Historic Election of Wesley Bell, Movement-building, Essential Lessons Learned
Early last week I traveled to Philadelphia to an event organized by my friend and hero Ady Barkan on how we can better organize to change our justice system. On the panel was Philadelphia’s new District Attorney Larry Krasner. Just 7 months into office, he has hit the ground running with radical reforms and revolutionary new policies. Larry was the first DA that our PAC, Real Justice, helped elect.
As soon as the panel began, Ady asked Larry a question and Larry’s answer surprised me and unnerved me a bit. Ady asked him what the most important next steps are to reform the system and Larry basically said, “It’s not electing new district attorneys. It’s not electing new judges. It’s not electing new mayors. It’s building the movement.”
Mind you, I have staked my whole life and the bulk of my activism on electing radical new district attorneys, so I was miffed to hear a district attorney say that electing district attorneys was not the most important step. Right away I wanted to interject, but nearly 20 minutes passed before I had a chance to speak up. And in those 20 minutes — and this is going to sound so corny — I had an epiphany. Larry was absolutely right.
The most important thing we need to be doing right now is organizing and movement building. Period. Dot com. No ifs, ands, or buts. At first I didn’t quite get what Larry meant, but he unpacked it, and so did the other brilliant panelists. Electing radical reformers as district attorneys is HUGE. It’s essential. It’s a BFD. But it’s not everything — if you have a great DA, but horrible judges, you are still jammed up. If you have an amazing DA, but a horrible police chief, problems will continue. If you have an amazing DA, but the House, Senate, Presidency, Supreme Court, and most state legislatures are working against you, you simply don’t have enough. What Larry was saying is that if we turbo-charge our local, regional, and national organizing we can not just elect great district attorneys, we can change the whole game. And to have the results we really need, we have to change the whole game.
I’m about to get granular and wonky here, but when we launched the Real Justice PAC, we decided that we were going to be ultra transparent not just with our budget and decisions, but with the inner workings of what’s working and what isn’t in all of our campaigns.
We’ve now won five very hard fought campaigns in Philadelphia with Larry Krasner, in Portsmouth, Virginia with Stephanie Morales, in San Antonio with Joe Gonzales, right outside of the Bay Area of California with Diana Becton, and now in St. Louis County with Wesley Bell.
We’ve also lost five races in San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, and Dallas. Those five losses ripped my heart out. It’s not just that losing sucks (it does), but we’re fighting for change in a system that is costing people their lives. People were counting on us to win in those cities. And in place we fought tooth and nail. We’ve knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors, made millions of phone calls and texts, sent hundreds of thousands of mailers, held rallies, enlisted tens of thousands of volunteers, built websites, designed graphics, crafted speeches and messages and policies…and still lost. It may sound silly, but each one of those losses still hurts and I think about them every day. Because I take all of my work so personally, and wear my heart on my sleeve, I don’t know any other way.
But now that we have five wins and five losses, I’m starting to really see several trends emerge on what it takes to win. This isn’t a formula, because the most important thing I’ve learned is that every single city we campaign in is wildly different — even within the same state or region — and that assuming what worked in one city will work in another is a huge mistake. I’ll come back to that point later.
In the big cities where our endorsed candidates won, they won, first and foremost, because local people were hyper-organized. I’m talking about next level organizing. I don’t just mean they have email addresses and phone numbers — I’m talking about something much, much deeper than that. Few cities have more skilled, experienced organizers and activists and grassroots organizations than St. Louis and Philadelphia. Later I will tell you how the Real Justice PAC helped Wesley Bell win, but here is what I know…
We could’ve done every single thing we did, spent every dollar, sent every mailer, ran every ad, recruited every volunteer, sent every text — and Wesley Bell would not have won without the overwhelming local support he already had in place. Instead of the Real Justice PAC being the primary voice supporting Wesley, which would’ve been highly inauthentic, we mainly worked behind the scenes, and supplemented his campaign where they told us they needed the most help.
Remember when I said we were going to be transparent? Well here goes.
4 or 5 months ago I wrote a tweet saying something like “The Real Justice PAC is coming to St. Louis to help oust Bob McCulloch.” Later that day, I received several frustrated direct messages from local organizers in St. Louis and let me tell you what they said. Kayla Reed, who is a brilliant local leader and organizer, was chief among them. She schooled me. She said that so many people from the outside, some with good intentions, some not, have come in and out of Ferguson and St. Louis, and fucked stuff up, took credit where they didn’t deserve it, made decisions they had no authority or experience to make, and really set the deeply rooted local organizers back in significant ways. They wanted me to know that they already knew how to win local elections and had done the hard work of electing other prosecutors and politicians throughout the city and county. I chose to listen to Kayla and am so glad I did. I don’t think I could’ve come in there and screwed the whole thing up, but I’m damn sure glad I didn’t!
Her critique stung, not for any reason other than ego I suppose, but I stood down and we got to work elsewhere around the country. And our Real Justice team just decided that we would wait and see if local leaders asked for our support at a later date. Furthermore, local leaders had already elected Wesley to Ferguson’s City Council. He had already built up a great deal of trust and credibility with people. They knew him. And his campaign emerged out of that very relationship. Let me pause right there.
This relational credibility that Wesley brought to the table was everything. Larry Krasner brought that credibility and familiarity in Philly. He had been a civil rights attorney there for decades. Stephanie Morales brought that in Portsmouth. And so when they campaigned to become DA, they did so out of a place or pre-existing trust. You can’t manufacture that. You can try, but it doesn’t really work. Rarely, at least. So when Wesley ran, he wasn’t running as a stranger, but as a friend. That’s invaluable.
What I planned to do in St. Louis, frankly, would’ve been a complete waste of time and energy. Local leaders already had those things in place and took years to build them. That’s exactly what Kayla understood so very well. Sure enough, though, Wesley Bell and his team circled back about two months after my dumb tweet and asked not simply for our endorsement, which we gave, but asked if we could provide critical behind the scenes support for his campaign. They felt good about their message. They felt good about their grassroots support. What they needed was more money and ways to reach more voters. We do that well. So we became a coordinated partner directly with the campaign. Let me quickly explain what that means.
In politics, a political organization like ours has two options. They can serve as a full fledged coordinated partner or they can serve as a completely independent friend of the campaign. When you are a coordinated partner, you are, in effect, on the campaign staff. You can talk to the whole staff and have virtually no limits on what you can discuss and strategize around. When you are an independent friend of the campaign, you are not allowed to strategize with the campaign on their political decisions. You basically have to work from afar. We never prefer that. We always want to be coordinated if we can.
Right out of the gate we made one of the largest financial contributions to his campaign of any PAC.
Next, we designed this county-wide mailer. Our team did a great job on this.
This mailer kicked ass and I’m so proud of our design team for nailing it. We also went in with the campaign to share the outrageous costs of getting this mailer out to tens of thousands of likely voters. It was very effective. Yes, mailers are old school, but they still work.
We also ran ads for the Bell campaign on social media. No words that I have can quite explain how skilled and gifted our team is at this. They are experts — truly some of the best in the nation. These ads were deeply targeted and very successful.
We also worked with the campaign to make craft a message that we thought could win across the whole county. That’s tricky. St. Louis County is tricky. It’s hard to win any countywide office there. Wesley didn’t want to isolate or irritate his base, but needed to find a way to communicate that while reform was at the center of his campaign, he had other ideas and policies that everyone could relate to. This flyer and his other literature did that well.
Our Real Justice team also helped establish and run a robust SMS/text messaging system for Wesley’s campaign. Through that system, we recruited hundreds of brand new volunteers for every aspect of the campaign from phone banks, to the texting itself, to door to door canvasses. We have a full staff that does this so well. I swear they were born to run those systems. They are so amazing. They’ve literally helped volunteers send millions of text messages on behalf of our candidates. Thank you to each of you who helped with this.
In addition to what we spent on all of our efforts, we also raised money directly for Wesley’s campaign.
As I reflect back over the past four years, I’ve experienced a lot of losses — our whole country has — not just in terms of loss of life, ranging from the thousands of people killed by American police to the innocent church goers slaughtered by a white supremacist, we’ve lost a lot politically as well.
But this win matters. It matters a lot. For me personally, it is one of the most important political victories that I have been a part of (right up there with passing Raise The Age legislation here in New York and seeing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez elected).
But here is what I am leaving with…
Wesley Bell won (by a landslide I might add) because he was an amazing candidate who resonated with a broad swath of voters. Wesley Bell won because he had deep relationships with local people and a groundswell of grassroots support. I’m thinking here Kayla Reed and Action St. Louis, about the Ferguson Collaborative, the Organization for Black Struggle, the St. Louis Reform Coalition, Millennial Activists United, Lost Voices, Missouri Faith Voices, Faith in Action, and Hands Up United.
Wesley Bell also won because he happened to be in a city and a county full of people that were very much ready for change. We don’t quite have that everywhere. The whole city of Philadelphia was desperately ready for change when they elected Krasner. St. Louis had that same energy. Injustice has exhausted people, but also pushed them to organize and fight back in very sophisticated ways.
I’m proud of everybody who came together to make this happen. This is how we win. It’s a brilliant model. Everybody played their role perfectly and selflessly.
Let’s do it again.