Vote Local is creating a model for turning Appalachia blue again

As Democrats continue to rebuild their state and local parties, they would be wise to look to Virginia. Once a solid red state, it has become reliably blue on both the national and state government level, giving its electoral votes to Democrats and sending Dems to both Congress and the Governor’s Mansion. The party even looks poised to flip the state legislature this fall, aided by new court-ordered nonpartisan maps. In broad strokes, Virginia is a major success story.

But drill down a little further and you’ll find an extreme partisan stratification that mirrors much of what we are seeing across the country. The Democratic waves have been powered mostly by the affluent suburbs of northern Virginia, while the more rural southwest, which is more impoverished Appalachia than planned communities of federal contractors, has become a Republican stronghold. The party has a lock on the state’s ninth Congressional District and many counties in the area; if Democrats ever want to improve conditions for people and compete nationally there, it will require a major injection of both support and fresh faces.

Enter Andrew Whitley and his new organization, Vote Local. He is a Virginia-based campaign veteran who has spent nearly a decade in the state’s progressive political infrastructure.

In 2017, Whitley ran Chris Hurst’s high-profile and ultimately victoriouslegislative campaign. Hurst was a young local TV anchor who pivoted to politics after his wife, a fellow reporter, was shot to death on air; he ran as a gun control advocate and defeated a card-carrying member of the NRA, a credit to both his personal touch and Whitley’s campaign skills.

After going out west in 2018 to manage a successful Lt. Governor race in Nevada, Whitley is returning home to southwestern Virginia with designs on rebuilding the Democratic Party in the region. Vote Local is building from the ground up, putting together a slate of candidates on the county level that can install progressive policy and eventually move on to bigger offices. The initial goal is flipping two seats on the Republican-held Board of Supervisors in Montgomery County this fall.

The group has announced one candidate so far, Robbie Jones, a former head of the Montgomery County Education Association and long-time community activist. Whitley gave Progressives Everywhere his pitch for the group earlier this month.

Virginia is trending blue — but the south has gone from blue to red. What’s Vote Local going to do about it?

I’m a southwest Virginia guy, born and bred there. That’s the area of the state that could benefit from and needs Democratic progressive policies the most, but rejects them the most. A lot of folks talk about how we can take back the ninth [congressional district] and unfortunately I’m subscribed to the mindset that it’s not possible right now. We’re not going to be able to take back a congressional seat and we’re not going to be able to win too many more legislative seats in the ninth right now. So where do we go from here? It’s local.

My goal is to find good, qualified, progressive candidates who are well-respected in their communities, run them for some of these local seats, and maybe after a few years of serving and showing that they’re good, outstanding citizens we can eventually have the take the step up, run for delegate, run for state senator, and over time, change the attitude and the perception of the Democratic Party in southwest.

People will see that there are people that you voted for that actually work for you, and these policies are a result of you electing them. Hopefully, it’ll make the difference. It’s not going to be an overnight thing, but we’re definitely gonna give it a shot this cycle.

CLICK HERE to donate to Vote Local via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue page!

There are still some local Democratic office-holders in the area — why haven’t they made the leap? Why not work with them?

I think that these local officials, they know all too well that if they make that leap and if they do announce, they’re going to be left unsupported. They’re gonna have to raise a lot of money. And I’m not blaming the state party or the caucuses for this, but generally, the candidates have to do a lot on their own and they don’t get the support they need. So in [the officials’] minds, why would I leave an office that I’m doing really good in right now to take a chance to run for something that I’m probably not going to win and I’m not going to be supported in?

My hope is that if they look at this new wave of local candidates, they will see that they will get support and here’s how we can help them, then maybe they will take the step. And also, the good that they will do in these local seats, it can’t be understated. When I managed Chris’s race, I naively did not understand the power that local government has in Virginia, in the county Board of Supervisors.

Thanks to the Republicans on that board, schools haven’t been funded the way that they should. Teachers haven’t received the raises that they should. So even if they don’t run for higher offices, the good that we can do by getting some of these boards flipped with good candidates, I think is worth it.

How bad is the Democratic brand there?

I’ll speak anecdotally. The county that I’m from, Smyth County, it’s right near the Tennessee border. It has a Democratic sheriff, all the constitutional officers are Democrats. There are a couple of Republicans on the Board of Supervisors, but it’s dominated by Democrats. Then you get Scott County and other counties that are the opposite. So it’s definitely not one or the other. There’s still a really good crew of candidates, of local office holders there that proved that you can elect these local Democratic offices.

CLICK HERE to donate to Vote Local via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue page!

Chris Hurst ran as a gun control advocate, but he had a very unique story. Do you see him as a blueprint or an anomaly?

His story is obviously very unique, but one of the things that we did is we didn’t make the issue about guns. He wasn’t afraid to say what his position was when asked — and he was asked many times — but we talked about education. That was our big issue. Making sure the kids had a quality education. We talked about improving education, transportation, and local issues that make a difference in everyday people’s lives. And it resonated. So yeah, I do think that he is somewhat of a blueprint. If you get the right candidate to talk about the right issues, then it’s possible.

Some of these races are pretty inexpensive, maybe $3,000 to run a decent campaign. How do you plan on spending the money, what’s the campaign strategy?

I talked to a couple of friends of mine that are in the campaign world, and we’re going to focus on mail and we’re gonna focus on digital. I’m paying myself like a small stipend monthly to work on it as well. I think it’s like 90 percent of the budget is going directly to the candidates and campaign efforts. I’m going to be kind of their go-to guy to help guide them through any press stuff that they might have or if they need any help with fundraising themselves or if they want to do meet and greets or when you help with knocking doors.

I wanted to start small and keep the test study small, stick to Montgomery County to not overwhelm myself and also show that if we’ve got a good blueprint here, which I think we do, we can take the success that we have this cycle and move it forward to other localities.

So tell me about Robbie Jones.

She was a former Montgomery County Educational Association President, the first person to ever be elected president of the local MCEA that’s not an actual educator.

She’s head custodial staff. She’s a blue-collar worker, fits the district really well, cares about public education. Her opponent has done nothing but oppose what the school board has asked for. Our candidates care about the county. They care about our issues and they want to move it forward.

CLICK HERE to donate to Vote Local via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue page!

Long-time teacher, challenging wingnut Rep. Jim Jordan, comes out swinging with upset possible

It didn’t take long for the overuse of #Resistance to become a painful cliché, a punchline on Twitter used to gently mock the overly earnest and poke holes in the cynical and misinformed. But last week, we were reminded over and over that we really are in the middle of a struggle of civilizational struggle against really hateful, malevolent people and the people they exploit. The pipe bombs, the massacre at the synagogue, the endless harassment of women and minorities — it will all continue unless we do something about it.

It’s incredible to see the kind of work that is going into getting out the vote, despite the endless obstacles being thrown at them by Republicans. After a bus of black voters was pulled over by Georgia police for no good reason, ten more busses, filled with 500 voters, were sent to the polls by groups like Black Voters Matter. (You can donate to the ongoing GOTV efforts HERE.) In Texas, despite record voter intimidation and voting machines that seem to be literally changing results to the GOP, there are women in deep red parts of the state meeting in secret to help get out the vote for Beto O’Rourke.

Continue reading “Long-time teacher, challenging wingnut Rep. Jim Jordan, comes out swinging with upset possible”

Julie Oliver, in TX-25, is running one of the most inspiring campaigns of 2018

After years of establishment Democrats running rote, indistinguishable TV ads and peddling cautious, focus-group-tested messaging, a wave of fresh, progressive candidates have decided to communicate like actual humans. Fresh faces such as Randy Bryce and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have produced a series of especially moving digital ads that have gone viral, and this week, even amidst the Kavanaugh calamity, a new progressive star was born.

Julie Oliver, who is running to represent Texas’s 25th district in Congress, narrates her own life story in the ad; she grew up in near-poverty and ran away from home as a teenager, squatting in abandoned buildings until she got pregnant at 17. Shunned by her boyfriend’s family, she returned home, where her mother agreed to help her — on the condition that she get back to school.

The rest is the sort of up-from-your-bootstraps American Dream success story that seems to only happen in movies or very hypothetical conservative scenarios: Oliver worked and raised her family while attending college and law school, and now at 45-years-old, she’s an accomplished lawyer and community leader running for Congress. Her experience makes her uniquely empathetic to the needs of working people, a quality in short supply in Washington today.

Continue reading “Julie Oliver, in TX-25, is running one of the most inspiring campaigns of 2018”

Teachers went on strike. Now, they’re taking over the government.

Sixteen months ago, Cyndi Ralston was retiring after 30 years on the job as an elementary school teacher. Now, she finds herself working two full-time jobs, back in the classroom and running for the Oklahoma State House. The campaign meant that she had no summer break, having instead spent her time “off” knocking on doors, holding events, and rallying her neighbors to take the final steps toward toppling the far-right regime that had thrown the entire state’s education system and infrastructure into disrepair.

“It’s kind of crazy the way it’s all falling into place — this was never in my life plans,” Ralston, who is running to represent District 12, told me last week. “My poor husband is already like, well, I guess I’ll see you on the weekends, dear. I mean, he’s already gotten used to it. I’m never home. But someone had to do it.”

When I spoke with Ralston last April, she was driving home from Oklahoma City, where she had spent yet another day helping lead a teacher walkout over the tattered conditions of the state’s beleaguered, underfunded public schools. Her retirement had been short-lived; she jumped back in the classroom just months after announcing her departure, mostly because no one else would do it. By the spring, she was leading a brave teacher walkout in an effort to save public education.

Over the prior decade, Oklahoma gave billions of dollars in tax cuts to millionaires and fracking and oil companies despite severe budget shortfalls, robbing public education budgets to do it. Between 2008 and 2015, public education was slashed over 23%; photos of shredded textbooks went viral last spring as the nation finally took notice of the damage. In tense budget negotiations, a majority of Republican lawmakers agreed to increase taxes on gas production slightly (though still far below pre-2008 rates) to give teachers a $6000 pay increase.

Not all Republican lawmakers supported even that small pittance, and an increased education budget was dead on arrival, leading the teachers to walk out.

CLICK HERE to donate to Cyndi Ralston and other teachers running for office as Democrats in Oklahoma and Kentucky!

The strike led to a slight education budget increase, but nothing close to adequate. So teachers, generally apolitical in Oklahoma, decided to take matters into their own hands, running for office to unseat the Republicans that voted against raises and education funding. Oklahomans, while generally conservative, supported the strike by a wide margin. And they proved it in primary elections this summer, as a dozen of the GOP legislators that voted against teacher raises were ousted by more moderate Republicans who publicly supported them and were not as beholden to extremist special interests.

“Oklahoma’s waking up and not as strongly red as we were,” Ralston, a longtime Democrat, says. “And as fast as they put us on that map for President Trump, we’ve got people that didn’t vote but have said no, we have to vote — it didn’t turn out well when we just stayed out of it.”

Ralston’s opponent, Kevin McDugle, was famously outspoken against teachers, and when he published a Facebook note ripping them for taking action, Ralston officially announced her campaign. McDugle won his primary by three votes, a squeaker that Ralston says he would have last had McDugle’s opponent not literally withdrawn from the race. There are ten anti-raise legislators left; eight have teachers running against them. Ralston is working to finish the job of ousting McDugle, and at times, she finds herself having to battle a bad conservative-fueled narrative about why teachers go on strike.

“I’ll have people that will say, ‘I don’t think teachers should have walked out and gotten a raise,’ so it’s been good to talk to people one-on-one. I’ll tell them that the teachers did not ask for the raise. The school superintendents were the ones that were asking for the raise because they can’t find new teachers to hire,” Ralston says. “I say the teachers were going for resources in our classroom so that we could get textbooks and technology to teach children. Teachers walked because they didn’t give that to us.’ They say, OK, I didn’t know that, and I can accept that.”

And it’s evident to everyone, even those not all that keen on the strike, that the crisis is far from over. Oklahoma issued more emergency teacher certifications this year — over 2100 — than any time in the state’s history. And very, very modest increases in education funding cannot patch over giant craters left by years of bombs dropped by Republicans owned by rich oil interests.

CLICK HERE to donate to Cyndi Ralston and other teachers running for office as Democrats in Oklahoma and Kentucky!

“I actually got math textbooks. I still don’t have enough. It’s lovely to have an actual set of books and have actual manipulatives to use in class — oh my gosh, it felt like Christmas, we got something we haven’t gotten in ten years,” Ralston says, laughing with only a hint of irony. “But it’s not enough. We’ve got a class set and we’ve got three classes. I have had to make copies and the kids have to copy things down. They were talking about replacing English books, but I don’t know where they ended up. I think they were going to look and see which were are the oldest, to try to get a set of those books replaced. So it didn’t end up very much at all.”

Still, it’s a start, and Ralston has seen the power that teachers have in the state.Between education, looming Medicaid work requirements — Ralston is vehemently opposed — and redistricting at play, teachers and parents are motivated as never before. Her message is simple if a bit sarcastic — typical for a whip-smart, funny teacher who has spent over 30 years around second graders: “Why don’t you stop giving oil and gas companies tax breaks and let people hold on to what little you’re giving them?”

With an open gubernatorial election that could flip to Democrats due to the collective hatred for outgoing Gov. Mary Fallin, progressive Democrats have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn Oklahoma blue (or at least very purple) once again.

CLICK HERE to donate to Cyndi Ralston and other teachers running for office as Democrats in Oklahoma and Kentucky!

The Resistance is Rural: Scott Walker and the Wisconsin GOP challenged by progressive farmers

Democrat Kriss Marion is a farmer, small business owner, and mother of four who lives in rural Wisconsin. Her campaign manager is an award-winning cheesemaker. They could not be more Wisconsin, and together, they’re running what is one of the most crucial local elections in the country.

Wisconsin was the birthplace of the modern American progressive movement, where great leaders and determined activists put forth the idea that the government should work on behalf of the average citizen instead of the corporate monopolies and moneyed elite.

But for the last eight years, Republican Governor Scott Walker has worked to tear down that legacy by assaulting unions, cutting education, throttling voting rights (throwing Wisconsin to Donald Trump in 2016), enabling pollution, and letting infrastructure crumble as he gave billions away to major corporations.

Now, his reign of terror is coming back to haunt him. Walker, who is seeking his third term in office, is trailing Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Evers, the state’s Supervisor of Public Instruction, in the polls. Not only that, but thanks to some big wins earlier this year in special elections, Democrats have a very real chance of taking back the gerrymandered State Senate.

CLICK HERE to contribute to Tony Evers, Kriss Marion and crucial Democrats in Wisconsin!

 

Marion’s race, for Wisconsin’s 17th State Senate district, is one several the elections that will determine the balance of power in Madison. She currently serves on the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, where she helped pass laws that allowed small farmers and bakers to sell food locally, competing with the chains that were dominating the area. Now she’s seeking to take the fight on behalf of working families to the state level. I hopped on the phone with her late last week to talk about her campaign, her priorities, and the issues facing Wisconsin.

You’re on the County Board right now — what inspired you to get into politics in the first place, and why run for State Senate?

I’m a small farmer and I own a bed and breakfast here and for some time I’ve been a grassroots organizer with the Farmers Union, which is a group that stands up for family farms and rural communities. Along those lines is water protection. I’ve been fighting for reasonable water protections in our area and in Wisconsin for a long time and I’m trying to educate the public about what goes on with groundwater. We have groundwater here versus collecting surface water, so we’re real vulnerable to different pollutants; they go right into our drinking water.

That was the thing that got me going. And then I got on the County Board, to try and start a conversation about water and also about rural redevelopment. We are very agricultural out here and we need more options. So I wanted to work on economic development and obviously you bump into state issues, so I ended up going to the capital a lot to talk to my representative. I realized that they were not going to make the changes that we needed here for our rural community. So I thought it was time to do something about it myself.

And Scott Walker and the GOP have been less than friendly to the environment.

There have been debilitating cuts to the Department of Natural Resources. They took references to climate change off the DNR website. We’re in a real intense shortage of environmental workers and watchdog. And in addition, Wisconsin has had a big drive to remove wetland protections so that we can fast-track building for developers and large manufacturers.

Right now we are in the middle of catastrophic flooding that is destroying lots of property and infrastructure in southwest Wisconsin. And it’s not the complete answer, but protecting wetlands is a huge way that we can mitigate the impact of high precipitation.

And that ties into the economic policy of shredding regulations in addition to giving companies, like Foxconn, which got $4 billion from the state, enormous and controversial tax breaks to move there.

Foxconn is nowhere near our district but we’re paying handsomely for it as taxpayers over here in southwest Wisconsin. Foxconn not only got a huge pass when it comes to wetlands, but they’ve opened the door for everyone else to ask for the same. They got record-breaking tax incentives, eight times the average national incentive per job. The Foxconn development, where it’s under construction, is flooding horrifically because it’s on a wetland as well.

My heart is with rural communities. I live in a town of 825 people. I’m sitting here in my campaign office, in an old building on Main Street where we can watch tractors go by in between pickups and ATVs and commuters. And my biggest concern is that we are able to survive and thrive. And so things like Foxconn take money off the top of the budget, and that’s money that we’re not putting towards schools or healthcare or roads. Every service the state provides, budgets have been cut and slashed while giving companies record-breaking tax incentives.

CLICK HERE to donate to Tony Evers, Kriss Marion, and crucial Democratic candidates in Wisconsin!

How have the cuts impacted your district?

Don’t get me wrong, Wisconsin is a fantastic place to live, especially rural Wisconsin. I would recommend it to anybody. We want to be here and we want to have this lifestyle, but we need to have the basic tools to build on the beautiful things we have and to protect them and to grow them.

And so that’s infrastructure, right? It’s schools, it’s roads, and broadband. We don’t have basic broadband out here. You have hours on end where you’re traveling and you can’t reach anybody on the phone. There are kids who go home and can’t do homework because they don’t have broadband at home. So we said no to federal money for that. We also struggle with healthcare. People are just trying to make do with so little, but we’re not a third world country. We should be investing in our future.

We found $4 billion to give Foxconn. If we had divided that among all of our regional planning commissions or any other sort of regional economic development setup, you could have kickstarted the economies in any number of counties. They could be making loans or grants to Main Street, to small business owners. We’re incentivizing the wrong things right now in Wisconsin. We have been dead last in the nation for small business startup and entrepreneurial activity for three years running.

Reading about your campaign, I came across a story about how you had gotten sick and moved to Wisconsin in the early 2000s, and how moving to the state literally helped heal you.

I grew up in Bethlehem, PA and lived in downtown Chicago for 20 years, after school. I was raising my kids there and then got really sick. I had the great fortune to be able to go to multiple doctors to get different opinions on what was wrong with me. I finally found one who diagnosed me with rheumatoid arthritis and got me on a great twice-a-week injection regimen that basically gave me the ability to move out of the city, to go explore a country life like I had growing up.

I was so incapacitated prior to that diagnosis. If didn’t have an affordable way to keep seeing doctors, I don’t know where I would be. And my medication was a thousand dollars a month, just a crazy amount of money. Having an insurance safety net really saved my life. So I got better really fast, we came out here, and I got off my drugs after couple of years. Being surrounded by green spaces is what ultimately healed me.

My whole life out here has been about building something productive on my farm and bringing people out to share it. And I’m really, really committed to preserving the clean air, clean water, beautiful agricultural lifestyle for the future and for other people to come and either enjoy it or move here permanently.

CLICK HERE to donate to Tony Evers, Kriss Marion, and crucial Democratic candidates in Wisconsin!

I’ve had my life saved from health insurance several times, but still find myself in medical debt, so I know what you mean.

I have a daughter who works for Deloitte, so she doesn’t hurt for health insurance, but I have four kids. I have others who do day labor in factories and another that is always trying to move up and is often between jobs. The healthcare issues for those kids that don’t have stable work are really terrifying. My daughter Emma, who’s 22, has friends who don’t have stable corporate jobs. They tend to work for a church or they work at a bar or at a restaurant and they literally decide from day to day, do I take my medication or do I eat?

Out here, we have a lot of people who are on plans that their copay is so high that they wait and wait to go to the doctor. Several people I’ve met have lost family members who didn’t go in for checkups because they didn’t want to pay the copay and then died of breast cancer that was fast-moving.

The choices that people are making to get by in a low wage economy — our wages are very suppressed in Wisconsin, thanks to the loss of unions, a stagnant startup economy, lots of reasons — we have people who are literally having to make hard choices about their health on a daily basis. It’s trade-offs involving food versus medication versus school, paying off the debt or getting more into that. Maybe it’s time remake the whole thing.

Rural campaigning is very different than urban campaigning — what’s been your strategy?

I’ve been direct-marketing my farm for over a decade on Facebook. The bed and breakfast is almost all word of mouth and AirBnb. We’ll also have been in 50 parades the end of this by November 6th. We’re in an all-rural district with seven counties and just a handful of cities. Everything else is villages. Every village and township, almost every community has their own parade and it might not be worth going door to door rurally, but when you go to a parade, you get not just that community of 200, you get all the communities around them.

I have a farm truck, which is our old fire department truck from the Blanchardville Fire Department, and we had an artist paint billboards on the side of it. We always have a good crowd, people bring their dogs or their sheep or goats or whatever they got. We’re just trying to make democracy fun again. The whole game is to re-engage people because people are depressed, they feel angry about the money in politics. They feel filthy about what’s going on in Washington DC, regardless of what side of the aisle they’re on, you just feel like politics are dirty.

So everywhere we go, we try and be colorful and smiley and optimistic. We’re just trying to remind people that democracy is our privilege and our right, it should be our joy.

CLICK HERE to donate to Tony Evers, Kriss Marion, and crucial Democratic candidates in Wisconsin!