Down Home is organizing the rural south and overcoming the legacy of racism

The Democratic Party made much of its inroads in 2018 by picking off low-hanging fruit, flipping some legislatures and half of Congress by winning districts with big demographics shifts, mainly in urban and large suburban areas. It was a huge first step, but any hope of a sustained majority and transformative progress is going to require success in more rural areas, which have become the bright-red homes to some of the most unhinged right-wing Republican lawmakers.

North Carolina is a perfect example. Democrats, powered by new voters in cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, won more votes in the state in 2018, and were able to break the GOP supermajority, but Republicans still won more seats in the state legislature and a whopping 10 out of 13 Congressional seats. Why? In a vile cycle of systemic evil that took decades to install, Republicans took control of rural areas, seized the state government in the 2010 wave election, and then gerrymandered the hell out of the state map. The NC GOP is a melange of unhinged reactionaries, and has been advancing blatantly anti-democratic, anti-human laws ever since, from voter ID to the ignominious anti-trans bathroom bills.

The 2018 election was a good first step for Democrats in the state, but the modest gains could prove short-lived if the 2020 election isn’t even better. “If it’s not divided at least between a majority in the two state houses,” explains Todd Zimmer, the co-founder of the activist group Down Home North Carolina, “the Republicans will be able to draw all the maps again right after the 2020 census and put us right back where we were 10 years ago.”

Democrats need to pick up five seats in the State Senate and six in the State House to take back the majority in each chamber, and now the road to restoring sanity and building equality in North Carolina runs through the still-red rural parts of the state. Down Home NC is helping to lead the charge. They’re working to build grassroots power 365 days a year, with an eye on winning elections at the local level up through the US Senate (North Carolina has a top-tier race in 2020), by organizing working people on a county-by-county level.

“We set out to start building permanent long-term infrastructure, including candidate pipelines,” Zimmer says. As a county-based organization with a state-wide umbrella leadership, Down Home North Carolina right now has three main chapters, two in Appalachian Mountain West and one in the central Piedmont of North Carolina. This will be a year of rapid expansion, with two more planned for 2019, one in the Appalachians and another Piedmont chapter closer to Charlotte. Unlike many groups, the local infrastructure is less a tool for disseminating top-down messages and priorities than rallying grassroots energy tailored to regional needs.

“When we enter a community, we do a several thousand door listening survey to find out what the top issues are for low-income people of all political stripes, and what their top solutions are,” Zimmer says. “We turn that into a platform and our members evaluate potential candidates based on that platform. We are really only trying to support candidates who are speaking to the top issues of rural communities.”

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This little-known Philadelphia office is a key to voter turnout in 2020

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.

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Targeting the worst anti-vaxxer lawmakers

It’s long been clear, thanks to their humanity-dooming inaction on climate change, that Republicans either don’t believe in science or just don’t care about it. Since the rise of birtherism and accelerating with the sickening ascent of Donald Trump, it also became apparent that modern Republicans don’t care much about truth, either — blatant lies and conspiracy theories are now the lifeblood of all GOP discourse.

That has created the perfect storm for the anti-vaccination movement, a parade of malicious absurdity led by cynical goblin lawmakers and paranoid fringe-right lunatics. A rise of parents who have not vaccinated their children has led to a rash of measles outbreaks, with Washington State suffering in particular, and instead of acknowledging this as a public health crisis, these goons have been working overtime to make it worse.

Malicious far-right lawmakers are pushing bills in legislatures nationwide that would weaken vaccination requirements and cater to the paranoid and religious nuts that are their base. The idea that vaccinations cause autism and other disorders has long been discredited, but that hasn’t stopped them from weaponizing the suggestion and pairing it with their deep state conspiracy theories to undermine the health of children. While YouTube and Facebook have pledged to take down anti-vaxxer propaganda, we need to work to take down the lawmakers pushing to turn that spook nonsense into crippling public policy.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the most blatant and awful anti-vaxxer lawmakers. This list can and will be updated as more of them come to the forefront.

Arizona:

State Sen. Kelly Townsend (R-HD-6) is one of the most pernicious and unhinged legislators in office today. The two-term Republican pairs absurd public statements that read like InfoWars headlines with vicious legislation that read like Breitbart wishlists. Among other distinguished positions she has staked out, Townsend is a sworn enemy of teachers and rape victims (and, sidenote, is very confused by furries). Earlier this month, she ramped up her attacks on vaccinations, calling them communist plots and comparing them to concentration camp tattoos. It’s all insane.

While Townsend is the most vocal anti-vax voice in the Arizona legislature, two of her colleagues are taking concrete action, pushing several bills that would loosen child vaccination requirements in the state.

State Rep. Nancy Barto (R-HD-15) is sponsoring three bills in the State House of Representatives that would, among other things, add religious exemptions to vaccination requirements, allow parents to skip required education about the risks of not vaccinating their children, and require medical providers to give parents a detailed ingredient list. That last part is generally considered by experts as counterproductive and fuel for conspiracy theories. Barto is a first-term legislator who squeaked out a victory in 2018, meaning she could be ripe for a flip in 2020.

State Sen. Paul Boyer (R-SD-20), meanwhile, is sponsoring similar bills in the State Senate. He’s also a first-termer (he previously served in the State House) who won his race by less than four points, making him a prime target for 2020, as well.

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Unlike Scott Walker, new Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has a soul

We focus on winning elections, and a lot of times, it feels more like team sports or a fight based on abstract principles. But these races matter — just look at what’s happening in Wisconsin, New Mexico, and several other newly blue (or purple) states.

Wisconsin:

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers unveiled his first budget and it did not disappoint. It’s loaded with progressive priorities, from a raised minimum wage and increased public school funding to automatic voter registration and nonpartisan redistricting reform. It would also fully expand Medicaid, decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, freeze school vouchers, and undo Scott Walker’s signature Right to Work For Less law, which nearly caused the lifelong government succubus to be recalled during his first term.

Even though Democrats won a vast majority of votes in November, the GOP’s egregious gerrymander helped the party keep control of the state legislature, which means that this ambitious budget will have to be scaled back. Republicans have vowed to ignore the funding levels and begin working from their paltry austerity budgets of the past few years, but Evers has laid down some bold markers, and there’s a lot he can do without GOP support.

Fully expanding Medicaid is particularly notable, because Scott Walker refused to do so for six years out of sheer malignant principle. He slightly expanded eligibility, but refused to take it to the point at which the state (and working people) would get hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government. That’s what we call being a spiteful jerk.

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Iowa’s governor tries to steal a legislature seat, PA schedules three special elections

It’s getting to the point that cheap tricks and voter suppression are the only tools that Republicans have to consistently win elections. Take the upcoming special election for the Iowa State Senate, for example. Democratic State Sen. Jeff Danielson resigned in mid-February, triggering a special election in the state’s 30th State Senate district. Newly elected Gov. Kim Reynolds decided to schedule it on March 19th, which just so happens to coincide with the University of Northern Iowa’s spring break.

Here’s a breakdown of just why she did that, via Bleeding Heartland:

Normally, governors are required to give at least 45 days’ notice of a special election to fill a seat in the Iowa House or Senate. But because this vacancy arose during the legislative session, state law says “the governor shall order such special election at the earliest practical time, giving at least eighteen days’ notice.” Reynolds could have set the vote for March 12, but she picked the following Tuesday.

UNI is a huge presence in the district, and Reynolds’ decision to schedule the election earlier than necessary will effectively stop many students from voting. That’s a huge blow to Democratic nominee Eric Giddens, who is a member of the Cedar Falls School Board and has made supporting public education one of his main campaign priorities.

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