This paper is for candidates, state parties, and teams that want to analyze the most surprising recent wins on the Left and gather learnings to apply to their own campaigns and races.
In analyzing our current status as a country, we have spent a lot of time talking about systems, and how they can be redesigned to include the latest and greatest in design and usability. These changes are critical and we have so much more to discuss. But we have not spent a lot of time talking yet about the most critical asset in politics: people.
So let’s dive in. What are the cutting-edge developments in people-ware? Can we change the outcome of elections using new techniques in organizing, and how can technology help (but not run things)? While technological developments are a focus of many organizations and can aid campaigns in our changing technological world, unconventional organizing tactics haven’t received a lot of focus.
This action paper will explore a number of extraordinary wins in electoral organizing and analyze how they are different from traditional approaches in the ways they organized volunteers and mobilized voters. The leaders who are behind these repeated wins chime in on why new models of political organizing are necessary in today’s world. We will present six case studies, and show the learnings we can glean from each one.
Case Study One: The Richmond Progressive Alliance
The City of Richmond, CA is the home of a large Chevron oil refinery. While only 5-10% of Chevron’s refinery employees are residents of Richmond, Chevron has a long history of control over city politics. It’s fair to say that until 2003, Chevron was the dominant force in city politics, whether measured by donations to political campaigns of city councillors and mayors, or by low tax rates and other preferential treatment for Chevron. The large oil refinery kept wages low, and about every five years its spills and explosions caused environmental damage and sent hundreds or thousands of people to the hospital. Chevron dominated city politics so much that it had a desk inside city hall in the 90’s. Richmond had the second highest homicide rate in the country and also had terrible police brutality issues in a predominantly African American (26%) and Latino (39%) city.
But in 2003, a group of residents decided they had had enough. They formed the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and began a new type of organizing with the goal of electing true representatives of the people to the city council. One of their founders, Gayle McLaughlin, was elected to the city council in 2004, and she went on to beat the incumbent mayor in 2006. In 2008, the RPA won another city council seat. In 2010, Gayle was re-elected mayor despite a well-funded campaign to unseat her. They did not win more city council seats in 2012, in part because millions of dollars were spent against them by both Chevron and “big soda” (RPA candidates supported Measure N, the “soda tax,” that year).
By 2014, 10 years after they began, the RPA had become the dominant force in city politics. That year they elected three new city councillors despite fierce opposition: during that election cycle Chevron spent over $3M in an attempt to defeat the RPA candidates, but money didn’t win them the election. All three RPA candidates won that year and every Chevron-backed candidate lost.
The RPA now maintains a super-majority on the city council. It’s clear that from an electoral perspective, the Richmond Progressive Alliance has had quite extraordinary wins and has been able to repeat these wins through many election cycles.
Another remarkable difference between the success of the RPA and other groups is in their ability to affect policy. Elected officials who came out of the RPA are unusually faithful to their campaign promises. They lowered the homicide rate by 75%; they got Chevron to pay over 100 million dollars in new taxes; they passed the first new rent-control law in the state of California in 30 years; their police force is now considered one of the best in the country in community policing; they increased the minimum wage to $15/hour; and in 2008, during the housing crisis, they passed a law stating the city could use the power of eminent domain to force Wall Street banks to sell underwater mortgages to the city at current market rates, which the city would then renegotiate with the resident-homeowners.
Why has the RPA had such success both in electoral results and in the passage of progressive policy after candidates are elected? The RPA uses a different model of political organizing. The difference between the two models is striking.
The standard model for electing good candidates includes the following 5 steps:
- Get a bunch of like-minded people together
- Wait until candidates declare they are running
- Choose the least bad of the candidates
- Work hard to get them elected (this is where most of the training happens in this country)
- When they do something you don’t like, get angry
The RPA model is different in that they strategize around electoral bodies instead of campaigns, cultivate candidates instead of just endorsing, and run a non-partisan slate to make change. Let’s break this down.
Strategize around an electoral body
Many groups around the country focus on campaigns. A local grassroots group might support one person for city council, one for mayor, one for state house, one for state assembly, one for the House and one for the Senate. But even if some of these campaigns win, each one of those elected officials will probably be outnumbered by opposition forces in each electoral body, and rendered incapable of passing progressive policy.
Rather than pursuing an individual candidate’s campaign, the Richmond Progressive Alliance had a strategy to take over a majority of the city council. In 2012, after their two candidates for city council lost their election, they posted this statement:
“Our primary purpose is not to win elections at all costs but to build a movement that unites and serves the people of Richmond especially those who get ignored because of the power and interests of a few large corporations.”
By staying true to their vision of building the grassroots power needed to win over the entire city council, they treated each loss as an opportunity for the organization to learn more about how to run campaigns, who would work against them and how, and what the residents of Richmond want.
Build a coalition
From its inception, the Richmond Progressive Alliance was conceived of as an alliance of individuals, regardless of party preference. In addition, the primary organizers have worked hard to form relationships with all organizations in the city that agree with their basic principles, including the Green Party, homelessness organizations, environmental groups, unions, Latino organizations, and many other progressive groups. The party preferences were different, but the goal was the same: real problem solving and change. The RPA steering committee has evolved to include a certain number of seats for specific local organizations.
By including these organizations in the primary decision-making body, the RPA assures coalition partners that they will have real power in the organization. Coalition building has amplified and accelerated all of the RPA’s plans. Coalition partners bring in new volunteers, spread messages more widely, and get out the vote to different constituencies.
Don’t endorse — cultivate
Most grassroots political groups wait until candidates announce they are running and then ask those candidates to fill out a long list of questions to determine if they align on policy goals. Usually it is clear from the group and the questions what the “right” answer is, and candidates tailor their responses for each group. Waiting for candidates to self-select to run results in a less diverse pool of candidates and representatives. Less privileged or marginalized groups often don’t consider politics an option.
When the RPA first started it was a small group that met regularly and one of their first activities was to select two potential candidates from among their ranks. With candidates selected and a clear policy platform determined by the group, their vision was made very clear to potential coalition partners and voters. This thinking is similar to what was released recently in the latest NewFounders Action paper called (Finally) Building a Bench…A Centralization Strategy. The more that candidates are allowed to pre-identify and grow before a race, the more success groups and states have in getting wins.
The RPA actively trains members in leadership skills and helps each candidate with their campaign. It works with its coalition partners to identify potential candidates. This allows them to select potential candidates who already have a proven track record of aligning with their policy goals, and to work with them as they consider a run for office.
Run a non-partisan slate
The RPA is a non-partisan organization. In one of their documents from early 2004, they describe the RPA as “an alliance of Progressive Democrats, Greens, and Independents.” Their first two candidates were a Democrat and a Green party member, and of those two the one that won election was the Green Party member.
According to Gallup polls, less than 1/3 of the electorate is registered with the Democratic Party, just 1/4 with the Republican Party, and thus almost ½ are not registered with either of the two major parties.
For the RPA model, which reaches out to people beyond those who are likely to vote, it is imperative that they appeal to the largest percentage of eligible voters: those who have chosen not to register with either party. Being non-partisan and running candidates of various political parties has helped them appeal to these once-apathetic voters and engage them in electoral politics.
Also, because of the nature of politics in Richmond, the RPA messaging has always been “anti-corporate.” Their candidates are “corporate-free” and their framing both in their by-laws and around local issues also uses “pro-corporate” for their opponents and “anti-corporate” for their own positions and candidates.
“Over the decades some of us kept voting for what appeared to be the lesser of two evils, believing it would at least make a small difference. That perspective eventually led us to the disastrous national electoral results of 2016. We are clear today as we were when we started in 2003 that every city, every region, every state needs independent corporate-free organized political forces. We were ready then to build this local political force to help us, our family and friends, our neighbors and fellow city residents to have better, healthier, safer and happier lives.”
Work closely with elected officials
Elected officials are often underpaid (most local and some statewide elected offices are considered “part time”) and understaffed. Every city council meeting agenda may contain dozens of attached documents (proposals/resolutions/laws/evidence/etc), all of which need to be read and researched to understand the effects they will have on the community. Industry lobbyists are paid to advise elected officials, and even the most progressive elected officials will be asked to meet with them. These lobbyists provide professional-looking reports that are designed to influence politicians to vote in favor of particular policy.
When the RPA’s first candidate, Gayle McLaughlin, was elected to the city council, she put together a small group of people that she called her “packet reading group.” This group of people, all members of the RPA, would meet with her before every city council meeting to go over the packet provided to city councillors by city staff. Each person in the packet reading group would read through certain items in the packet to ensure all items were read by someone. Then the group would come together to discuss every item on the agenda and to advise Gayle about what questions she should ask, what statements she should make, and what coalition partners the RPA could reach out to to help promote or work against specific agenda items.
The intimate relationship between the elected officials and the organizers in the local coalition allows the RPA to be involved in city politics at every level. Knowing every item that crosses the city council allows the RPA to understand where city priorities are, what the city council spends the most time on, and what policies are not being proposed. It enables them to counter the weight of industry lobbyists and other factions to prioritize progressive policy.
Meeting regularly with their elected officials enables the RPA to have deep influence over the actions of each of the people they succeeded in electing. Through this practice they were able to push through major policies that we mentioned earlier in this case study.
“The essential ingredient in our victory is that we have been organizing and building for 10 years, and we have built roots through everyday community activity. We have built alliances with unions and other organizations with whom we share basic values.”
Case Study #1 Learnings
- Look at targeting bodies of government rather than a bunch of various campaigns. Targeting these bodies of government, like a city council or school board, will grow progressive influence where Republican, conservative, and corporate influence has reigned for too long.
- Engaging, listening to, and understanding the electorate is important.
- Sometimes party politics can be set aside when progressive positions are aligned. Most Americans are not loyal to one party and most local elections aren’t partisan. The RPA demonstrated how we can build the pipeline for real change on the local level.
- The engagement doesn’t stop at electing our candidates. Supporting them while in office with policy, coalition building and other activities will ensure progressive policies will be pushed through that body of government.
- There is a better way to source candidates and aid them in self-identifying to potentially run for office. A city-wide coalition focused on the long-term can cultivate these community leaders.
Case Study Two: Represent.us
RepresentUs was founded at the end of 2012 and formed its first local chapters in 2013. In July of 2014, their Princeton, NJ chapter successfully passed the first Anti-Corruption Resolution through the city council. In November of 2014, Tallahassee, FL passed the first Anti-Corruption Act. By the end of 2015, Represent.us had 500,000 members and had passed 10 acts and resolutions throughout the U.S. In 2016, the South Dakota chapter succeeded in passing the first statewide Anti-Corruption Act, and at this writing Represent.us chapters have passed over 85 resolutions and acts in municipalities and states across the US.
RepresentUs falls into the category of groups that are trying to pass policy around a single issue area. Among these groups, the standard model of organizing often involves finding one policy proposal and organizing around that particular proposal; getting as many “like-minded” people together as you can, and the more the better; and lobbying elected officials to support their proposal.
The RepresentUs model is different in these ways:
- Create small groups of dedicated volunteers
- Focus on messaging and it get it right from the beginning
- Reach across partisan lines
- Work with or around politicians
- Provide comprehensive reform
- Winning begets winning
We go into further detail below.
Create small groups of dedicated volunteers
RepresentUs focuses on attracting a few of the most committed, most deeply invested volunteers and organizers rather than attracting enormous amounts of people to do heavy lifting. This is a different approach than the “cattle-call” you can often see in campaigns and with groups. These small teams range from as small as 3 to as large as 30 or 40, but even in these larger groups it is usually the handful of dedicated organizers that ensure the work gets done — with support from the larger community of volunteers and nationwide members.
Get the messaging right
The organization has found that framing the message from the start is important for gaining support. Phrases like “campaign finance reform” or “money in politics” don’t garner as much support as the word “corruption.”
They commissioned an independent poll comparing various different ways to frame the issue and found that using “corruption” causes a 20% bump in support for a new law over any other phrase.
Reach across partisan lines
RepresentUs is fanatical about gaining support from liberals, conservatives, and those in between. People in each of these groups are activated by the idea of fighting corruption. They are committed to involving people from all three political affiliations in their small teams, and to reaching out to constituents in all three groups when doing larger mobilizations.
“Currently the country is divided roughly in thirds – with one third progressive, one third conservative, and one third moderate. Because this problem is so huge – we’re talking about changing the way power works in America – we can’t do that with only a third of the country behind us.”
The local group that passed the first RepresentUs Anti-Corruption Act in Tallahassee, FL consisted of a former Republican legislator and a former Democratic legislator. It still works today. Their statewide campaigns in 2018 are likewise led by right-left coalitions.
Work with or around politicians
Local chapters sometimes try to convince sitting elected officials to pass a resolution or a full suite of legislation, but if this proves to be unproductive, they have seen success passing policy without the consent of politicians. In these cases the local chapters work toward passing ballot initiatives, which involve more on-the-ground legwork to convince a majority of voters. Bipartisan teams can be crucial in these efforts to convince liberal, conservative, and moderate voters to approve the bill.
Provide comprehensive reform
Represent.us focuses not on a single reform like public financing but on a suite of reforms that tackle many different aspects of corruption. The Anti-Corruption Act focuses on three areas:
- “Fixing Our Broken Elections” includes ranked choice voting, ending gerrymandering, opening primaries, and public financing of elections.
- “Stop Political Bribery” includes banning politicians from taking lobbyist money, closing the revolving door between politicians and lobbyists, and preventing politicians from fundraising during working hours.
- “End Secret Money” includes disclosing political donations online and requiring “secret money groups” to reveal their donors.
By passing a suite of reforms, RepresentUs groups succeed in both garnering support and making real progress toward ending corruption. This organization helps local groups customize each Anti-Corruption Act to their city or state; each law may include only a subset of the suite of reforms.
“On Nov 8th, 2016 voters in South Dakota passed America’s first statewide Anti-Corruption Act. Previously ranked as one of the most at risk states for corruption, South Dakota passed reform to set up an independent ethics commission, put caps on the gifts that lobbyists can give to politicians, and empower regular people to participate in the political process with citizen-funded elections.”
Winning begets winning
RepresentUs provides each local chapter with a winning strategy for changing policy in their city. The core members of each team are assigned specific roles. These include a “facilitator,” who facilitates meetings and communicates with Represent.us national, a “messenger,” who is in charge of messaging and communications, a “recruiter,” who raises visibility of the chapter and brings in new members, and the “events coordinator,” who helps plan and run the meetings.
Importantly, these chapters start with something very concrete: passing a resolution through their city council. This resolution usually states that the city council would like the state legislature and U.S. Congress to enact legislation to “control campaign financing, limit the influence of unregulated donors, promote transparency and fairness throughout the election process, and ensure a government that is responsive to the needs of all the people.”
Giving chapters a concrete and relatively easily achievable first goal gives them a clear purpose, and it gives them experience in winning a political goal.
“We found that most of our best chapters, once they win once, they win again and again. People who have successfully passed a resolution have made political connections and learned how to work with their city council. They have gotten a flavor of how to get things done in politics. We sometimes see these people getting more involved, even running for office.” — Joshua Graham Lynn, RepresentUs
Case Study #2 Learnings
- Start small. Start at the local level with an idea, possibly with a softer ask. Then, build on that political win.
- Build a small but passionate group of volunteers or organizers instead of focusing on large quantities of volunteers at the beginning of an effort. The small passionate group will build a bigger movement.
- If you can’t work with the elected official on policy changes, go around them with ballot measures to get policies passed.
- Having the right messaging from the start will elevate your efforts and draw in more support. Research. Focus group. Do the work early.
- Provide an overarching vision that can be broken down into several policies and initiatives. This will not only attract support but will provide framework for your organizers to grow the organization.
Case Study Three: Jane McAlevey
SEIU 1199 vs SEIU 775
Both of these chapters are nursing home unions belonging to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Members of both unions do similar work and are employed by the same national corporation but in two different states. SEIU 775 in Washington created a partnership with the employer to unionize 23 nursing homes with a small increase in pay. This agreement came with a prohibition on the right to strike and no increased benefits of any kind. At the same time, SEIU 1199 in Connecticut used the new model of organizing to unionize 60 nursing homes, which brought about substantial pay and and benefits increases and greatly expanded protections, leading to the highest standards for nursing home workers in the United States.
The difference in the success of these two unions is the type of organizing they conducted. The techniques described below have recreated these types of wins in a variety of different unions in industries as diverse as nursing homes, education, and slaughterhouses, showing that they are not only superior to the standard model but are universal and repeatable.
The standard model for winning union contracts today relies on a top-down structure, advocacy and mobilizing tactics, and a power analysis that emphasizes working with those in power.
Standard Model of Organizing
Top-down structure: Leaders at the top of the national organization or chapter are the primary decision makers. Strategy is decided at the top and passed down.
Advocacy: Union leaders use the same style of lobbying that corporations use to influence policy: lawyers, pollsters, researchers, and communications firms are used to try to change the minds of people in power.
Mobilizing: In what Jane McAlevey calls “mobilizing,” professional staff makes decisions about strategy and tactics, then provides guidance to volunteer union members on tasks and tactics. This does engage some union members, but only those who already are committed union activists.
Power analysis and theory of power: The power analysis done in this standard model is only of the people currently in positions of power. Below is a typical chart used to aid power analysis, which includes the workers as only one of twelve potential players.
“Liberals and most progressives don’t do a full power-structure analysis because, consciously or not, they accept the kind of elite theory of power that Mills popularized. They assume elites will always rule. At best, they debate how to replace a very naughty elite with a “better” elite, one they “can work with.”
New Model of Organizing
The new model has a different theory of power, which brings about a number of different tactics. The union is not viewed as a “third party” but as the organized collection of workers, and to ensure the workers understand this, workers are involved in every level of decision making. Tactically, this involves a style of outreach to the workers that is very different. Because power is built through numbers, it is important to convince the largest number of workers possible to be actively engaged, including taking part in potentially risky actions like strikes. To do this, staff time is spent identifying and convincing “organic leaders” rather than people already enthusiastic about the union. Each of these facets is discussed below.
Theory of power
In the new model, it is understood that people who are traditionally thought of as “not having power” can, in fact, create power if they band together. Workers have power due to their far greater numbers. Inherent in this theory of power is the idea that anyone having “power over” the workers is a step in the wrong direction. Union staff do not see themselves as experts whose jobs are to make workers lives better — instead, their purpose is to help workers with whatever they need so that workers can organize and empower themselves.
This model also makes it plain exactly what power workers have: the power to economically hurt the boss. No amount of discussions, friendliness, negotiations, or bargaining will give the workers what they need if they do not demonstrate to the boss that they are in power. To demonstrate their power, workers must prove that they are capable of costing the company large amounts of money. This is only possible through strikes and other actions that have risks for workers. Union staff have a responsibility to be honest about the risks, while conveying the great opportunities that can happen when large numbers of workers take those risks together.
Employers who are resisting an attempt to unionize will often announce, “We don’t need a third party in here.” By “third party” the employer means a union, which they imply will cause difficulties for bosses and workers. Smart organizing requires the local workers to see themselves as the union. Union local 1199 used a set of twenty principles that guided their organizing a workplace, including these statements:
- Get close to the workers, stay close to the workers.
- Tell workers it’s their union and then behave that way.
- Don’t do for workers what they can do.
- The union is not a fee for service; it is the collective experience of workers in struggle.
- Don’t be afraid to ask workers to build their own union.
- Don’t be afraid to confront them when they don’t.
Workers as decision makers
This new model involves workers in every level of decision-making. This includes not only what demands they should make and what tactics they should use. Organizers using this model even include workers at the beginning and end of the organizing process. Final negotiations with bosses are typically conducted behind closed doors with leadership and lawyers. This new organizing model will allow any worker to attend. Special systems are used to ensure that the proceedings are not disrupted, but that workers can ask questions, make comments, and change the outcome if necessary. At the beginning of the organizing process, workers are involved in creating the power analysis and strategizing how to win their demands.
Large numbers of people transition from unthinking “masses” or “the grassroots” or “the workers” to serious and highly-invested actors exercising agency when they come to see, to understand, and to value the power of their own salient knowledge and networks. The chief way to help ordinary people go from object to subject is to teach them about their potential power by involving them as central actors in the process of developing the power-structure analysis in their own campaigns—so they come to better understand their own power and that of their opponents.
Because the theory of power assumes that workers themselves can create power, the traditional power analysis is viewed as only half of the analysis needed. What is missing in the traditional power analysis is the analysis of the workers’ power. This power is not simply a number, because it includes the relationships between workers within the company, between individual workers and the institutions they are a part of, and between workers and the wider community. This chart shows the types of relationships that are explored in a power analysis of workers’ potential power.
By using extended family members, neighbors, children’s friends’ parents or teachers, sports teammates, and other grassroots connections, workers can increase their numbers, which is their main power-building tool. Bosses may have more money and connections to other power brokers, but imagine a union whose strategy includes these above groups; that union can put economic pressure on other local businesses, or political pressure on local politicians, which can be more powerful than bosses’ connections to these power brokers.
Because the theory of power relies on large numbers of people being directly involved, not only in actions but in strategy and decision making, this model cannot work if organizers only preach to the choir. It is vital to reach beyond workers who are already supporters of the union. In Jane McAlevey’s organizing experiences, she continues reaching out and convincing the unconvinced until the union has 60%, 70%, 80%, and then 90% of the workers taking actions that involve risk (called “structure tests,” these are considered proof of workers’ support) and engaging in decisions.
How does an organizer get this kind of overwhelming support for the union from people who originally don’t support it? The key is to focus on what McAlevey calls “organic leaders.”
[Organic leaders are] almost never the workers who most want to talk with us. More often than not, [they’re] the workers who don’t want to talk to us and remain in the background. They have a sense of their value and won’t easily step forward, not unless and until there’s a credible reason. That’s part of the character that makes them organic leaders.
Organic leaders are identified based on the trust they inspire in their coworkers, rather than on how much they support the union. They are crucial because of this trust: if an organic leader can be convinced to support union efforts and help organize, many others will be convinced to join. Finding and convincing organic leaders is one of the primary jobs of union staff.
The new is the old
Ironically, what we are calling the “new” model is in fact much older than the standard model. The historical context for this approach to organizing dates as far back as the development of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) by radical-leftist union organizers in the 30s and 40s. More recently, there have been significant losses of political stature of unions and left-leaning organizations in the United States today. The Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) decision of June 27, 2018, was another nail driven into structures weakening unions and the left. McAlevey argues that this new/old model is crucial in building a progressive movement.
“In the zigzag of forward progress from the 1930s to the early 1970s, followed by defeats from the mid-1970s to the present time, what changed? Why were the achievements won during the heyday of the pre-McCarthy labor movement and the civil rights movement so substantial compared with the progressive achievements of the past forty years?
“The main difference between these two most powerful movements half a century ago and today is that they relied primarily on—and were led by—ordinary people…. Today, attempts to generate movements are directed by professional, highly educated staff who rely on an elite, top-down theory of power.
“The chief factor in whether or not organizational efforts grow organically into local and national movements capable of effecting major change is where and with whom the agency for change rests. It is not merely if ordinary people—so often referred to as “the grassroots”—are engaged, but how, why, and where they are engaged.”
Case Study #3 Learnings
- The old way of organizing is out. We are much stronger when we utilize our strength in numbers and that comes through activating and engaging people.
- Bring volunteers, workers, and/or the largest portion of the group into the process. Giving them real decision-making power will create ownership and increase engagement.
- Organic leaders are more effective at bringing unconvinced people on board than paid or self-identified leadership. While organic leaders may originally not agree with your view, convincing them is the fastest way to gain the support of the many people who trust their opinion.
- Power is in numbers. Activate your network of volunteers, supporters, etc. to engage and activate their network.
- Don’t just preach to the choir. We must begin to convince those who don’t think they agree with us. There are well-honed, successful ways to have these convincing conversations.
Case Study Four: Bernie Sanders and the Progressive Left Movement
Between 1971 and 1977, Bernie Sanders ran for office four times: twice for governor of Vermont, and twice for a Vermont Senate seat. In these elections, he never garnered more than 6% of the vote. But in 1980 Sanders ran for Mayor of Burlington, VT and beat the five-term incumbent by only 10 votes.
At that time, the Burlington city council was made up of both Democrats and Republicans. Sanders ran independent of any political party, and his election was a shock to the establishment. Members of both major parties joined forces to ensure that Sanders would be voted out in the next election. The entire city council voted against any proposals he made and even refused to approve his staff choices (leaving him with no staff).
To combat this, Bernie Sanders trained candidates in multiple wards to run for city council in the next year’s election cycle. Three of these candidates won, again surprising both Democrats and Republicans. With allies on the city council, Sanders was now able to get approval for many of his proposals. He then won his next three mayoral races.
After his fourth term as Mayor of Burlington, Sanders ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1990 he ousted the Republican incumbent. He won his next seven elections for House of Representatives. In 2006, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and was re-elected in 2012. While he did not win the Democratic nomination for President, he did much better than pundits expected, given that when he announced his candidacy in April 2015, he had name recognition of only 3% of the U.S. population.
In all, Sanders campaigned for office eighteen times, winning twelve of those elections. He is the longest-serving independent in congressional history. In addition to being persistent, Bernie Sanders has used several organizing tactics to advance his goals. For example, he has excelled at small-dollar fundraising and large campaign rallies.
The question is why? Bernie approaches engagement differently and we are going to focus on
Bernie’s use of in-person town halls for outreach, education, and mobilization, and how his town halls differ from the norm as an example of that tactic. You can see one of these town halls here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6jAyeqnQ1o
These town halls are unusual in the following ways:
- Focus on a specific community
- Guided conversation
- 70% listening
- 30% educating and mobilizing
Specific community: why a closed event?
Most town halls are held at a location that is comfortable for the elected official. While everyone is invited, it is often those with privilege who form the majority of attendees.
When the candidate focuses on a specific community, there is greater opportunity to understand that subset of constituents. To truly understand the needs of students, a room filled with students will provide a fuller picture of their lives than a few self-selected students among a crowd of non-students. Focusing on a specific community allows the politician to have the town hall on that group’s home turf, making it more likely that those who don’t normally seek out their elected officials will attend.
This specific community could be college students, senior citizens, workers at a specific union, residents of a coal mining town, or members of a Native American tribe, among others. The intent is not to exclude but to facilitate learning from constituents. To get a full picture, many different community-specific town halls should be hosted. Sanders also employs traditional, open-to-the-public town halls where anyone can attend.
In traditional town halls, the constituents ask questions and the elected official answers. In the style of town hall we describe here, the elected official asks the questions and the constituents answer.
The purpose is to understand how policy affects the lives of this particular community. I order to do this, Sanders arrives with a specific set of questions he wants to ask, each tied to a policy that he has the ability to propose or vote on. We emphasize this because it is common at traditional town halls (for local politicians) that attendees will ask about national policies; when the politician drives the conversation, he/she can steer it toward applicable policy.
In a town hall for senior citizens, Sanders might ask questions about what it is like to live on social security. During this part of the conversation, he listens to answers and may propose specific policy solutions to hear constituent reactions. Then he might begin asking questions about drug prices. On each topic, Sanders will paraphrase what he heard from different constituents. “What I’m hearing from you is that it is difficult to get buy on social security alone….” By reflecting back to the audience what he heard, Sanders both assures them he is truly listening and solidifies his own understanding of the what he can draw on for policy making.
A standard town hall might begin with a speech by the politician. In the type of town hall described here, the politician gives a brief introduction to explain the purpose of the meeting, then begins asking questions of the audience.
Inverting the standard roles of a town hall changes the tone of the event. The politician becomes the questioner and the constituents provide answers. Traditional town halls reinforce the concept that the politician is in power; he/she is the expert with answers. When the elected official asks questions it implies that the real answers come from constituents, from “the people.” This changes the dynamic of the relationship and builds trust.
30% educating and mobilizing
The last third of the event is spent educating and mobilizing constituents. This is critical to the type of campaign Bernie Sanders is capable of running, powered by volunteers and small dollar donations. During the last part of each of these town halls, the candidate educates the audience on why the policies they want cannot be enacted. This usually includes candid discussions of which politicians are against such policies as well as which groups, individuals, or corporations donate to those politicians.
The candidate can give some practical tips on how constituents can pressure their representatives, and can be honest about the chances of success. The discussion can be directed to make clear where the power lies in the community. The candidate addresses who is making the decisions, and how to build alliances to gain the power back.
The meeting ends with calls to action in the form of next steps for mobilizing or building political power. A good closing speech can motivate those in the room to contribute to the campaign, join as volunteers, or connect on social media.
Bernie Sanders has built successful campaigns with a vast network of followers and allies through town halls, mass rallies, and other large events. The future looks bright for this approach to organizing that can build powerful movements in local communities and across the country.
Case Study #4 Learnings
- Persistence is key. You might not win the first time but keep trying.
- To truly understand the needs of a specific group of voters, constituents, or supporters, target specific groups rather than going broad.
- Flip the table. Instead of speaking with a group and answering questions, ask the audience questions to guide the conversation.
- Empower the audience. Make sure their voice is heard. Educate them on the process and activate them.
- Always end with a call to action. Make sure attendees leave with actionable next steps.
Case Study Five: Cooperation Jackson
In 1971, a group of people purchased land outside of Bolden, Mississippi with the goal of creating a community with no discrimination based on color, class, gender, or physical ability; where everyone would be treated at the highest standards of human rights. In March of that year, a group of 500 women, children, men, and elders went to celebrate on the newly purchased land. As they approached, they were confronted by a blockade led by local law enforcement, MS Highway Patrol, the FBI, and the KKK, all heavily armed. They were told, “Niggers, we’re not going to have a land celebration today.” One sign at the roadblock said “Free six-foot holes.”
To provide some context, between Reconstruction and 1940, Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings of Blacks anywhere in the U.S., averaging around 10 per year. The Jackson State Killings had occurred in 1970; during this incident at least 40 state patrol officers (of the hundreds present) opened fire on unarmed students, shooting directly at a dormitory. Two students were killed and twelve injured. There was no reason to believe in 1971 that this group of “law enforcement officials” would not open fire, as they threatened to do.
Chokwe Lumumba was among the leaders of this group of Black cooperative landowners, and they decided not to be intimidated. They continued on through this heavily armed blockade to their final destination. No shots were fired.
We begin with this story from 1971 because this has been the political, social, and economic reality for Blacks in Mississippi for their lifetimes. The only things about this experience that were outliers were the refusal of the Black landowners to back down, and the officers’ restraint from violence. We hope that understanding the constant, multi-faceted oppression of both the individuals and the community involved helps to emphasize just how strong the forces are that continue to work against their success.
Jackson is the capital and most populous city in Mississippi, with a population of about 165,000. In 1960, Jackson was over 64% white; today it is over 80% Black. Rapid capital flight and divestment has followed this white flight. Twenty-three percent of the residents of Jackson live below the poverty line, including over one-third of all children. West Jackson, in particular, has become a Black working-class community (92% Black) with high concentrations of poverty. Currently, over 27% of all lots in the community are vacant with 832 abandoned structures.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (son of Chokwe Lumumba mentioned earlier) has stated the intention to make Jackson the “Most Radical City on the Planet.” Decades-long efforts to build Black independence in the city have lead to clearly articulated goals for a new group called Cooperation Jackson (started in 2014).
Cooperation Jackson’s goals include self-determination of the Black working class via both the economy and local government, as well as to convert the city to an ecologically regenerative, no-carbon-emissions city. First, the group wants to change the ownership and control of the primary means of production in the city to be in the hands of the Black working class of Jackson. Second, they seek to democratically transform the political economy of the city of Jackson and beyond.
“Politics without economics is symbol without substance.” This adage summarizes the reasoning behind Cooperation Jackson’s political aims and objectives. Because of the reality of Jackson’s economic hardship and the way this affects the lives of city residents, many of Cooperation Jackson’s specific goals are economic in nature. This list includes only some of their ambitious goals:
Access to capital. A democratic and community-owned bank can provide funding for many of the following projects. They also have plans for alternative currency, mutual credit, and time banking. For city resources, they plan to implement participatory budgeting.
Worker-owned cooperatives. Cooperation Jackson aims to support the creation and maintenance of worker-owned cooperatives across many industries. This includes both a school and an incubator to train worker, consumer, and community entities that are cooperatively owned and operated. Included in this effort is the Fab Lab, which trains people to program computers and use 3d printers.
Ownership of land. A non-profit Community Land Trust allows for communally owned land, including an Eco-Village. The CLT may help prevent residents from being thrown out of their homes as housing prices rise.
Energy production. Cooperation Jackson is looking to renewable resources like solar, wind, geothermal, and biophotovoltaics, and these resources will also be cooperatively owned.
As of April 2017, three interrelated green cooperatives have been started. Freedom Farms is an organic farming cooperative on two acres of land in West Jackson. Nubia’s Place Cafe and Catering Cooperative is designed to fight chronic obesity with healthy foods; it purchases from Freedom Farms. The Green Team is a composting cooperative that gathers organic materials around the city to create compost for Freedom Farms and local gardeners.
Forces at work against Cooperation Jackson
The Mississippi Governor and the overwhelmingly white MS State Legislature is enacting a variety of legislation designed to remove local control from the residents of Jackson. It has re-allocated monies collected through a 1% sales tax passed by the city to fund state initiatives; it has introduced an “Airport Takeover Bill” to relinquish the airport and all revenue from the city to the state; it introduced the “Downtown Annexation Bill” to give business owners outside of Jackson the right to determine the development of downtown Jackson; and it introduced the “Racial Profiling and Immigrant Targeting Bill” to authorize police officers to arrest people based on skin color.
To support these economic, health, and environmental goals, there are also political goals. In 2009, Chokwe Lumumba was elected to the Jackson Ward Two city council seat. In 2013, he was elected Mayor of Jackson despite raising only one fifth the funds of his opponent. Many of the reforms listed above were championed by Lumumba, who was deeply involved in creating this strategy and had been instrumental in starting some of the Black solidarity groups in the city. Sadly, Lumumba died on February 25, 2014. The cause of death has remained a mystery since the Hinds County coroner refused to perform an autopsy. Hinds County Supervisor Kenneth Stokes and others believe Lumumba was murdered. Lumumba’s son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, was elected mayor in 2017.
The New Model
It should be clear that the goals and tactics involved in Jackson, MS are very different from those of many organizations hoping to elect progressives elsewhere in the US. It is not possible to cover the breadth and depth of the strategies and tactics being employed in Jackson in this action paper. For a deeper dive, we recommend the book Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, from which most of the information in this section comes.
Here we will only touch on some of the broader strategies and one specific tactic: People’s Assemblies and how they differ from more common organizing efforts.
Building economic power
“We have to be clear, crystal clear, that self-determination is unattainable without an economic base.” Coalition Jackson has a primary focus on building the economic power of the working people of Jackson, and importantly they do not rely on their ability to win elections to obtain it. Their strategy involves a set of interlocking entities including worker-owned cooperative businesses, non-profits, community organizations, and municipal agencies.
Understanding their base and opposition
The variety of groups involved in the working class struggles in Jackson are acutely aware that race and class play intertwined roles in Mississippi. A city that is 80% Black and predominantly working-class is their base, and their goals are all designed to raise the standard of living for these people. But as development happens in Jackson, there is some danger of gentrification, which would displace many of the people they are trying to serve and who form the base of their support. Coalition Jackson seeks to increase the standard of living while maintaining a Black super-majority and keeping residents in their homes.
Democracy outside of government
The drive for “Black self-determination” is the common thread among all of Cooperation Jackson’s efforts, and it takes the form of democratic control in a variety of entities that usually are not run democratically. From worker-owned coops to the Eco-Village to the Fab Lab, they strive to make every entity democratic. We will focus on the specifics of the People’s Assemblies as a tactic most easily transferred to progressive political movements.
Typically, large-group progressive organizing tends to fall into these categories: activist groups, protest or marches, and town halls. Activist groups, like Indivisible, get like-minded people together on a regular basis to push their political agenda. Protests or marches can involve very large numbers of people making a statement about a specific policy and usually happen once or infrequently (per policy issue). Town halls are usually initiated by a candidate or elected official. Not included in this list are neighborhood councils, which are rarely large.
People’s Assemblies are different in a number of ways.
Solution oriented. The goal of People’s Assemblies is to address essential social issues in the community. Importantly, this does not simply mean airing grievances to let the people “be heard.” People’s Assemblies develop solutions, strategies, action plans, and timelines so that solutions can be implemented. The action plans make these groups fundamentally different from many activist groups, whose plans include how they will pressure sitting politicians to accomplish goals. In People’s Assemblies, the action plans most often do not include government action, or if they do, that is only one of the possible ways of accomplishing the goals.
Mass scale. Second, they strive to engage at least 1/5th of the population of the neighborhood, ward, or city. Each of the seven wards in Jackson has, on average, 18,000 adults, so according to this measure a People’s Assembly at the ward level would include 3,500 people.
Democratic. Each individual who attends a People’s Assembly has one vote, equal to every other participant. This individual empowerment engages residents directly in every aspect of the process, including discussing concerns, envisioning solutions, debating strategies, developing action plans, and proposing realistic timelines.
Accomplishing goals. As mentioned above, People’s Assemblies do not rely on government to take action. The People’s Task Force is the executing body of the Assembly. It is organized around proposals that emerge from the Assembly, and exists to carry out the tasks outlined.
“(The people’s assembly) is totally independent and autonomous of the City of Jackson,” Bakari told the Jackson Free Press a couple days after the assembly. “It’s going to exist in function regardless of who’s in the mayor’s office.”
Mass People’s Assemblies have been held at times of acute crisis. One was held after the death of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, which led to the launch of Cooperation Jackson on May 1, 2014 and the Jackson Rising conference May 2-4, 2014. Another was held in January of 2016 to fight a series of policy threats hostile to Jackson’s municipal sovereignty and Black political control; it helped launch the Coalition for Economic Justice in Jan 2016.
The many accomplishments for the progressive movement in Jackson are the outcome of decades of community organizing. The People’s Assemblies started in the 2000’s in Ward 2, where Chokwe Lumumba would first be elected as a city councilor. By 2010, the People’s Assembly was the fastest growing organizing force in Jackson, and was focusing on a participatory budgeting process for the city. Over time priorities branched out beyond changing municipal policies and into independent projects like the solidarity economy work discussed above. It is through these large-scale, democratic gatherings that such progressive, strategic, community-benefiting work has been able to flourish.
Case Study #5 Learnings
- Understand your base. This will help you propose policies, solutions, and priorities that benefit this group.
- A lot of progress in a community can happen outside of government and politics. Work to build democratic groups outside government that can help build political movements for both candidates and issues.
- Empower people through large, open meetings where everyone has an equal voice.
- Less talk, more action. Make sure your group meetings have action plans that don’t depend solely on politicians. Large-scale gatherings that give constituents specific action they can take to create change can help us build a strong progressive movement.
Case Study Six: Ocasio-Cortez and Flipping the Table
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently ran a campaign for Congress against an incumbent in New York’s 14th congressional district. Ocasio-Cortez was a 28-year-old Latina from a working-class family campaigning on Medicare-for-all, housing as a human right, and raising the minimum wage. Her campaign was not endorsed by members of the Democratic Party, and she raised 1/10th the amount of money that her opponent raised.
Her opponent, Congressman Joe Crowley, was a 10-term incumbent and wielded massive power in New York politics. He is rumored to have been on the list as the next possible Democratic Speaker of the House. He was powerful: he wielded power and influence city-wide, and in Washington, and could enrich political allies or punish opponents.
Ocasio-Cortez was not expected to win. But on June 26, 2018, she did just that.
Joe Crowley ran a traditional campaign. A campaign along those lines involves paid advertising on radio, television, newspapers, and posters. There were a small number of candidate availabilities at fundraisers or town halls. The candidate lined up endorsements from local, regional, and national political leaders (in fact, Crowley had a lock on them). Those endorsers made recordings or quotes supporting him. And that was it. This strategy was usually enough to get a well-financed candidate elected, especially an incumbent.
Ocasio-Cortez’s approach was different. She began her run by organizing people, building coalitions both locally and nationally, then reaching voters directly with boots on the ground. Her campaign wasn’t aimed entirely at physical organizing. She also had consistent branding for her strong digital outreach, which reinforced that physical organizing.
With the aid of a large coalition of groups including Democratic Socialists of America, Black Lives Matter, Muslims for Progress, educational justice organizations, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution and other Bernie-inspired groups, and Indivisible and other resistance groups, many activists were motivated to get boots on the ground, or fingers on the auto-dialers to do outreach for the candidate. The volunteers included not only locals but people from across the country. The ground game used by Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters needed volunteers dedicated to daily door-to-door canvassing, voter registration, phone banking, and texting. Ocasio-Cortez was outraised 10 to 1 in campaign contributions, but her coalition brought in many hundreds of volunteers, and it was these volunteers who made an overwhelming difference.
Part of the story of Alexandria’s populist win derives from the perceived power of her opponent. Locked out of the power establishment, she focused her coalition building on organizations that could supply volunteers. This approach allowed her to have an extremely strong ground game, which was instrumental in her success.
Focusing on field organizing
Her campaign knocked on 120,000 doors. They sent 170,000 text messages and did an additional 120,000 phone calls. That’s not a small feat for anyone who hasn’t spent time doing voter outreach. They engaged in a long-term registration campaign for new voters a year ahead of the election, knowing that Independent or unaffiliated voters must switch party registration more than six months in advance to be able to vote in the upcoming Democratic primary.
Ocasio-Cortez ran a campaign that focused on turning out young people and people of color. The congressional district is 49 percent Hispanic and 70 percent people of color. These demographics are often ignored during a campaign because they are not likely to vote. She began her ground game very early and ran it continuously in order to reach these disaffected voters. Her uninterrupted ground game included daily campaigning and early outreach to voters and potential voters where they lived.
Ocasio-Cortez was able to bring to bear coordinated prongs of an effective messaging strategy. Her messaging was consistent, well-designed, and appropriate for the demographics of the district. Her outreach was intentional, with heart, soul, and professionalism, designed to be visible and pervasive.
She was able to tailor her message to the district she won in based on her strong roots in the community. Her experience as a working-class Latina played in her victory. Because she had so much in common with the members of the community, she could speak to and learn from the people in the district. She could craft messages for her constituents and their needs. Any underrepresented mass of potential voters doesn’t avoid casting ballots because they’re uneducated, lazy, or uninformed, but because no one is speaking to them. Her posters and printed materials were designed from the beginning to include bilingual branding. Exclamation points were placed around her last name to embed Spanish into her campaign’s style. The points of the exclamation points are stars, a reminder of the Puerto Rican flag and Ocasio-Cortez’s mother’s background. Ocasio-Cortez used design to help communicate both her identity and what she stands for.
The public face of the campaign was highly consistent, progressive and appealing. Ocasio-Cortez is a charismatic speaker and stays on point with ease, and with her clear message. Campaign literature, posters, and videos were professionally produced with the same clear stories. She had the benefit of a campaign video, created by DSA members in Detroit, that presented Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive campaign promises and it went viral around the country. The video showed her as a humble and compassionate woman as she sat and chatted with ordinary New Yorkers, took the subway, and prepared in a simple apartment.
From the beginning, Ocasio-Cortez called herself a Democratic Socialist. While some in the party might not agree with her messaging, she was clear about who she was. For better or for worse, Ocasio-Cortez took a clear line all the way through–her challenge now will be fulfilling her campaign promises.
Her steady message included clear progressive policy positions on health care, housing, and immigration. She focused her messaging on reducing inequality and expanding opportunity for poor and working-class New Yorkers. She pointed out the rising economic inequality and pervasive poverty in New York City. She called for Medicare for all, a federal jobs guarantee, affordable housing, and raising the minimum wage, among other pro-working class policies. She also went further, making a stand for abolishing ICE, strict gun control, banning private prisons, and housing as a human right.
Ocasio-Cortez was unabashed in her deeply progressive platform. For lower income, working-class voters, these solutions resonate, especially in an urban district in the northeast. She told CNN, “We won because, I think, we had a very clear winning message, and we took that message to doors that had never been knocked on before.”
Because Ocasio-Cortez was barred from some of the more traditional approaches, her campaign went all-out on both old school and modern approaches that she could rely on: coalition building, a great ground game, and digital media and outreach including a great video. Working with other groups, her campaign reached out to ensure the use of the latest technologies in phone banking and text banking, to use the power of non-local volunteers to move hundreds of thousands of potential voters. She worked with design experts to ensure her physical, on-air, and online messaging was consistent and clear. With all these efforts of her campaign, capable of such coordination, for embracing her constituents’ hearts and minds, she touched those she reached for. She pushed for voter registration, to make sure the pool of total voters was as wide as possible. Leading the ground game, she reached new and low-engagement voters and convinced them she was worth going to the polls for.
Pulling all these technical aspects together with a strong progressive platform and a dynamic personal approach enabled Ocasio-Cortez to pull off the upset of the decade in electoral politics.
Case Study #6 Learnings
- Strong field efforts are still vital for winning non-establishment campaigns. Having real conversations with voters is influential and can make all the difference.
- While many organizations can’t support a candidate with financial resources, they can supply boots on the ground, which is one of the key resources for campaigns.
- It’s okay not to be mainstream–especially when you have the opportunity to engage the disaffected and provide them with the representation that they need.
- Have a clear, consistent message and repeat it at every opportunity (which is easy when it’s something you are passionate about!).
- A mix of old school and modern tactics directly focused on the voter is a winning strategy: coalition building, a great ground game, and digital media and outreach including a viral video.
We’re in a new world. While many people say that about technology, today we are in a new organizing world, with an unprecedented number of people coming out to protest, campaign, and vote. These case studies demonstrate that the old way is not the only way, and in this paper we have described other techniques for other aspects of campaigns that are proven to win.
Some elements have come up in many of these different stories: putting decision-making power in the hands of the grassroots, reaching out to voters who are not registered with either party, coalition building, creating democratic community organizations that exist parallel to our governmental institutions, and a commitment to the long term. We believe building these tactics into progressive campaigns and progressive movement building can make the difference between progressives across the country winning and losing.
For training on a variety of these cutting edge tactics, visit https://academy.theincorruptibles.us/.
This paper was generated by The Incorruptibles, aided by the following thinkers and leaders and refined by the NewFounders writing team:
Anna Callahan, The Incorruptibles
Steven Gibson, The Incorruptibles
Genevieve Thiers, NewFounders
Gayle McLaughlin, Richmond Progressive Alliance
Joshua Graham Lynn, Represent.us
Jamie Crain, NewFounders (Editor)
Illustrated by Daniel Scannell
The inclusion of the prior case studies do not equate political endorsements of any organization, elected official, issue, or candidate by NewFounders or their partner organizations. These educational case studies of non-traditional wins might contain clues that can be transferred to other candidates and organizations–regardless of their position–running in the future.
 McAlevey, Jane F.. No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (p. 4). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
 McAlevey, Jane F.. No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (pp. 5-6). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
 McAlevey, Jane F.. No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (p. 34). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
 McAlevey, Jane F.. No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (p. 8). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.