Picking Up Where the Rainbow Left Off
"I am the New Hampshire caucus," Max Gordon tells me with a grin. She'd come from her hometown of Atkinson (pop. 6,178) to Washington, DC, for the national summit of the fledgling Progressive Democrats of America, looking for allies.
She would find plenty. Despite a snowfall that paralyzed the city, it would prove to be the largest gathering PDA had organized to date. From staunch Upper West Side Kerry supporters to veterans of the Dean and Kucinich campaigns to committed Greens to members of Code Pink and Rainbow/PUSH, the summit drew participants from across the progressive spectrum, all of them engaged by PDA's objective: organizing the grassroots to retake the Democratic Party, state by state.
Conceived as a progressive challenge to the corporate-dominated Democratic Leadership Council, in just under six months PDA has organized chapters and caucuses in thirty-six states. It aims to organize in all 435 Congressional districts, providing a "philosophical home within the Democratic Party for the progressive community" that can be leveraged into support for progressive candidates. Howard Dean's insurgent run for the 2004 presidential nomination exposed just how far from the grassroots the Democratic Party has drifted and how much energy is there to be unleashed by a steadfast progressive message.
Before the campaign season Lu Bauer had never been involved in politics. In her home state of Maine, the Democratic Party returned to the caucus system for the 2004 presidential nomination process. Elected as a delegate to the state convention, Lu was shocked to find that the party had no record of her election; the results of other caucuses were similarly incorrect or missing. It was a degree of disorganization that effectively amounted to disenfranchisement. Lu (now one of PDA's two regional coordinators for New England) and her allies have since established a PDA caucus outside the state party structure to avoid the party's financial oversight.
Meanwhile, down in Texas, Stan Merriman and Sherill Smith had already been battling their state party for close to three years. As Smith told an appreciative workshop audience: "Democratic candidates and their consultants were setting the agenda for the Democratic Party with no input from the grassroots. Zilch. Sound familiar?"
Dismayed by the repeated hammer blows suffered by the Texas Dems, they'd formed the Texas Progressive Populist Caucus (now affiliated with PDA) and immediately called for the resignation of the state party chair. Barred from committees and meetings of the state executive committee, they were eventually victorious, and their caucus now holds 25 percent of the Committee seats. They've used their newfound leverage to throw open its meetings and pass resolutions making it far more difficult for a small, centralized group to dominate the party platform process.
These examples show that, as Kevin Spidel, PDA's deputy director, puts it, "PDA is trying to facilitate a progressive movement that already exists. We see ourselves as facilitators and strategic organizers." One of the critical challenges it faces is moving beyond the predominantly white base of the Dean and Kucinich campaigns from which it has drawn its initial support. In the words of Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. during the conference's keynote address, "We speak on behalf of a rainbow coalition we have not seen yet."
PDA has made early strides on this front by appointing veteran African-American leaders to national positions in the organization and emphasizing alliance-building with venerable civil rights groups like the NAACP. In Ohio PDA served as a crucial bridge between the recount efforts of the Greens and Libertarians and the involvement of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, facilitating the alliance that brought about Senator Barbara Boxer's historic refusal to go along with the electoral vote certification.
Chris Owens, son of Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens, came to the summit looking for inspiration. "This is not an easy thing, to be a 'progressive' Democrat. We have a struggle within our party and we have a struggle within our country." Owens stayed through the weekend and seemed ready to fight.
PDA may represent the advent of the grassroots organization that the Rainbow Coalition failed to sustain. This time around, it's a movement that doesn't depend on the charisma of a Jackson or a Kucinich or a Dean. By noon Sunday, the New Hampshire caucus had tripled in size.