EYES RIGHT!: Reflections on the November 8th Elections
At the top of the ticket, where the pundits put all their attention, November 8, 1994, was a depressing election day for progressives. Gingrich rules the House, Dole presides over the Senate, Republican governors sweep to power in ten more states, and the Clinton Administration reacts by scurrying to redefine itself as Republicanism with a human face.
But at the bottom of the ticket, where only those directly involved pay much attention, a number of organizing efforts bore fruit with significant victories for progressives and some encouraging directions for the future. Examples include:
Campaign Finance Reform Initiatives
In 1992, Washington, D.C., ACORN put a $100 limit campaign finance initiative on the ballot and passed it, 2 – 1, giving D.C. the toughest campaign finance law in the nation. This year ACORN and the Public Interest Research Groups, assisted by the Center for a New Democracy, expanded this movement by putting four $100 limit statewide initiatives on the ballot in Colorado, Missouri, Montana and Oregon and winning three of them. In the largest of these states, Missouri, the ACORN-led Missourians for Campaign Finance Reform captured over 1.1 million votes by taking a progressive issue directly to the people and winning it by an overwhelming 3 – 1 margin.
Independent Political Organizations Electing their Members to Office at the Local Level
While many progressives and Democratic Party activists throughout the country were crying in their beer November 8, I had the good fortune to be in Little Rock, Arkansas attending a joyous, raucous victory party of the Little Rock New Party. Running primarily in non-partisan races, this fledgling political party fielded a series of candidates this fall and elected two of its members (the national vice-president of ACORN and a long-time leader of the local NAACP) to seats on the Little Rock city council; elected another of its members to a seat in the state legislature; elected a working majority on the Little Rock school board on a platform of opposition to privatization and support for increased parental involvement in the schools; and in nearby Pine Bluff, Arkansas, elected three ACORN leaders to seats on the city council and school board. Similar efforts elected 14 of 21 candidates fielded by D.C. New Democracy, the New Party affiliate in the nation’s capital, to seats on D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
What lessons can progressives learn from these electoral successes on November 8? We believe there are several.
Don’t Mourn, Organize
In 1988 Pat Robertson decisively lost his race for the presidency. But he didn’t mourn – he took his 1.8 million name mailing list and used it to organize the Christian Coalition. This mass-based people’s organization trains and encourages its membership to run for public office and conducts voter registration and Get Out The Vote drives among its constituency around an ideological scorecard of votes by Members of Congress and their opponents. Similarly, progressives need to organize, mobilize and educate the low-to-moderate income, immigrant and working class majority in our cities around economic and quality-of-life issues (jobs, income, housing, education, safety) that make a difference in people’s lives. It’s long, slow work, but there are no short-cuts. It’s the only way to win.
Forsake Issue Coalitions, Build Independent Political Organizations
Too much energy of progressives is spent trying to build issue-oriented coalitions that are as ephemeral as the wind and end up competing with their constituent groups for visibility and resources. Instead, we should encourage organizations with a base (e.g. community organizations, labor unions, gay & lesbian organizations, environmental organizations, etc.) to build themselves and their power while at the same time combining to form a political organization (like Progressive Milwaukee or Little Rock New Party or D.C. New Democracy, all affiliates of the New Party) that develops a policy platform and an accountability mechanism and then runs its members for local political office. Such an organization can respect the organizational needs and interests of its constituent groups while doing what a political party should do (and what the Democratic Party rarely does): democratically adopting a policy and ideology and electing people to office who are committed to implementing that policy and ideology.
Bring Our Issues Directly to the People by Putting Them on the Ballot
While building the electoral power to eventually put more of our own people in office, we should put more of our issues, especially the more popular ones, directly before the voters through the initiative process. Even though only 23 of the 50 states have the initiative for statewide measures, many more states allow initiatives at the city and county level. As the right’s success with term limits and progressives recent success with campaign finance reform initiatives show, putting issues on the ballot is a good way to both win policy changes and build a political constituency for electoral empowerment.
Be Patient, Build Power Locally
Even if our goal as progressives is to exercise power in Congress and at the White House, we will reach that goal most rapidly by concentrating our organizing and electoral efforts at the bottom-of-the-ticket local level, with the city councils, school boards, and county commissions of our communities. Or, more to the point, we’ll never have a chance of reaching it if we don’t have the patience to do the hard local organizing that builds real power over time. Ironically, the impending implementation of term limits over the rest of this decade will assist this strategy. There will be literally thousands of open state legislative seats and other elective offices coming up that organized progressives can effectively compete for if we start building those political organizations and candidates now.
So what do these “bottom of the ticket” progressive victories signify for the future, coming in the midst of a right-wing Republican takeover of Congress? At ACORN we believe that the message is clear. It’s not only Gingrich, Dole and the Republicans who win at the polls with their false message of “change.” When progressive organizations with a base – such as ACORN and the New Party, labor unions and housing groups – campaign for progressive candidates and ballot issues on a platform of real change around jobs, housing and community control, we win. We did it this November 8th, in the midst of a right-wing Republican landslide, in those cities where we had done the work to put our candidates and issues on the ballot. And we can and should do it again in many more places over the next two years. Indeed, if the Democrats had campaigned around these same progressive bread and butter issues, instead of trying to come off as pro-corporate, anti-government “me-too Republicans” they would have done better November 8 too.
Don’t mourn, organize!