Can Progressives Deliver?

In key races around the country, progressive coalitions are mobilizing grassroots campaigns that just might pay off.

As in the past two presidential elections, once again Ohio is a pivotal battleground over the direction of national politics. And one of the main fronts is in the Congressional district that includes much of Columbus as well as rural counties and fast-growing, affluent suburbs to the northwest of the state’s capital.

Deborah Pryce, part of the Republican leadership team in the House of Representatives, has held her seat with little contest since 1992. But this fall she faces a strong challenge from progressive Democratic county commissioner, Mary Jo Kilroy. As a commissioner who has emphasized both fiscal responsibility and increased public services, Kilroy was a key figure in creating the Columbus/Franklin Affordable Housing Trust Corporation, which helps develop and rehabilitate affordable housing. Late last year she led efforts to double the conveyance fee charged on home sales in order to fund housing and services for the homeless.

This is one of the races that gives Democrats hope that they’ll take control of the House this November, but it also reflects some of the changes in the political landscape that may boost progressive prospects in years to come. Even if Democrats succeed in winning only one house, they will still gain power to conduct hearings, initiate legislation and block many Republican congressional policies. Beyond the prospect of reversing some of Bush’s budget cuts and tax gifts, democratic control of Congress – or even just the House – holds promise of raising the minimum wage, taking steps towards universal health care (or at least reforming Bush’s Medicare prescription drug plan) and holding corporations like Wal-Mart more accountable.

The immediate political climate is sour for Pryce: Bush’s popularity has tanked; the Ohio economy is weak and insecure; voters are deeply worried about health care costs; Republican scandals tarnish both state and national officeholders and growing numbers of voters are critical of the war in Iraq. But Kilroy threatens Pryce also partly because progressive organizations are hard at work in Ohio, as elsewhere in the country.

Progressive groups are refining and strengthening their grassroots mobilization efforts in key races around the country, hoping for immediate victories that could give Democrats control of both houses of Congress and elevate several high-profile progressive leaders, including Representatives Sherrod Brown (OH) and Bernie Sanders (VT) as senators. Also, Democrats are poised to capture several governors’ offices, including in Ohio, where the gubernatorial contest is a higher priority for most local groups than the nationally featured U.S. House and Senate races.

But these progressive groups, both in and outside the Democratic Party structures, are also looking to expand the base for progressive candidates and laying the groundwork for future victories. Despite the understandable attention to the tantalizing prospects for victories this fall, there’s a new determination to build a movement for the long term (including Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean’s controversial effort to rebuild the Democratic Party in all 50 states, rather than ceding “red” states to Republicans).

Finally, there are some tentative steps towards giving the Democrats a clearer, progressive “identity” with voters. Candidates and, to a greater degree, progressive advocates are attempting to go beyond the appealing and productive attacks on Bush and Republicans (“Had Enough?,” for example, is the umbrella refrain of the broad America Votes coalition) and to produce a more coherent picture of what Democrats stand for. Recently political analysts John Halpin and Rudy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress argued that “the underlying problem driving progressives’ on-going woes nationally [is that] a majority of Americans do not believe progressives or Democrats stand for anything.”

Although the Republican mobilization of right-wing churches was, in many ways, an attempt to match the grassroots clout that labor offered the Democrats, progressives are now often playing catch-up to the Republican ground war, refining their strategy and broadening their organizing outreach.

Massive voter registration efforts two years ago helped to shrink Bush’s margin of victory in the district. As a result, and also partly because Ohio Republicans made registration harder, there is less emphasis in this election in Ohio (and nationally) on new voter registration. This year labor unions – which are working together fairly well at the local level despite last year’s split in the national AFL-CIO – and other groups are focusing on reducing the typical drop-off of voters from a presidential election year – especially since polls show that category of voters as being very disgruntled with Bush and the nation’s overall direction.

“We had a record turnout in 2004, over seven million, and we expect four million this year,” says Tim Burga, state AFL-CIO director of governmental relations. “Our plan will be to get voters out who support our candidate and might be inclined to vote in the presidential election but not the off year – Democrats and swing voters.”

Meanwhile, Working America, a project of the AFL-CIO to recruit working-class supporters of broad labor political goals, has been signing up members in the district as well as in several other key states. Through this new, loose affiliation, unions can expand their political influence to unorganized workers, especially in the rapidly growing new suburbs where Democrats can be competitive but often are not.

USAction, a national network of state citizen action groups that is a close ally of labor, has concluded from its polling that swing voters in swing districts, not just drop-off Democrats, are a promising constituency for progressives this year. They’re dismayed with the way the country is going, are leaning Democratic in Congressional preferences and are most responsive to major progressive themes, such as proposals for new public investments in education, health care and energy independence, funded by reversing tax giveaways to millionaires. Similar to the AFL-CIO’s Working America, USAction affiliates are forming loose organizations of supporters among people identified as swing voters from voter files. “The swing vote is going to be important in this election,” says Alan Charney, senior campaign director, “and swing voters are open to the full agenda.”

As they reach out for new supporters or mobilize less reliable voters, 32 progressive groups in Ohio – labor, environmentalist, pro-choice, anti-war and others – are attempting to coordinate their mobilization efforts and message through America Votes, a coalition operating in various battleground states. It played a similar role in 2004 along with the larger group, America Coming Together, which no longer exists.

MoveOn, the massive online organization, continues to expand its influence off-line, not only by raising money for candidates like Kilroy in roughly 30 key districts. For example, through its “call for change” initiative, it plans to create the largest “distributed phone bank” for getting voters to the polls. Calling from their homes, often in districts where there is no serious contest, MoveOn members aim to make 5 million calls to carefully targeted voters in swing districts.

But these progressive groups also see themselves as working on a longer-term strategy. “We’re stepping away from just winning elections,” says Scott Nunnery, Ohio state director for America Votes. “Let’s have a 2006 plan, a 2008 plan, redistricting in 2012. Let’s have plans for all of those. We’re already talking about organizing opportunities in 2007.”

Several relatively new progressive organizations have already begun raising money nationally primarily for progressives running for state and local offices, hoping to nurture new candidates for higher office. For example, even as a county commissioner, Kilroy gained support from groups like Democracy for America (DFA), an outgrowth of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. It’s one of several national groups, such as Progressive Majority, that are cultivating future leaders more than funding high-profile national races. “The real mission we have is leadership development,” says DFA chair Jim Dean. “We’re trying to recruit people into politics, getting them into institutional politics, running for offices. We’re trying to harness national activism to get people into and moving up the political food chain.”

In August, several Democratic groups, with major support from AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), launched Foundation for the Future. Besides cultivating new leaders, it will provide technical expertise and organizing support aimed at winning Democratic control over the redistricting process and reversing the electoral map advantage that Republicans have created in much of the country.

Understandably, most Democratic challengers are running against Bush and the Republican record. Kilroy is no exception, tying Pryce to Bush and attacking social security privatization. Blocking privatization was a major victory last year for progressives, including groups like USAction, Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) and Americans United, and resurrection of the issue by Bush and other Republican leaders recently makes social security a potent campaign issue once again.

The Democrats’ answer to Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America, dubbed “6 for ’06” or A New Direction for America, combines criticism of Bush with a modest program of positive reforms – focusing on increasing the minimum wage, college access for all, energy independence and lower gas prices with efficiency and biofuels, fixing the Medicare prescription drug plan, promoting stem cell research and preserving Social Security.

As a vague compromise that everyone – from the liberal Campaign for America’s Future to the conservative Democratic Leadership Council – can more or less support, the Democratic message nevertheless falls short of providing the compelling narrative story about what’s gone wrong and how progressives can turn the country around, as Geoffrey Nunberg argues in his recent book, Talking Right. It pulls punches on issues of progressive taxes, inequality, universal health care, workers’ rights and other key issues. Yet it’s a start.

“The Democrats have a glimmer of a positive program,” CAF co-director Roger Hickey says. “What’s achingly missing is much of a growth or jobs plan.” With a fixation on budget deficits and a legacy of supporting NAFTA, Hickey argues, “Democrats in general have no message about jobs, [which] should be the Democrats’ greatest strength.”

But progressive groups are pushing broader messages independently, including workers’ rights to organize and universal health care, that challenge Democratic candidates to expand their message and look to the future.

For example, ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) joined with other groups to put an initiative to raise the state minimum wage on the ballot in Ohio as well as in Arizona, Missouri and Colorado, all states with important contested races.

“We wanted to do this in a way that elected officials and candidates would talk about it,” says political director Zach Pollett. “We think these are issues domestic politics should be about…It’s good for the whole country’s political discourse, good for discussion in Ohio, and this is also a time when there’s a confluence of good policy and good politics. It gives a voter who isn’t motivated a reason to vote, and for swing voters – Reagan Democrats – a reason to vote for a candidate who will help.”

In 2002 John Kerry refused to endorse Florida’s minimum wage campaign and missed out on what could have been a crucial boost to his candidacy, as 71 percent of Florida voters supported the initiative. But this year more Democratic politicians are openly backing minimum wage campaigns or joining in attacks on Wal-Mart’s labor policies, giving the Democratic message more of a populist edge.

MoveOn.org is a civil and political action group that often takes on controversial political campaigns that other groups avoid. Despite refusals from several major television stations in Ohio, it ran ads depicting Pryce as being caught “red-handed” accepting money from energy companies and “protecting oil company profits while we pay more at the pump,” and linking her to such unpopular or discredited Republicans as Dick Cheney, Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay. MoveOn members in the district are also picketing Pryce appearances, repeating the “red-handed” theme.

The organization, which played a significant role in Ned Lamont’s upset primary victory over Senator Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, also plans ads and follow-up protests against other Republicans for failing to hold Bush accountable on the war in Iraq. Similar ads are currently running in New Hampshire and New York.

While there’s polling evidence that bread-and-butter economic issues sway more voters to Democrats than criticism of either Republican corruption or the war in Iraq, MoveOn figures that unions will push the economic issues and that it can tackle the others.

“The more that Democrats come out for an exit from Iraq, people trust them more and feel they stand for something,” MoveOn executive director Eli Pariser says. “The more that people think about Republican failure and incompetence and defeat, the more they want to change. It’s a reminder of what a disaster the last six years have been.”

If Bush is not able to trump voters’ sense of disaster at home and abroad with national security fears again, then Democrats have a chance of winning back one, maybe both, houses of Congress and other offices. But progressives are already looking ahead to a longer-term strategy of building a new majority on behalf of policies for the common good, a campaign that will last long beyond November.

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