NY where you came from.” But it’s a new Philadelphia. With a program of fairness and justice for all, with the grit to take on the arrogant and autocratic power structure, and with a base of 500 determined, internet-skilled volunteers, Saval won the primary with 57% of the vote. He is heavily favored to win the senate seat.
Can progressives compete with Trumpeteering politicians in rural America? Kriss Marion–a 52-year-old small farmer, entrepreneur, renown baker, grandma, clean water champion, and sometime-drummer in local bands–says yes. From Blanchardville, WI (pop. 825), she’s taking on a right-wing incumbent for state assembly, blending solid progressive values with pragmatic, local-based solutions; a down-home get-it-done attitude … and a sense of fun.
A decade ago, Marion and a couple of friends founded a support group that farm advocates dubbed “Soil Sisters.” Now 150 women strong, they hold monthly potlucks, grapple with dirt- under-your-fingernails ag issues, and have successfully fought Big Food and state GOP naysayers to create new economic opportunities and markets for homegrown businesses. With a strong volunteer network, a fix-what’s-broken program, and Marion’s hard-driving rural outreach, Wisconsin has a good chance of sending a soil sister to the legislature.
The richest guy in the US House is Michael McCaul, a Texas oil-ionaire representing an absurdly gerrymandered, suburban congressional district that hopscotches from Austin to Houston. The district was drawn a decade ago to keep him in office for life and, indeed, the far-right plutocrat won re-election in 2016 by 19 points. But–oops–popping up from the grassroots in 2018 came Mike Siegel. A flat-out progressive fighter for workaday families, he quietly but assiduously put together a political ground game that came within 5 points of defeating McCaul.
After that election, Siegel and his network barely took a breather, continuing to build for another run this year–and he’s been steadily gaining ground on the effete incumbent. Naturally, the Democratic establishment rallied behind this sensational contender.
Ha! Just kidding: The geniuses at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee actually recruited a deep-pocketed corporate lawyer (who voted Republican in some recent elections) to try to take the Democratic nomination from Siegel and his burgeoning movement. She ran third in the March primary. Siegel–backed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Our Revolution, and hundreds of pumped up volunteers–then won the runoff by 8 points … making McCaul not just a rich lawmaker, but an endangered one.
Rather than candidates driving the politics, what if movements created the candidates? Just look at what’s happening in criminal justice: broad community coalitions are demanding real reform of abusive practices and repressive rules–and then generating campaigns to elect police commissioners, prosecutors, judges, etc.
This just happened in a Central Florida state attorney race, usually a sort of in-house contest among lawyers. Monique Worrell is a lawyer, but she’s also a longtime activist who’s been focused on issues like mass incarceration, police accountability, and juvenile justice. Chief legal officer for the Reform Alliance, she came straight out of the movement to run for this office. Up against three other candidates, Worrell was backed by such advocacy groups as Color of Change, Our Revolution, and Our Vote, Our Voice (which has led the fight in Florida to restore voting rights to felons who’ve served their time). They helped sweep Worrell to victory in the August Democratic primary, 11 points ahead of her closest competitor.
What we have is truly a momentous work in progress, a growing network of energetic democracy activists in different yet compatible organizations and coalitions who are rebuilding progressive politics from the ground up. Untethered to any national party hierarchy and unrestrained by the selfish interests of big funders, they tend to be very strategic, impressively organized, and able to generate their own strong candidates as well as skilled at mobilizing voters who have been turned off by politics as usual. To connect with some of these groups, find info on more of the remarkable candidates they’re backing, and help build the movement, check out this month’s Do Something box above.