Democracy in Color Promotes Return of the Majority

Return of Majority

Today, Democracy in Color, launched a new report and campaign entitled “Return of the Majority: A Roadmap for Taking Back Our Country.” The efforts seeks to redirect the Democratic Party’s focus toward strategic investments in communities of color and among progressive whites to help re-establish Democratic primacy in critical elected offices across the nation. In the last election, the Democratic Party only spent 2% of its budget with people of color. Further, it disproportionately focused financial resources on national television ads instead of investing in local, grassroots organizations with a proven track record of registering and mobilizing new voters.

Democracy in Color, an organization founded by best-selling author and social justice advocate Steve Phillips, is calling on “Democrats and progressives nationwide to spend $1 billion over the next four years focusing on mobilizing 10 million new voters – people of color and progressive whites – in the 17 closest battleground states of 2016,” according to a press release detailing the effort’s launch.

“Return of the Majority highlights data that clearly shows the key to Democratic victories in Congress and the White House is in investing in communities of color who were key to Obama’s reelection, as well as registering newly eligible New American Majority voters,” said Phillips. “It’s about spending less on TV ads and more on hiring on-the-ground organizers, especially in the 17 Frontline States we have identified.”

According to Phillips, Democrats are facing a crisis of strategy and operations. “For too long,” he contended, “Democratic spending has been driven by a flawed strategy that overemphasizes tv ads and tries to target, persuade, and change the minds of white voters.” For more effective results, #ReturnoftheMajority advances a data driven, empirically sound plan to swing momentum back in favor of the Democratic Party.

Targeting 17 states – Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin – this effort encourages donors to reallocate their resources to on the ground organizations doing the work of direct voter contact. Among the 18 “Frontline Freedom Fighters” initially identified by Democracy in Color are New Georgia Project, which registered 200,000 new Black voters in this past election cycle, One Arizona, which registered 150,000 new Latino voters in 16 weeks in 2016, Blueprint North Carolina, and the Texas Organizing Project.

The #ReturnoftheMajority advocates a civic web approach, which calls for strategic investments in on the ground staff, volunteers, and community block captain to the tune of $40-$50 per new voter. Using this model, an investment of just $500 million could yield 10 million new voters in key states.

“Clearly what was done is 2016 did not work,” said Phillips, noting that the lack of diverse spend – both in advertising and in direct grassroots mobilizing – coupled with a lack of accountability, transparency, and evidence-based spending have provided Democrats and progressives an opportunity to “see the consequences of that failure every day now.”

Failure to adapt to changing times and adopt a more dynamic on the ground strategy would likely lead Democrats and progressives to a permanent political underclass. As demographics continue to shift, however, we can realize a return of the majority through more strategic efforts to engage and mobilize voters of color and progressive whites.

This story originally appeared 3/27/2017 on Politic365.

The Key to Taking Back Our Country: Fortify the Front Lines of the Resistance

Sylvester-Turner-win

Do you ever wonder what you would have done had you lived during dire periods in history? What was the best way to fight fascism in 20th century Europe? How did Americans in the 1960s show solidarity with those living under legalized racial segregation in our own country? Fortunately, there are lessons to learn from other countries where national struggles were waged to take back control from undemocratically installed demagogues. One of the most important lessons is that winning back power requires sending as much support as possible to those on the front lines of the struggle for liberation.

I’ve spent the past few months working with the team at Democracy in Color looking at election and Census data through the lens of historical revolutionary struggles in order to identify pertinent patterns that can guide the efforts of The Resistance. Our findings are distilled in the report being released today, Return of the Majority: Roadmap to Taking Back Our Country. What we found is that there are 17 states and 13 congressional districts that will determine the future political control of this country. The quickest path to power involves identifying and strengthening the organizations, activists, and leaders working to build progressive political power in those states and districts.

The United States is currently divided into three broad categories of states—13 states which strongly rejected the anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim candidacy of the 2016 Republican nominee (using the language of revolutionary struggles throughout history, I call these states Liberated Zones); 20 mainly smaller states that strongly supported the Republican candidate (those states are what I call Occupied Areas), and 17 states, home to 64 million voters in 2016, where the results were closely contested, and the margin of difference was in the single digits. Democrats won 7 of those states and lost 10. Outside of those 17 states, there are also 13 front line congressional districts where the margin was close, and the Republican incumbent could be ousted with a concerted effort over the next 19 months.

The upside potential in the front line states is enormous. In 9 of the 10 front line states, the number of potential progressive voters far exceeds the relatively narrow margin by which the 2016 election was decided in that state. The following chart tells the tale:

In order to turn that population potential into political power, we must identify and fortify the community-based organizations and leaders doing the difficult day-to-day work of organizing, registering, and mobilizing voters. Often overlooked, these front line freedom fighters represent the country’s best hope for taking back our country. Although they don’t get the headlines, resources, and attention they deserve, they are there in the trenches, holding down the fort, eager for assistance and support from allies across the country.

Examples of the effectiveness of these organizations abound. While researching and writing my book, I discovered at least 18 groups doing effective, quantifiable voter mobilization work in the front line states. The Texas Organizing Project, for example, has built a neighborhood-based, voter mobilization machine that turned out tens of thousands of people in the 2015 Houston mayoral election and helped African-American Sylvester Turner capture the keys to City Hall, thereby creating a beachhead of progressive political power in what is seen as a conservative and red state. Twelve committed community organizations came together in Arizona to form a coalition called One Arizona, and that network of groups registered 150,000 voters in six weeks in the Fall of 2016, making that heavily-Latino state more competitive than it has been in decades. In Martin Luther King’s home state of Georgia, the New Georgia Project overcame the kinds of state-sponsored voter suppression King faced and still managed to register more than 100,000 African American voters.

A common question of those not in the front line states is, “What should I be doing to most effectively fight back against the madman in the White House?” One of the best ways to be helpful is to organize where you are and send support to those on the front lines of the fight. The recent national Coffee Day was an excellent example of how local actions across the country can be aggregated and channeled to assist the most pressing fight of the moment. The ACLU is one of the leading organizations fighting the travel ban, and on February 4th, more than 600 cafes across the country donated a portion of the sale of each cup of coffee to support the ACLU’s work. In that weekend alone, $24 million was raised to help the litigation against the anti-Muslim Executive Orders.

Another strategic area of impact for individual activists is engaging with those Democratic and progressive groups with the biggest budgets and holding them accountable for how those funds are spent. Clearly, the plans and programs of those who orchestrated $1.5 billion in Democratic and progressive spending last year failed—miserably. What we now need is a bottom-up revolution of transparency and accountability, and the touchstone of that accountability is challenging the Democratic Party to move massive amounts of money into the front line states in order to dramatically increase the number of progressive voters. This can be accomplished for a fraction of the cost of what is spent every cycle.

Based on past patterns, over the next two years, the Democratic Party committees and allied outside groups will spend in excess of $500 million between now and November 2018. Traditionally, most of that money goes to paid advertising (generally unmemorable and ineffective) designed to sway supposedly swing voters. Fortunately, there is a much better and more effective way to deploy political dollars. Employing a community-based voter mobilization model (what UC Berkeley professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla calls a “Civic Web”) of paid, community-based staff working with local volunteer neighborhood captains, an investment of $1 million can increase voter turnout by 20,000 people. Investing the full $500 million in this fashion could swell the ranks of progressive voters by nearly 10 million people. That is how we take the country back.

None of us need wonder what we would have done if faced with a despotic regime hell-bent on destroying the progress made towards justice and equality in our country. We are confronting such a moment right now. But this is not an existential crisis requiring us to peer deep into the souls of those people who enthusiastically supported a candidate promising to turn loose armed agents of the federal government to round up brown-skinned immigrants and place them in chains and cages. It is an operational crisis where our time, energy, and resources are not working to maximize the political power of what is in fact the majority of people in the United States of America. That is a fixable problem, and the first step is to direct as much support as possible to the Frontline Freedom Fighters holding the line in the places we can and should win in the months and years ahead.

This story originally appeared 3/27/2017 in The Nation.

Texas’s New Ground Game

top-vigil

For the past four decades, Texas has been a reliably red state. But that means that Trump’s nine-point victory last fall was less stunning and discouraging to the state’s left activists compared to the shock of Trump’s sweep in historically blue northern states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which many Democrats had assumed were safe bets in presidential races.

Oddly, though, while conservatives tighten their grip on all three branches of federal government, it’s never been a better time to be a left-wing organizer in Texas: now the trench-warfare tactics local activists have been honing have a chance to become a national model for mobilizing the opposition to Trumpism. The Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a gritty grassroots network linking three rapidly browning cities—San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston—has fought and won enough local battles to demonstrate the value of seeding incremental progressive wins on the neighborhood level in order to build a grassroots people’s movement. And they know better than to take anything about Texas for granted.

For TOP’s communications director Mary Moreno, giving people a reason to believe voting still makes a difference in a politically predictable state starts with talking about them, not their vote.

“When we show up at people’s doors, we found that if you ask them, ‘What would you like to see changed in your neighborhood and in your community?’—that it really does help start a conversation,” said Moreno, as we drove to a union get-out-the-vote event in downtown Houston a weekend before Election Day. “Whereas if you show up with a slate of candidates, they might not be inspired,” she continued. “They might be like, ‘I don’t like politicians’. . . and they’ll shut the door. But if you ask them about issues, they always care about that. . . . It’s like they’ve been waiting for someone to ask them, ‘What would you like to see changed?’”

Despite Texas’s history as a fortress of conservatism, Houston organizers have been building a progressive local base through street-level advocacy. In last year’s demographically and ideologically polarized election season, they presented a fresh opposition to a political atmosphere rife with racial invective and media spectacle.

TOP launched in 2009 as a grassroots operation, inspired by ACORN’s Alinskyite community-organizing model, to build localized power in underrepresented, working-class black and Latino communities. Over the years, through its three city branches, the group has built a support base of more than 120,000 people across Texas. A staff of a few dozen has campaigned alongside unions and neighborhood groups on affordable housing and fair wage campaigns; protested for criminal justice reform with the national coalition, Color of Change and the local chapter of Black Lives Matter; and advocated for immigrant-friendly local ID cards for undocumented youth and parents threatened with deportation, and the transgender migrant community. For the election, TOP partnered with voter outreach initiatives of local unions and Latino community groups in order to secure allies in local office.

As Election Day approached, TOP’s three branches canvassed hard in districts known for low turnout through home visits, phone banking, and by offering rides to polling sites. Although nationally, Texas predictably went for Trump, the mostly black and Latino voters mobilized by TOP helped deliver its cities for Clinton, and more importantly, score its most important victories locally. In Houston’s Harris County, Kim Ogg became the first Democratic district attorney in thirty-six years; she promised to end the systematic jailing of those with low-level drug charges. And the new county sheriff, Ed Gonzales, has been vocal about overturning harsh immigration enforcement policies that have spurred the mass detention of undocumented immigrants.

Yet in pushing for progressive local candidates, TOP approached the election as a vehicle to advance a budding people’s movement, regardless of who won on November 8. “We always express to the members that the elected officials and ultimately campaigning politicians work for them,” Constance Luo, TOP’s voting drive coordinator, told me. “It’s never the other way around . . . so raise your voice, flip the paradigm of power, and make them work for you.”

Harris County’s traditional blue streak lies in its union-oriented working-class base. TOP’s labor ally, the Harris County Central Labor Council, made its usual get-out-the-vote drive on early-voting weekend with a team of beefy men in trucker caps, armed with tablets displaying addresses of fellow union members.
The mobilization started with a booming send-off in the cavernous union hall with interfaith consultant Reverend Ron Lister: “If you walk these streets, then keep in mind, that you are creating a new Houston! A new Texas, a new United States, a new world, a new spiritual consciousness. Let us pray . . . Protect each worker from pit-bull dogs, Doberman pinchers, Chihuahuas, and anything else . . . Empower us, strengthen us. This is our vote right now.”

But while Houston’s union base seemed reliably loyal, labor support for Clinton tumbled nationwide compared to Obama in 2012, with many defecting to Trump. TOP’s other voter drive that day centered on more promising terrain a few miles away, on a neat green patch known as Moody Park. There, a blaring Mariachi band serenaded the ditch-strafed working-class enclave, and families clustered around a sizzling taco grill astride a life-sized Trump piñata (pointedly stuffed with nothing but hot air) outside the polling site. The community gathering, organized by TOP in collaboration with a Latino-focused mobilization campaign named Tacos & Votes, aimed to make early-voting week a festive civic ritual in Houston.

Observing neighbors and activists celebrating the early vote, Beatrice, a seventy-seven-year-old homeowner whose Mexican-American family goes back generations in Texas, remarked, “This one is awful, this year. . . . It’s not really about politics. It looks like it’s about personality.” She had voted early, all Democrat as usual. Of the two leading candidates, she said, “I wish there were another choice.”

A retiree from a clerical job with an oil company, Beatrice empathized with the economic frustration roiling in the charged political atmosphere; she chafes at Houston’s rising cost of living and her thinly stretched fixed income. But the ascent of Trump’s “build the wall” demagoguery alarmed her, the daughter of a Second World War veteran. Immigration, she observed, had “never been an issue anywhere I’ve gone, because we’re all native Texans.”
“Where are we gonna end up? That man is weird in the head,” she said of Trump, but “so many of the things he says is what they want.”

Who exactly “they” are, though, was actually in play in Harris County and other battleground territories of the otherwise red state. Though Texas remains a Republican bastion, the “browning” of the southern electorate has been driving some cities leftward, as Latinos and other voters of color tend to favor Democrats, and are steadily turning swing states like Nevada and Colorado purple.

Texas is roughly 38 percent Latino, but according to recent election data, fewer than half were eligible to vote, compared to nearly 80 percent of the state’s white population. Of those eligible to vote in 2012, fewer than half actually cast a ballot. Still, while Texas ranks only twenty-third in the country in statewide Latino voter eligibility, this demographic constitutes over a quarter of eligible Texas voters. And since 2012, estimated Latino voter registrations rose by about 530,000, apparently spurred both by targeted voter mobilization efforts and a general growth in population.

Following several weeks of knocking on doors, distributing bilingual voting guides, and shuttling about 2,000 early voters to the polls, TOP’s data analysis showed Harris County’s Latino turnout during early-voting week, from October 24 through November 4 in 2016 was double what it had been in 2012. Some 155,000 registered voters TOP contacted across the county reported voting early.

Pre-election surveys indicated that immigration was the top issue driving Texas’s Latino voters. In the United States as a whole the overall Latino turnout was 13.1 million to 14.7 million, up from 11.2 million in 2012. An estimated 79 percent voted for Clinton—but her overall support was at lower rates than the turnout for Obama in 2012, and still not enough to turn key swing states.

TOP’s “ground game” is directed more toward strengthening local civic culture by organizing black and brown voters—historically the most underrepresented groups in local and state politics—than it is to winning elections. In Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas, the organization has run campaigns designed by its membership, including post-hurricane home rebuilding, legislation setting fair-wage standards for local firms, and cleaning up neighborhood pollution. TOP uses electoral organizing to amplify street-level organizing work in order to influence local officials.

TOP sees local officials as key to its broader program for criminal justice reform, which in turn helps alleviate social distress in their communities. After helping turn out a slim margin of victory for Houston’s democratic mayor last year, TOP hopes a more progressive law-enforcement approach will lead the city to redirect public funds away from jails and courts and into programs for community revitalization. TOP has pushed for the restoration of Sunnyside, a historically black community that has for years suffered chronic poverty and unsustainable housing costs. The community coalition behind the plan demands that public services and infrastructure be “provided equitably in low-income neighborhoods of color, at the same levels they are provided to privileged neighborhoods of whites.”
TOP’s vision for Sunnyside is the kind of place Tarsha Jackson, a middle-aged black woman with a tough smile, would have liked to raise her son. Jackson traced her reluctant politicization to the early 1990s, during the first Clinton administration. She first got entangled in a spate of traffic violations, she said, and then spent years cycling through the courts, trapped by the fines and fees that are routinely imposed on poor residents of color. By the time she emerged from the legal mire, Jackson, a former bank agent, recalled that her young son, a special-needs student, entered the criminal system himself. What his school deemed “misbehavior” ended up bouncing him from juvenile detention to adult prison. She considers her son, who is finally getting out of prison, as being “raised by the state.”

Years ago, Jackson noted, “When I was fighting for my son, I didn’t know the responsibility of the District Attorney and the County Judge.” As a survivor of the criminal justice system, she focuses on “educating the community [so] they start connecting [the elections to] the issue that I’m having in my neighborhood, and my schools are shutting down, and then we don’t have no sidewalks. . . . The reason I’m here is because I want to make sure that people know that they do have a voice.”

TOP’s voices rang out across Houston from its phone-banking headquarters on Halloween afternoon in 2016. Political director Tarah Taylor, dressed as a comic superhero, stood before tables of callers and a Trump piñata festooned with epithet-filled sticky notes and explained a controversial ballot referendum. The proposal was to redirect Houston school district funds, marked as “excess” property tax revenues, back into state coffers under a scheme to redistribute resources to poorer districts. Though it sounded like a fair funding measure, activists dismissed it as a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul stopgap. Despite the district being deemed “property rich,” Houston schools have suffered with impoverished classrooms and deep budget cuts.

Callers should urge a “no” vote, Taylor said, to show that “the legislature has to figure out how to fund education, be it the rainy-day fund, taking money from border patrol, whatever they got to do. They need to put a priority on Texas children, and not try to . . . make homeowners pay for it.”

As they punched through their phone lists, the callers marked the poll rides they arranged by ringing miniature red cowbells. A few days later the proposition was defeated by over 60 percent.

Rosemary Escalante, a middle-aged sandy-haired retiree, was recruited to the bank from the other end of the line. A call from a TOP campaigner during a previous voter drive drew her curiosity and led to a visit to the office. Soon, she was attending meetings and joining protest rallies, inspired by TOP’s campaigns for criminal justice reform. It was a big change from her previous job processing warrants for the Houston police department.

“My total way of thinking [before] was that yes, I’m activating the warrant, but it wouldn’t be issued if he was a good boy, so he’s getting what he deserves,” Escalante said. “But I wasn’t seeing the entire picture. If you don’t have money, you’re treated differently.” As she’s become more involved with activism, she says, “I’m seeing it from the other side, and how some of the laws are so unfair to certain people.”

The law wasn’t just unfair to Miguel Fuentes, it downright ignored him. The Mexican-born Houstonian represented Texas’s newest and most precarious voting bloc on the Saturday of early-voting week at the Moody Park polling site. When he showed up to vote early, however, he discovered his name had been purged from the registration list. Fuentes, who said he has been a citizen since the early 1990s, was shocked when he was told his name had been scrubbed automatically during a routine screening of the registration rolls, just because he had not voted in the recent federal elections. (Controversy erupted in 2012 when reports emerged of a statewide purge of voter rolls under a seemingly arbitrary plan to cull supposedly erroneous records of “dead voters.”)

The disputed delisting of voters was one of a number of polling mishaps in the election. A few weeks before the election, a court order suspended Texas’s new voter-ID law, which civil rights groups argued were discriminatory to blacks and Latinos, and would potentially disenfranchise some 600,000 people statewide. But the first days of early voting were marred by reports of polling machine mishaps and widespread complaints from some high-Latino precincts about voter harassment and intimidation. Trump stoked these anxieties with baseless, fear-mongering allegations about “voter fraud” by undocumented immigrants.

With nationwide outreach efforts, civil rights activists went into overdrive, fearing that Latino voters could be deterred from voting in tight districts. Even as projected Latino turnout in southern states appeared to be surging, particularly in Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida, complaints of voter deterrence and logistical mishaps kept rolling in. A nationwide voter survey ahead of the election indicated roughly four in ten Latino voters facing obstacles, including being unable to locate their voting locations.

“That’s the way to suppress voting in the community. . . . My citizenship is for life, it’s not for every four years,” Fuentes said sternly as he called, seemingly in vain, a voter hotline outside the polling center. He eventually resigned himself to the possibility that his ballot had been legally stolen.

“The system’s kind of corrupt for me,” he said. “I don’t want to give up. But the thing is, you try to suppress us, it’s gonna make us bigger. . . . This is attacking our community.”

With an untold number of voters like Fuentes reportedly blocked or obstructed at the polls, Trump’s electoral win seems even more absurd. But for TOP, it mattered more that Fuentes remained politically defiant despite his disenfranchisement. Each individual voter they mobilized mattered more than any single ballot cast, for any candidate.

After the election, Luo said TOP’s major electoral achievement was to turn Harris County bluer than ever, up and down ballot, by sweeping local offices. In the wake of Trump’s victory, activists were readying their defenses on a familiar frontline, having battled anti-immigrant state and city legislators for years.

“Right now, more than ever, our members and the wider Harris County [and] Texas community in general realizes how important it is to stay united,” Luo said. “Because really, we’re not just fighting against one man. The target itself is never just one person, President Trump. It’s multiple targets. . . . Texans are ready for the fight.”

Omar Perez’s fight was never about elections, really; the clean-cut twenty-six-year-old Mexican immigrant and former teacher has temporary deportation reprieve under the Obama administration’s “Deferred Action” program for undocumented youth. On the campaign trail, Clinton had promised to renew the measure if elected; Trump has vowed to repeal the program and ramp up deportations while building his “wall” with Mexico.

As Election Day drew near, Perez’s fate hinged on the election even though—and, in fact, precisely because—he had no direct say in the race. But he could join TOP’s canvassing team to turn out his community’s vote instead.

On his poll-driving rounds on the only Sunday of the early-voting period, Perez recounted that he had been surprised to hear many local voters denounce Trump not so much because of his racial animus, but because they resented his wealth and arrogance. Yes, racism was a factor, but “subconsciously, they know that it’s a class issue, in a way.”

Trump sought to “use fear and ignorance, so these poor white people can blame other poor minorities for their problems, when in reality it’s not the minorities that are the problem,” he continued. “It’s the ones on top—the wealthiest of the wealthiest . . . What should matter is that we’re not treated equally. . . . We need to unify.”

His last pick-up of the day was the rumpled cottage of an eighty-six-year-old Mexican-American man, who ambled with a cane down the poll line at his local community center. A member of Houston’s New Deal–era working class, the former factory worker said he had lived in his neighborhood for about half a century, each year stubbornly voting Democrat. That same political sensibility was finally turning Harris County blue, up and down the ticket, with the help of younger residents like Perez, who are committed to staying put, with or without a vote.

“I feel more involved than any other citizen. . . . The Latino vote, they don’t know how much power they can have,” he said. “It’s like a sleeping giant, and we’re waking that giant up.”

This story originally appeared in 12/20/2016 in Dissent Magazine.