A Working Woman’s Place Is In Congress
Just 2% of Congress consists of working people. Here's how to change it.
Welcome to a Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!
There is so much going on today, so I’m just going to jump right into it. Today we have:
Interviews with two great progressive organizations with very important goals
News! News! News!
But first, thank you to our latest crowdfunding donors: Kathryn, Norman, Bryan, Helen, and Kenneth!
A Working Woman’s Place Is In Congress
Democrats in the Senate on Saturday passed their version of the American Rescue Plan. The $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill, once ratified by the House and signed by President Joe Biden, will easily become the most significant and progressive spending bill since at least the New Deal.
It’s chockful of cash for state and local governments and provides an enormous sum for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. More remarkably for a government that for the last 30 years has generally forced people to navigate a labyrinthian bureaucracy to obtain a mere tax credit, the bill sends $1400 checks to more than half of Americans, $3000 payments to parents with young children, and money to people buying health insurance on ACA exchanges.
It is, to quote the president himself, a big fucking deal.
Still, it’s important to consider the grind it took to get to this point and what didn’t get included in the stimulus package, because they tell us a lot about the larger state of our politics.
Voting on the Rescue Plan took far longer than expected because West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin decided to play hardball against his own team, attempting to cut off unemployment benefits two months earlier than had been agreed upon. Manchin, a multi-millionaire, was said to be concerned that an extra $100 a week for another few weeks would discourage people from taking paid jobs. He was also one of eight Democratic senators to vote against raising the minimum wage to $15-an-hour.
Together, the votes suggest that Manchin, who hails from a state with an 18% poverty rate, isn’t exactly in touch with the conditions faced by working people or the dearth of actual choices available to them. And he’s not alone in that — about two-thirds of the United States Senate is comprised of millionaires, and between the Senate and House of Representatives, there are 84 members who are worth at least $10 million.
Simply put, we need more lawmakers who don’t belong to the top 1% of American earners. We need some lawmakers whose most recent brush with economic anxiety didn’t happen before the turn of the millennium or, in many cases, the 1970s (if ever at all). We need lawmakers who know what it’s like to worry about paying rent or a mortgage, to deal with student debt, to work multiple jobs at once just to get by. And given the racial wealth gap and the misogyny built into the economy, we need far more working women and people of color in office to even begin to represent the country’s actual demographics.
The numbers are stark: Of the 535 members of Congress, only 24% are women, 22% are people of color, and just 9% are women of color. Even more distressing, just 2% of those 535 members qualified as working people before taking office.
“Working women are the backbone of this country and yet our wishes aren't being represented when it comes to policies that are going to uplift working families,” says Nabilah Islam, an activist who runs the Turnout Democrats PAC in Georgia and a former candidate for Congress. “We need to elect more working women because they understand what it's like to live in the shoes of the majority of Americans. We don’t have that voice right now, and as they say, if you’re not on the table, you're on the menu.”
This winter, Islam led a turnout operation in Gwinett County that helped Democrats win the Senate runoff elections. Now, she’s on the board of Matriarch PAC, an organization that is working to build an intersectional and labor-focused infrastructure to support working women running for office.
Matriarch was launched in November 2019 by a diverse group of progressive women hailing from a variety of backgrounds, from elected officials and campaign operatives to labor organizers and documentary filmmakers. The organization wound up with a first slate of progressive candidates that ultimately included Islam and Cori Bush, and after a maiden election cycle spent learning and collecting data, Matriarch has ambitious plans and an urgent mission.
Running For Office Is Expensive
Politics have always been the domain of the wealthy, but since the Supreme Court eviscerated campaign finance laws in the landmark Citizens United decision in 2010, it has become exorbitantly expensive to run for office.
Candidates for Congress and the Senate who made it to the general election in 2020 spent $2 billion on their campaigns. Unless a candidate can pour their own fortune into their campaign coffers, fundraising alone becomes almost a full-time job. And if someone’s cell phone isn’t filled with rich friends and colleagues, it’s almost impossible to raise enough money to please party bosses who are most concerned with having well-funded candidates.
“A lot of people don't know where to start, and if you're not the prototype — a rich lawyer or doctor or running on ‘moderate’ policies that the big organizations like — you're not going to receive that support from the very beginning,” Islam says. “Another reason that a lot of people don't run for office is that you have to forego income in order to run full-time and a lot of people don't have that luxury. Even if they’re working part-time, they’re losing time to their wealthier competitors. The system is just not designed in a way that supports working-class women.”
In many cases, even the outside organizations ostensibly devoted to assisting candidates tend to pull up the drawbridge, keeping out promising and aspiring would-be lawmakers. For every Cori Bush, Katie Porter, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who makes it, there are hundreds of women who would make phenomenal representatives but for the sheer lack of connections or people willing to take a chance on them.
Ironically, working people who do make it through to the general election often perform better in swing states and districts — just look to the disastrous slate of moderate, cookie-cutter candidates that the DSCC pushed through last year. Losing winnable races in North Carolina and Maine put the party’s chances of passing any more significant legislation in the hands of Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who has no problem giving an emphatic thumbs down to popular policy.
Thus far, the party or most outside groups haven’t exactly signaled that they’ve learned any lessons. So to get working women through to the general election (and then into office), Matriarch aims to provide the infrastructure and experience that has been previously unavailable.
“Since the 2016 elections, we have seen a plethora of candidate training programs aimed to empower women and arm them with the expertise they need to run for office. But these trainings have proven inaccessible for women who do not hold a wealthy Rolodex or can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs to produce a viral announcement video or pay white shoe political consultants to establish their credibility” says Alexandria Owen, Finance Director at Matriarch. “The labor and progressive movements have proven, time and time again, the most indispensable resource and effective organizing tool for a variety of candidates. They serve as both an example for reliable messaging and relational organizing, and as a durable existing national infrastructure.”
Islam joined the board after getting a boost from the organization in her competitive run last year. After receiving the Matriarch endorsement later on in her campaign, she said that the weekly calls with organizers, media support, open line of communications, and general sense of solidarity were a huge boon to her as a first-time candidate that relied on grassroots fundraising.
Matriarch @MatriarchOrg#HelloSomebody! We are proud to officially endorse @ninaturner for Congress in OH-11. She's building a true people-powered campaign without taking corporate PAC or lobbyist money. We know she'll be a relentless, unflinching advocate for working families. https://t.co/0hBErE4JmE https://t.co/37VhFNpaYD
The next few years are going to be a slog in Washington, given Democrats’ slim margins in both houses of Congress and the control that the Joe Manchin types exert over what the caucus can realistically consider and achieve. The backlash to eight Democrats voting down the $15-an-hour minimum wage that was in the party’s official 2020 platform and is backed by two-thirds of Americans has drawn groans and backlash from the grassroots organizers who put the party over the top by exceedingly slim margins in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin.
There’s still plenty of time to get bold agenda items passed, so no one’s promising a primary just yet, but the importance of honoring activists’ demands — not to mention promises to voters that make up the base of the party — is essential to maintaining power.
“We're not wonderful tools just to be used and abused every October before Election Day,” Islam says. “It’s like holding a carrot for someone on a stick and saying, ‘If you elect me, I'll give you the things that you so desperately need,’ and then [Democrats] don't do that, it creates resentment. this is why people get disillusioned from politics — because they don't think it's actually making an impact on their lives.”
Right now, Matriarch is backing Nina Turner in her run for Congress in Ohio and State Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez in her upcoming run to replace Rep. Deb Haaland, who will soon be confirmed as Interior Secretary. They’re likely to start the year off 2-for-2, sparking a momentum that should only build as the fight to pass progressive legislation continues throughout 2021 and into 2022.
How Can Democrats Win in Rural America?
While Democrats continue to win popular national elections and earn more votes in most swing states, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the party to attain anything close to the comfortable majorities that it enjoyed just a decade ago.
There are manifold compounding factors that have led to this precarious grip on power, including the Senate’s inherent bias towards sparsely populated states, the way liberals tend to cluster around cities and nearby suburbs, the voter suppression schemes of Republican-controlled state governments, and ongoing culture wars that have created a polarization unprecedented in the modern era. Throw in bad trade deals, unfulfilled promises, conservative media brainwashing, racial resentment, and structural disadvantages and you begin to see how complicated the situation has become.
The solution, however, is simple: Democrats have to start winning elections in rural constituencies again, where they’ve been increasingly wiped out over the last four campaign cycles. The folks at Rural Organizing are in the process of mapping out a plan to do just that.
On Friday, the organization released a report based on interviews with 70 candidates, organizers, and civic leaders working on progressive races and issue campaigns in rural districts. Their top-level findings suggest three main issues and takeaways:
Electoral campaigns are hamstrung by a lack of
permanent rural civic infrastructure.
Local issue campaigns in off-years are the best way to build that
In order to leverage new rural civic infrastructure, candidates must incorporate those local issues in their platforms, outreach, and messaging.
The whole thing is a fantastic read with some very actionable insight and advice. I spoke with Kellon Patey, the lead organizer at Rural Organizing, to dig a little bit deeper into the findings and how Democrats can turn the ship around outside the cities and suburbs.
Progressives Everywhere: There are a lot of great recommendations here and clearly a lot of work to do. But how much progress do you think has already been made in building up the recommended rural infrastructure between 2016 and now? How much progress do you think has been made over the last two years?
Patey: I think that between 2016 and 2020, several states demonstrated what works. As more people are starting to realize, the organizing in Georgia, Arizona did not slow down during “off years,” and in each of those states leaders and organizations chose to fight for margins in rural communities, especially by doing authentic power-building in rural communities of color. To that list, I would also add North Carolina, which though it didn’t flip, saw huge improvements in rural margins in Western rural counties.
Additionally, I think progressives can’t overlook the fact that Nebraska (+7.20%, 2016-2020) and Kansas (+6.29%, 2016-2020), rural states that were not priorities, improved dramatically in their turnout for a Democratic president. In all of these examples, we see strategic investments made in empowering local leaders and rural turnout strategies that are deferential to those who know the communities the best.
The improvements since 2016 have come from grassroots organizers and local leaders. Between 2018 and 2020, progressive leadership was more willing to listen and invest at the local level. Democrats made promises of tangible change for struggling rural communities in the interest of getting Trump out of office. Now that Democrats are in control, we’ll see if Democratic leadership will lean into rural issues or if our priorities will just keep getting stuck in committee.
The document mentions creating issue campaigns (which we’ve seen do well on ballot initiatives). Other than non-extractive jobs, which issues did respondents think were most salient for rural voters and activists? Which got the most enthusiasm?
I'd be oversimplifying the work of rural organizing if I said that the answer didn't vary from community to community. At RuralOrganizing.org, we often remind others (and ourselves) that if you've been to one rural community, you've been to one rural community. That being said, expanding broadband access rose to the top of issue priorities, as did cracking corporate control over local communities.
Example campaigns could be a community broadband initiative, shifting business recruitment investments from extractive chains to local businesses, legalizing weed, or diverting funding from swollen police forces toward job training, addiction recovery services. Other issue campaigns that came up in our interviews were initiatives to provide undocumented residents with access to driver’s licenses. For further reading, The Institute for Local Self Reliance has a toolkit about breaking corporate control locally that we recommend checking out.
The recommendation to bombard local media with press releases because they need content is really interesting. How much of a difference, even just anecdotally, did people say that made?
One of the interviewees who reported that strategy working described it as “insisting they cover my campaign.” Those who employed that local media strategy described how it helped them connect with voters they may not have otherwise reached. One of the local candidates shared that voters would reach out to her after reading her op-eds in the local paper. Two other interviewees from statewide races shared how press releases and deliberate media outreach translated to local media coverage of campaign events. With local media covering their events, campaigns were able to distinguish themselves from their opponents and “do-nothing democrats” who came before. Local media is the most trusted media source by rural voters—not the most consumed—but the one that rural voters think gets it right.
You mention in the report that a large number of candidates in West Virginia came together to form a coalition called West Virginia Can’t Wait. How did they fair? And do you recommend its slate approach?
I think that your average DC political consultant would look at WVCW and say “That failed. Your gubernatorial candidate lost the primary, wasn’t that the primary objective?” Though it is true that Stephen Smith lost the Democratic primary by nine thousand votes, candidates in the WVCW movement won more than 40 primary elections. 11 of those candidates went on to win local and state general elections and are currently furthering the New Deal for WV from their new posts. Spectators should be reminded that all they’ve read so far was Chapter One, and I bet WVCW leadership would title it something like “Cracking the Dam” or “Laying the Track.”
If I had to distill down what I feel like I saw in this slate approach, I’d say that it was a triumph of organizing rural communities at scale. In just two years, this strategy built a new network of officials, communicators, organizers, and volunteers who are independent from the corporations, national parties, and unions who are used to driving the political agenda. Without taking a cent of corporate money, WVCW out-fundraised all other primary campaigns from either party. Instead of paid ads, they chose to make a down payment on a third option for disillusioned West Virginians looking for a new political home.
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Important News You Need to Know
Here are a few stories from around the country — I deliver longer coverage of more news, keep up on these stories, and publish interviews throughout the week in the issues sent out to premium members!
New York: It’s been a bombshell afternoon here in NY, where Democrats are showing that having complete control of government can be just as chaotic as being out of power.
The big headline is that earlier today, state Senate Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, has called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign.
There has long been little love between Cuomo and the state Senate, which he kept under Republican control for more than half a decade through his deal with the GOP and breakaway Democrats who formed a caucus called the IDC. Progressives broke that control in 2018. Those newer members, as well as legislators like Assemblyman Ron Kim, have been calling for Cuomo to resign since the emergence of the nursing home mass death scandal, but they hadn’t been joined by leadership. Until today.
Now that allegations of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment continue to grow around Cuomo, the walls are closing in. Even his close ally, Assembly leader Carl Heastie, released a statement that was on the verge of calling for his resignation.
Cuomo, of course, insisted today that he wouldn’t resign today — the man has books to sell, after all.
Two progressive New York lawmakers who have been the most outspoken in demanding Cuomo’s resignation, Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and Yuh-line Niou, have a new video series that lays out the whole dizzying situation:
Today marks the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the clash on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama between Black folks marching for civil rights and a group of snarling cops and local racists. To mark the occasion, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that modestly expands voting rights through several administrative changes in states that request them.
This is nice, but ultimately just a minor change. As I write again and again, unless Democrats nuke the filibuster and pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Protection Act (and optimally expand the Supreme Court), democracy in this country is in very big trouble.
In Montana, lawmakers are seeking to “amend” — i.e. restrict, delay, and functionally undo — the marijuana legalization ballot amendment approved by 57% of voters in November. South Dakota Republicans have already straight-up blocked the same successful amendment from actually being enacted.
Speaking of South Dakota, the legislature is also looking to raise the threshold for passing ballot initiatives. They are aiming to place a ballot question in the upcoming primary election so that they can make it impossible for a Medicaid expansion to pass in the next general election.
The egregious voter suppression bills that I’ve been obsessively following and were passed in different forms by the legislature last week specifically target Black voters. It’s infuriating in the abstract and even more so when you read the stories of the Black churches that are being robbed of their agency and historic role in ensuring that as many people can vote as possible.
Lawmakers in Washington State have advanced a bill that would automatically return voting rights to the formerly incarcerated.
Stories about people struggling with exploitative student debt loads that never diminish are also infuriating.
Medicaid work requirements, which the Biden administration is working to kill, disproportionately harm women.
Democrats in Pennsylvania are trying to raise the minimum wage with some creative legislation… not that Republicans are persuaded.
Let’s Do This One More Time
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