A New Grassroots Plan to Turn Florida Blue (Eventually)

Fixing a mess from the outside

Welcome to the big Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!

The week is off to a very busy start. Neo-fascist conservative conspiracy nuts are dancing on a suspiciously Nazi-esque stage in Florida while Democrats are trying to revive the country (and deal with their own disappointing members, as well). Plus, the Knicks are officially .500. Chaos reigns!

Today, we’ve got:

  • Hope in Florida for progressives (really!);

  • A deep dive explainer on the latest assault on voting rights;

  • Important news from around the country.

But first, thank you to our latest crowdfunding donors: Margaret and Gerald!


The Progressive Rebuilding Process Begins in Florida

It took a decade of hard work, vigilance, and patience, but organizers in both historically red Arizona and Georgia were able to flip their states blue in both last November’s presidential election and their respective US Senate contests. 

But not every southern swing state is moving to the left. Florida, for one, is going in the entirely opposite direction.

Once seen as the ultimate swing state, Florida is quickly becoming a Republican safe haven. Former President Donald Trump not only built on his 2016 margin of victory there, but Republicans also flipped several Congressional districts that should be relatively safe seats for Democrats by making major inroads with minority voters that Dems had long taken for granted. The list goes on, but simply put, Republicans ran roughshod over Florida Democrats. It wasn’t even close. And while the Republicans’ gross decision to gut the ballot initiative that should have returned voting rights to 1.6 million people certainly didn’t help Team Blue, the reality is that the Florida Democratic Party deserved the thumping it took.

Days after the election, I spoke with State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), an energetic and forward-looking progressive who is one of the few rising stars that Democrats have in Florida. She had some real choice words for state party leaders, who were soon relieved of their duties, and outlined her own vision for reviving the Democratic Party in Florida. The biggest component of her vision was abandoning a top-down apparatus for true grassroots organizing, and now, Eskamani is putting her plans into action. 

Last week, Eskamani announced that her political action committee, People Power for Florida, was now registered as a voter registration organization, a step required by the state’s democracy-averse laws. The PAC’s goal is to empower people from the ground up, necessitated in part by the dire situation in which the Florida Democratic Party finds itself. In January, word broke that the state party, which had installed a new chairman just a few days earlier, had even stopped paying its staff’s insurance premiums, allowing employees to unwittingly rack up huge medical bills. 

“When the new chair started, it became pretty clear that the economic situation of FDP was a lot worse than any one of us expected,” Eskamani told Progressives Everywhere late last week. “They were a million dollars in debt. The Wisconsin Democrats bailed the Florida Democratic Party out to reinstate health insurance for workers. It was a $300,000 bailout from the Wisconsin Democratic Party to Florida’s just to pay for the expired health insurance plans for workers.” 

The party’s new chair, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, is a former Republican donor and pal of Michael Bloomberg and several other more conservative billionaires, so needless to say, he wasn’t exactly Eskamani’s first choice. Unsurprisingly, one of Diaz’s first acts was to lay off two-thirds of the state party’s staff. While Eskamani has committed to supporting the new chair and helping where she can, just practically speaking, ramping up her own organization is a necessary course of action, especially given her more progressive politics. 

“The FDP has a lot of trust to rebuild, even with its donors. And meanwhile, you look on the ground and nothing is happening in the realm of voter registration,” she explains. “Groups are strategizing still and looking at 2020 data and things like that, which is, of course, valuable. But at the same time, there is no common ground effort that's taking place right now. And we want to play a role in filling in that gap.”

Eskamani says she hears the same question over and over again: Who is going to be the Stacey Abrams of Florida? But the answer isn’t as simple as just choosing a name and dumping hype and the hopes of millions of people on their shoulders. In Georgia, Abrams is a key figure, but also serves as a figurehead for a much wider army of organizers and organizations across the state.

Plenty of Black women have been doing grassroots work in Florida for years and Eskamani, who was an activist before she first ran for office in 2018, is conscious of recognizing their efforts and pledging to amplify and support them. In fact, that’s one of the two key pillars of People Power for Florida’s new plan.

Donate to People Power for Florida!

The first political issue to turn Eskamani on to protesting and activism was a restriction of voter registration drives enacted by the Florida GOP in 2011. Unlike in many other states, a civic-minded volunteer can’t simply decide one day to print out registration forms and hold an event to help people fill them out. Florida requires someone to have a special certification in order to register voters, and obtaining one can be an arduous task, especially for those unfamiliar with the process. One of Eskamani’s goals is to break down that barrier by providing the resources and training necessary for individuals and organizations that have largely been left to fend for themselves.

“The administrative burdens have not only suffocated the process, but it's created a dynamic where only groups that have an understanding of the process and resources and attorneys in case there are problems are the ones who can do it,” she says. “So our hope is that instead of just being one umbrella group that's leading voter registration, we actually want to create 1000 new groups. We want to empower everyday people to do their own voter registration drives. They can use our banner, but our focus is creating new leaders, so we don't want it to be about us. We want it to be about building collective power at a neighborhood level.”

The other pillar of the plan involves supplementing and assisting existing activist groups, which might have the on-the-ground energy and motivation but lack the funds or legal guidance to fully execute registration programs. In such a big state, the outreach that new and existing groups need to accomplish will take time, dedication, and patience, which has Eskamani girding for a long-term project. It could well necessitate a ten-year timeline similar to what was required in Georgia and Arizona, where the GOP still controls the state government.

There is no other option, really. Even though Governor Ron DeSantis has been amongst the most flagrantly reckless state executives during the pandemic, the state continues to drift rightward. There is little accountability; the GOP defenestrated Prop 22, the landmark 2018 voter re-enfranchisement ballot initiative that would have returned the right to vote to 1.6 million people, and without fear of anyone but their base, Republicans have ignored all the state’s problems and instead further attacked voting rights and embraced the culture wars that fuel right-wing terror.  

CPAC is in the midst of hosting peddlers of hate speech on its Nazi rune stage, with an even more explicitly racist convention just down the road. DeSantis, meanwhile, caused a stir when he had the temerity to order flags lowered to half-staff in honor of right-wing bigot pig Rush Limbaugh, who spewed vile racism and abject lies until his last dying breath. The gambit is working as intended — it’s earning national headlines, riling up neolithic white nationalists on the right, and distracting the segment of the center-left that spends its time focused on responding to trollish GOP outrages. 

The Limbaugh declaration was “bullshit,” Eskamani says, but also a distraction from the suffering that is still happening en masse in the state.

“The fact that we're caught up in this culture war when folks are calling my office because they're 22 weeks without benefits, it reinforces for me that we need to continue building power locally, not get caught up in some of the rhetoric,” she says. It might be good clickbait, but at the end of the day, it's not actually building any power.

“Things are just so disastrous in Florida when it comes to how emboldened conservatives have become that if we don't change the direction fast, it's gonna be even harder to look at Florida with the potential for a progressive future,” she adds, further explaining her sense of urgency. “Too many people are counting on us for that to become a reality.”

Eskamani can only raise money until Tuesday, when the next session of the Florida House commences, so if you want to help, now is the time to donate:

Donate to People Power for Florida!


Making Sense of the Assault on Voting Rights in Georgia

Up until about a month ago, Georgia served as a prime example for progressive organizers and activists looking to turn a state blue. Now, it’s becoming more and more an example of why the work of fostering democracy is never really finished.

As I’ve been documenting over the last few weeks, Republican legislators in Georgia are on the warpath, aiming to topple as many pillars of free and fair elections as possible. Between the state House and Senate, they’ve introduced the bulk of more than 80 election-related bills, the majority of which aim to make it harder for people to vote.

On Wednesday, Republicans in the state Senate introduced an omnibus bill that included a whole host of pernicious clauses, such as the end of no-excuse absentee ballots, stringent and onerous absentee ballot application ID requirements, and a reduction of early voting, including on the Sunday “Souls to the Polls” events so popular and important in the Black community. On Friday, the Senate Ethics Committee passed the bill, eliminating no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration.

With so many attacks coming from all directions (well, they’re all from the right-wing, but lots of different lawmakers are involved), Stacey Abrams is calling for federal intervention.

The fast-unfolding situation has been largely conducted in early meetings that have been only sometimes streamable to the general public. To make sense of the situation and get the latest on what’s happening, I spoke last Thursday with Sara Tindall Ghazal, the Georgia Democratic Party’s first full-time Voter Protection Director (and former Progressives Everywhere endorsee), who laid it all out for me.

Progressives Everywhere: Where does everything stand right now?

Tindall Ghazal: The Senate omnibus bill that dropped yesterday, we were expecting that two weeks ago. I don't know if there's just been a lot of internal deliberation on it and that’s why it’s changing, but when it hit the committee this morning, there was a substitute that they were discussing, which nobody had seen, because it hadn't been distributed. And then they went through additional changes that they were planning to make to the substitute that nobody had seen to begin with. So I think we're really talking about a wholly different bill than what was published, and it makes it very challenging to respond accordingly.

So what has passed thus far?

Most of the bills that have passed so far are standalone bills, and they've only passed one chamber or the other — nothing has passed both chambers. The Senate bill that passed would require absentee ballot applications and ballots themselves to include photo ID numbers. If people don't have access to that, then they would have to provide some other form of identification. There was a bill on the floor of the House today that would move the deadline for applying for absentee ballots from four days to 11 days before the election. Then there are a number of other smaller, more tactical changes, which may actually create more complications for counties. And I don't know whether or not the counties are fully apprised of the additional challenges that are facing them and that they will have to implement these.

How much would you expect the requiring a state ID number to apply for an absentee ballot to impact voters?

It’s still going to be problematic for people who don't have ready access to a photo ID or people whose photo IDs may have expired. I don't know whether or not an expired driver's license would be accessible through DVS. We don't have any evidence on the record to say that. So they're rushing through these without actually discussing what the serious impact is going to be. But it is clearly going to impact voters, voters whose first language is not English, and older voters at far, far higher rates than others.

Now another change that I wish had gotten more attention and I’d like to raise the profile on is eliminating out-of-precinct provisional ballots, discarding them and saying that they can't be counted. And the reason that that one is so particularly egregious is that it has a hugely disparate impact. It affects voters who live in urban areas whose precincts change more often, or the district lines change more often, or whose Election Day precinct may or may not be where an early voting location is. And so it's very confusing for them.

The numbers are very, very clear. Twice as many Democrats voted out of precinct on provisional ballots than Republicans, and that's what we've got on data going back about eight years.

The rest of the story is available to premium members of Progressives Everywhere.


Important News You Need to Know

Here are a few stories from around the country — I deliver lots more news and keep up on these stories throughout the week in the issues sent out to premium members!

New York

Cuomo’s nightmares multiply: No amount of screaming and bullying is going to save Andrew Cuomo, whose governorship is finally being crushed under the weight of his arrogance, toxicity, and corruption.

On Wednesday, Lindsey Boylan, a former economic development official under Cuomo, released a long statement in which alleged that the governor repeatedly sexually harassed her during her time in Albany. It’s a damning read that comes with some real receipts, and while it might make you queasy, it’s very worth reading.

While Cuomo denied the allegations, last night another former employee came forward and accused the governor of harassing her over the course of several months last year. Charlotte Bennett, just 25 years old, recalled conversations in which Cuomo asked her about her love life, inquired about her interest in having sex with another man, and any number of other creepy entreaties. Cuomo doesn’t deny any of it, but says he was simply acting as a “mentor,” which stretches the definition of that term far beyond its breaking point.

The governor called for an “independent” investigation into his actions, but NY Attorney General Tish James, who has gone from Cuomo ally to diligent investigator of the governor’s office over the last few months, rejected his terms. Public opinion and that of the legislature are on her side, which suggests just how damaged and toxic Cuomo has become — even a few months ago, it was almost political suicide to cross the three-term governor. Assemblyman Ron Kim’s decision to challenge him on the nursing home coverup and the threats Cuomo made against him is increasingly seeming like the straw that broke the angry camel’s back.

Workers’ Rights and the Economy

Unemployment Deficits: As Rep. Eskamani says above, a crushing number of people in Florida have still not received their unemployment benefits. Unfortunately, it’s not a problem unique to Florida — across the country, millions of people have still not received the money they desperately need to survive. This story has some gut-wrenching details of the bureacratic breakdown and the tragedies that it’s causing.

Though the federal government can only do so much in this case, it’s clear the elongated reconciliation process required to get the stimulus checks out to people, which still may not even get done for up to another month, has been far more destructive than the powers that be in DC realize. When you don’t know anyone counting on that cash, the timeline and filibuster become academic and political issues, not matters of life-and-death.

Labor Gains: On the bright side, Biden’s Department of Labor did just issue a rule that grants unemployment benefits to people who refuse to return to jobs that they consider unsafe. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cover people who quit unsafe jobs, and worse, it may take up to a month to work through the backlog of newly made claims. So that’s even more people who will be waiting overtime on unemployment benefits.

Weed Watch

Virginia: Lawmakers in both houses of the Democratic-controlled legislature voted to officially legalize marijuana in Virginia on Satuday, sending a compromise bill to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk. It’s great news, but don’t light up just yet — the bill doesn’t immediately legalize weed, but instead authorizes a yearslong process for doing so. If Northam signs it, a first-time possession charge would incur a $25 penalty until weed is fully legal in 2024.

The other issue with the bill is its lack of racial equity provisions:

Advocacy groups that support legalization said before the vote that the compromise failed to address social and racial justice concerns that initially drove the effort and called on legislators to reject the bill.

A re-enactment clause in the compromise report, one of the main sticking points in the negotiations, will require the state legislature to vote again next year on specifics surrounding the regulatory structure for legal sales and remaining criminal justice components of the bill. 

Groups that back legalization shared concerns over the penalty for simple possession remaining in place and an open container clause in the legislation, arguing that racial disparities in enforcement, even with decriminalization, still exist.

The bill does include a new expungement process for existing misdemeanor possession charges, but further elements need to be hammered out to make this a law that recognizes and proivies belated compesation for the racist drug war.

Pennsylvania: A bipartisan group of lawmakers is looking to bring legal marijuana to the Keystone State, though GOP leadership doesn’t seem all that interested. If they were, they probably wouldn’t be incessantly complaining about the gigantic weed flag that Lt. Gov John Fetterman’s hangs from his office.

South Carolina: Speaking of places where legal marijuana would be very popular but is being stymied by Republican killjoys, a new poll finds that legalization is supported by 72% of South Carolinians. Only 15% actively oppose it.

Quibis

  • Voter rights are in danger once again in Wisconsin, where the GOP has been absolutely ruthless with gerrymandering and voter purges since taking control of state government in 2010.

  • I’m still working my way through this piece about the genocide happening in China, but wow.

  • The Obama administration put the screws to for-profit colleges, which the Trump White House then largely loosened and removed. It’s unclear what the Biden administration will do about college debt (though hopefully this convinces them), but hiring yet another for-profit college lawyer isn’t a great sign about tackling the higher education racket.


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