Last week we we spent some time talking about the Overton Window as it relates to "purists" and "pragmatists". Crissie made a very strong case for the importance and impact of both in her 4/16/10 diary.
"...the Bush administration marked, I hope, the solstice of a Conservative Winter whose Autumn began in the late 1960s. If we have begun moving toward a Progressive Spring, it's still very early and the political climate is still very cold. While Democrats control both houses of Congress and President Obama is in the White House, other powerful institutions - the federal judiciary and agencies, many state and local governments, the media, and even parts of academia - are still dominated by conservative actors or, more important, by conservative ideas." (emphasis mine)
I want to pick up where she left off and talk a bit about local and state politics and how crucial it is in shaping what happens in the long term and why both pragmatists and purists can find common ground in working for state and local change.
If you haven't read Adam B's front page book review of "The Blueprint" by Rob Witwer and Adam Schrager, you should check it out. The review discusses the topic of the book: how Colorado went from Red to Blue and how the model is being replicated in other states by Democrats (and studied closely by republicans). In short it discusses how four wealthy Coloradans privatized many party functions and oversaw them so that each separate entity worked in a coordinated way toward a common goal. One of the statements in the article that really stands out to me is this one:
One of the amazing things about the Gang of Four is that they clearly had the resources to be players in big federal races, but they opted instead to focus on state legislative seats, where they could get more bang for the buck. As Tim Gill is fond of pointing out, state legislatures are the starting point for changes in social policy... legislatures are the farm teams for future Governors, Senators and members of Congress. Defeating or electing a local candidate can launch or derail a political career. And finally -- perhaps most importantly -- in the next two years state legislatures will redraw the lines of Congressional districts. The battle for state legislatures in 2010 will in many ways determine the balance of power in Congress for the next decade. (emphasis mine)
One thing is clear: if we want to move the Overton Window; if we want to see ever-more-progressive politicians elected on the federal level, we MUST start at the state and local levels.
We cannot move leftward on a national level, really. It has to happen locally and statewide first. Look at states like Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina and even Texas (which is indeed moving left).
North Carolina's focus on their research universities opened the doors for scientists and researchers. This drew more progressive demographics to the state. And it's snowballing from there. Today NC is a great spot for many normally progressive enterprises. I have friends and colleagues in music and film who are doing quite well there. But that started on the local and state levels FIRST, years ago.
Same thing with the northwestern states.
There really is no such thing as "nationally".
When I used to be a black activist, we used to talk about effecting "the black community". But the fact is, there is no way to have a "national" effect on the black community. No way to have a "national" dialogue about some important issue. It can only happen locally, intimately, person-to-person, community by community. If enough people and communities do it, it only LOOKS national. And the EFFECT is national. But in reality, it's actually local.
Same holds true for politics. What we perceive as the NATIONAL GOP dominance of that last 40 years has really been really local and state dominance reflected nationally.
We must get back to local and state politics if we want progressive change.
Here in my home state of Florida we currently have have 33 house legislative seats up for election this year going uncontested. That is, there is no Democrat filed to challenge the Republican in the race.And as SDorn pointed out in his woefully under-noticed diary, 13 of them are in districts that Democrats, perhaps even progressive Democrats, would be competitive in!
They include four seats (102, 110, 111, 113) with parts of Miami-Dade county, five in the Tampa Bay area (45, 50, 62, and 63), one in Orlando (37), and three in the Jacksonville area (13, 16, 17).
And Florida isn't the only one. What's going on? And what can be done about it?
I'll share some tales from my own experiences working in local politics in Florida and try to suggest some solutions.
NO PARTY SUPPORT
In the months after the elections of 2008, I became curious about local and state politics. I wanted to find out how I could continue to help. I called our state party to ask to be connected with political strategists. My intention was to partner with them to provide media services (that's my professional business) like web development, TV and radio ad production, internet video, and graphic and print design. The receptionist explained to me. to my shock, that there wasn't really any strategy firm in Florida for Democrats. This angered me because there are several for Republicans. She tried to send me off to some lawyers and lobbyists (her description, not mine). I was furious.
SETTING UP SHOP
Fortunately for me, I had had the pleasure of working closely with a guy during the Obama campaign who had been a lifelong Republican. He had trained in political strategy in Chicago in the 1980s. He had worked for and had proof of high level campaign operations for people in Florida (like JEB!) and had letters of commendation from GOP big whigs like Trent Lott. But now he was firmly in the Dem camp and he decided he wanted to start a strategy company. In Florida. For Floridian Democratic candidates. I built him a website and he got all set up. He spent the summer and fall of 2009 courting various candidates. He chose his targets carefully but was willing to work with them, despite the financially challenging positions many of them found themselves in. He got warm reception after warm reception but no campaign can run without at least SOME money. And despite my friend's willingness to work for peanuts, there simply were no peanuts to be found.
VOLUNTEER SERVICES FOR DESPERATE DEMS
My own frustration level was so high, I decided to start building websites and creating web ads and print graphics for Democratic candidates, mostly in my own county, on a volunteer basis. It was my pleasure to do what I could to help but we were always outgunned. Always. Our opponents always had better organization, better funding, more footing. This increased my level of frustration: why don't Dems ever have money and support needed to run competitively? And how much of an impediment is it to our success as a party? And, most of all, what can be done about it?
Sarah Palin makes fun of our Presidential "community organizer". But it was his community involvement that probably gave him the name recognition and public trust he needed to successfully run for state Senate. He was only there for a few years before running successfully for the U.S. Senate and well, the rest is history.
Supporting a person who is running for city commission or mayor or house legislature or school board today could mean giving a potential president a political start. Paying attention to judiciary races means more and better potential federal judges and SCOTUS nominees. BUT (and this is important) it also means we Democrats are challenging uncontested seats and giving voters a choice. It means that little by little, we take seats that should rightfully be ours on city commissions, county commissions, courts and legislatures. When we do that, we make change happen, little by little. We squeeze them out. We make our state governments and local governments effective. We make it harder for the GOP to argue that government is bad and the Democrats are bad. We make it tougher for them to be crazy. They find themselves in the position of having to moderate their positions to even be considered serious contenders in any race. Thus, we move the Overton Window while we create a national movement. And of course, we give our national party a range of people to consider for years to come - people with experience, integrity and a solid history of legislative or judicial work. In short, we cannot move the Overton Window on a national level. It's just not possible. It can only be done locally, section by section by section.
As proof, one only has to look at President Obama's campaign strategy in 2008. We all organized house parties in our local communities. Sometimes there were several gatherings right in the same exact county! But each core group could focus like a laser on their "area". Obama's strategy replicated the small approach in every county in America. I am confident that there is not ONE county in the USA that doesn't have an OFA group in it. Even in the reddest of states. His small, local approach became a national movement. It LOOKED national, but it was intensely LOCAL.
It's far past time for us to start (also) focusing on local races, state races and local judiciary races. Our money goes much further than it does on the federal level and every contributor and volunteer makes a huge, huge difference. In these races, voter turnout is usually low. People win state seats with vote totals in the hundreds. How much of an effect could we have if only a candidate had a few dollars to use for a last minute TV ad blitz? Or to print out door hangers reminding people to vote? Or to hire a staffer or two to make sure volunteers were organized for phone banking on election day? Or learn how to interview well? Or learn how to fundraise or put together a methodical campaign plan?
I urge you, if you haven't already, to call your state election board TODAY (or look it up online) and get the list of filed candidates. Analyze it. Contact Dems who are on that list and ask them if they need any help. Sometimes simple advice goes a long way. Our side is replete with woefully ignorant, but good-hearted idealists. I recently ran into a candidate for state house who is trying to make the ballot by signature petition. He was having a tough go of it. I suggested he contact the last Dem who ran and lost and ask for her list of supporters or volunteers. I also suggested he march down to the supervisor of elections office and request a list of all registered voters in his district. Then, pick out the Dems and start knocking on doors. That advice was easy for me, free for him and he emailed me a week later to report that he'd had the best signature collecting day yet. It's really sometimes just that simple.
Pledge to get involved; to contribute $1 or $2 locally for every $10 you give federally. Or if finances are too tight right now for you, pledge to donate 1 minute of volunteer time locally for every minute you donate federally. How about a minute of volunteer tie locally for every 10 minutes you spend blogging? Whatever you pledge, please do it. It's just that important.
Full Disclosure: I am in the media production business. I own a corporation that does web development, TV and radio ad production, web video production, graphic design, print design and live interactive programming. I have started a subsidiary specifically designed to help large and small donors find and contribute to local and state candidates. Although the company is not launched yet, we are optimistic about a mid-summer launch. Please visit this link and If you have a couple of minutes, please take our survey. It will help tremendously as we move this concept forward. THANKS!!