Wanna win more elections?

The best investment funders can make is in community organizing

For at least the last twenty years, organizers, activists, donors and communicators have been arguing about the best messages to win elections. Should we focus on shoring up the base, with broad progressive messages that excite the already-convinced with the vision of a much more perfect world? Or should we focus on narrowly targeted messages that might inspire swing voters to come our way, without asking them to swing too far in the direction of leftism?

The reality is that no message is enough to win an election, particularly if it isn’t coupled with actual, on-the-ground organizing that helps to show people how to win much more than just a contest between two political candidates. And voters who are engaged in long-term organizing campaigns develop a fundamental understanding of just how important winning elections is—and more importantly, they develop the resilience that is necessary to make fundamental change to a system.

Let’s take a look at how a person might get engaged in organizing. Meet Andrea.

Andrea is a single mom who’s lived the same community for her whole life. She works as an instructional aide in the same school district that her kids attend, which gives her the flexibility of having most of the same days off that they do—and during the summer & school breaks, she earns extra cash by watching 3-4 other kids in her neighborhood, while their moms are at work.

Andrea lives in a place that lacks robust public transportation, so she has to have a car to get herself and her kids around. Her car is on the older side, and breaks down from time to time, but that’s just the price of life, right? Andrea knows her life would be easier if there was a bus that she could count on when she needed it, but she doesn’t really have any idea how to go about making that happen—and she’s just one person.

But one day, her neighbor Tiffany knocks on her door, and asks if she’s got a minute to talk. Andrea invites her in, and Tiffany wants to know if she’s ever had a problem getting to work? She explains that she’s been talking to a local group, the Bus Riders Association, about how to get a bus stop on the corner, near her house. The organizer of the BRA asked her to find ten other people in the neighborhood to come to a meeting about it—so she’s been knocking on doors, looking for folks to join her. Andrea isn’t that sure that she has time for a lot of meetings, but she’d really like that bus route—and Tiffany is her friend—so she agrees to come meet the organizer.

The day before the meeting rolls around, and Tiffany calls Andrea to remind her about it—and to ask her to bring two chairs from her house, because Tiffany doesn’t have enough. Andrea agrees, and the next night, she packs up her kids and two chairs, and heads next door to Tiffany’s house, along with twelve more people from the neighborhood. The BRA organizer, Erica, thanks everyone for coming, and asks them all to talk a little bit about what happens when they don’t have reliable transportation. Corey talks about how he got fired from his last job, because it took him three hours and two connections to get to work, after his car broke down. Brandon shares that, without a car, he has a hard time taking his son to the doctor for asthma treatment. Corrine tells everyone that she works second shift, and she doesn’t feel safe walking home at midnight, but the alternative is to get home at 2 am riding the bus.

Erica explains that the small group gathered at Tiffany’s house that night isn’t enough to get the Transit Agency to change a bus route all by themselves—but that they do have the power to start a campaign that could win. The group begins to make a plan to find more neighbors to join them—and the following weekend, they start knocking on doors in the area.

Andrea, Tiffany and their friends chart out the neighborhood, so they know which streets each partner team will be on. They use a simple script that they developed with Erica’s help, using the “problem/solution/strategy” framework (some might say “anger/hope/a plan”)—identify a common problem (in this case, inadequate buses), propose a solution (get a new bus route set up!), and outline a strategy for winning (lots of people sign a petition to the Transit Agency). After a few hours of door-knocking, the original group of 15 has gotten 120 signatures on their petition!

Our intrepid crew hits the doors again the following weekend, and the next, and in a month’s time, they have 500 signatures demanding a new bus route. Along the way, they’ve also developed some new volunteers (and of course, some of the original crew has fallen away, caught up with work or school, or just life). The Transit Agency has a public board meeting scheduled, and Erica helps Andrea and Tiffany sign up to speak, so they can present their petitions and make their request to add a bus route.

The two women make impassioned speeches about why they need better public transit—and they tell the stories of some of the people they’ve met, knocking doors in their neighborhood. A clerk accepts their petitions, and then…the head of the Transit Agency says, “I’m sorry, we just don’t have the money to add more routes right now,” and the meeting moves on to other business.

The group is disappointed, but most of them show up for an organizing meeting the following week. Erica leads them in a discussion about what felt good in the hearing, and what they’d like to see happen differently next time. At a pivotal moment in the meeting, Andrea realizes—just having two people there to represent the group (even with the 500 signatures) wasn’t enough. “We need more people!”

Over the course of the next few months, the group—led by Tiffany and Andrea—continues to meet. They work with Erica and the Bus Riders Association to map out the board of the Transit Agency—and discover that two of the three members are a local City Councilperson (Ms. X), and a State Representative from the area (Mr. Y). They match their list of members to the voter file, to figure out whether any of their members live in these districts, and discover that they have 20 members in the City Council District, and 40 in the State House District. Andrea puts together a phone bank, and their volunteers call those 60 people to see if any of them would be willing to come to a meeting with their elected representatives. Tiffany pulls together a canvass, to generate more signatures and find more volunteers in those two districts.

The group grows again, and Erica helps the team set up meetings with both of the elected officials. Andrea works with a new volunteer, Frank, (who was found by Tiffany’s canvass) to be the spokesperson with the City Councilperson. “It feels scary, the first time,” she says, “but at the end of the meeting, you’ll feel good that you did it.” Frank leads the meeting, and the City Councilperson isn’t exactly delighted to be facing a group of her own constituents who are well-educated about the issue, and demanding change—but she does agree to put forward a motion at the next Transit Agency board meeting to study their proposal for a new route. Erica brings in Veronica, a long-term activist with the BRA to help lead the meeting with the State Representative. The BRA has been working to move the State Rep to a supportive position for years—but he’s the kind of fiscal conservative who never wants to spend money on things that help working people—just big corporations. The State Rep refuses to support the motion that the City Councilperson has agreed to bring forward.

During the course of the next six months, our scrappy group of transit activists continue their campaign to win a bus route. They spend some time researching the kinds of tactics that have won community organizing efforts in the past—should they boycott the Transit Agency? picket outside the State Rep’s office, or hold other earned media events there? engage in online organizing to convince other bus riders to support their petition? perform civil disobedience, to protest the fact that they’re locked out of work due to a lack of access to transit? And while they try different things to move him, the State Rep is intractable.
It’s been a year of working to win this bus route, and the group has grown closer together. The press has started to cover their actions regularly, and the city paper has reassigned a reporter to cover the transit beat, because so many people have gotten involved and started coming to Transit Agency meetings. Andrea and Tiffany have emerged as clear leaders, and their friendship is also stronger than it’s ever been. One day, Veronica calls them, and asks them to have coffee with her. “The two of you know how frustrating it’s been to have State Rep Y give us so much trouble. He isn’t going to change his position—so if we want to win, we’re going to need a new state rep. That’s why I’ve decided to run against him.”

Andrea and Tiffany haven’t ever known anyone who ran for office. In a weird way, they kind of didn’t think it was possible for people like them. But they are positive that Mr. Y has to go—and they know that Veronica, if she wins, really understands their community. Veronica tells the two other women, “Look, we might not agree on every issue—but you know that I will be there on expanding public transit. And we trust each other to keep talking about all the other stuff. Will you support my campaign?” Andrea & Tiffany are in, and they start to plan that night.

During the campaign, Andrea becomes the de facto volunteer coordinator. She’s always there helping with the evening phone banks, and her two kids get used to having campaign-provided pizza for dinner while they do their homework. Tiffany is a super-volunteer, knocking on doors every weekend. The local paper holds a candidates’ night, and half of the people who show up to ask a question have some concern about transportation that they want to express. Mr. Y outspends Veronica 2:1, but almost all of his budget goes to funding one very expensive TV ad—which, while nice, does not inspire voters to go to the polls. Veronica’s team keeps their heads down and does the work of organizing voters. When Election Day rolls around, Veronica squeaks out a narrow win over Rep Y, and in her victory speech, she makes sure to shout out Andrea & Tiffany—because it is clear that a well-run field campaign is what made the difference.

After she is in office, Veronica gets herself appointed to the Transit Agency board, and at the very first meeting after she’s sworn in, the motion to study the new bus route passes! Andrea & Tiffany know that their work isn’t over, but it just got much easier. With the continued help of Erica and others at the BRA, they will push the envelope of what’s possible for bus riders all over their community.

As you can see, over the course of a long community organizing campaign, Andrea and Tiffany learned a lot of stuff from Erica and the other staff at the Bus Riders Association—and from each other and their fellow BRA members:

  • The skills of canvassing, phone banking, one-on-ones, house meetings, and other kinds of outreach that cross over between issue-based organizing campaigns and electoral ones;
  • The need—and how–to change tactics, when confronted with an oppositional power structure or person in power;
  • An understanding of the complicated and sometimes interlocked relationship between government officials at different levels and public agencies;
  • How to structure an organizing conversation, in order to find out what the other person needs and hopes for;
  • An understanding of the power structure in their local communities—especially how private sector power is influencing public sector decisions;
  • How to hold that power structure accountable to the people who elect and pay for it;
  • How to support and hold accountable other activists, in the struggle for social change;
  • Victory isn’t just winning the election—there has to be progress on the core demand of the campaign; and perhaps most important
  • The resilience that it takes to keep persevering, even through temporary loss.

Community organizing campaigns are messier and less linear than electoral ones. But they play an important role in developing leadership in a democracy—and in teaching people the necessity of sustained action over time. An organization that wants solely to win elections for partisanship’s sake will have a much harder time developing leaders who are in it for the long haul, because they aren’t teaching people that the skills involved in winning elections are only part of the toolset that you need to create real, democratic change. Compare Andrea & Tiffany’s experience to that of a volunteer who gets energized by a presidential election, but then doesn’t hear from the campaign again for months. Which of them is more likely to be engaged in down-ballot activism, or pushing for state legislation?

A movement that is structured around building real power for people who feel like they have none, on the other hand, is constantly teaching people both a strategic power analysis that gives them a new lens to look through, when viewing their world, as well as a set of tools and iterative organizing strategies that give them what they need to win.

Andrea, Tiffany & their kids—and the dozens of people they’ve organized together—will never go back to seeing themselves as powerless actors in a political system that is stacked against them. They’ve earned the knowledge, understanding, and skills that will allow them to make long-term change in their community.
 

*Several people gave me early feedback on this piece–thanks to Nijmie Dzurinko, Amy Fetherolf, Eric Rosso, Hannah Sassaman, Alina Sipp-Alpers, and Marcus Spivey for helping make it stronger!

The fight against Trump can never stop, if we want to win.

Progressives around the country are struggling to figure out how to define ourselves in the Trump era. Should we be in a state of permanent war against the new Administration? Should we be working within the system to make better the shitty deals on health care, immigration, and infrastructure that the GOP-controlled Congress will be offering us? And regardless of which of those two paths we take, can we get a certain subset of the white electorate to overcome their fear of the other and recognize that the rich don’t have their economic best interests at heart, regardless of what party they are funding?

In my own evolving thinking about those questions, it’s been helpful for me to revisit the strategies that led to an historic election in Pennsylvania in 2014—one where progressives managed to defeat an incumbent Republican governor, in marked contrast to a wave of Republican gubernatorial wins that year*.

My biggest takeaway (and one that is by no means rocket science) is that we can’t just jump into races in the year that they are happening, and expect to win against the kind of money that will be shelled out by corporate America. Pennsylvania has no campaign finance limits, so we are a kind of laboratory of how to run a campaign in a post-Citizens United world. The 2014 race for governor cost $73 million, and many reports have attributed Tom Wolf’s victory to the fact that he was a self-funded candidate—but the ground to defeat Governor Corbett was laid long before the dust closed on the Democratic primary on May 19th.

It’s also important to keep in mind that, when he was first elected, many of us (both in the labor movement and other progressive movements in Pennsylvania) thought that Governor Corbett would be a moderate Republican of a type that has thrived in PA for years—someone along the lines of Tom Ridge or Arlen Specter. No one thought that we were going to achieve great progressive victories during his term, but we did believe that we’d be able to have a working relationship with him.

However, almost one of his first acts in office was to end a program (called Adult Basic) that had been set up by Governor Rendell, which provided working poor adults an affordable way to buy health insurance. Corbett appointed several extremely right-wing Secretaries to important departments (particularly the Departments of what were then called Public Welfare and Health)—but threw the labor movement a bone by setting a technocrat up as Secretary of Labor & Industry. In addition, his first budget cut a billion dollars from education funding in the state—hitting both the state system of higher education as well as requiring budget cuts in nearly every school district.

Over time, it became clear that Corbett’s major agenda items would be very harmful to state employees—the particular things we fought involving public employees were privatization of state services & pension reform. However, his overall agenda was really quite hurtful to working families regardless of their union membership and we wanted to make sure that working Pennsylvanians—not just union members—were aware and willing to fight back.

After he had been in office for a few months (and after other newly-elected Republican governors, like Scott Walker, had begun their attacks on labor), a group of political organizers from movement organizations began a conversation about how to make sure that Governor Corbett faced ongoing opposition to his agenda. We were benefited by the fact that SEIU had invested in two community-labor campaigns—so we had organizers on the ground in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that could build a base to come out to actions, and be involved in organizations that fought the Governor’s agenda (particularly around health care & public education). In addition, due to the statewide nature of some of the groups in the coalition, we were able to turn out people in many of the state’s smaller media markets. We were routinely able to do press events in a single day in 8-12 cities. It is much easier to get on the front page of a newspaper in Altoona or Erie than it is to get a front page story in the Philadelphia Inquirer—and it threatened GOP state legislators a lot more when their local constituents were reading those stories over breakfast.

A list of all the things that progressives did would be too long, and redundant (and I am prone to forgetting some of them), but here’s a smattering:

  • For the second, third & fourth years of his term—brought busloads of demonstrators to Harrisburg on the day of his Budget Address, to make sure that the media had to talk to working Pennsylvanians about the Governor’s agenda, not just legislators;
  • Held media events that were “on offense” on a progressive agenda (ie—closing corporate tax loopholes, accepting the Medicaid expansion), not just defensive actions in reaction to regressive policies—and did those events in many small cities, not just the big ones (our days of action were routinely held in 8, 10, or 12 PA cities);
  • Worked furiously to keep public anger about the Philly schools funding crisis aimed squarely at Corbett, instead of the Mayor or City Council (who, thanks to the state takeover, do not have taxing authority to fund the schools). During his entire tenure as governor, Corbett never visited a public school in Philly largely because he ran away from the crowds of parent & student demonstrators that appeared every time he tried;
  • Used 2012 state mid-term legislative election work to tie Republican legislators to the “Corbett Agenda,” so they had to distance themselves from this unpopular governor (which also helped us to pick up three seats in the state senate);
  • Created the #onetermTom hashtag, which eventually trended after every group adopted it (and then retired when we ended up with a nominee who was also named Tom);
  • In the third and fourth year of his Administration, had demonstrators spend days on end in late June occupying the Capitol (the first year around Medicaid expansion, the second on public ed funding), so that reporters who were covering the budget debate had real people—and lots of events—to cover, not just the horse-trading between legislators;
  • During the ACA sign up period, groups who were not c-3 funded used our outreach work to remind low-wage workers that Governor Corbett’s refusal to expand Medicaid was making them unable to benefit from one of the main benefits of Obamacare; and
  • Some organizations declined to make an endorsement in a crowded Democratic primary, choosing instead to focus on keeping voters angry at the Governor so that whoever emerged from the primary would be at a polling advantage.

Governor Corbett was the first incumbent in Pennsylvania ever to be denied re-election. It’s easy for people to say, “well, Corbett was unpopular because of his education budget cuts,” and to forget that there was a lot of work that actually went into making voters remember that they had many reasons to dislike him. The constant demolishing of Corbett’s approval ratings didn’t happen by accident—it was the result of thousands of staff hours, millions of dollars, and countless hours of activism by volunteers.

Here’s my list of advice, for those of us who are thinking about how to defeat Trump in 2020 (and to defeat his agenda, between now and then):

  • Understand that this is not work that the Democratic Party can be expected to do. We can argue about whether they should or shouldn’t—but that’s not going to make them do it. If we want to hold a coordinated strategy around activism, it can’t depend on either elected officials or political consultants.
  • Don’t let yourself be put on defense for four years. Defense is important—but you can’t win without an offense strategy that paints a picture of the world we’re building—not just what we’re fighting to defeat.
  • For funders or national organizations that have the ability to shift resources from one place to another–there will be a lot of temptation to create wins in California, New York, or other progressive, coastal cities. Make sure that you are also investing in North Carolina, Mississippi, South Dakota and Arizona. We could not have won the 2014 election if we had just focused on Philly & Pittsburgh–and our movement can’t shift a national conversation if we’re only moving progressive policy in the most progressive places.
  • Know and agree that not every member of every coalition can do every thing. Some of us have more resources in general. Some of us can do partisan election work—others cannot. Some of us will be squarely facing attacks against our right to exist. Some of us have government funding that precludes certain kinds of activism. Celebrate and amplify the work that other parts of our movement are doing, even when you can’t participate in them yourself.
  • Remember that sometimes having 30 people on the steps of a county courthouse, or in front of a rural legislator’s office will generate more media than having 300 turn out in a big city. Make sure you have dedicated resources (particularly communications prep) to make the 30 person rally just as effective as the 300 (or 30,000) person one. Getting a good constituent quote in a Republican congressman’s local paper is better than getting one in the big city paper that is only read by Democrats (or worse—having a great quote prepped that no one ever picks up, because your rally is deemed unimportant by the assigning editor that day).
  • Only the strongest among us should ever read the comments online. Don’t feed the trolls.
  • Include youth in your coalition. And not just on the days that you need a student spokesperson.
  • Bring the people you are organizing to the corridors of power on the days that matter, so that reporters have to talk to those people. Do not allow organizational spokespeople to speak on the record on those days. On background for technical stuff? Fine. But not on camera or for attribution.
  • If you can afford paid media, use it to tell a person’s story about how they are affected by a policy or issue. Our movement is about people, we should be using our media to uplift their stories—not to promote candidates for office.
  • Pick corporate targets that expose the financial connections between elected officials and their terrible policies. March on those targets, too.
  • If the solution to a problem is federal or state-based, don’t feed people’s anger at local elected officials, just because they’re easier to get in front of.
  • Use the mid-term elections to tie Republican Congresspeople to the most unpopular elements of Trump’s agenda. They’re in office, they’re going to vote to confirm his nominees, support his legislative efforts, and put resources toward his budget—make them own it.
  • If you are a group that makes endorsements, when 2020 presidential candidates come knocking, don’t feel like you have to be “in first” in order to have leverage in their future administration. Make the issues that matter to you the issues that elect them—and you’ll be important enough to have leverage later.

We are already seeing a reaction from the political elite to the outpourings of activism that have happened in just the first week of the Trump Administration—whether those are Democrats who are scrambling to keep up with their base of voters, or Republicans worried about their fate in the 2018 elections, if they align too closely to the president. We must counter conservatives’ description of a world that is full of threats with our vision for a better, more inclusive, more equitable world. We will all have days where we lose hope—but our movement must never lose hope.


*This post is written from the perspectives I sat in, during the four years of the Corbett administration, and shouldn’t be taken to deny other people’s perspectives or hard work. No one organization was capable of doing everything, and all the work that everyone did mattered.