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Occupy the Polls: Tuesday's Critical Tests of Political Power | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Occupy the Polls: Tuesday's Critical Tests of Political Power

Columbus—Americans who are frustrated with the broken politics of the moment will have plenty of opportunities to Occupy the Polls on Tuesday.

That’s what happened in Boulder, Colorado, last week, when voters shook things up by backing a referendum proposal that calls on Congress to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision that corporations can spend as they choose to buy elections. The same election saw Boulder voters endorse a plan to end the city’s reliance on private power companies and replace them with a public utility.

There are big issues, big races and big tests of the political potency of organized labor, social movements and progressive politics playing out this Tuesday, on the busiest election day of 2011. In some cases, voting offers an opportunity to make an affirmative statement on behalf of a change in priorities. In other cases, there are opportunities to push back against bad politics and bad policies. In still others, there are signals to be sent about the politics of 2012.

Here are some of the big races to keep an eye on Tuesday:

1. OHIO REFERENDUM TO RENEW LABOR RIGHTS

The biggest vote comes in Ohio, where 1.3 million citizens signed petitions to force a referendum vote on whether to implement Governor John Kasich’s assault on collective bargaining rights for public employees and the ability of unions to represent workers on the job and in the political process. Tuesday’s vote, on Ohio Issue 2, has the potential to send a powerful signal about the ability of working people to challenge corporate power. If Ohioans vote “yes” to implement the Kasich’s law, corporations and their conservative allies win. If Ohioans vote “no” on Issue 2, it will be a win for unions and their progressive allies.

If union forces win big in Ohio, the message from that traditional battleground state will be two-fold:

First, Republican governors who attack collective bargaining, labor rights and public education and services will face political fights. Losing on Issue 2 would be a huge setback for Kasich. And that will encourage Wisconsinites who launch their drive to recall and remove Governor Scott Walker on November 15.

Second, Democrats at the national level will be challenged as well. If Ohioans send indicate that voters are determined to defend labor rights and public spending, Democratic governors and President Obama will face pressure to step on and take a stronger stand on those issues.

2. NEW JERSEY VOTE ON CHRIS CHRISTIE’S AGENDA

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is the darling of the Republican right, the candidate conservatives wish was running for the GOP presidential nod. But Christie has problems at home. His approval ratings have fluctuated wildly, as he has attacked teachers and public services. Christie would like verity much to flip control of both houses of the state legislature from the Democrats to his Republican Party. He has campaigned aggressively, recruiting candidates, raising money and framing the election as a test of his agenda.

If Republicans take control of the state Senate, where they need to win just five seats to gain a majority, Christie will get bragging rights. The governor is suggesting it will happen, predicting a “historic” result Tuesday.

But unions such as the Health Professionals and Allied Employees (AFT) have pushed back, hard, not just against Christie but against legislators of both parties who have failed to stand up for public employees and public services. If progressives such as state Senator Barbara Buono (a possible Christie challenger who is popular with unions) are re-elected as part of solid Democratic majorities in the state Senate and the state House, it will be a setback for Christie and the right.

3. WILL THE REPUBLICAN WAVE CRASH IN KENTUCKY?

Was the Republican wave of 2010 the beginning of a permanent shift, or was it a tempest in a teapot? The best place to answer that question will be in the border-state of Kentucky, which voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential race and for Republican Rand Paul in the 2010 US Senate race. If the Republicans are still on the march across the border states and the mid-South, where the party showed so much strength in 2008 and 2010, the home state of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is where the evidence of GOP’s staying power should be most evident.

But polls suggest that Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, a relative moderate (who is, frankly, too friendly with the coal industry) in a region of Tea Party extremism, is running well ahead of a serious and well-funded Republican challenger, Kentucky Senate President David Williams. Democrats are also running strong in down-ballot races, with newcomers such as 32-year-old Secretary of State candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes stirring talk that the party is looking stronger than it has in many years.

Coupled with the Democratic win in an October special election to fill the governorship of West Virginia, another state that voted for McCain in 2008 and saw Republican gains in 2010, a strong showing for Kentucky Democrats would suggest that—even in states where President Obama’s approval numbers are weak, the Democrats can still win state races. This does not mean Democrats will win everywhere, of course; the party is likely to continue to lose ground in the states that made up the old Confederacy, such as Mississippi and Virginia. But few pundits would have predicted just a year ago that Democrats would be on an upswing in border states such as Kentucky.

4. PUSHING BACK AGAINST VOTER SUPPRESSION

Republican governors and legislators, working closely with the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, backed a number of initiatives this year to make it harder for voters in swing states to cast ballots. Restrictive Voter ID laws, shifts in early-voting and same-day registration rules and a host of related assaults on access to the polls advanced in dozens of states. On Tuesday, however, there will be a push back. In Maine, citizens collected 70,000 petition signatures to qualify a referendum that seeks to overturn a law—signed by conservative Governor Paul LePage’s—that bar voters from registering on election day. Maine has historically allowed same-day registration, but LePage and his legislative allies moved earlier this year to end it. That inspired Mainers to petition for Tuesday’s vote, which will allow citizens to veto LePage’s initiative and restore same-day registration.

This is a big deal, not just because Maine is a swing state but because it will send an important pro-democracy signal. As Steven Carbo of Demos (which has made the Maine vote a high priority) says, “States with same-day registration consistently lead the nation with voter turnout.”

The Protect Maine Votes campaign adds: “Since 1973, Election Day registration has worked. Maine’s elections are efficient and the system has had few problems. We have had same-day voter registration for almost 40 years now, and it works well. We have one of the highest voter participation rates in the country, and no significant problems with voter fraud. The politicians in Augusta should not be trying to get rid of it.”

There will be other democracy tests Tuesday, including a referendum on whether to require Voter IDs in Mississippi. There are also local referendums in San Francisco on issues of transparency and whether to allow elected officials to overrule citizen-sponsored initiatives.

Not all democracy fights take the form of referendums, however. In Kentucky, Democratic Secretary of State candidate Grimes has rejected proposals for a Voter ID law in that state and argued for allowing ex-felons to vote. While her Republican opponent has demagogued these issues, Grimes has maintained a steady commitment to democratic procedures and practices.

5. A NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN

San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey has, over the past three decades, proven that it is possible to protect public safety while maintaining progressive values. Now Hennessey is retiring. So how does San Francisco replace the man the San Francisco Bay Guardian describes as “the most progressive sheriff in the state, maybe the nation”? With San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, a veteran campaigner for social and economic justice who has focused on public safety and criminal justice so effectively that Hennessey says: “Ross is the person I want to see in the job.” The Bay Guardian says of Mirkarimi: “In seven years on the Board of Supervisors, he was not only a leader on environmental and public safety issues but was an utterly reliable progressive vote. He represents part of the next generation of progressive leadership in San Francisco, and we’re proud to endorse him for sheriff.”

It matters that progressives hold law-enforcement positions. And Mirkarimi has the potential to emerge as a national leader on issues ranging from capital punishment to real rehabilitation to voter rights for ex-felons to challenging “the new Jim Crow” crisis of massive incarceration. Mirkarimi takes risks; he talks about the wisdom of giving tax breaks to businesses that hire ex-cons, knowing that will cause him to be attacked, but knowing as well that new ideas are necessary.

Mirkarimi has a real chance to win the sheriff’s job in San Francisco. But he is not the only progressive bidding for a law enforcement post. In Philadelphia, Green Party candidate Cheri Honkala, a longtime campaigner for the rights of the poor and the homeless, is running to be “the people’s sheriff.” Honkala’s blunt about what that means: “I’m running for Sheriff of Philadelphia to keep families in their homes. Every 7 seconds in this country a family is going into foreclosure. The banks received billions of dollars in taxpayer bailout money and yet they refuse to help out struggling homeowners and continue to increase blight and homelessness in our communities. Well, I’m here to act as the people’s bailout! When I’m elected Sheriff, I will refuse to throw anyone out of their home. We live in the richest nation in the world and there is no reason why we can’t house every man, woman, and child.”

6. CHALLENGING ARIZONA’S ANTI-IMMIGRANT POLICIES, AND POLITICIANS

Wisconsin is not the only state where progressive forces are fighting to recall Republican extremists. Arizona State Senate President Russell Pearce, who as a member of the state House wrote legislation intended to deny state services to undocumented immigrants and that required picture identification to vote, and who as a senator wrote Arizona’s notorious Senate Bill 1070, which requires police to investigate the immigration status of people who are detained, faces a serious threat to his position as one of the state’s most powerful political players.

Citizens for a Better Arizona, a labor-backed group co-founded by savvy activist Randy Parraz that has worked with local and national groups such as Progressive Democrats of America, collected 18,315 signatures earlier this year—more than twice the required number—on petitions that demanded that Pearce face the voters. That will happen Tuesday, when the senator is challenged by another Republican, Jerry Lewis, who complains that, because of Pearce and his allies, “people outside of Arizona see us as something akin to 1964 Alabama.”

After a brutal campaign that featured accusations that Pearce supporters recruited a political neophyte to try and attract Hispanic votes from Lewis, Parraz says: “Our movement to recall Senator Pearce has surpassed the expectations of many of our supporters BUT now we have entered the final push to successfully remove and replace the 1st Senate President in the history of the United States.”

7. R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Mississippi will vote on an anti-abortion measure that defines human personhood as beginning at the moment of fertilization. But, for the most part around the country, social issues have taken a backseat to economic concerns. There are a few key tests to keep an eye on, however.

In Iowa, a special election to fill an open state Senate seat could decide whether the state will reopen the issue of same-sex marriage. Iowa allows gays and lesbians to marry (thanks to a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling), but conservatives have been trying to overturn the provision. They have failed because Democrats retain control of the Iowa Senate and Democratic leader Mike Gronstal has refused to allow debate of to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Gonstal says he doesn’t wish to “write discrimination into the state constitution.” Tuesday’s special election will decide whether Gronstal continues to lead a Senate with a 26-24 Democratic majority of one where a 25-25 split forces power-sharing with the Republicans. That’s made the race for the Marion, Iowa, area Senate seat a fierce battle, with Democrat Liz Mathis receiving support from progressives who want Iowa to continue to bar discrimination.

In the nation’s fourth-largest city, Houston Mayor Annise Parker—the first elected gay mayor of a major US city—is expected to be re-elected with ease. In San Francisco, Bevan Duffy, an openly gay supervisor (whose TV ads are the best of the season), is one of the leading candidates in a crowded race for mayor. In Holyoke, Massachusetts, Alex Morse, the founder of Holyoke For All, the city’s first LGBT nonprofit organization, has attracted broad support for his mayoral run.

8. THE OCCUPY CANDIDATE

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos started his run for mayor with far less money and name recognition than many of the other contenders. And he still faces an uphill run. But Avalos has attracted endorsements from the Bay Guardian, the Service Employees and the San Francisco Democratic Party. And he has upped his profile immensely by joining “Occupy San Francisco” protests, defending the movement in national television appearances and bringing key issues to the forefront.

In particular, Avalos has highlighted financial issues, arguing that San Francisco should take steps to create a municipal bank similar to the publicly owned and managed State Bank of North Dakota. Says Avalos: “We need to create a bank for Everyday Giants, and not Corporate Giants. San Francisco has a budget of over $6.5 billion, which is currently held at Wells Fargo and Bank of America. Instead of lining the pocket of corporations who created the current economic crisis, the residents of this city should be able to choose where their tax dollars go, and whom they benefit. We can create our own local bank, one that serves our local economy. With our own municipal bank, we will be free from the tyranny of big banks whose fraudulent mortgage practices have caused suffering for our families and a disaster for our economy. We can leverage our tax dollars to provide loans for our small businesses, generate new revenue, and keep families in their homes.”

9. DECLARATIONS OF INDEPENDENCE

For indications about how independent and third-party political movements are making an impact, keep an eye on the vote for Kentucky independent gubernatorial candidate Gatewood Galbraith, a frequent candidate who made a name for himself as a critic of misguided drug laws. This year, Galbraith is running with the backing of the United Mine Workers union and Willie Nelson, among others. And he has run an innovative campaign that has talked about funding public education and awarding each high school graduate a $5,000 voucher for books, tuition and fees to any institution of further learning within Kentucky that can train them for employment, whether it be college, vocational school or workplace training. “This is not a bank account and can not be spent on pizza, rent or beer,” says Galbraith’s campaign. “It is solely for the direct educational expenses meant to further train all of our graduates for future employment and gives them 10 years to use it. It is a very precise investment into education and employment.” Polls suggest put Galbraith in third place, but with credible numbers

Philadelphia sheriff candidate Cheri Honkala is one of a number of Green candidates making serious bids in communities across the country, from Portland, Maine, to San Francisco. Honkala recently won the endorsement of the National Organization for Women. Like Avalos in San Francisco, she has embraced the “Occupy” message and the politics of protest in the streets and at the polls.

It is notable that in a number of cities, such as San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, ranked-choice voting will give voters more opportunities to back candidates who are not running on the Democratic or Republican lines.

10. NEXT STEPS

Wisconsin will hold a special election for an open state Assembly seat Tuesday, and La Crosse County Supervisor Jill Billings, a Democrat backed by labor, is expected to win, dealing another setback to Governor Scott Walker’s agenda. But the real action begins next week, when Wisconsinites will begin passing petitions to force the recall of Governor Scott Walker. If labor and progressive forces win big in Ohio Tuesday, the Wisconsin campaign will get a boost in the days leading to next Tuesday’s launch of the drive to collect more than 540,000 valid signatures demanding that the anti-labor governor face the voters. Rallying Ohio activists in Columbus on the eve of Tuesday’s vote, Wisconsin AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale said, “We are here because your fight is our fight and our fight is to reclaim the middle class.”

“Not surprisingly,” added Bloomingdale, “we are seeing the same corporate front groups involved in Issue 2/SB 5 that are defending Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his extreme political allies. This is a coordinated effort to destroy the middle class to further enrich the wealthy. But we can set them back…”

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