You build political power by beginning at the bottom.
That’s one of the hopeful lessons of the elections on Tuesday that saw progressives, socialists, and other leftists sweep into office at the local and state level all over the country. It was an election in which the progressive “farm team,” the “pipeline”—whatever metaphor you please—became bigger and better and stronger.
This farm team has been weak on the left for decades; in some places, it has barely existed. But on November 7, as voters headed to the polls during what might traditionally have been dismissed as a low-stakes year, they not only staged the first electoral repudiation of Donald Trump, but they also seeded the local soil with promising talent. These fresh new pols now have a chance to make real change in their home cities and states: to fight for housing as a human right, rent control, higher taxes on the rich, stronger environmental protections, and an end to mass incarceration and the war on drugs. Just as crucially, some of them might eventually choose to keep going in politics, winding their way from school boards and city councils toward higher office.
“There are no shortcuts to building power,” says Sarah Johnson, the co-director of Local Progress, a network of progressive local elected officials across the country. “The election results from Tuesday really show the beginning of a ground-up movement that we are going to see in next year’s election and for years to come as more and more people, inspired to activism in this moment, are taking it to the next level and running for office.”
But how exactly do you build power? And what is the alchemy that catapulted many of these first-time candidates, like Danica Roem, Ravi Bhalla, and Phillipe Cunningham, into city halls and statehouses across the country?
One place to look is Somerville, Massachusetts, a city of roughly 80,000 just outside of Boston. Last spring, a group of young people in the city formed a chapter of Our Revolution. They were outraged over Trump’s election and inspired by Bernie Sanders’s social-democratic vision, and they wanted to take power into their own hands.
They decided to dive into electoral work straight away—and they felt like they had to start at the ultra-local level, where elections were imminent. They recruited or endorsed a slate of seven leftist candidates to run on a joint ticket in the city’s Board of Aldermen elections this year. And then they did the real work. According to Penelope Jennewein, a 25-year-old organizer with Our Revolution Somerville, the group’s dozens of volunteers knocked on 300 doors a week for 11 weeks straight, right up until Election Day.