How We Spend Campaign Money Screws Young Activists in the Places We Need Them Most

Local community activists in Oxnard who worked to elect Jacqui Irwin to state assembly

Local community activists in Oxnard who worked to elect Jacqui Irwin to state assembly

I live in Ventura County, California, the battlefield of one of the most hotly contested congressional races in the country this year.  Eastern Ventura County is heavily Republican, populated largely by upper-middle-class white families who have fled farther and farther from the suburbs of Los Angeles into the distant exurbs.  Western Ventura County is heavily Democratic, blue-collar and majority Latino, too far from LA to commute, with an economy built instead on local agriculture, oil and the military.  Two years ago, the first Democrat was elected to represent the area in 70 years, the result of rapid demographic change, an end to longstanding racial gerrymandering, and high Latino voter turnout.  This year millions of dollars were spent to defend the freshman Democrat’s seat on Capitol Hill against a strong Republican challenger in a nail-biting race where she wasn’t declared the victor until long after Election Day.

I work for a social justice organization in western Ventura County, meaning I have one of the few year-round political jobs available to locals.  Every election season we watch a massive influx of resources pour into the region for political campaigns.  And then after Election Day– like magic– it all disappears.  I call this the swing district’s “Resource Curse“—just like an impoverished country whose economy is completely dependent on oil drilling revenue, the volatile surges of money and lack of long-term human development or local control of those resources leads the region to be permanently impaired despite seeing unimaginable riches pass through its borders.

After the election, the young people who worked on campaigns scramble for a few permanent staffer jobs in legislative offices, are forced to find work outside politics, or move to a more urban area.  Since swing districts are rarely in major metropolitan centers, they almost never hold large headquarters of advocacy groups, unions, government agencies or other potential employers of people wanting to go into public service.  And by nature of being a swing district, someone with progressive values might only be willing to work as a staff member for about half of the local elected officials without wanting to vomit on a daily basis.

Then when election season rolls around again, campaigns struggle to find locals to hire with political savvy and campaign experience, and end up importing many campaign workers from across the country who have more difficulty connecting with voters because they lack Spanish fluency or knowledge of local communities.  To some extent they can rely on hiring people trained by community organizations like mine, but the kind of scale we have pales in comparison—our election budgets number in the tens of thousands rather than the millions thrown around in heavily targeted partisan races.  Moreover, pulling canvassers and phonebankers from local organizations or labor unions who would be working on the election anyway is a bit of a zero sum game.

Nationally centralizing political resources rather than developing local political infrastructure also hurts local politics in “purple” communities.  While enormous resources were spent on our congressional and state assembly races in Ventura County, city councils and school boards, which have more impact on the day-to-day lives of locals, were mostly ignored.  In the largest city in the district, republicans came 10 votes away from picking up a seat on the council of an overwhelmingly democratic city after outspending a democratic incumbent 3 to 1.  If a fraction of the resources that had gone into the higher level races had been spent down-ballot, this race would have been an easy win.  Today’s city council and school board are tomorrow’s state legislature and congress, and it’s not unusual for congressional candidates in swing districts to be imported from outside the district because of a shallow local democratic bench.

But more importantly, this boom and bust cycle permanently stunts the career development of young progressive activists from the politically shifting areas where we need them most.

It’s not hard to imagine a solution.  Could the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have predicted two years ago that California’s 26th congressional district would be a close election again in 2014?  Obviously.  The day after the 2012 election, could they have chosen to hire a couple of local former campaign staff to stick around long-term?  Easily.  Could the work those staff do year-round potentially be more impactful than overwhelmed voters seeing yet another TV ad or mailer in the last few weeks of campaign season?  Political consultants way above my pay grade might tell you no, but I’d argue yes.

A stable, long-term investment in the development of progressive politics in swing districts or states could look like this:

  • Staff to register graduating high school seniors every spring and new community college students every fall in low-income neighborhoods with low voter registration and turnout rates.  They could also run vote-by-mail-conversion drives and citizenship drives of green card holders who haven’t applied for citizenship.
  • Staff to recruit and train a strong base of local progressive activists who can be engaged in issue-advocacy year-round and pivot to elections during election season after having already been trained on phonebanking, canvassing, and volunteer management.
  • Staff to run petition drives that can push progressive policies on both national and local issues while developing the skills of local activists and building targeted lists of progressive voters and potential volunteers.  Canvassing on issue campaigns in low-income neighborhoods year-round also helps build voter engagement that shows itself in higher turnout during elections.
  • Staff to amplify progressive frames and messages in local media on both national and local issues through press conferences, op-eds, letters to the editor, etc., shaping local voters’ views on national and state-level political battles long before the election.
  • Staff to encourage and advise progressive community leaders to run for local office, building the long-term bench of candidates for state or federal office, especially in shifting regions where local offices may be dominated by conservatives.

One year-round full-time staff member in a congressional district could do all of this without much difficulty.  For an organization like the DCCC, this would take virtually no resources.  According to Nate Silver, there are only about 35 congressional districts that could reasonably be considered swing in the entire country.  I estimate at less than 5% of the $60+ million they spend every two-year election cycle, the DCCC could hire a local as a year-round field organizer in every one of them.  If these field organizers were asked to develop the local donor base as part of their job, even that cost would be significantly less.

This concept is similar to Organizing for Action, the attempt by Obama campaign folks to adopt community organizing strategies post-election.  But Organizing for Action never had much success, in my opinion because they failed to adequately staff up with organizers on the ground.

To some extent, this is also the type of work done by community organizing groups like the one I work for.  But most community organizing groups work in big cities far away from swing districts and most are 501c3 nonprofit organizations that are banned by the tax code from engaging in candidate races.  And national partisan donors often don’t see their interests as aligned with local social justice organizations—my organization’s political arm was primarily focused on ballot initiatives for prison sentencing reform and banning fracking rather than the congresswoman’s reelection.

These are also the functions that should be carried out by effective county democratic parties, but the way we spend campaign money now keeps local parties in swing districts perpetually weak, while resources and decision-making power are concentrated at the state or national level and only surge into these districts during elections.  Instead, the places that have powerful local party organizations are usually overwhelmingly democratic urban areas.

This is an outsider’s unsolicited advice—I don’t work for the Democratic Party and never have.  But I care about my community and the people in it, I see how the boom and bust of national political money holds us back, and I hope it’s not naïve for me to think we can do better.

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One comment

  1. Arjun

    I’m skeptical that the Democratic Party will ever be interested in empowering local organizations, especially given the tendency for local organizations centered around social/economic justice to be organizing in ways that run counter to the interests of the Party elites.

    But all this ties in a lot with a key issue around organizing that I have been trying to think through–namely, the question of funding (or more abstractly, what the economic base of grassroots mobilization can be). There are clear and explicit limits in terms of how useful getting money from big political parties and endowments for non-profits can be; and donations always seemed to me a very alienating way of supporting one’s organization.

    Seems like a key task, then, is to figure out how to build up one’s own sources of funding that can support organizing and agitation efforts that aren’t restricted by the moderating tendencies of political parties and non-profit funds; that is, developing revenue-generating enterprises that are in control of the people themselves, and thus can be a proper autonomous base of creating the kinds of sustainable and effective political strategies that you are talking about here. But this, of course, is a colossal task, that arguably conflicts with the immediate need to win reforms via the electoral system.

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