Rep. Mondaire Jones lifts the veil on the filibuster and Democratic inaction

A fast start in Congress from a bold new representative

Welcome to the big Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!

Republicans in state governments and the judicial system continued their dismantling of American democracy and our threadbare social safety net last week, with more than a few Democrats around the country doing their best to assist them. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, continued their vacation, with little indication that they plan to swoop in and do much about any of it.

It’s a dispiriting situation to say the least, but there are also a few reasons for progressives to hold off on falling into total despair. That dynamic is the focus of today’s big feature and some of the news items I’ll review thereafter.

But first, thank you to our latest crowdfunding donors: Susan, Ellen, and Diane!

Mondaire Jones is proof that every primary matters, even in low-key races with no established villains. The first-term Democratic Congressman won a crowded primary in New York’s 17th district against several much better-funded candidates (and one much, much better-funded candidate), then began earning national attention by being outspoken on key issues months before the general election even took place. 

The running start allowed Jones to enter Congress with a clear-cut aggressive progressive profile, which he’s continued to sharpen by combining a rare expertise — he worked in the Obama Department of Justice — and an activist approach to politics. He has formed alliances with popular progressive senators and top House leaders, but has also bucked the typical hierarchy to wage very public campaigns on behalf of the progressive ideals that so often go by the wayside even in a Congress controlled by Democrats. 

In early August, Jones stood behind Reps. Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as they slept on the steps of the Capitol to win an extension of the eviction moratorium over the anonymous protests of caucus conservatives. Last week, he pushed back hard on the ten conservative Democrats who tried to force through a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal in order to blow up the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that contains most of President Biden’s agenda. And Jones’ busy August continued apace yesterday with a speech at the March on Washington for voting rights.

In a phone conversation with Progressives Everywhere last week, Jones was blunt about the ideological divide within the party and the principles — or lack thereof — that drove the ten holdout Democrats and their Senate allies to attempt to capsize the most ambitious social spending bill in generations. 

“I think the reason House conservatives, Sinema, and Manchin don't have specific objections to the substance of what the President has proposed in the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill is that their position is not ideological coherent,” he said. “Rather, it’s a political tactic. If progressives were supporting a $12 minimum wage and a public option instead of Medicare for All, you would have moderate Democrats saying ‘Well, I'm only comfortable with a $9 minimum wage and subsidies to Obamacare.’”

The shaky ceasefire between those ten conservatives and the rest of the party gives Democrats one month at most to produce a robust reconciliation bill, which will then undoubtedly be picked apart on behalf of the donors who funded the original internecine squabble.

When that inevitably does happen, though, the rest of the caucus will be more prepared for the threat. That the conservative uprising was led by Democrats who received substantial help from party leadership only serves to further underscore the depth of the betrayal and ideological chasm.

Nancy Pelosi personally campaigned for turncoat caucus member Rep. Henry Cueller last year in the waning weeks of his close primary fight against progressive Jessica Cisneros. Leadership put its thumb on the scale to help Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux beat beat progressive opponents. And the DCCC tried to blacklist consulting firms that worked with primary challengers, a much-maligned and very unsuccessful rule that has been functionally replaced by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’ new PAC intended to bury progressive challengers.

The return on those investments have been underwhelming to say the least, and the latest high-profile skirmish may mark a shift in the party’s internal politics.

“I think, given the fact that many of my moderate colleagues are disappointed in the behavior of these 10 Democrats, that people are rethinking their alliances with these individuals,” Jones said. “Because does it really make sense to be investing time and financial resources in people who are obstructing President Biden's broadly supported Democratic agenda?”

As a Department of Justice alum, Jones has focused most of his own personal energy on turning back the GOP’s systemic assault on democracy. This should be the most urgent Democratic priority, which has made the party’s inability to pass existentially important legislation both extremely baffling and frustrating.

The House last week passed a new and more ambitious version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, an important legislative feat that was greeted with headlines declaring it dead on arrival due to Manchin and Sinema’s steadfast refusal to change the filibuster. That kind of morally bankrupt headline writing depicts failure as inevitable and allows bad lawmakers to avoid blame for their refusal to fight for the preservation of our democracy or any other progressive priority — much like the filibuster itself.

Jones does not mince words about this dynamic and how and why it paralyzes the party’s agenda.

“There are people who are senior advisors to the President and members of the Senate Democratic Caucus whose primary concern with filibuster reform is that it would open the door to progressive policies being enacted,” Jones said. “And that begs the question, why are you even a Democrat?”

It’s a rhetorical question, but one with any number of real answers. Jones says that when he first got to Congress, a colleague speculated to him that some of their fellow caucus-members were only Democrats because the Republican Party had grown so overtly and proudly racist.

The term “moderate” has been stretched beyond any meaning, as it’s now applied to both regularly loyal and mainstream Democrats as well as the right-wing, corporate-funded Democrats who caused such a mess last week.

Both strains can often display limited policy ambition and tend to scramble when under GOP fire, but their motivations are generally very different. Jones says most of his colleagues are acting in good faith, even if the results can sometimes be frustrating.

“I think the vast majority of Democrats in the House and in the Senate understand what is actually popular with the American people,” Jones explained. “In my experience in the House, it’s already clear that people often become nervous about doing particular things because they focus too much on Republican voters who are not going to vote for Democrats, and not enough on Democrats and independents, who are looking to see good government and a tangible impact on their lives as a prerequisite to turn out to vote for Democrats.”

Good government is certainly hard to come by these days. Even if Democrats do pass a substantial reconciliation package, many state governments and even federal agencies have proven either reluctant or unable to actually execute new orders and important new programs. The failure to distribute about 85% of the hundreds of billions of dollars in housing aid included in the American Rescue Plan, for example, has made the Supreme Court’s decision to lift the eviction moratorium an absolute disaster.

In some cases, it’s an archaic bureaucracy and bad planning that have held up funds, but in many others, the abject failure of government to do anything but attack anyone that is not a rich white Christian conservative has been entirely by design. Republican gerrymanders gave them strangleholds on state governments for the past decade, allowing them to do things like dismantle the unemployment insurance system in Florida; the combination of more than two dozen new voter suppression laws and uninhibited redistricting bonanzas, if not mitigated through federal legislation, promises to consolidate that stranglehold.

The GOP’s assault on government, voting rights, women’s health, economic justice, and civil rights is only ramping up, increasing the urgency of enacting the For The People Act (or some version of it) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act with every day. Not doing so would “create an alternative that is too grim to bear,” Jones says; minority rule, antidemocratic nightmare pending in Georgia alone should be enough to spur action. But given Manchin and Sinema’s refusal to move on the filibuster, despite all the harsh op-eds, scathing analysis, letters to the editor, and protests in their hometowns, that grim alternate reality feels increasingly inevitable. The incessant trolling by the Arizona senator does not help, either.

I asked Jones bluntly whether all the protests, civil rights marches, and campaigning from activists actually have a chance of pressuring the holdout Democrats into acquiescing and permitting the voting rights legislation to pass.

Jones, who spoke at the March on Washington on Saturday night, projected a cautious optimism.

“You’re talking with someone who started out a few months ago as the only person in Congress, whether in the House or the Senate, willing to publicly call out the president for not supporting changes to the filibuster,” Jones said. “But in recent weeks, I've been joined not just by my colleagues in Congress, but by national organizations.

“Attention is increasingly being paid to the only person who can prevail upon Sinema and Manchin to change their position on the filibuster to pass voting rights and save our democracy before it's too late,” Jones added, clear that he was referring to Biden.

Even before entering office, Jones staked out a leadership position on expanding the Supreme Court. The need to do so has become crystal clear over the past few months, with the court’s recent rulings on immigration and the eviction crises evidence of its preference for ideological outcomes over legal consistency.

Jones is a leading sponsor on a bill to expand the Supreme Court from nine to 13 seats, but given the reality that a deference to “tradition” and hesitancy to use power has paralyzed many Democrats on this issue as well, Jones predicts a longer fight for those on the vanguard of the movement to overhaul and grow the judiciary.

“I think many members of the House Democratic Caucus understand that we need to add seats to the Supreme Court but are either leading for the President's impotent commission to study the Supreme Court to release its findings are waiting to see more of their colleagues sign on to the Judiciary Act of 2021 before also signing on,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, I believe that will take the Supreme Court taking away a liberty that we have come to take for granted as a nation before a majority in the House signs on to my bill. There could be any number of things, including potentially overturning Roe v. Wade. It’s a real threat that we live under.”

Whether enough Democrats will take Jones’ calls to action to heart in time to save democracy still remains to be seen, but he’s urging activists to not give up the fight.

“I think that we are definitely responsive to grassroots activism, and I've seen it be successful in getting some of my colleagues to sign on.”

Reminder: I cover lots more news, keep up on these stories, and publish interviews throughout the week in the issues sent out to premium members!

Voting Rights

Texas: With the cooperation of more than a dozen Democrats who returned to Austin after over a month away, Republicans in the House on Friday night finally passed SB 1, their gigantic voter suppression bill.

Georgia: With their own gigantic voter suppression bill now clear of court challenges for the moment and the legislators who wanted to overturn the 2020 election now fully in charge of the redistricting process, the Georgia GOP is well positioned to secure another decade of unbreakable power in the state legislature.

Unless the federal filibuster logjam is broken, the fact that Republicans are likely to start receiving fewer overall votes in the state within the next few election cycles won’t matter one bit. Trigger warning: The next series of graphs might send you into a blind rage:

Even in a state where Stacey Abrams and an incredible multi-racial network of voting rights organizations have made so much progress, that kind of gerrymandering is just impossible to out-organize.

North Carolina: On Monday, a state judge ruled that the state’s intensely bigoted felon disenfranchisement law is unconstitutional, a decision that returns the right to vote to over 55,000 citizens.

First enacted in the 1870s as part of the southern backlash against reconstruction, the law was amended in the 1970s to ban any returned citizen from voting until they’ve paid off all their fines and fees and finished their probation, parole, or supervised release. The law worked exactly as intended; a recent study found that Black North Carolinians make up a whopping 42% of those disenfranchised by the law despite comprising just 21% of the state’s population.

Republicans in the legislature have taken over the case from the Attorney General’s office and plan on appealing, but on Friday, a panel of judges said that they will not suspend the reinstatement of those 55,000+ peoples’ voting rights during the appeal process.

Florida: With a population that grew by three million people over the past decade, an additional Congressional seat, and a conservative-dominated state Supreme Court that has shown no interest in protecting voting rights, Florida is about to get very gerrymandered.

Ohio: Remember back when Ohio was considered a swing state? Now it’s got a GOP governor and Republican supermajority in the legislature. This one-party iron grip rule has enabled Republicans to do blatantly unfair things like hammer out new district lines without worrying about pesky things like constitutionally mandated public participation or bipartisan cooperation.

Workers’ Rights and Economic Justice

Seattle: A state judge disqualified a very controversial voter initiative from appearing on the November ballot late last week, another twist in the ongoing battle over housing rights in the absurdly expensive tech hub. The deceptively named Compassion Seattle initiative proposed the construction of 2,000 affordable housing units in the city in exchange for an aggressive regime of homeless encampment clearance.

In reality, it would have empowered police to brutalize untold numbers of unhoused people while theoretically adding a modest number of housing units that may or may not have actually gotten built within the prescribed period of time. It may not surprise you that business groups were funding and backing the measure… and that it would not have raised any new revenue through pesky things like taxes on businesses or wealthy residents.

Phoenix: Speaking of cities brutally clearing out homeless encampments, Phoenix’s take-no-prisoner tactics (under the equally Orwellian name of Phoenix C.A.R.E.S.) are under now investigation by the Department of Justice. There could be major national implications if the investigation determines that they violate the civil rights of the unhoused.

North Carolina: Last week marked the third time that workers at the fast food chain Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers went on strike this year. I’ve never heard of the place — it’s based in Iowa and just hasn’t made it to NYC yet, I guess — but its working conditions and pay do not sound good!

Pennsylvania: If only all restaurant owners were like this guy, who recently doubled pay rates and is vocal about supporting workers.

Oreos: Unionized workers at every Nabisco bakery in the country are now on strike. The workers, members of the BCTGM union, have asked people to not eat Oreos, Chips Ahoy, Wheat Thins, or any of the conglomerate’s other snacks during their picket.

And finally

The New York Times published one of the worst stories I’ve ever read about Ron DeSantis, Florida, and Covid-19. I’ll break it down in a coming issue for premium subscribers, but for now, here is a quick Twitter thread on the godawful piece:

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