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Progressive Activists Are Winning in Red States

Organizers have broken with tradition to set up a grassroots infrastructure that could lead to future wins.

Thousands of Arizona teachers march through downtown Phoenix on their way to the State Capitol as part of a rally for the #REDforED movement on April 26, 2018, in Phoenix, Arizona.

The tireless organizing of progressives in red states this fall did not just deliver one-time wins for progressive policies in areas controlled by Republican governments — it also established an infrastructure that could pave the way for progressive triumphs in the future.

The numerous progressive policy victories declared this November — including many in states where Republicans were victorious on election night — were a result of dogged campaigns and a variety of strategies.

Ballot minimum wages passed in Arkansas and Missouri. Voters expanded Medicaid in Idaho, Utah and Nebraska. Utah legalized medical marijuana. Voters in Charlotte passed what one community organizer called “the largest housing bond in the history of Charlotte.” In Austin, a $250 million housing bond was approved. Nashville approved a community oversight board for police misconduct cases. In Texas’s Harris County, 19 Black women running on criminal justice platforms were elected to various benches and a socialist became a misdemeanor court judge.

All of these wins were made possible by an infrastructure that has been built by progressives over the course of many years. While election coverage tends to simply tabulate wins and losses, the backstory of these victories is the most crucial component. It’s this groundwork that can potentially deliver more wins to these regions, both inside and outside of the ballot box.

“We Need to Hold Our Leaders Accountable Now”

Last spring, 20,000 teachers went on strike in Arizona to protest low pay and public education cuts. They ended the work stoppage after the state government agreed to raise pay and increase funding.

Noah Karvelis — a music teacher in the Littleton Elementary School District and an organizer with the group Arizona Educators United, which leads the state’s “Red for Ed” movement — said organizers knocked on some 80,000 doors to elect pro-education candidates in the state. Arizona Democrats hadn’t prevailed in a statewide vote count since 2008, but this midterm was different. They ended up winning five of the state’s nine House seats, winning the Senate seat left open by Jeff Flake’s announced retirement, and reducing the Arizona Legislature’s GOP majority considerably. Perhaps the most surprising victory of the night belonged to 32-year-old Kathy Hoffman, a first-time candidate and speech pathologist who was elected Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction. Not only did Hoffman beat a veteran lawmaker in the Democratic primary; she also took down Republican Frank Riggs, who had expanded charter schools and pushed vouchers while in power.

Karvelis told Truthout that one of the most striking aspects of this election season was how nearly all the candidates had to present themselves as pro-education. Some of the very state legislature members whom organizers fought against had to play up their commitment to schools on the campaign trail.

Karvelis explained how Red for Ed built an infrastructure to go beyond the strike and beyond any given election. Teachers set up a network of “site liaisons” throughout the state to organize in different districts and equipped local leaders with a toolbox of effective strategies. Organizers have also set up numerous Facebook groups (“maybe over 100”) to coordinate on actions. Karvelis also emphasized that, while some of their grievances were addressed, all of the demands made during the strike haven’t been fully met. “We need to hold our leaders accountable now,” said Karvelis. “People are energized and they still want to fight.”

“Winning Is Strategic

Jonathan Schleifer is the executive director of The Fairness Project, a nonprofit that promotes progressive ballot measures. The organization spearheaded a number of successful Red State campaigns during these midterms. They were able to help raise minimum wages in Arkansas and Missouri, and expand Medicaid in Utah, Nebraska and Idaho. The group also helped deliver paid sick leave to Michigan and the city of San Antonio this year.

Schleifer told Truthout that the organization identifies states where progressives have had trouble pushing a policy and asks a series of questions: Would the policy be impactful? Do voters support it? Is there a coalition on the ground that the group can work with?

“It takes a complete team to run a ballot initiative,” said Schleifer, as he detailed how local groups have to collect thousands of signatures and talk to thousands of voters. He mentioned how impressive the Utah team that the group worked with to expand Medicaid had been: “Our partners on the ground in Utah had been up against conservatives for years; they were working under impossible conditions. They knew the legislature… it was a great partnership.”

Schleifer also pointed out that the idea of The Fairness Project isn’t to win on a ballot question in a conservative state and then leave, as the group has been successful pushing multiple initiatives in the same state. “We are building a permanent infrastructure,” he said. “Winning is strategic. If you can win in a state, you’re likely to do it again.”

“We Got in the Streets”

Nicole Townsend is an organizer for Southerners On New Ground (SONG) and resides in western North Carolina. SONG is a regional queer liberation organization that is building a southern base of LGBTQ people. Before the 2016 general election, SONG created the message “Dream, Vote, Organize: Our Lives Depend On It.” Townsend told Truthout that SONG has run a number of “electoral experiments” to test the waters on initiatives across the South.

SONG’s Nashville chapter helped get Amendment 1 passed during these midterms, establishing a community oversight board for the city’s police department. Townsend said there was an urgent need for such action, as Nashville cops fatally shot two Black men in less than two years. Townsend said that SONG holds onto a vision of ultimately abolishing prisons and police forces, as people of color and LGBTQ individuals are most often victimized by our criminal legal system. Nevertheless, its members believed that this interim intervention was necessary to improve the current conditions in the city. “Our members knocked on doors, called people on the phone, went to bars, went to restaurants,” said Townsend. “I think we needed 6,000 signatures to create a ballot question and we got over 8,000.” Townsend said the signatures were the first victory, but passing the amendment required making sure people went to the polls. “We got in the streets,” she said. “We went back to the people we talked to who gave us signatures and said, ‘OK, are you going to vote now?’”

SONG and the other community groups who worked on the issue had another huge obstacle to hurdle: the Nashville Fraternal Order of Police. The police group launched a legal challenge in an attempt to prevent voters from ever seeing the question on a ballot. When that failed, it outspent activists at a clip of nearly 30-1, running ads condemning the initiative. In the end, the amendment passed by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent.

Townsend told Truthout that SONG attempts to establish regional demands that can be collectively embraced by SONG’s chapters throughout their given states. She said the biggest current demand is an end to money bail and pretrial detention throughout the south. “We know how this system impacts Black people, queer people and poor people,” said Townsend. “There are people sitting in a cage because they don’t have $150.”

This past spring, SONG and a number of other organizations participated in National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day, raising money to bail out incarcerated Black mothers and caregivers so they could be reunited with their families for Mother’s Day. “We go to our members in communities,” said Townsend, “and we ask, ‘what is the need right now?’”

While much of the midterm analysis has focused on electoral races and how they might impact 2020, there have also been notable assessments of the work that propelled recent progressive victories throughout the country. One such effort is a new white paper put out by two policy groups, the NewFounders and The Incorruptibles. Looking at a variety of different case studies, the white paper looks at the many new forms of progressive organizing infrastructure that have yielded recent wins, including the use of small teams to mobilize massive numbers of volunteers, the creation of people’s assemblies, the formation of nontraditional coalitions, a move away from top-down organizing and new practices for using more strategic language about political goals.

While this sort of infrastructure-building is crucial in every area, activists in GOP-controlled states face especially daunting obstacles in this effort to build blueprints for success in the Trump Era.

“The progressive movement won’t be won by having more money or newer technology,” said The Incorruptibles director Anna Callahan upon the release of the report. “It will be won by using the absolute best practices in organizing that mobilize the majority of people into a true grassroots revolution.”

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