How to Build a Farm Team

How to Build a Farm Team

The grassroots organization Progressive Majority has a modest ambition: Take over state and national politics by 2010. Welcome to the left-wing conspiracy.


Dean Nielsen, head of Progressive Majority’s statewide office in Seattle, is surrounded by color-coded maps, campaign fliers and mountains of demographic research. Nielsen, a veteran of state and federal campaigns, could be running a hot Congressional race or a statewide presidential campaign. The demographer who did John Kerry’s voter-targeting in Iowa in 2004 produced the maps. But the candidate here is running for county commissioner. And the names in dry-erase marker on the wall are candidates for school board and city council.

Welcome to the left-wing conspiracy. It’s not vast. But it could be the start of something big. Progressive Majority recruits local and statewide candidates in a handful of states, funneling money from its national membership to support down-ballot races. The mission is deliberately narrow: Get progressives elected at the local level, and give them the tools to move up. The group has offices in five states now, with plans to expand to eleven by 2008 and twenty soon after.

The group has grown rapidly in two years. Washington was the first, in 2004, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Last year offices opened in Colorado and Arizona. Since 2004 112 candidates have run with a 71 percent success rate. And don’t confuse smallness with lack of power or potential: The group’s savvy has made it a bellwether for progressive politics. “Growing to scale, we could get to twenty-five states,” says executive director Gloria Totten. “But whether you can raise the money is the million-dollar question.” Make that the $24 million question. That’s how much Totten figures is needed to reach a twenty-five-state capacity. Progressive Majority’s current budget is $6.8 million. “Our goals are to take back the state legislatures, and then take those states off the table in national elections,” says Totten.

The ultimate goal: a progressive takeover of state and national politics by 2010. “We could put Democrats in control of redistricting, and have thousands of progressive candidates running every year,” says Totten. “And we’re just not going to support people who are not good on our issues.”

Progressive Majority is uncompromising in its politics. Candidates must get 100 percent on a forty-item questionnaire that tests their commitment to economic justice and civil rights, including gay rights, public education, universal healthcare, environmental protection and abortion. Through its Racial Justice Campaign Fund, the group aims to recruit candidates of color in numbers proportionate to each state’s minority population. There are fifty-three so far. Instead of trying to graft a “diversity” mission onto a largely white national organization, it hires staff who know local communities and have street credibility.

Progressive Majority started in 2001 working with Congressional candidates. “Many of them were trying to run on a Democratic ticket that was telling them they shouldn’t take progressive positions on the issues we cared about,” says Totten. “It took us one cycle to say, ‘Forget this. We’re going to go to the bottom and bring up movement progressives.’ Maybe they need to be dressed up a bit, helped with their political skills. But that’s a hell of a lot easier than trying to convince them to take our side on the issues.”

The historical equivalent of this effort is GOPAC, which has raised tens of millions to recruit and support movement conservatives running for down-ballot office. GOPAC’s website tells the group’s history–a mirror image of the current political moment. In 1978 Delaware Governor Pete du Pont “surveyed what was, from a Republican perspective, a bleak electoral landscape. A Democrat held the White House. Both houses of Congress were rock-solid Democrat, as they had been for more than a generation. Republican governors led just twelve states. Barely a quarter of state legislative bodies were in GOP control…. Du Pont concluded that the Republican Party had to build a ‘farm team’ if it was ever to become a governing majority party.”

When Newt Gingrich took over GOPAC in the 1980s, he used the group to catapult conservatives to power across the nation. Gingrich’s candidate-training audiotapes became legendary. GOPAC distributed the tapes to 10,000 new conservative candidates each month. All over the country, grassroots candidates began to adopt “Newtspeak” and learned to run disciplined campaigns. In 1994 Gingrich’s class of GOPAC conservatives took over the House, ending forty years of Democratic control, and won a record number of governorships and statehouses. The politics of the entire country changed. At the same time that Gingrich was plotting his revolution, the Christian Coalition, under Ralph Reed’s leadership, was working on a right-wing takeover of the nation’s school boards. A 1995 Institute for First Amendment Studies piece on Reed’s work noted that “more than 12,000 conservative Christians have been elected to school board seats since 1989. Over the next few years, many of these people will be working their way up within the political system.”

Like these conservative models, Progressive Majority’s hallmark is its professionalism. Staff comb through candidates’ yearbooks and wedding albums to get them started fundraising, bring in professional coaches for message and media training, and babysit through fundraising calls and door-to-door campaigning. Every candidate must have a detailed plan and run a disciplined campaign. Progressive Majority works with candidates individually to develop a campaign plan and fundraising goals. That’s because Progressive Majority sees its candidates–even those who lose their initial races–as future aspirants for higher office.

In 2003 Republicans took control of a significant number of state governments for the first time since 1952. They are now ahead in governorships twenty-eight to twenty-two and in Statehouses forty-nine to forty-seven. Many groups want to reverse that trend. Some bundle contributions for federal and statewide candidates (EMILY’s List), offer candidate training (Wellstone Action) or organize volunteers to get out the vote (Democracy for America). “We’re the only group doing comprehensive recruitment at the sheriff and school board level,” says Totten.

Progressive Majority also collaborates with other groups. Jim Dean, brother of Howard Dean and chair of Democracy for America, is enthusiastic about the joint effort to “rebuild the infrastructure of the party.” “It’s a very entrepreneurial environment,” he says. That’s an optimistic way of saying that the Democratic Party has left a void by not building its own infrastructure. Progressive Majority sees that void as an opportunity to transform the party into a more progressive force. “When the party recruits candidates, money is too often the primary equation,” says Dean. Or, as Blair Butterworth, a veteran political consultant in Washington State, puts it, “The parties have handed over the campaigns to people like me–political consultants. We’re interested in winning.” Butterworth explains that “taking on a candidate who may not win this time, but maybe next time, won’t pay anyone’s mortgage.”

Financial viability–money, connections, and safely centrist politics–are often the test of candidates’ viability. Ironically, that has meant less inspiring–and less winning–Democrats, and a party apparatus filled with people getting their tickets punched and moving on. “The average tenure of a state party chair is one year,” Nielsen says. “I don’t know anyone at the DNC anymore, because they’ve all turned over.” Unlike the party or consultants, Progressive Majority aims to bring activists into politics who have been excluded or who have never thought about running before. Part of the challenge is to get a national donor list to set aside the short-term urgency of the next election and give money to local candidates they’ve never heard of. Most important, the group connects candidates to a network of pro-choice, labor and environmental interest groups.

The head of SEIU 775 in Washington State, David Rolf, says Progressive Majority fills “a very important niche” recruiting candidates and bringing his attention to local races he otherwise wouldn’t follow. Rolf helped draft the labor questions on the Washington candidate questionnaire, and SEIU has supported Progressive Majority candidates. Rolf is more interested in the group’s role as an incubator of progressive politics than he is in saving the Democratic Party. The Dems have shot themselves in the foot, he says, because they don’t appeal to working people on bread-and-butter issues anymore. That’s why, he says, SEIU is “not at a particularly monogamous moment” in politics–it works with Republicans in the state legislature who are good on its issues. “If wages continue to stagnate, employer-based healthcare continues to deteriorate, people have no hope of a dignified retirement, they will continue to vote on other issues and not economics, and the Democrats will go extinct,” Rolf says. “The issue is finding what replaces them, instead of nothing. If the conservatives have their way, it will be nothing.”

If Progressive Majority has its way, it will mean a reborn, progressive Democratic Party.

Nielsen steers promising recruits to consultants like Butterworth. Butterworth is delighted. “It’s roundup time!” he says. “Dean gets ’em in the corral and feeds ’em up and says, ‘Blair, here’s your candidate.'” One such candidate is Darcy Burner. Nielsen tried to recruit her for a state legislative race. “She decided to go straight to the majors,” says Butterworth, who is wowed by her talent and drive–a testament, in part, to Nielsen’s good eye. In her first run for office, Burner stands a good chance of unseating a Republican incumbent in Washington State’s Eighth Congressional District. Another candidate who is fulfilling Progressive Majority’s vision of a pipeline to higher office is Derek Kilmer. Kilmer was Progressive Majority’s number-one target for the Washington Statehouse in 2004. He won, beating a three-term conservative fundamentalist. wrote of Kilmer’s victory, “Derek accomplished something that most liberals believe is no longer possible in present-day America: he convinced voters in a relatively conservative swing district to vote their economic interests.” As a freshman, Kilmer passed landmark economic development legislation and supported laws to reduce class size, increase teacher pay and increase enrollment in colleges. This year the conservative state senator in his district retired and Kilmer decided to run for his seat. His is now Progressive Majority’s number-one targeted race for 2006.

As Nielsen and Butterworth are talking, Claudia Kauffman, a Native American candidate for State Senate, arrives. Progressive Majority connected Kauffman, an outsider, with Butterworth, one of the heaviest hitters in Washington State politics. Even though she’s one of the top fundraisers in the state, Senate Democrats declined to meet with Kauffman after she announced. Then they put up a white cop to challenge her in the primary. If she wins, Kauffman will make history. Washington has no Native Americans in its legislature. Only four have ever served.

Butterworth begins the meeting by saying Kauffman needs to “knock people’s socks off” at the state party convention. He suggests she say, “I want to welcome you immigrants to Washington, King County and to the Democratic Party.” Kauffman frowns. She’s not sure how that will go over. For the rest of the meeting, she sounds dour. “I went out doorbelling,” she says. “I got my first door-slam–5,000 to go.” Her apparent lack of enthusiasm surprises me. Nielsen says this discomfort is typical of new candidates. Part of it, he says, is cultural. “I’ve almost never seen a Native American candidate who was really outgoing.” Still, Kauffman’s fundraising and the grassroots enthusiasm she’s aroused make her a contender. (By the end of April she’d raised $48,000; her opponent had $5,600–$5,100 of which he’d contributed.) Progressive Majority is sending her campaigning with other candidates to try to step up her one-on-one voter appeal.

Not everyone Progressive Majority works with is an overnight success. As newcomers, they make mistakes. Edie Gilliss, the state political director for Washington, says she tries to make sure they don’t spend their money on gimmicks like T-shirts and nail files emblazoned with their names.

Gilliss, who honed her skills in the gentle art of constructive criticism as an environmental activist with Green Corps and on local campaigns, has to dissuade neophyte candidates from some of their loopier ideas without crushing their confidence. When one candidate for the Statehouse, Deb Eddy, disparages door-to-door campaigning, saying “you can knock on 14,000 doors and still not win,” Gilliss smiles and replies, “But if you’re going to win, you have to knock on those doors.”

The nature of a farm team, of course, is that some people are headed to the major leagues; others are not. One candidate went to Bed Bath & Beyond when she was supposed to be out doorbelling. Another got into office and called Nielsen from the State Senate to complain that he was fed up with going to meeting after meeting. “They’re human,” says Gilliss.

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.

Progressive Majority’s first Racial Justice Campaign recruiter started this spring in Wisconsin. Ryan Baker, a political science major at the University of Wisconsin, has deep roots on Milwaukee’s North Side, which he helped organize after a 7-year-old girl was shot in the forehead. Residents went door to door collecting money for her family. “We ended up raising thousands of dollars, and then the shooter turned himself in,” Baker recalls. “It was amazing.” Later he was part of a massive demonstration when his friend Frank Jude Jr. was beaten up by Milwaukee police: “We got 6,000 people marching down Wisconsin Avenue to the federal courthouse to demand justice.” Now he’s trying to harness that grassroots energy to electoral politics.

Progressive Majority helped Sheila Stubbs become the first African-American to serve on the Dane County board in Wisconsin. Stubbs is a former probation officer and community activist. “As an agent I’d visit offenders in prison. Then they’d get released into my neighborhood. I’d take them to the community center to get free clothes and food. I’d make sure they knew the health department nurse, in case they needed TB shots. I’d ask them if they wanted to go to church. I believe people can change,” Stubbs says. One of her ambitions is to get the Department of Corrections to give every former prisoner a bus pass. Stubbs believes ex-cons are set up to fail. Stubbs lights up talking about her ambitions for expanding the community center where she volunteers. Her deep commitment to her neighborhood, and her enthusiasm for improving it, shine through. But she wasn’t sure how to run for office. “I honestly did not know you had to raise your own money,” she says.

A local progressive alderman connected Stubbs with Progressive Majority. “They said, ‘Do you know what a PAC is?'” she recalls. “I said no.” Once she received Progressive Majority’s endorsement, donations began rolling in–from Democracy for America, the municipal employees’ union AFSCME and local politicians. “They gave me one-on-one help whenever I needed it,” she says of Progressive Majority. “I didn’t know ‘smart growth’ and other terms. I didn’t know how to answer some questions–they were always there for me. On election day the entire office came over.” She is excited that Progressive Majority is going to fly her to Washington, DC, in June for the group’s annual conference. “They get it. I need to see it,” she says. Progressive Majority has encouraged her to think about a political future that seemed pie-in-the-sky before she ran.

The power of Progressive Majority’s idea is that it can connect motivated, grassroots candidates like Stubbs to interest groups and a political structure that desperately need new blood. Progressive Majority is small, though, and the job of moving national politics in a progressive direction is daunting. “We’ve doubled in size every year since we started,” Totten points out. Still, she acknowledges, it may take more to move the whole country. “We’ve started to think about how to make it more replicable,” she says–so other groups can copy Progressive Majority’s vision. As Ron Dellums, the progressive former Congressman from California, who is now running for mayor of Oakland, puts it: “Working at the local level is indispensable because the closer you are to the voters the easier it is to speak to the key issue of public policy: who benefits. And the greater the possibility that grassroots organizing can overcome the power of organized special interests.”

Meanwhile, Progressive Majority’s staff are intensely loyal to the candidates they’ve committed to help. Holli Holliday remembers having the opposite experience during many years spent working on Democratic campaigns. The party would pull up stakes in areas that dropped off the national priority list. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve been working on races targeted by the party, and then in May or June–exodus month, we used to call it–they’d pull out,” says Holliday. “It’s gut-wrenching.”

“We’re there to the bitter end,” she says. That’s because, win or lose, for Progressive Majority, each campaign is only the beginning.

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