How to Build a Farm Team
I ride along with Gilliss on a visit to a State Senate candidate and quirky trial lawyer, Yvonne Ward. Ward rides a Harley and totes a .357 Magnum. She also preaches for civil liberties and against the Bush Administration's domestic spying. On her pickup she sports two bumper stickers: Proud to Be an Asian American and an anti-tort reform message: First They Take Our Jurors, Then They Take Our Guns. Ward is an enthusiastic campaigner. She has knocked on 4,000 doors, persuading blue-collar voters in her swing district to support her. She's been less successful with the big progressive organizations--potential donors that Progressive Majority tried to connect her with, whom she alienated in her last, unsuccessful campaign.
"I didn't give her money after the primary, simply because I didn't think she was going to win," says Karen Cooper, Washington's executive director of NARAL. "Afterward, I ran into her at an event, and she was rude. Why would you be rude to someone who gives away money?" Ward says she's learned "not to take it personally" when interest groups do things she doesn't like--like supporting less progressive candidates. "It's illogical, but I'm not going to worry about it." Gilliss nods and smiles. Ward has improved since her last run. "I think she's learned a lot, and she'll be a great candidate this time," says Cooper.
Progressive Majority has stuck by her and, Ward says, influenced her in ways both practical and profound. "They had a question on their questionnaire on gay rights. I didn't want to get involved. Then they took me to meet with some people at [a Washington gay rights group], and they pressed me, and I had to think. That was a personal growth moment for me."
In a way, Progressive Majority's work is a test of whether it's possible to forge a majoritarian, progressive politics. The left is often accused of being a collection of balkanized interest groups. Can progressives connect minority voters, labor, environmentalists, abortion rights and gay rights activists with a unifying theme that appeals to most voters? Yes, says Holli Holliday, deputy director for program management. When Progressive Majority recruits candidates, "We talk about how those things interrelate as values. It really makes sense to them." In some cases, like Ward's, candidates have to be brought along on certain issues. But the group refuses to give one issue priority over another. Candidates must commit to the whole package. Running mainly in swing areas, Progressive Majority's candidates are challenging a conservative political culture.
Take Larry Nelson, who ran for mayor in the majority-Republican town of Waukesha, Wisconsin. George W. Bush carried Waukesha in 2004 with 61 percent of the vote. Nelson's opponent, a member of the State Assembly, ran on her party's mantra, tax relief. Nelson tried to convince voters that tax cuts were not as important as quality of life. Conservative talk-radio host Jeff Wagner predicted that Nelson's opponent "slaughters" him. Instead he won, with a message of good schools, jobs and public services. His victory stunned local pundits.
Progressive Majority stays out of liberal enclaves like Madison and Oberlin. Instead, it focuses on areas the Democrats too often write off. "People assume we're going to be in progressive parts of the state," says Totten. "That's not true. We work in swing areas, because that's where most of the opportunities lie." Progressive Majority candidates recaptured a Colorado Springs school board from conservatives "right in the heart of Focus on the Family country," says Totten, "because we found people who were really of that community. It shows how little attention progressives have paid to these areas."
With the country moving toward a majority-minority population, Progressive Majority also takes very seriously the job of reconnecting people of color to politics. Malia Lazú, who runs the Racial Justice Campaign Fund, got started in politics turning out voters in inner-city Boston. "Kerry made my job damn near impossible," she says. By recruiting candidates within minority communities, Progressive Majority generates more enthusiasm.