An A-Team for Progressive Messaging in the States

An A-Team for Progressive Messaging in the States

Denise Cardinal, executive director of Alliance for a Better Minnesota, speaks at the Bush Legacy Tour Press Conference in St. Paul on Wed, July 16. (Photo: aflcio)

“Not everything that comes from D.C. is always better,” says Denise Cardinal. At a time when some of the most crucial political battles in America are taking place at the state level, we cannot wait for a progressive communications strategy to come down from national groups. Cardinal, who is executive director of both the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and ProgressNow, is among those working hard to promote an alternative approach.

ProgressNow is a network of state-level organizations that, among other things, brings together labor, environmental and reproductive rights groups around a common communications agenda. They bear witness to the fact that when progressives work in isolation or try to import a communications strategy from Washington, their efforts rarely leave behind the kind of grassroots infrastructure in the states that we need to move beyond defensive battles and to build strength for the long term.

Among ProgressNow's state partners, Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM) provides an excellent example of how local organizations can do something different. Working as a coalition, they can create capacity for progressive messaging and communications that is far greater than anything the individual groups could manage on their own.

In the Footsteps of Paul Wellstone

ABM brings together more than 40 Minnesota organizations, including labor unions, the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action, and local branches of NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Cross-issue collaboration among such groups in Minnesota is not entirely new. Many of these organizations rose as influential political forces alongside the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, a progressive champion who emphasized the importance of coalition building. But ABM has extended this tradition in new ways.

In late 2005, a number of the political action committees associated with these organizations began discussing the idea that they would need to coordinate their efforts if they wanted to have a real impact on the governor's election the following year. Previously, these organizations had conducted their own often overlapping communications programs – each pursuing their own door-knocking campaigns, television ads and issue mailings. Cardinal explains, “In the course of their conversation, it became obvious that if they pooled those resources and shared information with each other, they could be much more effective.”

Although the groups did not succeed in defeating Republican Tim Pawlenty in the 2006 gubernatorial election, they recognized that their coalition effort was a vast improvement over how things had been done before. They decided that the joint communications outfit should be made into a long-term entity. Hence, the Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABD) was born.

“We are the communications consultant for the Minnesota progressive community,” Cardinal says now. Often, underfunded and understaffed organizations are unable to dedicate themselves to coordinating their messaging and positioning with others groups. ABD fills the gap by serving as a resource for these organizations and unifying efforts. It brings expertise in media relations, messaging and online communications to the common table. Furthermore, the organization allows the progressive community to collectively advance positions that any one group might be hesitant to shoulder by itself. “Sometimes I'm referred to as the 'Messenger of Last Resort,'” Cardinal says. “When nobody else wants to say it, we'll say what needs to be said.”

A Model for State-Level Intermediaries

We can learn several important things from the way in which ABM was formed and they way in which it now functions. In many ways, it is a model for how to create an effective “intermediary organization” at the state or regional level.

Intermediary organizations are operations that lend expertise and capacity to partner groups. Typically, they function at the national level, and typically they come into local areas only for short-term campaigns. ABM took a different approach, consistent with the model I call regional power-building. Here, local organizations, working in coalition, develop their own capacities. They develop on-going abilities to propose policy, to voice a progressive vision for local economies, and to run political campaigns. Having a communications A-Team is vital for all of these efforts.

In creating such a team, ABM did several things right. First, it formed out of a conversation among local groups about what needs they saw in the progressive community and what difficulties they thought could be overcome through collective economies of scale. Each organization understood that it needed better communications strategy, and each recognized that it could accomplish more by working together with the others. Because the partner groups had identified real needs and saw real benefits, they were invested in the intermediary from the start.

Second, the groups did not merely outsource communications to an outside organization, importing expertise from afar. Rather, they saw that they could take an existing local partnership and transform it into a permanent entity. They created an organization with its own staff and ability to raise funds, but one directly accountable to the partner groups on its board.

When it comes to capacity building and technical assistance, many national organizations, and many influential funders, tend to see a need among local groups and then try to solve it by bringing in outside advisers. Yet, they often end up disappointed, as the consultants sent to teach best practices are perceived as outsiders trying to sell their wares. The audience is almost invariably skeptical. The example of ABM illustrates how a totally different dynamic can be created, in which groups themselves come together to address a need they have collectively identified and for which they remain committed to brokering a common solution.

As a permanent state-level intermediary, ABM provides support and training to its partner organizations. It drafts and edits materials like press releases, talking points and mail pieces. It coordinates logistics for press events and provides media training for spokespeople in the groups. ABM assists organizations in Internet communications and using social media effectively. Its work extends into opinion and issue research. In addition to having a research director on staff, partner organizations contribute interns to help enhance their collective research capabilities.

In this way, while ABM grew out of a short-term need, it has become part of a long-term effort to build the capacity of the local progressive movement. This is a third important point to note. One of the key mistakes with communications is that some people view things like door-knocking campaigns and message formation only in terms of a single campaign – judging results solely based on what happens on the next Election Day.

In reality, door-knocking and public education should be viewed as part of the base-building efforts of progressive organizations. They should be recognized as a source of new membership and local knowledge for groups that remain active after electoral campaigns have closed up shop. ABM, as a lasting communications office accountable to lasting organizations, is structured to facilitate such activity. Guided by progressive partners that are in the fight for the long haul, it can balance short-term needs with long-term vision.

The Fight Continues

In 2010, ABM played an important role in successfully defeating Republican Tom Emmer and ultimately electing Mark Dayton as Minnesota's governor. While the state's Democratic establishment (known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) was immersed in an intense primary race, ABM, as an independent operation with a longer life than any individual candidate's campaign, was able to focus on the bigger picture. “We knew that the one thing we could agree on was that Tom Emmer would be bad for Minnesota,” Cardinal says of her group's partners.

Within an hour of Emmer being announced as the Republican nominee, ABM, in coordination with its partner groups, launched a web site called “Tom Emmer's MN.” The site highlighted negative impacts for the state that would be felt if Emmer became governor. Because the web site had already been planned and researched, it was ready to go live as soon as his endorsement became official.

Rather than becoming mired in the highly competitive Democratic primary, ABM and its partners were able to spend the summer holding press events, creating online activities and talking to their members about what it would mean if Emmer became governor. Cardinal explains, “It was that constant drumbeat that people were focused on instead of the three-way fight that was happening on the Democratic side.”

In the end, the 2010 Minnesota's governor's race was extremely close, decided by a margin of fewer than 10,000 votes out of more than two million cast – or less than one half of one percent. There is no doubt that the early work in creating a united, coordinated opposition to Emmer was decisive in allowing Dayton to emerge victorious as a Democratic governor in a year when conservative candidates swept into statehouses across the country.

ABM's work in the race provided a powerful illustration of why building permanent or ongoing capacity at the level of states and metropolitan regions is so important. When local groups can build deep coalitions, together recognize needs in their communities, then move beyond temporary alliances to build their own intermediary organizations, they have the ability to create a very different political reality than that which they would face as isolated entities.

Having Dayton in office at a time when Republicans have gained control of both legislative houses in Minnesota has been crucial. Currently, ABM is working with partner organizations on state budget issues. While debate is intense in Minnesota, the veto power of the governor serves as a critical stopgap. “We say all the time: 'At least we're not Wisconsin,'” Cardinal notes. “And that is exactly what we would be facing if it were not for the work that these organizations did.”