Election’s Over–Time to Begin

Election’s Over–Time to Begin

How millions of Obama volunteers can go to work for a progressive agenda.


MATT HOUSTON/APVincent DeMarco, 2006

You’ve built an organization in your community and across the country that will continue to work for change–whether it’s by building grassroots support for legislation, backing state and local candidates, or sharing organizing techniques to effect change in your neighborhood. Your hard work built this movement. Now it’s up to you to decide how we move forward.   –David Plouffe, Obama campaign manager

What do the Obama campaign organizers do now?

In the election’s wake, left without a common cause are at least 20,000 seasoned and tested organizers. Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman reports that by election day, these organizers had mobilized 5 million volunteers. To them must be added the hundreds of thousands of organizers and volunteers who performed parallel service for MoveOn, ACORN and other independent election campaign organizing efforts.

So, what, if anything, are the organizers to do next? Why not harness their skills to mobilize the millions of Obama volunteers–many of whom found their work to be the uplifting and energizing experience of a lifetime–into an army of demand for Congressional action on the Obama agenda and, where needed, to demand even more than Obama is willing to ask for?

With a progressive president and a progressive Congress, why should this be necessary? The answer is the 15,965 registered Washington lobbyists, who spent $2.4 billion on lobbying just between January and September. Doubtless, with a Democratic president and Congress threatening actually to re-regulate business, they will have at least this formidable a war chest for 2009.

There was a blustery derby in the Democratic primaries about who could be tougher in standing up to the lobbies. But belligerent talk is a featherweight counterweight to the entrenched power of money. Fear, not bluster, is the only counterweight–the officeholder’s fear of getting thrown out of office in the next election. But generating reality-based fear among power holders can be done only by massive organizing that threatens retribution at the polls.

Frustrating the vision of elected progressive leaders is what establishment lobbies do. But there are also models of progressive grassroots organizing that have added weight to bolster good leaders’ demands. I want to describe one in particular, a template that the Obama organizers, volunteers and funders should find as engaging and rewarding as the work they have just finished.

This model had its genesis in the mid-1980s, when a small cadre of political students at Johns Hopkins University won control of the Young Democrats of Maryland, and for the next several years took turns lobbying through the State Legislature a series of significant progressive reforms. They never stopped. By 1989 their leader, Vincent DeMarco, with his Hopkins colleagues and a growing band of activists, was recruited by frustrated progressive executive and legislative leaders, blocked in the legislature by lobbyists, to mobilize public opinion.

Over the next two decades, they defeated, in serial statewide legislative and initiative campaigns, the gun lobby, six times; the tobacco lobby, three times; and, five times over the past ten years, the insurance and other corporate lobbies, including Wal-Mart, that were defending the healthcare system status quo. DeMarco’s campaign template employs three strategies that conventional public interest campaigns overlook, or shun, but Obama campaigners would find useful: (1) reaching out to constituencies far broader and deeper than does the usual policy advocacy coalition; (2) educating the public to the need, the urgency, the worthiness of the policy before lobbying; and (3) then focusing on the election cycle.

DeMarco’s campaigners organized uncommonly broad coalitions of children and youth advocates, health policy advocates, unions, civic associations, churches and other faith communities, and even some less benighted business interests: by 1996 in support of handgun control measures, more than 150 such organizations statewide; by 1999 for huge tobacco tax increases, more than 350 organizations statewide; by 2004 for several measures to reach toward “Healthcare for All,” more than 1,000 Maryland organizations.

The breadth of their organizing was manifest July 30 when a new coalition that DeMarco had visualized and organized, working with the National Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, succeeded in gaining a veto-proof 326-to-102 majority in the US House of Representatives for broad FDA regulation of the tobacco industry and its marketing practices. This they achieved, after decades of strong opposition from the tobacco lobby, by bonding traditional health advocates with multi- issue faith lobbyists (“Faith United Against Tobacco”), from the liberal United Methodists to the conservative Southern Baptists. This unlikely alliance with the Southern Baptists produced yes votes from half of House Republicans.

What makes these achievements resonate now is that in most similar policy campaigns, Obama’s campaign veterans could engage in aggressive voter education designed to pressure all candidates for executive or legislative office to sign a pledge to vote for Obama’s priority legislative proposals. The campaigners would follow up by publicizing the names of the pledge supporters and the refuseniks. In each election the voters rewarded pledge supporters and kicked out at least some of the nonsigners. Then the campaigners monitored the legislators, making sure they remained faithful to their pledges. (And held their feet to the fire if they didn’t!)

Just as in this past election, participation in these successive campaigns can prove equally rewarding and addictive. The words of DeMarco’s colleagues attest to this. One activist explained that these campaigns “give those liberal activists who are involved in various causes something to do that’s very concrete, very tangible.” Another: “You get that incredible feeling that you’re doing good for the world; you’re about to save somebody’s life; you’re about to prevent suffering. Like everybody else involved, when the opportunity comes around to work on another issue campaign you jump right back on. You know you’re going to be on a wonderful ride, a ride worth taking.”

And most relevant for those who toiled in the Obama campaign is this from one of DeMarco’s co-organizers: “When you’re successful in a campaign, you get it in your blood. You realize how exciting it is, and you want to keep doing it forever!”

For the progressive legislative leaders who enlisted DeMarco’s support, the effect was also empowering. Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen, now the highly celebrated chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, served for many years in the Maryland Senate. He was a close ally of DeMarco’s and the “inside” leader in many of his campaigns. Unlike all the other public interest lobbyists who came to him, says Van Hollen, DeMarco brought with him “a grassroots army of citizens paying attention.”

The DeMarco template is well suited to the tasks performed by Obama’s organizers and volunteers, because these policy campaigns succeeded by focusing on elections. President-elect Obama’s supporters have a capacity to initiate and lead election campaigns focused on policy pledges–but on a much grander scale. The traditional progressive constituencies are primed to work for his agenda. And the thousands of organizers who marshaled those constituencies for Obama, not unlike DeMarco and his co-workers, are fully capable of making that happen.

The challenge is to transform a grassroots Goliath organized with only the election in mind into an equally formidable, coordinated and empowered force to transform the public will on the policies that the voters supported into focused political pressure on Congress.

And when even a good president strays or caves, hold his feet to the fire.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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