People Power Wins in Ohio and Beyond

Many of the efforts around the country to advance an extreme, right-wing, corporatist agenda on the public were repudiated Tuesday night. The message is clear: An informed and energized 99 percent can prevail over those in the 1 percent who are working to strip them of their rights and dash their economic dreams. A strong, populist progressive message combined with old-fashioned retail politicking can defeat big money and corporate Astroturf.

Two victories stand out: By a vote of 61 percent to 32 percent, voters on Ohio resoundingly defeated a law that restricted union bargaining rights for public employees. And in Mississippi, voters rejected, 58 percent to 42 percent, a state constitutional amendment pushed by social conservatives that would have defined a fertilized egg as a “person,” which would have outlawed all abortions and many forms of contraception.

John Nichols at The Nation wrote that Tuesday's off-year elections offered “big issues, big races and big tests of the political potency of organized labor, social movements and progressive politics.” Of those elections, Ohio was perhaps the biggest, with ramifications for efforts by the right to destroy public employee unions, one of the strongest bastions for worker rights.

“Tonight, Ohioans delivered a clear message to corporate-backed politicians across the country that we will no longer stay silent as Wall Street tries to steal the American Dream,” said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The Center for Media and Democracy had earlier detailed the forces that were behind SB 5, the anti-workers-rights law.

Ohio was one of several states that passed suspiciously similar union-busting legislation in 2011. Gov. Kasich, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, is an alumnus of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that brings state legislators and corporate leaders together to draft “model bills” that advance the right-wing corporate agenda. According to Common Cause, Kasich and other Ohio Republicans who supported SB 5 received at least $563,000 in campaign contributions from ALEC corporations in 2010 (not counting contributions from the Republican Governor's Association, to which some ALEC supporters also donated — notably including $1 million from David Koch (as examined by the Center for Media and Democracy in the article “Scott Walker Runs on Koch Money“).

As right-wing front groups with names such as “Building a Better Ohio” poured millions of dollars into protecting SB 5 and as Kasich campaigned on behalf of the law, organized labor led a grassroots pushback that successfully collected more than 900,000 certified signatures to put SB 5 before the voters for their final verdict.

In the weekend leading up to the election, volunteers knocked on more than 450,000 doors, capping a weeks-long all-hands-on-deck mobilization.

“Ohio’s working people successfully fought back against lies pushed by shadowy multi-national corporations and their anonymous front groups that attempted to scapegoat public service employees and everyone they serve by assaulting collective bargaining rights,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on the AFL-CIO blog. “Ohioans from all backgrounds and political parties rejected the crazy notion that the 99 percent — nurses, bridge inspectors, firefighters,and social workers — caused the economic collapse, rather than Wall Street.”

In Mississippi, the push for a personhood amendment was to be the leading edge of what supporters hoped would be a national law that would totally remove a woman's right to choose, even in cases of rape and incest, and could have even subjected women who have miscarriages to a criminal investigation. Mother Jones is tracking similar efforts in other states.

Burns Strider of the American Values Network, a liberal Christian advocacy organization, wrote in The Huffington Post that one of the reasons the amendment was defeated was because “'Mississippians for Healthy Families' organized; then they organized the state around defeating personhood. It was this group that brought together the policy concerns, messaging and grassroots organizing that synergized the opposition. Prior to the existence of “Mississippians for Healthy Families” there were only voices in the wilderness throughout the state in search of a movement. This gave them a movement. They connected these voices and brought depth, know-how and resources. Basically, they turned the opposition into a campaign; a winning campaign. Perhaps, 'Mississippians for Healthy Families' has a second legacy in creating the largest and most powerful progressive database and organization in Mississippi.”

Tuesday night also saw several other key progressive victories. In Arizona, the architect of the state's “papers please” anti-immigration law, Russell Pearce, was recalled. In Maine, the conservative effort to eliminate same-day voter registration, part of a national right-wing effort to suppress voter turnout, was rolled back. The Nation reports that “in Kentucky, which voted for John McCain in 2008 and Rand Paul in 2010, Democratic Governor Steve Beshear was reelected by a 21-point margin as Democrats won down-ballot races in a result that suggested the Republican 'wave' of last fall has receded. At the same time, a special-election win in Iowa allowed Democrats to retain control of the state Senate in that state. In New Jersey, voters rejected Republican Governor Chris Christie's attempt to shift the state Senate from Democratic to Republican control; in fact, they expanded Democratic control of the legislative chamber.”

Progressive activists engaged in these races and monitoring the results agree there is a common thread in these victories: Progressives laid down bold challenges to the conservative agenda. They did not accept split-the-difference dilutions of their message, but they did advance smart, fact-based arguments. They exposed the efforts of people like the Koch brothers to monopolize the dialogue and co-opt the democratic process with floods of cash and misleading propaganda. Not every effort was successful, but there were enough wins to build a confident path forward for 2012 and beyond.

The Occupy Wall Street movements have framed a national debate over whether we will continue as a nation to shift wealth and power away from the 99 percent and concentrate it in a group of elites. There is much work that remains to translate that into the kind of political change that allows us to rebuild the American dream of economic security and equal rights for every American. But Tuesday's victories lay a firm foundation.