A Progressive Electoral Wave Is Sweeping the Country

The Trump-obsessed big media are mostly ignoring it, but Bernie-inspired activists are winning across the country—including in districts that went for Trump in 2016.
John Nichols
June 15, 2017
Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a human-rights lawyer, won the mayoralty of Jackson, Mississippi, in June with 93 percent of the vote.
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With a clenched fist held high and the promise of a “movement of the people,” Chokwe Antar Lumumba asked the voters of Jackson, Mississippi, to elect him as their mayor in a race he pledged would lead to the transformation of a Deep South city in a deep-red state. Victory for his civil-rights-inspired, labor-backed campaign for economic and social justice would “send shock waves around the world,” said the 34-year-old human-rights lawyer as he vowed to make Jackson “the most progressive city in the country.”

Too radical? Too bold? Not at all. Backed by a coalition that included veteran activists who fought segregation, along with newcomers who got their first taste of politics in Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, Lumumba won 55 percent of the vote in a May Democratic primary that saw him oust the centrist incumbent mayor and sweep past several other senior political figures in Mississippi’s largest city. A month later, he secured a stunning 93 percent of the vote in a general election that drew one of the highest turnouts the city has seen in years.

That victory renewed a radical experiment in community-guided governance and cooperative economics that his father, the veteran radical activist Chokwe Lumumba Sr., began during a brief mayoral term that ended with the senior Lumumba’s untimely death just eight months after his own 2013 election as mayor. Governing magazine speculates that the younger Lumumba’s tenure “may offer striking evidence of a nationwide trend: strongly progressive policies being pushed in big cities, even in deep red states.” That’s true. Unfortunately, Lumumba’s June 6 win didn’t get anything close to the media attention accorded a handful of special elections for US House seats in districts that are so solidly Republican that Donald Trump was comfortable plucking congressmen from them to fill out his cabinet.

This is the frustrating part of Lumumba’s “shock waves around the world” calculus: His election should have sent a shock wave. The same holds true for the election of progressives in local races from Cincinnati to St. Louis to South Fulton, Georgia, in a season of resistance that began with the Women’s March on Washington and mass protests against President Trump’s Muslim ban but has quickly moved to polling places across the country.

The list of victories thus far on this year’s long calendar of contests—mayoral, City Council, state legislative, and even statewide—is striking. Many of them are unprecedented, and most are linked by a growing recognition on the part of national progressive groups and local activists that the greatest resistance not just to Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan but to right-wing governors could well come from the cities and states where the day-to-day work of governing is done. Municipal resistance is crucial because these Republican governors often do the bidding of the Koch brothers and the corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council.

“Our nation will only change from the grassroots up.” —Dan Cantor, national director of the Working Families Party

Inspired not merely by their opposition to Trump but in many cases by the experience of the Sanders campaign, these next-generation progressive candidates—often running with the backing of Our Revolution, the national group developed by Sanders backers—share a belief that effective opposition begins with saying “no” but never ends there. They recognize that an alternative vision can be proposed and put into practice in communities where taxes are levied, services are delivered, commitments to fight climate change are made, resolutions to establish sanctuary cities are adopted, and questions about poverty, privatization, and policing are addressed. “Our nation will only change from the grassroots up,” says Dan Cantor, national director of the Working Families Party, which backed Lumumba as well as the progressive winners of a hotly contested primary for Philadelphia district attorney, a statewide race for the top education post in Wisconsin, and a New York election that saw a Trump-backing GOP district pick a resistance-preaching union activist for an open legislative seat.

Cantor is right to suggest that these victories make a powerful case that a new resistance-and-renewal politics is sending a signal to conservative Republicans and cautious Democrats alike about the ability of bold progressive populists to win in every part of the country. That’s why it is so worrisome that these electoral shock waves have been crashing against the wall of ignorance and indifference that surrounds a Trump-obsessed Washington media.

Even before the 2016 elections, the national media were far too focused on Beltway intrigues. When the Trump-centric punditocracy hang on the 45th president’s every tweet, election results that cannot be tied directly to what’s happening in Washington barely exist in their eyes. This is a damaging phenomenon: Even in an era of rapidly evolving social media, the validation that comes from traditional media coverage should not be underestimated. In the none-too-distant past, things changed because down-ballot races were closely monitored for evidence of the zeitgeist; the tangible signs of electoral progress for civil-rights campaigners in the late 1960s came initially in the form of election results for the mayoralties in places like Gary, Indiana, and Cleveland, and they inspired the next wave of campaigns in cities like Atlanta and New Orleans. City Council elections in Berkeley, Madison, and Ann Arbor in the early 1970s revealed the political potency of radical movements and lowered voting ages, just as Harvey Milk’s 1977 election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors told us that LGBTQ Americans were transforming urban politics. And a remarkable series of election results in 1983, beginning with Harold Washington’s election as mayor of Chicago, signaled the rise of a “rainbow coalition” that would inspire not just the Reverend Jesse Jackson but a young community organizer named Barack Obama.

Lumumba’s big win in Jackson and similar breakthrough victories across the country are powerful indications of today’s emerging resistance. His overwhelming primary victory occurred on the same day that progressive Cincinnati Councilwoman Yvette Simpson shocked even herself when her “power of we” campaign finished first (ahead of a conservative incumbent) in that city’s mayoral primary. Annie Weinberg, electoral director of Democracy for America, which has waded into dozens of down-ballot contests, said the message is clear: “In 2017, voters are ready to make cities everywhere into bastions of resistance to the Trump regime by electing bold progressive leaders who run on, and are committed to fighting for, racial and economic justice.”

Weinberg’s point was confirmed on May 16, when Philadelphia Democrats nominated veteran civil-rights lawyer Lawrence Krasner for district attorney. Krasner, who had defended Occupy Philadelphia and Black Lives Matter protesters, beat a crowded field of contenders with a campaign that promised to make the City of Brotherly Love a model for criminal-justice reform. Along with victories last year by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in Chicago and Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala in Orlando, Florida, Krasner’s win reflects the political appeal of new approaches to policing—ones first voiced by protesters on the streets of American cities, and that the Trump administration and too many politicians in both parties continue to callously dismiss. The headline of a Philadelphia Daily News column by Will Bunch announced: This wasn’t just a primary victory. This was a revolution. The columnist saw in Krasner’s victory “nothing less than the stirrings of a whole different kind of revolution from the city that gave America the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights—a revolution aimed at finally undoing a draconian justice regime that had turned the Cradle of Liberty into a death-penalty capital and the poster child for mass incarceration.”

Many recent progressive victors were Bernie Sanders supporters or Sanders DNC delegates last year.

A similarly revolutionary result came in St. Louis on April 4, when Natalie Vowell won a citywide school-board seat with an intersectional campaign that focused not just on education policy but addressed the housing, employment, and criminal-justice issues that often determine whether students succeed. A Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Vowell promised to “empower parents across the economic spectrum and stop equating poverty with apathy.”

Developing detailed platforms that recognize the links between local, state, and national issues has characterized these recent victories. Winning candidates have made opposing Trump a local issue, with commitments to defend immigrants and fill the void created by federal budget cuts; but they have also rejected the austerity, deregulation, privatization, and intolerance of statehouse Republicans. For example, Dylan Parker is a 28-year-old diesel mechanic and member of the Quad Cities chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. In 2016, Parker was a Sanders delegate; in early April of this year, he was elected to the City Council of Rock Island, Illinois, with a campaign that updated the “sewer socialist” municipal politics of the 1930s by focusing on providing universal high-speed Internet access and expanding Rock Island’s publicly owned hydroelectric power plant. Two weeks later, another DSA member, khalid kamau (who lowercases his name in the Yoruba tradition that emphasizes community over the individual), was elected to the City Council of South Fulton, Georgia. A Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15 organizer and also a Sanders delegate, kamau campaigned on a bold economic and social-justice vision that seeks to make the newly incorporated community of South Fulton “the largest progressive city in the South.”

In Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, April voting saw Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers win a statewide nonpartisan race after being targeted by conservative backers of the “school choice” schemes favored by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. While his challenger embraced DeVos and called her selection a “positive development” for education, Evers challenged the Trump appointee’s promotion of “taxpayer-subsidized parochial or private schools that are part of the choice program” and said DeVos should be paying attention to public-school students. “We need her to be an advocate for those kids,” explained the teachers’ union ally, who calls for the increased funding of public education, especially for schools serving African-American, Latino, and rural students. Evers won 70 percent of the vote in a state that narrowly backed Trump last fall.

While DC pundits have kept a reasonably close watch on congressional special elections in the districts won by Trump—and have seen signs of political movement— some of the clearest signals are coming from special elections for seats in the state legislative chambers that will redraw congressional district lines after the 2020 Census. Progressive Democrats running in historically Republican districts in New Hampshire and New York won breakthrough victories in May. “Republicans should absolutely be concerned: Two Republican canaries died in the coal mine yesterday,” GOP political consultant William O’Reilly said after the results were announced. He explained that “Trump voters and other Republicans simply didn’t show up, and voters from the left did.”

The New York special-election winner, elementary-school teacher and union activist Christine Pellegrino, described her victory as a “thunderbolt of resistance.” But it was also something else: Pellegrino, another 2016 Sanders delegate, wasn’t the first choice of Democratic strategists and local party leaders. She gained the nomination with the crucial help of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, as well as the group Long Island Activists, which was “born out of the Bernie Sanders movement.” Pellegrino ran an edgy anticorruption campaign that recognized the mood among voters frustrated with both major parties. As observers hailed her victory in a district that gave Trump a 23-point edge last November, Pellegrino explained that her winning strategy wasn’t all that complicated: “A strong progressive agenda is the way forward.”

Pellegrino proved her point by taking 58 percent of the vote in one of the 710 legislative districts nationwide that have been identified by Ballotpedia as including all or part of the so-called “Pivot Counties”—those that voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016. As the website explains: “477 state house districts and 233 state senate districts intersected with these Pivot Counties.… These [districts comprise] approximately 10 percent of all state legislative districts in the country.”

For progressives, figuring out where to win and how to win—not merely to resist, but to set the agenda—is about more than positioning. This is the essential first step in breaking the grip of a politics that imagines large parts of the country will always be red, and that says the only real fights are over an elusive middle ground where campaigns are fought with lots of money but little substance. The resistance-and-renewal politics that’s now gathering momentum rejects such empty politics and embraces what Chokwe Antar Lumumba identifies as “the struggle [that] does not cease”: to give people the jobs and freedom they need to shape their own destinies. That makes every election in every community matter, because the point isn’t merely to resist one bad president; as Lumumba reminds us, it is “to change the order of the world.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to note the help Christine Pellegrino received from the Long Island Progressive Coalition.

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Copyright c 2017 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp.

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June 18, 2017