June 28 was the date of congressional primaries in New York, Colorado, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah. Did you fail to follow them closely? For shame. Not to worry, though — you have the company of millions of other Americans. I follow politics obsessively and I didn’t really take note of the primaries mainly because my congresswoman had no opponent. But imagine how much more attention we might have paid to these congressional races had there been a genuinely progressive challenger in every single race.
The highlights for a progressive audience were law professor Zephyr Teachout — a sharp critic of the distorting effect of big money in politics — winning in New York’s 19th district and grocery store cashier Misty Snow — the first transgender candidate ever nominated by a major party to run for the US Senate — winning the Democratic nomination in Utah. She ran on a bold progressive platform including demands for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a constitutional amendment to get corporate money out of politics, a single-payer health care system and more. (Coincidentally, another transgender woman with the same first name, Misty Plowright, also won the Democratic primary for Colorado’s 5th congressional district.) These progressive victories were unusual cases, though. In most of the races, Democratic incumbents won unopposed or easily over largely unknown challengers, and Republicans won in most cases unchallenged.
In two years, however, a new political action committee called Brand New Congress is hoping to fuel the rise of many more progressive upstarts like Teachout and Snow.
Zack Exley, a consultant with a long political resume including organizing director for MoveOn in 2003-04, adviser to Howard Dean, director of online communications and fundraising for John Kerry, tech field worker for Barack Obama and most recently Bernie Sanders’ digital communications adviser, is a founding organizer of the initiative. He had the idea for an umbrella organization that would recruit candidates who had to run under a certain platform, do all the fundraising for them through small donations, provide a ground game for them in making phone calls to voters and doing other voter outreach, and do it in every congressional district in the country. That includes even very red districts where progressive Republicans would be recruited. The uniqueness of the effort and the large number of volunteers who would be on board would garner publicity and drive up turnout in congressional primaries and elections.
In an effort to mobilize a bottom-up movement to elect progressive legislators and get the progressive agenda articulated by Bernie Sanders enacted, the Brand New Congress has set its sights on the 2018 elections and is already finding candidates. It has raised $45,000 and has attracted several thousand volunteers.
Other similar progressive groups have also sprung up, such as the United Progressive Party and Grassroots Select, but it is currently looking as though Brand New Congress is the most likely to attract masses of volunteers and effectively carry on the vision of the Sanders campaign.
Truthout discussed Brand New Congress with Saikat Chakrabarti, one of the leaders of Brand New Congress who is currently in charge of setting up and managing the group’s organizational structure (it currently consists of 15 teams), working on the group’s campaign plan and timeline and working on the technological tools needed to support the teams.
Robert Goldsmith:What drove the formation of the organization?
Saikat Chakrabarti: While working on the Bernie campaign, one of the most frequent questions we’d get from supporters and volunteers was, “What will Bernie do when he’s president to work with Congress?” People heard from Bernie that the political revolution was bigger than just him, and everyone intuitively understood that this meant we need big change at all levels of government. And people realized that Congress is incredibly broken at the federal level — Congress has made itself more infamous than ever because of its well publicized past eight years of gridlock.
Bernie’s campaign had no super PAC, did its fundraising entirely with grassroots donations, and had a campaign that gave volunteers unprecedented amounts of responsibility in helping to run the campaign. The fact that he was able to out-raise a billionaire-backed opponent — while running (I believe) the largest voter contact operation in a presidential primary ever — proved the model that running a volunteer-driven, grassroots-donations-only campaign can actually work. And everyone understands that the enabling technology driving these donations, driving volunteerism, and coordinating all these volunteers (the internet) is only getting more widespread and better. So suddenly, the idea of running the exact sort of campaign as the Sanders campaign in which we do have a single unified campaign with a single plan — with the only change being we now have 400-plus candidates at the top instead of just Bernie — stops sounding like a crazy idea and starts sounding like the logical next step. It sounds like one obvious way you focus the mass of volunteer energy and grassroots donations onto an actionable big change.
How will you go about recruiting candidates to run for Congress?
What we know right now is what our candidates will look like. We’re looking for proven leaders to their communities, families, friends who have, in general, never held or sought public office. We want people who agree on the core of the Bernie economic, social justice and climate change platform. Those people do not usually seek out the limelight of political office. We are going to drag them kicking and screaming into public office. The longer our list of potential candidates gets, the more they will inspire each other to run. When they see that this is not a vanity project but a real chance to change everything, we’ll get their hats in the ring. It’ll take a lot of work, but that’s how it should be. And we currently know that a large component of the recruiting process is going to be finding people who are vouched for by members of their community.
Do you envision this as a “progressive Tea Party” that will challenge candidates from the left?
No. The goal of the Tea Party is to challenge candidates on the right, win some seats and have political power by being a voting bloc that can block legislation. And the tea party is willing to do anything necessary to do that, including taking money from the Koch brothers. As far as I can tell, they have no intention to fundamentally fix the systemic problems in Congress or push through any sort of big plan.
I see this as presenting the American people with a bold plan of how we can improve our lives and our government. Our goal is to lay out a very clear plan of exactly what we would like to pass in Congress. This plan is going to be based off Bernie’s platform and, just like Bernie’s platform, it’s going to be a plan that most people agree is the right thing but don’t believe can work unless we have a Congress that can work together to pass it. Then we are basically telling the American people: If you want this to work, and if you want a Congress that is no longer beholden to wealthy donors, and if you want a Congress that actually represents you because it will have gender and race parity and not only be comprised of wealthy individuals, here’s a way you can make it happen — vote these 400-plus candidates into Congress. They all vow to work together to make it happen and they have all been funded by, voted in by, and therefore are beholden to you, the people.
Will Brand New Congress fundraise for candidates in 2018 the same way Bernie did in 2016?
Yes, the idea is to fundraise for and run the campaign for 400-plus candidates in 2018. We are essentially a campaign in a box where every candidate will agree to run on our platform and in coordination with every other candidate. This is how people who are not already career politicians or not already wealthy will be able to run.
Is it easier to get people to donate to a recognizable figure like Bernie rather than untested unknowns?
We’re saying the thing that drove Bernie’s rise was not his recognizability, because he wasn’t that recognizable at first, but it was the ideas he was standing on. We really want to push the idea that this is a group of people running to accomplish something. Ideally we will have charismatic candidates who are good speakers, it won’t be a faceless horde and we think people will get what this is all about.
Today, nobody really knows or cares about the New York primaries. In two years this will be your big day. How will two years from now be different?
I think so. It’s a new idea. What people have tried so far, run progressive candidates district by district and try to do turnout in the normal ways isn’t working. Turning it into a national event, getting a lot of press, making Brand New Congress more widely known and making the remaking of Congress all at once the big idea should boost turnout significantly.
What’s your strategy to get the CNNs and MSNBCs of the world interested?
First, you get the supporters and fundraising that attracts some press, and the more fundraising you do attracts more and more, and if thousands of people are responding to volunteer and donate eventually they won’t be able to ignore it. Focusing on Congress is a more achievable goal. There’s so little interest in the primaries. If we mobilize thousands of people we’re doing better than primaries in most years.
Have you calculated how much it will cost to run candidates in all the House and Senate seats?
It’s kind of a different strategy. You don’t usually have volunteers running the campaign staffs of congressional races. Usually it’s paid staff. Still it’s going to cost a lot. The goal is to raise at least as much as Bernie has raised so far. $220 or $230 million. I think there’s a chance for a different model here to work. You can get a massive voter contact ground game like we did in the Bernie primaries. The scale at which it was done changes the game a little. You can raise a lot of money if people think there’s a big goal and (are not being solicited) for a single candidate.
Are you at all concerned about trying this through the Democratic Party? A lot of the voters in the Democratic primary are moderate Democrats who would not get excited about Brand New Congress. That’s why Bernie lost most of the non-open primaries. Won’t that play out in congressional races too?
Yeah it will. But remember thousands of people registered as Democrats to vote for Bernie. If we had been able to focus on that early on, voter and party registration efforts — there was so much against the whole campaign. Getting the tie in Iowa was such a shocker. We had to do the best we could with the time we had. But with Brand New Congress we’re going to focus a year in advance on voter registration. I agree that if it’s only the people currently voting in Democratic parties we have no shot. It has to be the most massive turnout for a primary ever. Every district has a win number you have to hit for turnout. Like if you can mobilize 30,000 people in Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s, you can win that primary. That’s not a crazy number: If we build a list of 50,000 people in that district we can get there.
Is it super hard to do political work for congressional races in an off year like 2017?
I think people don’t get interested in congressional races because they seem futile. What’s the point of voting for my single congressperson? I think people are wrong, it’s obviously very important. It’s a self-perpetuating problem. It becomes important when everyone is voting across the country to get progressives in. If only one district gets one person in, they can’t do very much.
So part of the strategy is to get moderate Republicans to run in heavily Republican areas?
No, it’s to get radical progressive Republicans. We’ve seen a lot of these people in the Bernie campaign, especially in the South. They grew up conservative, usually in Christian families, still are quite Christian, [and] believe in the [true teachings of] Jesus that we should take care of one another. [Although they are running as Republicans, these] candidates will support abortion rights, anti-discrimination efforts and equal treatment of LGBT people. The agenda is going to cover at least the issues and civil rights supported by Bernie Sanders’ platform.
What makes them Republicans?
I believe the Republican/Democrat divide in this country is entirely cultural. They vote Republican because they grew up voting Republican. Same with the Democrats. I always vote Democrat. I think they align with my values. Do they? I think this presidential race really made people rethink the party system and party membership in general, which is going down. Half the country is independents or like 43 percent. In these places it’s not so much about finding Republicans or Democrats but finding people who can identify with the people in their community, which may be almost entirely Republican. They’re gonna be Republican because they don’t trust Democrats or because they think government is corrupt, all of which are valid concerns. And you see this with Democrats, too. Obviously there are ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans, but most Democrats think Republicans are more corrupt because they take [the] Koch brothers’ money. And we can all unify behind the platform that money is screwing up our politics, and I think once you put forth an achievable way to fix that and to fix the economy (and how to do that), [that] is something elected officials don’t agree on but the people do.
We’re getting an incredible reaction already to [Brand New] Congress. People are like, “yeah this almost worked.” We got so close with Bernie. If we had done a few things differently we could have won. Now that we have the time and the model we can change the country.