Equal Ground Florida is building power from the ground up

It ain't following punditry

Welcome to the big Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!

After a short hiatus for a long-delayed and abbreviated honeymoon, we now return to our regularly scheduled programming. I very much appreciate your patience with my brief vacation.

There’s a whole lot to go over, so let’s jump right in!



Last fall, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he was donating $100 million to help Democratic voter turnout efforts in Florida. Other celebrities and ultra-wealthy people pitched in, too, providing cash to Florida campaign operations and hope to Democrats nationwide that the ultimate swing state might flip back blue.

Instead, former President Trump tripled his 2016 margin of victory while Republicans knocked off a handful of Democratic members of Congress and expanded their lead in the state legislature. If the late infusion of resources had any kind of impact, it was in teaching Democrats a very valuable lesson.

“It is very frustrating when millionaires put money in the last two-to-three months of an election; it's almost pointless,” says Kristin Fulwylie, the managing director of the activism and education group Equal Ground Florida. “Investments should be made in staffers and talent that can run campaigns effectively and successfully during campaigns seasons. And not just the campaign manager, but communications, coalition building, political fundraising. We need staff that doesn't just get thrown a bunch of money and has no idea what they're doing. And we need education, too.”

Equal Ground is a Black-led and Black-centered organization focused on expanding voter rights and civic engagement throughout Central Florida. The goal is to win power for people of color and working people, a vital and urgent mission that will take long-term investment to accomplish in a state that has devolved from a one-word punchline into a serious disaster for anyone that is not wealthy, white, and living in a building that is up to code.

Republicans have had complete control of the Florida state government for the past two decades, and in that time, they have turned it into a culture war battlefield, environmental hazard zone, and swamp of corruption. The back-to-back governorships of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis have seen Florida become the second-most economically unequal state in the nation. Corporations now pollute with impunity, and thanks to DeSantis’s defiance of science and favor-trading for donors, Covid case rates are soaring to levels not seen since last winter’s deadly spike.

Given the GOP’s two-decade record of plunder and failure in Florida, it’d stand to figure that Democrats would be ascendant in the state. Instead, as we’ve documented over and over, the Florida Democratic Party is at the nadir of a long decline, deep in debt and unable to even recruit candidates in what should be attractive races. The party does have new leadership that is trying to rebuild on the fly, but the new executive director isn’t exactly progressive, which leaves the work of movement-building to a small band of young legislators and a handful of activist groups.

It’s an increasingly steep hill to climb. The GOP has wiped out the Democrats’ once-mightly advantage in registered voters thanks to robust investments and the unique sway Donald Trump continues to have over old white people in places like The Villages and some Hispanic communities in and around Miami. Fulwylie, a veteran of both the Florida legislature and prominent activist non-profits, is charting a year-round, ground-up approach built on engaging with the folks who are so often disaffected or left behind by the political system.

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Equal Ground Florida’s methodical approach is built on several major platforms:

Education

Before they can get people to buy into major civil rights actions, it often requires showing them that politics is embedded in every element of their lives and that engagement can have a tangible impact on their wellbeing.

“The fact that people have literally died for our right to vote doesn't always really connect, but what does connect is when you don't have proper streetlights on your street or your kids don't have a proper education or the unemployment benefits are extremely low here in the state of Florida,” Fulwylie says. “So we try to connect with voters around issues and talk to them about issues that are important to them.”

There is an element of basic civic education, as well. There’s no readily available public resource to walk people through the minutiae of local and state government, which generally allows elected officials to act with little oversight. Equal Ground expends significant resources on teaching people how government works and how they can better influence legislators.

Last year, as the scope of Covid set in, Equal Ground focused on ensuring that Black and brown voters knew how to navigate the often tricky vote-by-mail process, which results in ballots sent in by people of color being disqualified at a a disproportionately high clip.

Now that Florida Republicans have passed substantial new voting rights restrictions, the group is pivoting to helping people make sense of those brand new requirements.

“We launched a voting rights tour where organizers go out to the communities — they are at back to school events, community food banks, food giveaway distribution sites, vaccination sites — and provide these cards that we created that give an update on the changes so that folks are prepared,” she explains. “Especially in the cities of Orlando and St. Petersburg, where they have municipal elections this year.”

Training

For too long, Democrats have nominated wealthy candidates who are disconnected from the communities that they seek to represent. To help alleviate this discrepancy, Equal Ground last year launched a Black leadership training series called Take The Lead.

“We want to address the huge Black leadership gap in talent here in this state,” Fulwylie says. “We teach them how to tell their story and messaging and how to build coalitions and find what type of leader you are. Those skills that training can translate whether you want to run for office, work on a campaign, or work on the advocacy side for an organization like Equal Ground.”

Organizing

This year, Take The Lead kicked off with legislative training that empowered activists to get involved in struggles against the GOP’s litany of right-wing bills.

“We provided toolkits like email templates and phone scripts for folks to be able to call their representatives or their senators about issues that are important to them,” she adds. “We got very involved this legislative session and worked with other groups on the ground to build a lot of noise around issues around the bills that we prioritized.”

Cold hard math meant that it was impossible for them to scuttle the worst GOP bills, but Fulwylie is confident that they were able to kill some of the worst parts of SB 90, the voter suppression bill, citing the elimination of a clause that would have ended drop boxes as a major victory for activists.

When higher-ups in the Biden administration told civil rights groups last week that it was possible to mitigate the impact of voter suppression by “out-organizing” the GOP’s new Jim Crow laws, the White House officials were effectively handing responsibility over to organizations like Equal Ground Florida. The attempt to dump more work on the Black and brown activists who already put Biden in power has rightly sparked plenty of outrage, but the importance of supporting community organizations like Equal Ground is incontrovertible.

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Ballot Initiatives

Detroit: The City Council late last week approved a ballot question that will ask voters this fall whether the city should “establish a committee to make recommendations for housing and economic development programs that address historical discrimination” against Black people in the community. It’s said that the quickest way to kill an idea in politics is to establish a commission to explore the topic further, but should this pass, it looks likely to lead to at least some modest reparations policies meant to increase racial and economic equity.

Arizona: The $15 minimum wage initiative will officially be put to Tucson voters this fall thanks to the hard work of activists who had their petitions certified this past week. Arizona’s current minimum wage is $12.15 and indexed to inflation, while this initiative would boost Tucson’s wage to $13 in 2022 and put it on the path to reach $15 by 2025. The activists behind the drive say it would directly increase the pay of 85,000 workers in the city and indirectly help up to 100,000 additional hourly workers in Tucson.

Tucson, it should be noted, is now a reliably blue city that helped put Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in office, only to see her give a dramatic curtsy thumbs down when voting against the $15 wage this past winter. Activists having to do the work Sinema refuses to follow through on us becoming quite the trend, as we’ll explore a little later.

Minneapolis: Just over a year after George Floyd’s murder brought renewed attention to the ongoing struggle against police brutality, Minneapolis just took a big step toward the most significant law enforcement overhaul in the country. The City Council has approved ballot initiative language that will ask voters in 202q whether they want to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a “department of public safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach and would include police if necessary.”

What does that mean? For one thing, the department would no longer report to the chief or mayor, and it would employ “licensed peace officers” who respond to many emergencies that are generally exacerbated by aggressive law enforcement agents who have been trained to shoot first and ask questions later.

Health Care

Missouri: In a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the Medicaid expansion approved via ballot initiative last summer was legal and did not require special funding.

The finding reverses a lower circuit court ruling, requires state Republicans to submit a plan to extend health care to 275,000 working Missourians, and serves a much-needed reprimand to unhinged GOP legislators who showed zero shame in trying to ignore the results of a democratic election.

What happens from here is hard to decisively predict. Because the court ruled that there does not need to be a separate pool of money for the expanded population, some lawyers have suggested that those who should qualify could apply for the program’s coverage now. But Missouri Republicans, from the overturned judge to the state AG, may try to appeal the unanimous ruling, which seems like. a long shot to work.

Then again, it took over a year from when voters in Maine chose to expand Medicaid until a court forced former GOP gremlin Gov. Paul LePage to accept their enrollment, so these things can drag out when cruel actors are motivated to use every tool at their disposal to create chaos.

California: On the other end of the spectrum, California just made an under-the-radar change to its Medicaid system that will provide significant, life-changing relief to potentially millions of residents:

A provision in California’s newly approved state budget will eliminate the asset test for the 2 million Californians enrolled in both Medi-Cal and Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people 65 and older and people under 65 with certain disabilities. Instead, their financial eligibility will be based solely on income, as it is for the millions of other people in Medi-Cal.

Everyone 50 and over will be eligible, regardless of immigration status. And new mothers will be allowed to remain on Medi-Cal for one year after giving birth, up from 60 days.

The elimination of the test will be a game-changer for aging or impaired Californians who need long-term care but are caught in a common conundrum: They don’t earn enough to cover the high costs of ongoing nursing home care and can’t rely on Medicare, which does not cover extended nursing home stays. They can get that care through Medi-Cal, but they would have to wipe out their savings first.

One of the worst features of our disjointed and bare-bones social safety net is that in many places, it requires someone to live in abject poverty before they are permitted to access even the most minor public services. In Missouri, before the Medicaid expansion was green-lit, it was impossible for a single adult to enroll in the program while a family of three could not earn more than 18% of the poverty rate if they wanted to obtain care.

These programs are also often not allowed to consider context and a person’s extenuating circumstances, which winds up forcing people who are on the ropes to have to shell more money than they have for services that they desperately need. This happens all the time to people who lose their employer-based health care.

Who Profits From the Government?: The sheer number of people who received stimulus checks over the last two years, combined with the major expansion of the child tax credit (which should really be named the “family stimulus check” to underscore their significance) have helped to reacquaint tens of millions of Americans with the possibility that government isn’t just a pain in the ass that plucks cash out of their every paycheck. The same goes for the expansion of the private ACA subsidies, as inefficient and corrupt as it is to line the pockets of insurance companies when the government has two well-run health care programs sitting right there.

We should get an idea of just how married Democrats are to the private health care market sometime in the next few weeks. As the party leaders haggle over the specifics of their $3.5 trillion reconciliation plan, it’s becoming more likely that they will include some kind of government-sponsored coverage option for the 2.2 million Americans who would be eligible for Medicaid if they didn’t live in states where Republicans continue to block it. If they do indeed include a plan to plug in the coverage gap,

Voting Rights

It’s no secret that the voter suppression bill being stalled by absconding Texas Democratic legislators was tailor-made to make it more difficult for working-class people and people of color to vote. The GOP is trying to refute that charge with manipulated statistics, and while it’s important to push back on those misleading numbers, it’s the personal stories of voters that would be impacted, especially voters in the Democratic stronghold of Harris County, that truly make the blood boil at this prospective perversion of democracy.

Joy Davis is a stay-at-home mom and the mother of a young son with severe autism. She voted in a drive-thru location on the east side of Houston.

“Oh, it was amazing,” Davis says. “It was so convenient. I felt safe, because it was at the height of the pandemic before I was able to get any vaccinations….When I arrived, it was just so simple, so easy, so effortless. We just pulled up, showed my ID, they directed us to a tent, and you know we met with the poll worker there, they gave us the machine so we could cast our ballot, and that was it. I cast my ballot.”

Almost immediately, Republicans sued to block the innovations. One suit, led by conservative activist Steven Hotze and State Representative Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, would have thrown out roughly 127,000 ballots cast at drive-thru locations.

If only these personal stories could thaw the cold souls of the people blocking the changes necessary to win this fight.

Instead, the Texas Democrats that escaped to Washington are twisting in the wind, desperately trying to effect change 2000 miles away from their families and facing arrest if they return home before completing their mission to save American democracy.

As such, the Texas lawmakers are growing frustrated with some of their DC counterparts. While they’ve been greeted with open arms and championed by senators that already support the For The People Act, those they need to move remain unconvinced. While they scored a meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin, it wasn’t particularly productive, and worse, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema continues to evade them altogether.

Neither of those stubborn senators is likely to move on the filibuster issue without serious pressure from President Biden, who whiffed big time in what was supposed to be his big voting rights speech a few weeks back in Philadelphia and this past week reaffirmed his support for a version of a filibuster that is still likely to allow Republicans to block most of his policy goals.

Afterward, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who dropped $600K of his own money to cover the refugee lawmakers in DC, called on Biden to step up:

“We need more from the president,” O’Rourke said. “It’s only through his leadership, frankly, that we have any hope of passing voting rights legislation before it’s too late.”

The signs coming from the White House aren’t just discouraging, they’re also somewhat outrageous. The administration continues to signal that it plans to make voting rights an issue in the election next year, suggesting to civil rights groups that they can can “out-organize voter suppression,” thus demonstrating a deep misunderstanding of how voter suppression works.

“I have heard an emphasis on organizing,” said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who visited the Oval Office to meet with the president two weeks ago. But, she added, “we cannot litigate our way out of this and we cannot organize our way out of this.”

Beyond being a terrible strategy — for one thing, it’s absolutely impossible to “out-organize” gerrymandering — the suggestion is also a slap in the face to voters of color. Telling Black and brown people to work significantly harder in order to cast votes for people who refuse to help them seems is not exactly a sound GOTV message.

As I’ve previously reported, it may well require a strong push from Biden to flip Manchin and Sinema, but that’s not stopping prominent civil rights activists from applying all the pressure they can on the trollish senator from Arizona.

Tomorrow, the Poor People’s Campaign will be taking the fight directly to Sinema’s doorstep with a march and sit-in at her Arizona office. Revs. William J. Barber and Jesse Jackson will headline the event, which promises to draw hundreds of protestors and plenty of media attention.

And right now, Sinema doesn’t exactly have much goodwill to spare with civil rights groups, progressives, or even more party loyalist Democrats. Check out this recent poll from Data for Progress:

Freshman Sen. Mark Kelly has a 50% approval rating with the overall electorate while Sinema is at just 44%. Worse, Sinema has just a 54% approval rating with Democrats. And she’s not making it up with Republicans, either, who disapprove of her performance 36%-53%. That will sink like a stone by the time a general election comes along — if Sinema gets to a general election at all.

Workers’ Rights

Kansas: Hundreds of striking Frito-Lay factory workers in Topeka on Friday voted to approve the incrementally less terrible contract offered to them by the PepsiCo-owned junk food company. The deal ends a three-week strike that earned national attention and outrage for the indentured servitude-like conditions at the factory, where it has been common for employees to be forced into working 12-hour days without a day off for months on end.

I actually broke the news of the contract ratification late Friday night, having been in close contact with various workers and union leaders while covering the strike for More Perfect Union. We’ve been leading the way on this story, bringing national awareness to the bleak conditions faced by workers at the factory in Topeka (see above).

Please watch this new video:

I worked for weeks to produce this video, including during my honeymoon last week, because it’s that outrageous a story. I got to know the Ingrams throughout the process and recommended that they start a GoFundMe for Melissa’s small business — if you could spare a few bucks, I’d be grateful.

Donate to the Ingram family!

States Run By Bad People: Speaking of abusing workers, Republican governors who stripped people of expanded unemployment benefits got exactly what they wanted from their big public acts of cruelty.

The Picket Line: But at least Scabby still has a job!


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