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Progressive Activism Seen as Key to Democratic Turnout in Midterm Elections

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) warned that Democrats are likely to lose ground to Republicans this November if they continue to emphasize fundraising over organizing.

He told Truthout that midterm turnout is “killing us” and that the party needs to rally working- and middle-class families to bridge the enthusiasm gap.

“Republicans don’t really vote more than us during the non-presidential years; they just vote the same as they always do. We’ve got to re-engineer our turnout,” he said.

The cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said that “issue-based campaigning” could facilitate organization and boost support for the party’s candidates this November. He singled out minimum wage increases, immigration reform, equal pay and mandated paid sick leave as being crucial to this strategy.

“That will get voters to say, ‘Oh okay, if that’s what you’re talking about, I’ll show up,’ ” he said. “But if it’s just ‘Come vote’ – it’s like, for what?”

Ellison explained that an organizational strategy needs to be built on “progressive activism in the south” and in inner-cities, and described collaboration with organizers as part of an optimal left-leaning governing mantra.

“Trying to go dollar for dollar with these Republicans is a losing strategy.”

“My whole political orientation now is as much about redefining progressivism as a strategy of reaching and gaining power as much as it’s a policy agenda,” he said. “We might say ‘raise the minimum wage, equal pay, immigration reform,’ and that’s a policy agenda. But if you don’t have a strategy to engage people, all across this country – who are working, who are the ones who make the profits for these corporations – then you’re not really complete, right?”

The congressman made the comments about organization and campaign finance in response to a question from Truthout about an assertion made by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in October 2013. In an interview with Playboy magazine, the senator lamented that in six years of going to Democratic Caucus meetings, he has “never heard five minutes of discussion about organizing. It’s about raising money.”

“Trying to go dollar for dollar with these Republicans is a losing strategy,” Ellison argued. “I’m not saying that money’s irrelevant. What I’m saying is we’ve made it too important.”

“We’ve got to break the mold of sitting in these cubicles all day asking people for millions of dollars. We’ve got to get out in the street and talk to the people. That is the road to success.”

At the start of the interview, Ellison described organizing as “literally the antidote to the Koch Brothers billionaire-type politics.” The congressman has seen in his home state how this “antidote” has worked. In 1990, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) famously defeated then-incumbent Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) despite being outspent by a margin of 7-to-1. Ellison called Wellstone his “inspiration.”

“I loved that guy. I’ve got pictures of him in my office because I admire him so much,” he said. Wellstone died in a plane crash while campaigning for re-election in 2002.

“Politicians see the light when they feel the heat.”

The cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus spoke to Truthout during an April 28 march organized by the National People’s Action (NPA), the National Domestic Workers’ Association (NDWA) and Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United. He joined the last leg of the march, as it approached Capitol Hill, before addressing demonstrators in Upper Senate Park. Ellison thanked the crowd for pressuring Congress to consider the Minimum Wage Fairness Act – a bill that would raise the federal wage floor to $10.10 per hour two and a half years after presidential approval and tie it to the Consumer Price Index six months after that. He said, “We wouldn’t be talking about it today” if not for the work of activists.

“Politicians see the light when they feel the heat,” he proclaimed.

On April 30, however, a mere two days after the march, a Senate motion to invoke cloture on the proposal fell by six votes due to Republican opposition. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was the lone Republican to vote “aye,” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) was the lone Democrat to vote in the negative – a procedural tactic employed by Reid so that the bill can be brought up again during the 114th Congress.

The continued opposition to a minimum wage increase could hurt the GOP, but its actions since the 2012 election don’t appear thus far to be dampening their candidates’ prospects for a successful November. A recent Harvard University poll found that Democratic voters aren’t as likely as Republican voters to cast ballots this midterm – the latest in a series of non-presidential votes favoring the right. Over the past six federal polls, overall turnout has been higher in presidential elections by an average of about 20 percentage points, and a 2011 study by George Mason University professor Michael McDonald concluded that midterm turnout among older voters has repeatedly benefited Republicans throughout the past decade. Two out of the last three midterm elections resulted in gains for Republicans, with the exception being the vote that marked the midway point of George W. Bush’s second term – a year, characterized by voters’ widespread disillusionment with the Republican party, amid four years of record low presidential approval ratings. Attempts to raise the minimum wage between now and November can only help Democrats avert this slow motion car crash. According to a January Quinnipiac poll, 71 percent of Americans favor a minimum wage increase, with 51 percent favoring a raise to $10.10 or higher. After the vote, the failed bill’s sponsor Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), vowed that the party would try “again and again”

But given the the lack of zeal for midterms among left-leaning and younger voters, a pro-minimum wage stance alone might not translate into electoral success for Democrats – which is why grassroots organization oriented around a broader populist economic policy could prove to be a panacea of sorts for the party; a reversal of 10 years of systemic right-wing midterm domination.

Are Dems Worth Organizers’ Blood, Sweat and Tears?

The idea that party officials would warm to activists’ proposals – even those who electioneer – seems rather fanciful. Democrats have been at the forefront of the systematic hollowing out of the middle class over the past few decades. On top of advancing an unforgiving right-wing welfare reform agenda, President Clinton pushed financial deregulation that primed the economy for collapse in 2008, while enthusiastically advocating race-to-the-bottom trade agreements. President Obama has continued the pursuit of Clintonian trade deals, while declining to criminally prosecute Wall Street fraudsters who sold Americans financial snake oil before the crash and then illegally foreclosed on wide swaths of the country after the fact. His signature health-care reform, too, was modeled after a right-wing proposal and crafted by health insurance executives.

Organizers might, therefore, see finite resources better spent outside of campaigning for a party that has systematically ignored those most in need. Labor agitators, local candidates, community activists, immigrant organizers and campaigns around ballot initiatives, for example, might be able to make a much more lasting impact.

“We’re ready for a politics that puts people and a set of principles over political parties, and our loyalty is to people and a set of principles,” NPA director George Goehl told In These Times’ Sarah Jaffe, in reference to the Democratic Party.

Presently, the NPA, NDWA and ROC . . . don’t appear to have the heft required to counter well-heeled corporate influence peddlers.

Deals with the party machine have yielded fruit for activists in one recent election, however. Bobby Tolbert, a member of the New York City-based Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL), explained to Truthout how the NPA affiliate’s electoral work helped pass a bill limiting rent payments to 30 percent of disability income for people with HIV and AIDS.

“Our former mayor, [Michael] Bloomberg, didn’t support this issue,” the HIV-positive Tolbert said. “Mayor De Blasio actually used it in his campaign platform, and he carried through. He followed through and made it happen once he got elected, and that’s very rare.” The organization, he said, boosted the former city council member during his once improbable bid. Tolbert said that he “even worked on his campaign personally.”

“We’re an organization that passed five bills into law in the last four years,” he said. “Instead of people closing their doors to us, they’re now opening their doors and listening to us because they know what we present to them is viable.”

Mayor DeBlasio isn’t without critics on the left – his appointment of Bill Bratton as NYPD police commissioner, for example, has earned him the ire of progressive critics. But the change brought by his election does mark a real improvement in the quality of life for many New Yorkers.

Remember, Remember

If any legislators or Congressional candidates are looking to partner with organizers, the NPA, NDWA and ROC United are attempting to replicate VOCAL’s success on the national level. After the rally, representatives from the three groups lobbied Congresspeople and Senators and their staffers to raise the minimum wage and the effective tax rate on upper income Americans, and to pass immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship.

It’s unlikely that they’ll get much love from “pragmatic” establishment operators. Demonstrations organized by ROC United have been obsessively tracked by opponents at the National Restaurant Association (“the other NRA”), according to Salon’s Josh Eidelson. Corporate lobbyists, led by Joseph Kevaufer, have attacked the group and other “alt-labor” organizations according to The Nation’s Lee Fang.

If the April 30 vote on the Minimum Wage Fairness Act is any indication, these attacks have currency, in particular, with the right. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) voted against the advancement of the bill, despite the fact that their offices met with NPA representatives on April 28, according to records of the organization’s Capitol Hill lobbying seen by Truthout. Presently, the NPA, NDWA and ROC, at 85,000, 10,000 and 13,000 members respectively, don’t appear to have the heft required to counter well-heeled corporate influence peddlers.

Democrats are, therefore, likely to face inertia from within if they try to embrace a campaign strategy that pivots around comprehensive organizing. While party officials might attack the Koch brothers, their House and Senate Campaign Committees and independent affiliates outraised Republican counterparts by a 3-to-1 margin in the first quarter of 2014. And while undisclosed Republican donations (like those given by the Kochs) are believed to be dwarfing both similar donations and public gifts given by Democrats, the Democratic Party is also benefiting from the generosity of so-called “mega-donors.”

In the first quarter, $4 million and $1 million gifts were given by Chicago media magnate Fred Eychaner and hedge fund manager James Simons alone. Two Democratic Party-affiliated groups, Super Majority PAC and House Majority PAC, also took in $9.3 million in first quarter donations, according to Politico – figures that included the gifts from Eychaner and Simons. Establishment Democrats have also benefited from the largesse of hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, a man who is funding a $100 million climate change campaign this year; one that will likely benefit a party whose top officials have hailed the Keystone XL Pipeline. The institutional aversion to organization is written all over the party’s campaign finance spreadsheets.

This reality was exemplified by Sen. Joe Donnelly’s (D-Ind.) April 29 remarks to the (other) NRA. The Senator touted the revision of the Affordable Care Act definition of a “full-time” employee to 40 hours per week – up from the current 30 hour-week statutory definition.

The inability of the party to form a consensus around defending rules it has already passed doesn’t bode well for the prospect of organizers involving themselves in national electoral politics to advance equitable growth. The day before Sen. Donnelly’s NRA address, Susan Alexa, an NPA-affiliated activist from Maine, spoke passionately about defending the ACA Medicaid expansion at a surprise rally organized by the group in the lobby of the building that is home to Koch Industries’ DC office. A block from the White House, she excoriated her Tea Party-darling state executive, Gov. Paul LePage, for refusing to extend the federally subsidized health-care program. It was a move that effectively denied her health insurance, she said; one that will lead to scores of deaths in the state, according to a Harvard study.

“We’re gonna remember in November,” she said through a megaphone to cheers from a hundred-plus people gathered in the lobby. But will Democrats return the favor?

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