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.”
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.
The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is disheartening; the manner in which it went down, with misogynist aristocrats ramming through their classless manchild nominee and spitting in the face of women and assault survivors nationwide, was downright infuriating.
So let’s use that fury to change the country. First, make sure you are registered to vote HERE. In New York alone last month, there were legions of people who thought they were registered but has their names missing from the voter rolls when they went to cast a ballot in the primaries. Georgia and Ohio have purged over a million registered voters alone in the last few years. Other states are doing the same. So check to make sure you are registered, the send it to everyone you know.
And once you make sure you’re registered, it’s time to do help turn out the vote. Now that we are just a month away from Election Day, I want to focus on GOTV efforts. I’ve been wary of public polling, because they have been so often off the mark. But several polls released last week caught my eye not because they tracked any one race, but because they were meant to gauge voting habits by age and gender.
This past week was one of the most jam-packed, dizzying, and disconcerting seven-day stretches in a recent memory filled with surreal and draining bursts of humanity’s war on itself. Donald Trump gave Kim Jong-un the ultimate legitimizing photo opp (and saluted a North Korean general!) last Monday, but it feels like a lifetime ago, given all that’s happened since.
There are so many urgent issues to tackle, including the coming voting purges in red states that were greenlit by an egregiously partisan and misguided Supreme Court decision last week. We’re raising money for Democratic candidates that will stop and roll back those purges — right now, the focus is on helping Kathleen Clyde win the Ohio Secretary of State race — and will get more into that in the weeks to come.
Right now, all of our urgency is trained on the human rights violations happening at the border. Last month, we looked at the controversial case of the missing unaccompanied minors, and the outrage that drew pales in comparison to what’s happening in south Texas right now. Due to Trump and Jeff Sessions’ heartless bigotry and taste for suffering, immigrant children are being incarcerated in a makeshift jail that embodies Trump’s special brand of autocratic, cult-of-personality capitalism. There are over 1500 boys being held in an old Walmart that has been converted into a prison, complete with creepy murals of Trump accompanied by nonsense slogans that would make Orwell sigh with defeat.
The stories that are continuing to come out of these nightmare camps continue to get more and more shocking.
The New York Times today has a story about how most parents are deported before they ever get a chance to see the kids that had been ripped away from them:
Elsa Johana Ortiz Enriquez packed up what little she had in Guatemala and traveled across Mexico with her 8-year-old son, Anthony. In a group, they rafted across the Rio Grande into Texas. From there they intended to join her boyfriend, Edgar, who had found a construction job in the United States.
Except it all went wrong. The Border Patrol was waiting as they made their way from the border on May 26, and soon mother and son were in a teeming detention center in southern Texas. The next part unfolded so swiftly that, even now, Ms. Ortiz cannot grasp it: Anthony was sent to a shelter for migrant children. And she was put on a plane back to Guatemala.
As the federal government continues to separate families as part of a stepped-up enforcement program against those who cross the border illegally, the authorities say that parents are not supposed to be deported without their children. But immigration lawyers say that has happened in several cases. And the separations can be traumatic for parents who now have no clear path to recovering their children.
From April 19 to May 31, a total of 1,995 children who arrived with 1,940 adults were separated from their parents, according to administration officials.
A vast majority of those children are being taken from their parents and put into massive prison camps — and soon to be tent cities — while their parents go through legal hell. Their parents are not criminals. Very often, they’re seeking asylum from war-torn home countries and voluntarily presenting themselves to border patrol, because the law says they should be given a fair hearing and opportunity to stay in America.
Now, they’re being arrested. It’s unprecedented. Here’s a breakdown of the legal process, from Texas Monthly. This is almost a best-case scenario, because it assumes immigrants seeking asylum will even be given a hearing, which is increasingly rare, as the deportations without their children indicate.
That story is beyond infuriating. Parents are being told their kids are being taken for a bath… and then they never see them again. If they try to console their hysterical children when the families are being separated, they’re being threatened with further legal action. This is an atrocity, all done to torture and strike fear into the hearts of suffering people around the world.
Republicans are just letting this happen. Susan Collins, who pretends to be a moderate, refuses to sign on to legislation to help end this horror show. Democrats are rushing to the border in order to help. Beto O’Rourke, who is running for Senate in Texas against Ted Cruz (who is openly in favor of these detentions), represents in Congress the area where the infamous Walmart facility is located. Despite the politics of immigration in Texas, which is dominated electorally by hate-mongers and racists, he led a protest today in hopes of bringing more attention to the matter and pressuring the Trump administration.
There are a number of humans rights groups working at the border and leading protest, including We Belong Together and Women’s Refugee Commission. You can donate to both of them HERE.
This is also a definitive moment for American politicians. Entrenched Republicans, both on the national and state level, will have to answer for their inaction — or in many instances, agreement with these human rights abuses. Look at what Rep. Steve King, the most bigoted and awful man in Congress, said about family separation.
Look at what Ken Buck, who is in line to take over the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, says about immigrant parents just trying to give their kids better lives.
We’re raising money for Democratic challengers to King, Buck, and several Texan state senators who are vulnerable to being toppled this November. Democrats need two seats in the Texas State Senate to stop total GOP ownership over policymaking there. There could be no worthier cause than making sure the state does not cooperate blindly with these illegal federal policies.