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.”

Continue reading “Down Home is organizing the rural south and overcoming the legacy of racism”

The progressive group making a huge impact in red states

By mid-November, it was clear that the midterm elections went really well for Democrats — and even better for progressives.

Grassroots activists were able to enact a slew of progressive priorities via ballot initiatives, even in states where Democrats rarely win elections. In Idaho, Utah, and Nebraska, voters overwhelmingly chose to expand Medicaid. In Michigan, they supported nonpartisan redistricting reform, expanding voting rights, and legalizing marijuana. In Missouri and Arkansas, voters voted to raise the minimum wage. Floridians, meanwhile, gave the vote back to over a million rehabilitated ex-felons.

The list of victories goes on and on, marking triumphs for a number of grassroots groups and the ascendance of one national organization: The Fairness Project, a DC-based 501(c)(4) that works to support local activists at every step of the ballot initiative process. The organization was involved in each minimum wage and Medicaid expansion victory, a win for regulating payday loans in Colorado, and a number of other ballot wins last month.

“By actually putting progressive wins on the board there,” Jonathan Schleifer, the Executive Director of The Fairness Project, tells Progressives Everywhere, “we demonstrated that Americans are much less interested in the divisiveness of the current administration and much more interested — when given the opportunity — to look out for each other and actually make progressive policy.”

After a week filled with lame-duck Republican legislators making a mockery of democracy and thumbing their nose at voters, it’s clear that direct ballot initiatives are going to be even more essential tools in our activism. With that in mind, here is Progressives Everywhere’s conversation with Schleifer about how The Fairness Project goes about supporting grassroots groups and what’s coming next.

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The wreckage from a week of Republican power-grabs

The Republican Party has now fully entered the next phase of its all-out war on American democracy — not only are they cheating in an effort to win elections, they’ll now disregard the will of voters when they lose. After giving it a test run in 2016, when the GOP-controlled North Carolina legislature tried to strip Democratic Governor-elect Roy Cooper of many of his powers, Republicans are going all-in on the strategy in key states across the country.

The scheme played out this past week in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and once again in North Carolina, where Republicans have become the nation’s leaders in abject and blatant cheating. It’s hard to keep up with all the corruption, as so many of the most insidious clauses and maneuvers are nestled into giant bills that were kept secret from the public up until now. To help catch you up, here’s a running list of state GOP’s anti-democratic lame-duck treachery.

Wisconsin:

In a marathon Tuesday night session that stretched into the next morning’s rush hour commute, the GOP-held legislature passed a number of bills that will hamstring Democratic Governor-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul. The state is already gerrymandered beyond belief, which allowed Republicans to keep their legislative majority despite Democrats earning a majority of statewide votes this November. You’d think that would send a message to GOP legislators, but that assumes that modern Republicans have consciences or even self-awareness.

Awaiting outgoing GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s signature are a number of bills that will significantly weaken the executive branch and hurt voters and working people. They will:

  • Curtail early voting, reducing it from six to two weeks before the election;
  • Double down on new Medicaid work requirements
  • Stripping the Attorney General of the ability to remove the state from lawsuits, including the suit against the Affordable Care Act
  • Takes away Evers power to control or disband a key economic development council
  • Require legislative approval for some decisions made by the Governor

Continue reading “The wreckage from a week of Republican power-grabs”

Republicans hate democracy: GOP power grabs happening in Ohio and North Carolina now, too

You have heard — and have been amply outraged by — the naked partisan power-grabbing being done by sore loser Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin. In brief, both states saw Democrats swept statewide elections and will have Democrats entering their Governor’s Mansions in January. So before that happens, the lamest lame ducks are working to restrict the power of the executive — power they were happy to have Republican governors to wield — through tricky legislation that clearly subverts the will of the voters.

In Michigan, the GOP is also gutting the minimum wage increase it passed as a cynical way of avoiding its overwhelming — and binding — victory in a ballot initiative. The GOP is also trying to gut essential parts of the pro-voting and marijuana legalization ballot initiatives that did pass in November.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, the GOP legislature proposed a series of bills that would limit the power of incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, curtail early voting, keep the state enmeshed in the lawsuit against Obamacare, and keep far-right judges in office. They are holding a SINGLE hearing today and plan on voting on it on Tuesday. It’s unclear if they have the votes, but Madison is once again becoming a war zone.

Continue reading “Republicans hate democracy: GOP power grabs happening in Ohio and North Carolina now, too”

Ballot initiatives: Secrets of the most successful progressive strategy in years

Election night 2016 was a nightmare for progressives (and really most Americans), but there was one somewhat surprising and very promising bright spot. Ballot measures pushed by progressive groups were approved by huge margins by voters across the country, resulting in increased minimum wages, expanded Medicaid, and other big policy victories in both blue and red states.

Amazing what happens when the issues are clear and voters are offered a direct chance to improve their lives.

This year, with Republicans dominating government on all level, progressive groups have doubled down on direct democracy to push or fix important policies that corrupt conservatives (and to be fair, many Democrats) have either ignored or openly and cravenly blocked from passing. And as we saw in the massive victory for repealing the toxic “right to work for less” law in Missouri, these are very popular and winnable campaigns.

We’ve covered the red state progressive activists that have gathered enough signatures to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot in Montana, Idaho, and Utah, and there are also a slate of people-powered initiatives that would end gerrymandering in states like Michigan, loosen marijuana laws in Missouri, and fix housing issues in California.  To learn more about the upcoming voter initiatives, Progressives Everywhere spoke with Donna De La Cruz, the communications director for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which helps progressives nationwide launch and strategize direct democracy.

How did a state like Missouri, which is becoming a very red state, vote so overwhelmingly for “right to work” repeal?

For some people just certain issues sort of transcend parties. I think minimum wage is one. With something like the measure in Missouri to repeal the “right to work” law, if it’s messaged right and the public is educated correctly, that makes all the difference.

CLICK HERE to donate to campaigns working hard to pass progressive ballot initiatives!

Why don’t Democrats start campaigning on obviously popular issues? If they see so many people voting to increase the minimum wage, why not champion that, use that language?

Some lawmakers definitely see how powerful ballot measures are. But I think mostly with candidates they don’t really don’t focus on the issues until they see enough polling to see where it’s going to throw their support behind it, which is, which is too bad. They just sort of wait to see how the winds are gonna blow. But I think there are just some initiatives that people just really feel that they want and need. I think the one thing about ballot initiatives is that they’re often not thought of as being partisan.

Definitely right to work was partisan, but things like minimum wage, a lot of people just see it as extra money in their paychecks and not having all the money go to big corporations.

So what does BISC do, as a centralized strategy operation for progressive ballot measures?

We track new track statewide initiatives all year long and we update the list every two weeks. We do a lot of trainings where one of our staffers will go and talk to a group, working them through how the process works. The ballot process works differently in every state.

Sometimes it has to be done through a constitutional amendment. Sometimes you can collect signatures. Sometimes it has to be referred by the legislature. So there are all these different methods and people have to know exactly what the process is. If it’s collecting signatures, they need to know just how many they’re going to need and how many they need from different counties, because you can’t get all the signatures from one area. It’s got to be statewide.

You need to know the cost, like how much manpower do you think you’re going to need? It’s making sure that they are aware that this is not something that can happen quickly in most cases. You have to try to figure out what kind of support you have for it. To see if you can win, but even before you can win, if you can even collect enough signatures to start really campaigning. So there’s a lot of those. We do a lot of those, you know, we do a lot of educational trainings along those lines.

CLICK HERE to donate to campaigns working hard to pass progressive ballot initiatives!

I know that there have been more lawsuits over ballot measures and lawmakers, especially in GOP states, often don’t comply — see Maine and Medicaid — or repeal the measures, right?

Some states are fighting back to keep measures off ballots. North Carolina [Republicans are trying to trick voters into curtailing voting rights] and Michigan’s minimum wage initiative is in court. In Massachusetts, there’s a ballot measure to overturn the state’s anti-discrimination law against transgender people. Even in DC, it’s an example of a pretty heavily Democratic City Council that is trying to overturn a ballot measure that was approved in June during the primary election that would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers. It passed pretty overwhelmingly, but the DC City Council has introduced legislation that would undo it.

Some of these measures are launched by citizens, but there are often big campaigns around them, like in Missouri. What kind of bigger groups have you seen organizing these measures?

There are a couple of climate groups out west that we’re really not a part of, like NextGen. The Restaurant Opportunities group is active in a couple of states to raise the minimum wage. Definitely some unions support paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage as well. It’s a huge variety of groups. There are some really small groups. There’s a group in Florida, we’re really helping them with restoring the right to vote for former felons. That’s Second Chances Florida. They were formed solely to get this amendment on the ballot and then get it passed in Florida.

What kind of legwork does it take to get something on the ballot? How long does it usually take?

I’ll just give you an example. In Washington state, there’s an initiative on the ballot to tax polluters who emit fossil fuels and then they would use that money for clean jobs. That has been discussed for at least at least a couple of years before they even tried to put it on the ballot. I know that it was still being discussed like two years ago, just trying to generate the support and trying to figure out the educational campaign for that. Because that’s a tough one because the average citizen probably never even thinks about a carbon tax.

And I know that with the Florida initiative, you take some polls just to see like what the sentiment is among the residents, whether or not people do agree that ex-felons should be given the right to vote. So it’s a lot of education and just research first.

CLICK HERE to donate to campaigns working hard to pass progressive ballot initiatives!

Florida has a fully Republican state government. Let’s say Democrats flip a lot of legislatures and governorships this year and win power in a lot more states. How do you see ballot measures playing a role in an environment that’s more friendly to the issues they are working to pass?

I would definitely hope that it would be seen as a good leverage tool for citizens. The teachers in Arizona that went on strike earlier this year to get a raise in pay have really banded together to get an education measure on the ballot that would tax the wealthiest people in Arizona and use that money to pay for education. I know that banding together to raise their own pay gave them this idea. But it has not been popular at all. It just survived a legal challenge this week.

So getting all those signatures to get on the ballot definitely doesn’t always mean it’s super-popular or is going to pass.

I think sometimes just because it’s on the ballot, there’s a lot of education that needs to be done. There’s a measure on the Ohio ballot that would affect nonviolent drug offenders and I think that they barely got the number of signatures that they needed to get to get on the ballot. So I think that there’s still a lot of work there.

And people think that ballot measures are just really poorly worded, which they are, and the groups don’t write the ballot language. It’s the secretary of state’s offices and sometimes lawmakers start chiming in. So sometimes it makes no sense, so even if it’s really popular and on the ballot, it can be confusing to people and it’s always the last item on a ballot. So people might have supported it had they known it or if it had a different title or was just easier to read.

CLICK HERE to donate to campaigns working hard to pass progressive ballot initiatives!

What are the kinds of ballot measures you’re seeing the most this year?

Over the last year or two, the minimum wage has still been up there, but this year, we’re seeing a lot of gerrymandering initiatives. In most instances, redistricting is only done every 10 years, so it’s really interesting to see the number of gerrymandering initiatives on there to take the power away from partisan groups and give them to an independent commission. I think that’s a really interesting one to watch.

There’s not as much paid sick leave on the ballot statewide as I think people would have hoped. And I think some people are surprised that there’s not very many gun control measures on the ballot, especially given the shooting at the high school in Florida. Our take is that it was just too quick, there wasn’t enough time for people for people to get the measures on the ballot this year.

People have been really pressuring legislators on guns — maybe they don’t realize that ballot measures can be used for even that issue.

I think more people are definitely seeing the usefulness of ballot measures. I just think sometimes it’s a daunting task, especially if we want to do it statewide. But I think it’s all about educating people and getting the word out.

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