In the summer of 1997 Amory Houghton, the “moderate” six-term Republican Congressman who represents my home county in upstate New York, cast a crucial vote against the “no arms to dictators” Code of Conduct, refused to co-sponsor a bill banning landmines and helped defeat a bid to kill the unneeded F-22 fighter plane. Unfortunately for my family’s finances and sanity, I took this immoderate record as an affront to my work as the director of a Washington, DC-based advocacy center that had promoted these initiatives. In 1998 we moved back home, and I set about becoming the Democratic candidate for Congress from this sprawling rural district that runs along the Pennsylvania border from just south of Buffalo to just south of Syracuse.
I quickly gained the support of the Democratic parties of the ten counties covered by the district, since nobody else was eager to challenge the person Forbes named the richest person in the House, in a district redrawn after the 1990 census to boost Republican votes. In five re-election bids, Houghton had outspent his Democratic challengers $2 million to $14,000, driving his positive name recognition and moderate image through the roof–even with Democratic voters, who liked his stands against his party on “social” issues and were unaware of his party-line support for cutting Medicare and student loans to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy, turning union workers into contract employees and dismantling clean-water standards during the Contract With America debates of 1995. Taking him on was like trying to replace Pepsi at the district’s diners with a new natural fruit drink. Having worked to end intervention in Vietnam, apartheid in South Africa and war in Central America, I just knew it was winnable.
But not this time. I lost 68 percent to 25 percent, with 7 percent going to the Right to Life Party’s candidate. We held our own in the few small cities and with the Democratic core mobilized by the county parties and our scores of volunteers, but we were washed away in rural areas and by high Republican turnout in the incumbent’s two home counties. Dashing our hopes for an upset was the abysmal turnout among the marginalized working families in this Appalachian area, where unemployment is 40 percent above the national average: 6.3 percent in the first six months of 1998, versus 4.5 percent nationally. Our poll identified this group as the most likely to support our campaign’s call for a budget that would give working families a fair share of prenatal care, childcare, healthcare, access to college and federal funds for jobs, but it also correctly predicted that they would be the least likely to vote.
We raised a remarkable $250,000, most of it from the national peace community, but we were still outspent four to one overall and probably fifteen to one in crucial television time. Not being able to afford the number of TV commercials needed to boost recognition of my name, let alone our message, obviously hurt our chances, but the result was also related to how the public felt about incumbency that year in upstate New York. Despite the weak economy, every Congressional challenger from both parties, many with far more money and far more voters registered with their party than we had, got skunked.
During the six-month campaign, I ran–about half a marathon a day–300 miles across the district, walked dozens of precincts, shook hands at factory gates and in diners on the same day that I’d fly to New York City for fundraising at the Harvard Club, wrote an economic revival plan and pushed it to discouraged union members and discouraging Republican editorial boards, played the banjo and marched in parades, sent chicken-suited students out to call for debates and spent seemingly endless hours dialing for dollars and truly endless hours driving across an area as big as Connecticut. Out of this exhausting blur, I can see three important principles I think all progressives–rural, urban and suburban–should follow if we want to see our policies flourishing ten years from now:
§ raise money only for progressive Democratic candidates, not for the national Democratic Party’s drive for House and Senate majorities and the presidency;
§ become foot soldiers and then leaders in local Democratic parties; and
§ reach out to independents–voters who don’t register in the two main parties or hold little allegiance to them.
The Basic Necessity: Money
First, last and always there was the money. Politics is marketing, and you can’t win market share unless your name and main idea gain the same familiarity as your opponent’s. We knew we would need half a million dollars to get enough television spots on prime-time shows to penetrate voters’ consciousness. Every citizen can give up to $2,000 to a House candidate in a two-year election cycle, and I spent so much time on the phone trying to get that money that my ears hurt and my soul ached. If you want to serve your country in Congress, you have to dust off your Rolodexes, high school yearbooks, college boards of trustees, family trees and lists of progressive business leaders, and then call all your friends and political allies and ask them to do the same. Then you just start calling, starting with the richest. For as long as you can take it every day, you stand among three people with telephones who are saying over and over again: “I have Caleb Rossiter for United States Congress holding for so-and-so. Can you put me through, please?”
You thank them for taking your call, which for the wealthy ones is among the dozens they might receive from candidates in a day, give a thirty-second pitch about what you share (a school, a cause, a friend) and why you think you can win, ask for $2,000, listen for another minute at most and then pick up the person who’s waiting on the next line. You call people back and back and back until they either give this maximum amount, or tell you they’ve given all they can…and then you ask them for the name of a friend, a spouse, an ex-spouse or an adult child, and start all over again. Chuck Schumer is in the Senate because he made those calls for six years to get the money to go toe to toe with Al D’Amato, whereas I collapsed after six months.
And don’t think you can change this through campaign finance reform. There is no reform you can think of–including the most meaningful one of free and equal but limited television and radio time–that professional money-movers and lawyers can’t turn into Swiss cheese. When the Center for Responsive Politics reports how much was spent by various interests on campaigns, they’re only catching about half of it. Money over the $2,000 limit can be washed through so many channels it would take a Ken Starr-size operation just to get a handle on it in a single race.
Toward the close of the campaign, when I asked one of my “max” donors to ask her spouse to contribute, she said, “Fine, Caleb. But listen: Why ask me for $2,000? Ask me for $100,000, like the others do, and your people can tell my accountant where to send pieces of it.” She meant that she would write checks to PACs that wouldn’t otherwise give me their $10,000 maximum, to party organizations that wouldn’t otherwise run advertisements for me and to unions or issue groups that wouldn’t otherwise run an independent campaign for me. Welcome to American Politics 101, where not a word need be said: It’s all done with winks and nods. Not looking good in stripes, I didn’t go there, but most of the big, close races have this kind of activity going on just below the candidates’ radar screens. Both Clinton and Dole were accused by the Federal Election Commission staff of cheating, massively and willfully, on the spending limits for President in 1996, but the FEC despaired of winning the case, which would have taken decades of litigation.
Our fundraising was hampered because my natural allies, whose positions I was aggressively promoting–the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the AFL-CIO and even the arms-control community’s PeacePAC–put a burn notice on my back by not contributing. It read: “Don’t give to this candidate. He can’t beat this incumbent. Focus your money on helping Democrats win back the House, with our target list of close races.” The AFL-CIO went a step further, overriding its local labor councils to endorse Houghton. Progressive Democrats I had worked with in Congress, local union leaders and members of PeacePAC’s board made substantial individual contributions in time and money to our campaign, but their organizations’ refusal to target our race cost us at least half a million dollars.
Progressives should reject this fundraising triage, which is geared simply to winning a Democratic majority. Our policies depend on the election of a larger progressive minority over time, whether or not Democrats are in the majority. With the help of the Institute for Policy Studies, the fifty-two-member Progressive Caucus has started to make progressives relevant again on Capitol Hill, and similar alliances have been started in some state legislatures. These groups would already be power brokers rather than voices of conscience if all the money that progressives have given to Democratic presidential campaigns, the national Democratic Party and candidates earmarked by the DCCC in the past ten years had been given directly to progressive candidates with long-term potential.
I don’t think progressives can ever become an elected majority, at least given the current contours of American politics. Most upper-income people and corporations will always resist the populism we represent and will fund candidates of both parties who protect them. Running in a poor, 95 percent white rural district, I saw firsthand the class war in America, which is a fight over resources and opportunity that the rich are winning hands down. They’re not stupid, and regardless of any campaign finance reform they’ll find a way to influence elections with their money. Progressive changes will come from hard bargaining by a well-organized minority, not from having a working majority.
This is especially true of presidential elections, the real business of the national parties and their corporate-driven soft-money machines. Al Gore or Bill Bradley would rule, as Bill Clinton has, from the corporate middle, where they raise their money. Progressive donors cannot buy influence over the core agenda of the national Democratic Party because its institutional function is not to promote a core agenda but to win the presidency and a majority in both houses. The DCCC is poised to win a House majority in 2000 just as it did in the eighties by backing antiabortion, anti-union conservative Southern Democrats who will guarantee the party only their first vote–to make a Democrat the Speaker.
Work Hard for the Party
Just as the Christian Coalition has done in the Republican Party, progressives should become workhorses in their local Democratic Party. Once they have proved their mettle, they will inevitably rise to leadership there and in their state parties, help choose and elect candidates who are more progressive, and finally demand acceptance from the state and national parties of key progressive positions. This should be our strategy in all districts–although ironically it will have the most immediate impact in rural areas, where the local Democratic Party is virtually under siege.
American politics is based on geography, the great urban-rural divide, which is largely just a proxy for race. Big cities elect progressive Democrats because enough minorities and union families live there; rural areas elect conservative Republicans; and the suburbs go with the soft fringe of either party: “Blue Dog” Democrats and “moderate” Republicans. Exceptions to this rule usually arise when a well-funded candidate for an open seat benefits from a local or national scandal in the dominant party.
If you live in a large city, you probably already have progressive representatives. Your service in the local party will encourage them to give real time, rather than lip service, to the progressive initiatives you are pushing. If you live in the suburbs, your participation will help restrain the natural tendency of Democratic leaders to float to the right on issues as they look for votes. And if you live in the country in a white, Republican-leaning district like ours, where the Democrats often fail to run candidates, your warm body is so desperately needed that party leaders won’t care what you talk about as long as you are licking envelopes or out knocking on doors while you do it.
Progressives who join weak Democratic parties can quickly find themselves being asked to be candidates for a hopeless run for mayor, county legislator, supervisor or sheriff. Like their progressive counterparts in stronger Democratic districts, they should take the plunge, because elections and candidates are what build a party’s credibility. In two counties out of our ten, local Democratic organizations and their determined activists kept running attractive candidates for every local office, loss after loss, until they began to get some wins. Over a period of twenty years, these Republican bastions became Democratic strongholds. Voters slowly began to hold Republicans accountable for local problems and then gave a few strong Democratic candidates a chance to serve. They were surprised to see that Democrats’ creativity extends not just to improving social services and protecting the environment but also to the claimed Republican priorities of promoting business and cutting unneeded programs and taxes. If you don’t play, you surely can’t win. Progressives should be playing, in all types of districts.
Some progressives, however, are against playing electoral politics, even when it comes to a candidate like me who is with them on 95 percent of the issues. The reason they gave was that they didn’t want to volunteer because of the 5 percent on which we disagreed. The reality was that most progressives were more comfortable pushing their own issues with their own constituencies and were a little scared of the tussle of opinions in the wider world. One example: The incumbent had voted for the foreign-military training center in Georgia called the School of the Americas, while I was the first Congressional staffer to visit the school and had helped write legislation to close it. But Ithaca-based opponents of the school found it easier to drive two days to Georgia to get arrested at the school than to drive thirty minutes to Elmira to go door to door in our swing precincts. Progressives simply have to put their feet on the street in the day-to-day work of local Democratic parties and candidates if they want their agenda taken seriously.
Independents Are the Key
In our district, as in many rural districts, professional men have to register Republican to advance their careers or attract business. (Their wives, professional or not, can safely register Democratic, since it’s widely accepted that you just can’t control those softhearted women.) A majority of Republicans won’t vote for a Democrat for the same reason Irish Catholics in Boston won’t vote for a Republican: Their ancestors would roll over in their graves. Victory for Democrats hinges on winning most of the independents, who account for up to a quarter of registered voters. Independent voters–white lower- and middle-income parents, in most cases–hold the key to progressive victories in these districts and to greater attention to the progressive agenda in easier ones. While they are the ones feeling most harshly the lack of healthcare, childcare and family-sustaining jobs for hourly workers, they tend either not to vote or to find suspicious the populist economic arguments that resonate with registered Democrats and union families. We have to court them by adopting some of their concerns and respecting their values. In my eighteen years in the arms-control community in Washington, I’ve never been to a meeting that started with the Pledge of Allegiance. In my six months of speaking to civic and labor groups in upstate New York, I never went to a meeting that didn’t start with the pledge.
It turns off independents when we attack Republicans for cutting taxes for the rich and slashing welfare, since they want to get rich too, and they know which lazy family down the road has been cheating its way onto welfare for years. It turns them off when we say racism is the overriding American problem and call for affirmative action on college admissions, since their kids aren’t able to afford college. It turns them off when we talk of gun control, since shotguns and pistols are a cultural tradition in rural areas, where it can take an hour for a sheriff to get to the house that called 911. It turns them off when we call for mandated penalties for corporate polluters, since that could cause local layoffs. It even turns them off when we speak out against unionbusting, since too many of them know of featherbedding and corruption in locals.
As you can see, this is a group that is easily turned off, but it is a group we absolutely must turn on. Independents will give Democrats grudging credit if you remind them that our party invented Medicare, Social Security, Head Start, small-business loans and Pell grants for college. We don’t need to rework our agenda, but we do need to talk about fair taxes, equal opportunity, responsible gun ownership, protecting the environment and basic labor rights. Both progressives and independents tend to be libertarian on social issues, but not antigovernment on social programs. Both instinctively respect the right to privacy and understand the need for prenatal and preschool care. Both oppose foreign aid to dictators and free-trade agreements like NAFTA with governments that jail union organizers and destroy the environment.
I certainly started the campaign pretty out of touch with these potential allies and the entire fabric of their rural and small-town life. I tried hard to make an issue of Vietnam and its links to today’s foreign policy. Nobody cared. And when my opponent cited the book I had written about the sixties and the antiwar movement, and called me a draft-dodging, drug-taking peacenik, nobody cared about that either. Today’s needs simply overwhelm yesterday’s concerns. In a similar vein, you don’t get hurt for being “soft on defense” if you want to ban landmines or cut $50 billion in unneeded next-generation weapons like Star Wars out of the $270 billion military budget. But you don’t get helped, either. Most voters feel they’re not qualified to pass judgment on the military budget–half of all discretionary spending–and foreign policy is too far removed from the challenges of daily life.
I made much of the daycare centers, college slots and veterans’ hospitals that could have been funded instead of the $80 billion F-22 fighter plane my opponent voted to build in Newt Gingrich’s home county, but the local media, so savvy when it comes to local and state budgets, couldn’t grapple with a discussion of the plane’s military justification. They had never heard of it and referred to it as the F-2 or the B-22 when reporting on my speeches.
Well before election season, progressives should be publicizing to independent voters and the media the local impact of unfair national decisions, particularly in this area of national security, so that when elections roll around our candidates can capitalize on an existing groundswell rather than spend their campaign funds trying to create one. At the low-cost end, local activists for peace and religious groups should be peppering the local papers and talk shows and going door to door with complaints about the local cost of wasting tax dollars on military pork. California Peace Action has moved public opinion and votes in Congress using this strategy. We need to build similar organizations in more districts. At the high-cost end, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities is planning a multimillion-dollar campaign on the military budget that will include buying time for sharp commercials on prime-time TV and radio. Corporate-backed media from ABC to NPR have frozen progressives out of the free news programs and pundit wars, so we have to buy our way into the debate.
It is crucial, though, that the Peace Actions and the Business Leaders work out the plan together, to boost one another’s impact. A strength of the progressive movement is that we forge ahead without waiting for anybody else’s say-so. But on national budget priorities, we have been so fragmented and have failed so spectacularly that it would be wise to slow down and coordinate if we hope to make this an issue in 2000 and beyond.
Just Do It
It may sound strange, coming from someone who lost badly, but running for Congress convinced me that any race is winnable and that progressives who are fed up with their representation should simply get out there and run. There are many Congressional districts that are “misrepresented” by someone whose party is in the minority simply because an attractive candidate was there, running hard, when scandal or just a grumpy constituency washed away the obvious favorite. And once you’re in, the power of incumbency is a beautiful thing. Your official operations and resources make you omnipresent (even before the PAC money rolls in for re-election), voters start to think of you as what a member of Congress should be, and you become very tough to beat. So if you’ve got the fire in the belly, go for it. The worst that can happen is that you’ll meet a lot of wonderful people, and you’ll get the chance to speak up for them at the one time every two years that the media are actually listening.
But you won’t find me out there with you next time. I went to see the DCCC in December and got the kiss of death: Our seat won’t be on the list of targeted races even if Houghton retires. The targets will be seats meeting three criteria: The Republican got less than 55 percent in 1998, Clinton won the district in 1996 and the incumbent voted for impeachment. That rules out our seat, so again we would be badly underfunded, and again I would have to quit my job and run around full time trying to compensate for the lack of television time. My wife and I had to face the reality that neither our bank account nor our time together as a family could take that again.
So today I’ll walk our 6-year-old son to school, chatting about important this and that, and then have coffee with my wife so we too can chat about important this and that. And tonight, I’ll be home at a decent hour to read books with our son or watch him go modern as he logs on to the Web and navigates his way to www.lego.com. Great days like this were rare during the campaign, when my wife would say, because of the endless phone calls that I would have to make and take when I finally got back from a weeklong campaign swing, “Even when you’re here, you’re not here.” We’ll look out for our own little working family for now, and try to chip away at the personal and campaign debt we racked up in the last adventure.
The campaign has left me with one complicating legacy. I became so interested again in the domestic issues I worked on before coming to Washington in 1981, like improving childcare and increasing access to college, that I’ve decided to leave my arms-control group after pushing our initiatives during this one last Congressional session. I’ll be looking for ways to achieve these new goals, but for a while it won’t be as an elected official. Of course, it is almost time for redistricting, the time every ten years when they throw all the Congressional seats up in the air and let the game begin again. New York will likely lose two of its upstate seats in 2002, as the nation’s population shifts to the South and West, and all the lines will get redrawn. Who knows? Maybe my home county will end up in one of the DCCC’s targeted districts. If so, that’ll be me on the line, saying, “Sister, can you spare $2,000?”