Quit whining and
start organizing

By Jim Cullen

On the surface, the election of 1996 was a story of two political worlds. There is the Upper Midwest, where the election of Tim Johnson to the Senate in South Dakota and the re-election of senators Tom Harkin in Iowa and Paul Wellstone in Minnesota showed that progressive populism is alive and kicking. Then there are places like Texas, where Republicans swept all statewide races and gained seats in the Legislature. The GOP is poised to achieve a majority in the Texas Senate for the first time since Reconstruction if they win either of two special elections to fill vacancies this winter. They could win both.

On the surface, progressives would seem to have little cause to celebrate. President Bill Clinton, following the "triangulation" strategy of his disgraced former adviser Dick Morris, had embraced a centrist agenda that kept his distance from congressional Democrats and progressive constituencies.

Republicans held onto a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, although the narrow margin of approximately 22 votes in the House is likely to blunt the GOP bravado. The balance of power in the House is likely to lay with moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats. Conservative Republicans have a solid majority in the Senate, but they lack the numbers to break a Democratic filibuster or override a veto.

After the election, Clinton said "our people voted for the ideas of the vital American center." He expressed hope for bipartisan cooperation, which usually is seen as cover for caving in to business interests. Republican congressional leaders, of course, said they would be open to compromise but didn't rule out continued investigations of Clinton and his White House staff on a number of fronts.

Progressives found some cause for hope. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle also saw a bright side in the election results, telling the New York Times, "Republicans were able to retain a thin majority only by rejecting their extreme agenda and working with Democrats to pass health care reform and raise the minimum wage and help working families. If Republicans are willing to continue that partnership of progress, Democrats are ready to join them."

Don't count on it. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was selected this past year by conservatives who were critical of former leader Bob Dole's compromises with Democrats. The conservative bloc was reinforced with the election of right-wingers replacing Democrats in Alabama, Arkansas and Nebraska and replacing moderate Republicans in Colorado, Wyoming and both Kansas seats. Also Sen.-elect Gordon Smith, a former conservative, was a battlefield convert to moderation in Oregon. They will gravitate toward confrontation with Clinton.

The mobilization of organized labor and the infusion of $35 million in union money was a key to the Democratic effort, as it helped reverse the momentum of the Republican Revolution of 1994, drive House Speaker Newt Gingrich underground, re-elect President Clinton and fight Congress practically to a draw.

Some Republicans ridiculed the union effort, saying labor leaders had gambled $35 million of the rank-and-file's money on gaining a Democratic majority and lost. The union leaders professed no regrets, noting that the campaign increased the share of the vote cast by union households to 23%, from 14% in 1992, according to surveys of voters leaving polling places. The union vote went to Democrats, 63 to 37 percent, the polls showed. The union campaign also put Republican incumbents on the defensive and forced them to distance themselves from Gingrich and the Contract with America, which was linked with shutting down the federal government twice.

"He is still the Speaker of the House, but I can say this: The Gingrich Revolution is over," said Gerald McEntee, who headed the union campaign. "I think everyone realizes we're at least a factor in American politics now, and we've not been a factor for a long, long time."

The labor federation shook the growing feeling in Washington that it had become irrelevant. The AFL-CIO has revived its organizing arm after years of membership decline. And the Republicans have started discussing new ways to smother the reborn union movement.

Some Democrats may have taken the first steps toward rehabilitating the word "liberal," or at least the Republicans may have worn out its usefulness as a bludgeon. Democrats prevailed in races where Republicans tried to tar them as liberals: In addition to Harkin and Wellstone, Max Baucus in Montana, Carl Levin in Michigan, John Kerry in Massachusetts frustrated Republican attempts to unseat them. (Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia never was seriously challenged.)

Meanwhile Rep. Tim Johnson unseated GOP Sen. Larry Pressler in South Dakota, Rep. Bob Torricelli won Bill Bradley's old seat in New Jersey, Rep. Dick Durbin won Paul Simon's old seat in Illinois and Rep. Jack Reed succeeded Claiborne Pell in Rhode Island. In the South, Mary Landrieu succeeded J. Bennett Johnston in Louisiana and Max Cleland succeeded Sam Nunn in Georgia. They are expected to be more progressive than their predecessors, and their victories tarnish the myth that the region was becoming a solid Republican stronghold.

Progressive candidates who unseated Republicans in the U.S. House included Ellen Tauscher in California's 10th District; Walter Capps in California's 22nd District; Jim Mahoney in Connecticutt's 5th District; Rod Blagojevich, who regained Dan Rostenkowski's old 5th District seat in Chicago; and Leonard Boswell, who won the 3rd District seat Republican Jim Ross Lightfoot vacated to make a Senate race in Iowa.

Chris John won the runoff for Republican Jimmy Hayes' old 7th District seat in southwestern Louisiana; Tom Allen in Maine's 1st District; James McGovern in Massachusetts' 3rd District and John Tierney in Massachusetts' 6th District.; Debbie Stabenow in Michigan's 8th District; William Pascrell in New Jersey's 8th District; Carolyn McCarthy in New York's 4th District; Bob Etheridge in North Carolina's 2nd District; David Price in North Carolina's 4th District;

Ted Strickland in Ohio's 6th District and Dennis Kucinich in Ohio's 10th District; Darlene Hooley in Oregon's 5th District; Adam Smith in Washington's 9th District; Ron Kind in Wisconsin's 3rd District; and Jay Johnson in Wisconsin's 8th District.

In addition, Diana DeGette won Pat Schroeder's old 1st District seat in Colorado and, in a closely watched race, Cynthia McKinney, the progressive black freshman whose 4th district in Georgia was redrawn to be two-thirds white by federal court order, beat a race-baiting Republican in the Atlanta suburbs.

In one of the sweetest victories, Loretta Sanchez upset incumbent Republican "B-1 Bob" Dornan, on the extreme edge of the right wing, in California's 46th District.

At least 13 of the 70 Republican freshmen who sought re-election were defeated. Twenty more R's squeaked by with 52% of the vote or less. Many of them reportedly were helped late in the campaign by a massive infusion of "soft money" by national Republicans to buy attack ads and get out the vote.

Paul Wellstone was the GOP's top Senate target, so he raised $7 million and had 130,000 volunteers who battled Rudy Boschwitz and nearly $2 million worth of national Republican attack ads. His grassroots campaign should be studied by every progressive organizer in the country.

Linda Marson, Wellstone's campaign press secretary, said the national Republicans started running ads attacking him in April. They pounced on Wellstone's vote against the welfare repeal bill as proof that he was "embarrassingly liberal." But Minnesota voters apparently respected him for standing on principle. Wellstone defined being liberal as doing well for people, fighting for his state and siding with ordinary citizens against special interests.

"I just think people saw this as 'who's on my side.' That's what we heard," Marson said. While they continued the negative ads Wellstone, a former college professor, toured the state in the green school bus that he rode to his upset win in 1990. He also participated in 13 debates.

The GOP finally gave up and pulled their ads off the air three weeks before the election, finding that the ads had backfired. "They would do these ads and people would pour in off the street and volunteer," Marson said.

At its height, Wellstone's campaign was averaging 12,000 get-out-the-vote calls per hour. Canvassers knocked on doors in 80,000 precincts the weekend before the election. That helped turn out nearly 70% of registered voters, 20 points above the national turnout.

Even with the impressive campaign treasury, Marson said a majority of Wellstone's contributions were under $200. "He doesn't get big fat-cat contributions," she said. And he had no choice but to raise the money. "When you're the number one target two years out from the election, you take it seriously."

Or you lose the election.

"Paul would never and hasn't compromised one bit," Marson said. "If you stand for something it's a gamble, but that's what Paul believes in. All we heard was 'I don't agree with you but by God you've got guts.'"

As he heads back for what Wellstone has said will be his final term, Marson said, "Paul's going to do what he continues to think is the right thing and he's going to keep going after corporate welfare and campaign finance reform, fix the welfare reform bill and watch out for the things the Republicans will try to slip through."

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Pure Food Campaign in Little Marais, Minnesota, said progressives should use Wellstone's campaign as a model and get serious about running well-funded campaigns for political office.

"It takes a half million dollars to run a congressional race and it costs several million dollars to run a Senate race and we're not going to win until we face those facts," he said.

He noted that progressive organizations raised $1 billion from 12 million donors last year for various causes. Essentially, the money was wasted, he said.

"It's not that there isn't significant money available out there. The problem is that we're wasting our resources," he said. "The Christian Coalition raised $29 million and Greenpeace raised $35 million. Who had better election results? ...

"If we're serious about campaign finance reform we've got to be serious about winning elections first, because if you don't get in Congress and if you don't get in the legislatures you don't get to change the laws. And there are no short cuts in being able to deliver 51 percent of the votes. If you're going to fight, you've got to fight to win. You need to do your grassroots work with 21st century technology and we're still using 19th and early 20th century techniques.

"When you deliver a progressive message in populist language as Wellstone did, the people respond. A majority of people are ready to listen. We just aren't talking their language."

In Lake County, where he lives near Lake Superior, northeast of Duluth, Cummins was encouraged by a local race for county commissioner in which an organic farmer, running on a program that advocated sustainable agriculture and forestry, environmentally sensitive mining and encouragement of small businesses in the local tourism industry, lost by only two votes.

"One thing is that the populist tradition never died out in the Upper Midwest. Wellstone was connected to a live tradition of rural organizations and social justice organizations in the cities but the successes of populist candidates like Jim Hightower [who served two terms as Texas agriculture commissioner] and Victor Morales [at least in the Democratic primary] show that tradition is only half buried, even in Texas."

Cummins acknowledged that few populists can raise $7 million. "But what is within range is a half million, which will put you in the ballpark for a congressional election. We can raise that kind of money if we think about winning instead of making a good showing."

He added that it does little good to talk about campaign finance reform until a substantial number of reform-minded candidates are elected to Congress and state legislatures.

"Obviously people want campaign finance reform but they don't want higher taxes. The average person is already paying 37 percent of his or her income in state, local and federal taxes. But we've got the lowest taxes in the world on the rich and corporations. We need to levy higher taxes on rich people and force the media to give free air time to candidates.

"Anti-government sentiment was what the people had in the election and the only way to overcome it is old-fashioned populist straight-talking. We need some blunt language and the attitude that we're going to turn things around.

"Remember that the Christian Coalition put just as many signs in Minnesota as they did everywhere else. The difference is that Wellstone got out the progressive message."

Cummins said he hopes the Greens, the New Party, the Natural Law Party and the Labor Party figure out how to get their act together. He sees little hope for the Reform Party as long as Ross Perot remains in control.

"The Democrats and Republicans look at third-party people as a joke and we are a joke. We don't know the first thing about campaigning. We just complain about the stacked deck," he said.

Cummins is inclined to support the Labor Party, which organized in June and did not get involved in the election. "If you're talking third party, the Labor Party is the only potential one with the mass membership and resources to catalyze the sort of movement they're talking about." he said, adding, "They have a realistic attitude about the Democrats: Why reinvent the wheel if you can take it over."

In Texas, where Republicans swept statewide races, reduced the Democratic majority in the state House and were poised to capture control of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction, progressive activists were less optimistic.

Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, was fighting a bad case of depression over the election results. "Going from abhorrent to appalling isn't a place any of us wanted to be," he said. "Clinton moved toward the center and forgot the people who helped elect him the first time. We all hoped he'd become a Democrat again in his second term and move in a populist direction, but with the Republicans in control in Congress it looks like he's going to be stymied."

"If we had a Republican president and a Republican Congress at least we could have blamed them, but with a Democratic president and a Republican ... but now there's nobody to blame."

As he prepares for the next legislative session, Smith said he has little choice but to appeal to Republicans as well as Democrats on specific issues where they share common interests. "I'm always hopeful that progressive Republicans will return to the original roots of their party," Smith said, "but I don't see any indication that will happen."

Even in the 150-member Texas House, where Democrats kept a 10-seat majority, Smith said Democrats are backing away from progressive principles. "The few progressive Democrats are running scared," he said.

Smith echoed Cummins' call for a progressive populist vision. "We need to quit playing in the system and create a new and stronger vision for the future that's attractive to a broader base of people," he said. "Maybe a third party is the answer, but certainly a third agenda ... that adheres to the principles of reducing corporate control of government; assuring access to government; the rights to basic services such as education and health care; and to protect the environment. Then we need to hit the streets and ask citizen groups to join in."

"... We've shown in the past that we have power when we work together with others and we can change the outcomes of elections by choosing carefully who to support."

He also said progressive advocates should try to deal with both parties. "The mistake is assuming that we can rely on Democrats. We've seen progressive Republicans in the past and if we have the right ideas and make them clear we can work with them on issues like ethics, the environment and issues concerning senior citizens and others who are vulnerable," he said. "They don't support the programs we have today, so we're going to have to go back to the drawing board and develop proposals for the Legislature that are clearer and not so identified with one party.

Smith hopes next time the Greens will have a better organized presidential campaign, acknowledging that one of the difficulties was a candidate, Ralph Nader, a well-known consumer advocate (and founder of Public Citizen) who severely limited his own personal and financial role in the campaign.

"Green issues poll well among Texans and in the United States and had a more effective run been made it would have gotten more votes in California," Smith said. Nader ended up with about 2.5% of the votes cast in California and 1% of votes nationwide.

Brigid Shea, a former Austin City Council member who is Texas director of Citizen Action in Austin, said the election showed how sophisticated are the Republican voter identification and get-out-the-vote efforts. "They've gained very specific voter lists from the Christian Coalition and they know exactly what inflammatory language to use to hit the hot button," she said.

One mailing Shea received, which supported a Republican candidate for the State Board of Education, made outrageous accusations that the Democratic candidate was supporting a homosexual agenda for schools, she said. With this election the religious right gained control of the State Board, which sets policy for public schools and controls the distribution of textbooks.

"The Democrats can't even hold a candle to the Republicans when it comes to campaign technology," Shea said. "The Democrats are only now putting names on a database. The Democrats and the progressive community are embarrassingly behind the times when it comes to just maintaining effective voter lists and we're also less enthusiastic about our issues [than the Christian Coalition and the Republicans].

"The Democrats have distanced themselves from obvious allies, such as the environmentalists and the consumer activists, and that's where you have people who are motivated and vigorous about getting out and working for you. So people are hard-pressed to articulate issues that Democrats really care about, except maybe in opposition to what the Republicans have done."

Democrats were unable to take advantage of the "serious backlash to what the Republicans did in Congress," She said. "So many of the polls and indicators said people were unhappy with the dismantling of environmental laws and the cuts in social assistance to give tax breaks to the rich, yet the results were somewhat contrary. That tells me that Republicans are out-organizing the Democrats and are succeeding in spite of a fairly strong sentiment against the Republican Congress. They were able to target and motivate voters."

The quixotic campaign of Victor Morales, the Dallas-area schoolteacher who campaigned around Texas in his white pickup truck, ran up against the relentless money machine of Phil Gramm, who outspent Morales more than 10 to 1 and beat him by 55 to 44 percent.

Morales frustrated Democrats as he stubbornly refused an early debate offered by Gramm and Morales never really addressed substantive issues, but he raised nearly $750,000 through Oct. 16. That would be a fair amount in a congressional race but a drop in the bucket for a state with 20 media markets.

Although Morales had widespread support (any opponent of Phil Gramm will have that) he never really developed a statewide campaign organization and he was only able to afford a couple weeks of TV ads. Meanwhile Texans were subjected to countless scenes of a soft and cuddly Phil Gramm who had raised $10.6 million and had $1.2 million banked in October.

Democratic efforts to turn out the vote were mixed: Texas' turnout of 58% was the lowest in a statewide election since1970. The Southwest Voter Research Institute of San Antonio, which surveyed 30 Hispanic precincts, found the Mexican-Texan turnout increased to 59.5% on election day and estimated another 5-10% voted early. But a University of Houston survey of urban precincts in Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth found Latino turnout was down 24% from 1992. Black turnout was down 14% and blue-collar whites was down 28%. All three groups voted Democratic. When they voted.

"The Wellstone campaign showed what can happen when a progressive campaign is organized and has the technology to compete," Shea said. "Wellstone had 130,000 volunteers in a state that's smaller than Texas and where it's really cold. What did Victor Morales have?"

Wellstone's campaign showed that, if anything, the role of a grassroots organization is increasing in the face of high-dollar campaigns. "If you only try to reach people through TV and direct mail, there's a disconnect, and I heard that time and time again from Democrats this year, that 'I don't sense any contact with the party or the candidates'

"Part of the strength of the Republicans is that they have made this unholy alliance with the Christian Coalition and they have access to an automatic army of people who really care about their issues. I don't sense that our side feels passionately about electing Democrats so that we can (fill in the blank)."

And the Republicans always will have access to more money. That was seen in cash infusions of hundreds of thousands of dollars for Republicans in the last few weeks of the campaigns. Democrats could not keep up.

Cecile Richards, director of the Texas Freedom Alliance, which worked with moderate churches to counteract the Christian Coalition's right-wing agenda could not spot a silver lining as the religious right gained working control of the State Board of Education. "I guess we could have gotten beaten worse, but I don't know how," she said. "My assessment is that we're in a Republican state now and we will be in one for the foreseeable future. ... But we need to quit whining and get beyond the finger pointing. It's time we begin to organize for our own selves. We've got plenty to do."

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1995-1996 The Progressive Populist