[Rights & Democracy leaders Mari Cordes and James Haslam featured in New York Times]
March 2, 2016
By Suzy Khim
FROM the start, Bernie Sanders has insisted that his bid for president is more than just a bid for president. “This campaign is not about electing Bernie Sanders for president,” the campaign tweeted in August. “It is about creating a grass-roots political movement in this country.”
By that measure, the test of the “political revolution” Mr. Sanders has started won’t just be the strength of his primary challenge, but also whether his movement can survive without him and help get other candidates elected.
Melissa Stevens, 33, hopes that it can. She is a Sanders supporter, a single mother of two and a first-time candidate..
for the Maine statehouse who frequently talks about struggling to support her family while working low-wage jobs. “A lot of these big ideas and these big revolutions happen at a local and state level first,” she said.
Ms. Stevens is part of a broader network of progressive activists who say that the movement that has coalesced around Mr. Sanders can bring change to state and local governments around the country, regardless of what happens with his presidential bid.
They have a lot of catching up to do. Despite a revival of movement activism, the left has struggled over the last eight years to achieve broad electoral success outside the White House. Many of the voters who propelled Barack Obama to victory twice didn’t show up for midterm elections, helping Republicans recapture both houses of Congress by 2014 and win control of 31 governorships and nearly 70 percent of state legislative chambers.
Meanwhile, progressives have largely channeled their energy into causes, giving rise to movements like the Fight for $15 to raise the minimum wage, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. During the heyday of Occupy, many activists rejected electoral politics, unlike their Tea Party counterparts, who leapt into races at every level of government, and scored huge victories for conservatives.
“We’ve been doing this backwards,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant who ran Howard Dean’s 2004 insurgent presidential campaign. “The mistake is thinking that we get behind a progressive candidate for president, and that will solve all our problems.”
One of the biggest problems facing the left is structural. Whether by choice or circumstance, insurgent Democrats haven’t relied on the party establishment to build their support, so the party apparatus is ill equipped to capitalize on that momentum, which is particularly problematic in midterm elections and on the state and local levels.
Insurgent candidates can build up huge email lists and an army of eager volunteers, but if they’re operating independently from the party establishment there’s no obvious way for them to pass that knowledge on to the next breakout candidate. “There’s no progressive repository to keep the movement intact for the next progressive candidate — or the progressive candidate in California or Texas or wherever,” Mr. Trippi said.
Mr. Dean tried to take on the task from the inside as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, calling for a “50-state strategy” for party building. From the outside, groups like Democracy for America (Mr. Dean’s political action committee), MoveOn and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have tried to keep activists engaged and to pressure the Democratic Party from the left.
But such efforts have been dwarfed by conservative organizing efforts on the state and local levels, which have been a major priority for key Republican donors like the Koch Brothers. The progressive organizing groups haven’t really cracked that equation, said Ryan Bates, executive director of Michigan United, a grass-roots organizing group. “We haven’t figured out how to mobilize popular support at a broad enough level to really fund our movement.”
A growing number of progressives are now trying to bridge the gap between movement activism and electoral politics. In New York, Zephyr Teachout, the law professor who mounted a surprisingly strong primarychallenge to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2014, is running for a House seat in an upstate district. DeRay Mckesson, one of the most prominent Black Lives Matter activists, is running for mayor of Baltimore.
In Vermont, Mari Cordes, a registered nurse and union organizer who stars in a Sanders campaign ad, said in an interview that she was preparing to run for the statehouse. And David Fredrick, a founder of the Sanders for President page on Reddit, is helping local and state candidates with social media and fund-raising.
Professional organizers are trying to recruit a new generation of progressive candidates and find new ways to drum up support for local races. “You have to build around a set of ideals,” said Dan Cantor, national director of the Working Families Party, a progressive group that backed Bill de Blasio for mayor of New York and endorsed Mr. Sanders for president. “You have to have an organization where people have a real voice, so it’s not owned by one person.”
The risk, of course, is that a Sanders defeat — after hopes were raised by his early success — could be a setback for the entire movement, particularly as many of his supporters already feel disillusioned with the political system.
But that’s why organizers like James Haslam, who has worked closely with Mr. Sanders in Vermont, believe that it’s critical to broaden the focus to other candidates. “If you want electoral change, don’t put all your eggs in the same basket,” he said.