The road to the White House will, as always, run through Pennsylvania in 2020. A swing state at every other level, Pennsylvania had gone blue in every presidential election since 1988 before Donald Trump swung it Republican in 2016, a shocking victory that has largely been chalked up to his strength in the state’s suburbs and more rural counties. But it wasn’t just his own campaign’s strengths that won him the Keystone State — just as crucial was the drop in turnout in urban areas, including Philadelphia.
Sure, Hillary Clinton won 82% of the vote in Philly, but percentages can be misleading — she beat Trump by about 35,000 fewer votes than Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign. Turnout was down in the city’s less affluent wards, and while some of the blame certainly falls on the Clinton campaign, the city itself also deserves some heat for ongoing voting issues.
Even in the 2018 election, when Democrats won some big elections in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia ranked 63rd out of 67 counties in voter turnout. It’s a troubling number, especially in a big city that could use a lot more democracy. And as much as grassroots organizations can work to register and turn out voters, the onus is also on the city to make voting much more accessible. That is the job of the City Commissioner’s office, which oversees Philadelphia’s elections and runs its voter education programs.
So, how do we help reform that little-known but absolutely crucial office? Enter Jen Devor, a long-time community organizer and committeeperson for the city’s 36th ward. She has been working to build grassroots power within Philadelphia’s working communities for over a decade. The Commissioner’s office consists of three members, including two for the majority (Democratic) party, and she’s running in a crowded primary on the idea of turning it into a year-round outreach and education operation, to rekindle democracy in the city and ultimately increase turnout.
Progressives Everywhere spoke with Devor about her campaign, the issues with Philadelphia’s voting system, and how she plans on fixing them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.