By Michael Corcoran
Anna Callahan is an organizer with infectious energy and an unceasing desire to act. The Berkeley resident was so motivated by Bernie Sanders's presidential run in 2016 that she quit her job and volunteered for the campaign full-time. Since the campaign ended, she got a tattoo of Sanders's iconic hair and glasses and has continued to fight for his agenda -- this time from the bottom up.
Our goal is to create thousands of Bernie Sanders and fill all levels of government with incorruptible service leaders who represent the needs of the 99 percent.
Callahan, who is speaking about this approach at the Democracy Convention this week, recently co-founded a new group called the "Incorruptibles," which aims to build a progressive base in cities and towns across the nation to help run candidates for local offices: in state houses, city councils, planning commissions, select boards and more. "There is only one Bernie Sanders," she told Truthout. "Our goal is to create thousands of Bernie Sanders and fill all levels of government with incorruptible service leaders who represent the needs of the 99 percent."
The Incorruptibles, which hopes to focus on base building in local chapters so there is a permanent infrastructure of support for candidates in each area, is just one of many organizations that have sprung up since the Sanders campaign to embrace the "down-ticket strategy." The idea is that by starting off with local offices, over time a generation of like-minded politicians who seek to fight for the people, instead of for the ownership class, will emerge up the ballot as well.
"We think that by putting progressives at the bottom of the ticket, and training and organizing a strong base of support, over time it can have a positive impact up the ticket," said Callahan, director of the Incorruptibles. "As we organize and train activists, we will win with more frequency."
The most recognizable organization of this kind is probably Our Revolution, launched by Sanders himself in August 2016. Our Revolution has already endorsed 16 victorious candidates for a variety of elections at the local level in 2017. Other groups that have formed since the Sanders campaign include Brand New Congress (BNC) and Justice Democrats, which are allied in their efforts "to recruit and run dozens of outstanding candidates in a single, national campaign for Congress in 2018." Another organization, #WeWillReplaceYou, is specifically targeting corporate Democrats. It asks supporters to take the "primary pledge" and help challenge Democrats who are not steadfast in their opposition to Trump and the regressive GOP agenda. Some of these groups, like the Incorruptibles, have local chapters. There are also independent local groups and citizens who emphasize the down-ticket strategy in their regions.
In addition to trying to build a progressive majority in the future, such actions can have short-term benefits in efforts to curb the Republicans' record domination of state legislatures across the country: Republicans now control 68 of 99 legislative bodies (and both chambers in 31 states). This has generated excitement from mainstream Democratic Party organizations focused on the state level, which have praised the influx of progressive electoral energy.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) "is excited to see a renewed focus on down-ballot races from Democrats and progressives ... this focus and energy is finding form in groups newly active in the state legislative space," said Jessica Post of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "DLCC is pleased to welcome these groups as new weapons in our arsenal ... in our fight to flip state legislatures and build Democratic power in states."
Successes of the Down-Ticket Strategy
One recent success story has advocates excited. Ali Dieng, born in Mauritania and raised in Senegal, pulled off a victory in a special election in June for a seat in the city council in the typically conservative New North End district in Burlington, Vermont (which is also the district where Bernie and Jane Sanders live). Dieng was a fusion candidate, running as both a Democrat and a member of the Progressive Party, one of the few successful third parties in the country. After building a strong coalition including members of both parties, he had a decisive victory and became the only non-white member of the council and the second new American (he came to the US in 2007) to serve on the body.
Dieng, whose campaign emphasized access to child care, transportation, affordable housing and increased participation in the political process, was endorsed by Our Revolution and a local organization, Rights and Democracy (RAD), which advocates for a number of candidates and social justice issues in Vermont and New Hampshire. Isaac Grimm, political engagement director of RAD, spoke about how the group found solidarity and enthusiasm in backing Dieng.
"When we started the organization ... we had conversations about what kind of movement we needed to build and what people saw in themselves as their role in this movement," Grimm told Truthout. "Ali [Dieng] was one of the first people who said he could imagine running as a grassroots candidate and then actually stepped up and did it."
Grimm emphasized the need to listen to the concerns of voters, and to engage with them personally through strategies like knocking on doors. "[This] is exactly the formula we need to have the people's movement take power in this country: a multiracial, multigenerational, people's platform of issues and aligned with the political revolution that Bernie's campaign inspired," he said.
Callahan also views these approaches as vital. "Eighty percent of organizing is listening," she said. "And knocking on every door you possibly can, not just among ones deemed as 'likely voters.' We need to connect with everybody."