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The Sunrise Movement, a Growing Electoral Force, Faces “Painful Moment”

Sunrise feels growing pains amid a slew of electoral victories, raging arctic wildfires, and a vanishing ice sheet.

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demonstration for Green New Deal
Protesters seen holding placards during the Sunrise Movement protest inside the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi to advocate that Democrats support the Green New Deal, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 10, 2018., Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

In September 2019, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey found himself 14 points behind his primary challenger, Rep. Joe Kennedy. Kennedy, more than three decades younger than Markey, positioned himself as a fresh voice for the Senate, representing a diverse coalition. Markey, the co-sponsor of the Green New Deal in the Senate, saw his political career was on the line and took a chance. He rebranded himself from inoffensive Democratic incumbent to a champion of progressive causes, particularly on climate. “It’s not your age, it’s the age of your ideas that are important,” Markey told The Intercept. “And in terms of the age of my ideas, I’m the youngest person in this race.”

It worked — and Markey easily fended off Kennedy’s challenge — but without the help of thousands of texts and phone calls from youth-led climate group, the Sunrise Movement, the moment for the 74-year-old Markey to out-maneuver his 39-year-old opponent into becoming the first of his name to lose an election in Massachusetts might never have come.

Sunrise has risen in stature in the political-organizing world since its formation in April 2017, as the climate emergency has worsened beyond belief — with record highs and toxic air in California and the Greenland ice sheet past the point of no return. Sunrisers have played a critical role in a string of recent progressive primary victories, leading texting and phone banking operations for candidates like Jamaal Bowman, the middle school principal who defeated 31-year incumbent Eliot Engel in New York, and Cori Bush, who knocked off 10-term incumbent Lacy Clay in Missouri.

Sunrise’s decision to make Bush’s campaign a priority transformed the race, as most national progressive groups and left-leaning elected officials, with the exception of Justice Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders, shied away from the contest. In the final weeks of the race, Sunrise volunteers made calls to over 150,000 voters in the district. Bush ended up winning by about 3 points.

“For me, Sunrise was incredible,” Bowman told The Intercept. “We made 1.2 million phone calls during our campaign and Sunrise made 865,000 of them so they were a true leader in our phone-banking operations. They were also a true leader in the overall framing around environmental justice and continuing to center racial justice within environmental justice, so just as a thought partner, someone we consistently communicated with via social media, as well as behind the scenes.”

“I see them and Justice Democrats as the two leading organizations who are not afraid to go against the establishment,” Bowman added. In addition to investing effort in massive phone-banking operations, the young activists also push candidates and lawmakers to sign voting pledges, work on climate education projects, and shape campaign messages on social media.

And today, in Rhode Island’s primary, Sunrise is backing a slate of progressive candidates. Emma Bouton, co-director of Sunrise Rhode Island’s summer field program, said the group endorsed 26 primary candidates at the state and city councilor level. Canvassers reached 1,800 voters in the last two weeks of August alone, she said, and she saw at least one undecided voter at the polls Tuesday who told her he was backing the Sunrise-endorsed candidate. “Our goals are twofold,” explained Bouton, “to get candidates into office to pass the Green New Deal at the state level as soon as next year and to do longer-term movement building.”

Polls closed at 8 p.m., and while Bouton hopes the group’s full slate is elected, no matter what the results are, the work continues. Sunrise Rhode Island will keep organizing in the state for the general election and to keep building momentum for a statewide Green New Deal, she said.

Sunrise endorsed Markey’s reelection campaign on August 22, 2019, a month before Kennedy joined the race. The group was the first national organization to back Markey, said campaign manager John Walsh, and “the campaign welcomed the organization into high-level strategy decisions, and both Ed Markey and Sunrise worked to make sure this race would be about a mandate for the Green New Deal and the progressive agenda more broadly.”

In a clever twist, Sunrise was able to cast the veteran lawmaker not as a stale incumbent, but rather as a longtime ally in developing and fighting for the Green New Deal. As Sunrise Political Director Evan Weber and Creative Director Alex O’Keefe recently told The Intercept, it began when Markey posted a photo of himself standing outside his home, wearing an original pair of Nike Air Revolutions. “And this just kind of created a new persona for him that is almost inexplicable, similar to Bernie Sanders, as this progressive grandpa that has been around the block for so long and is tough as nails and is not really going to allow anyone to tell them where to stand,” O’Keefe said.

Not long after the group’s 2018 sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, which was joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was weeks away from being sworn into office, Markey reached out to Sunrise and the freshman lawmaker to figure out a way to work together on the issue. It was actually Markey’s idea to turn Sunrise’s demand for a climate committee into a bill that could be introduced in both chambers, to give the young activists something to organize around, Weber said.

Campaign manager Walsh described the relationship between the incumbent and the youth group as mutually beneficial. “Ed Markey helped Sunrise enter the national spotlight when they backed the Green New Deal, and, in turn, we used our platform and popularity amongst young progressives to show and highlight who Ed Markey has been throughout his career and make this race important to young progressives,” Walsh said. “Sunrise helped frame the importance of Ed Markey being elected in 2021 to fight for the Green New Deal.”

This cycle, Sunrise endorsed 17 candidates, including 16 progressives for Congress and Sanders for the presidential nomination. According to its national endorsement process guide, Sunrise prioritizes grassroots-backed campaigns that have taken its Green New Deal pledge and have a clear path to victory. To win an endorsement, candidates have to fill out a questionnaire and if their answers align, they go on to an interview with the national political team. Local Sunrise hubs, which are legally unaffiliated entities, are also encouraged to make their own endorsements. Though the group doesn’t have official membership numbers, it touts thousands of active volunteers across the country.

Sunrise’s approach to the Markey race was to run ads focused on his role in creating the Green New Deal. O’Keefe told The Intercept that the potential for attack ads against incumbents or other Democrats vying for primary wins is giving Sunrise a greater stake in campaigns. “If you show them that we can produce better political ads than the other side can, like the Green New Deal-maker ad that we produced, we can reinvent your character and sell you to a whole new audience, then that’s going to make you a lot more willing to support the Green New Deal,” he explained.

Young volunteers from Sunrise and other groups also created “stan” accounts spreading campaign messages through memes. “Because Markey made a decision that he was not going to canvass door to door, we thought we need to have a whole new style of digital organizing,” O’Keefe said. “So there became many meme accounts and offshoot, spinoff accounts of Shrek for Ed Markey, doggos for Ed Markey — and all this stuff does not necessarily persuade voters by 20 percentage points and swing elections, but what they do is they give people hope that there’s other people out there that believe Ed Markey can win.”

Last year, the group launched a “Road to a Green New Deal” tour across the United States, visiting 250 cities with politicians and activists to build support for the ambitious resolution and during the tour’s final stops, to pressure the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to make the election a referendum on climate change. Markey, Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., were among the headliners at the tour’s major stops. Though a sizable portion of Sunrise’s funding comes from individual donations, the organization is powered by several large grants and big outside donors.

The group’s moves in another Massachusetts primary have raised concerns among the rank and file about how the organization is involved in campaigns. On September 2, the day after Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s primary challenge to incumbent Richard Neal for the Democratic nomination to represent Massachusetts’ 1st District ended in defeat, Sunrise Movement’s regional organizer for Massachusetts Sam Dreyfus assured the organization’s demoralized members that they had done all that they could.

“You all did incredible work,” Dreyfus wrote in the group’s internal Slack chat, “and you passed through an extremely painful moment.”

That “extremely painful moment” was three weeks of the group’s handling of a scandal based on allegations of sexual misconduct by Morse released publicly on August 7 in the midst of a hard-fought primary election. The claims sparked internal discussion within local and national Sunrise groups about how to respond to the vague, but troubling, accusations from another youth group, the College Democrats of Massachusetts. Morse was banned from CDMA meetings because of undefined claims that he had made some students uncomfortable and because the 31-year-old mayor had dated men in the Pioneer Valley, including some students at the schools in the area — including at University of Massachusetts Amherst, where the mayor occasionally lectured.

“Nobody ever brought this up during the endorsement process in March,” said Destiny Treloar, an organizer for Sunrise’s South Hadley hub. That process, Treloar told The Intercept, began in November 2019 and involved Morse meeting with national and then the group’s local hubs meeting to decide on whether to back the mayor. While the groups had the final say, national needed to sign off on the candidate first.

Sunrise quickly met with the group’s western Massachusetts hub to decide on next steps. That process took place via Zoom call with Dreyfus and Weber, wherein members were asked to share their thoughts and feelings about the still unclear but nonetheless concerning claims. Members would then work with the group’s leadership to find “the right move for Sunrise, ethically and strategically,” Dreyfus wrote on Slack.

During the call, Weber was twice asked if Morse had had sex with one of his students rather than just students at the schools in the area. Weber deflected the first question but the second time answered in the affirmative, claiming that he had received the information from another source, according to people on the call.

“If I’m being completely honest,” Weber told The Intercept on Tuesday, “one of the learning things about this experience for me is like — if I were to go back and do it again — my orientation at the time was to kind of like, overshare all of the different information we were getting and all the rumors that we were hearing, so our local chapters could best assess what kind of risk there was to them, getting involved, and so on. But if I were to go back and do it again, I would not have shared unsubstantiated rumors that I was not hearing firsthand, in a situation like this especially.”

Dreyfus told The Intercept that Weber’s comments were part of an effort by Sunrise to be fully transparent with its members in the coalition. “We wanted the Sunrise Western Mass Coalition to have all the information that our national team was hearing from a wide variety of sources at that time, so the coalition could operate with the same information that we were hearing about what the vague public allegations might entail,” Dreyfus said. “One of the things we were hearing from second-hand sources was that Morse had had sex with a student of his; we later heard directly from the campaign that this wasn’t true, and we shared that correction with coalition leaders immediately.”

The national chapter of Sunrise issued a statement on the race on August 11, suspending its campaigning for Morse “until further notice to give us time to learn more,” but did not unendorse the mayor. The regional coalition took a more aggressive posture, however, with four members composing an internal statement for the group revoking its endorsement completely.

Other allied groups, like Justice Democrats, Working Families Party, and the national Sunrise Movement, were critical, admitting that they were still looking into the allegations and waiting for additional information, but didn’t unendorse. LGBT Victory Fund, Massachusetts Nurses Association, and the progressive dark-money group Fight Corporate Monopolies, on the other hand, reaffirmed their support.

“We stand with those who brought forward their concerns about Alex’s improper and harmful conduct through the College Democrats of MA,” the Western Mass Coalition said in a hastily released statement. “As a movement that stands for justice and a livable future, we know that rape culture runs deep in our society. We believe the students that came forward about the inappropriate nature of Alex’s actions — as we believe all survivors.”

Sources close to the matter told The Intercept that the coalition’s statement was meant to be kept private pending a group-wide discussion. But one of the lead writers, an organizer named Elias Seeland, released the document publicly without consulting anyone else in the western Massachusetts hub. Seeland declined to talk to The Intercept.

The uproar that followed the statement’s release and the lack of internal communication that led to its publication hint at deeper issues facing Sunrise, as the group becomes more powerful and prominent in American politics. Sources told The Intercept that they saw the Morse endorsement and fallout as indicative of a disconnect between the group’s national leadership and local coalitions — and an issue that needs to get solved sooner rather than later.

Dreyfus, the Sunrise coordinator, told the organization’s members that the group’s suspension of campaigning and resulting statements did not have an effect on the race, citing Neal’s incumbency, how much the congressman won by, and the surge in support for Morse that came after The Intercept’s revelations of the scheme were published as factors explaining the loss and reinforcing the claim that the efforts of the group to help Morse were useful.

“The pandemic made this year a very steep hill for challengers, who could not use the power of individual connection or the energy of big events to win over voters in a time of extraordinary hardship and anxiety for so many,” wrote Dreyfus. “This factor almost certainly deepened the incumbent advantage that we saw across the state last night.” Missing in those comments, however, is any acknowledgement of the coalition’s own hasty statement on Morse.

Despite the defeat, local activists aligned with Sunrise told The Intercept that Morse’s campaign has given fresh energy to the progressive movement in the region. South Hadley’s Treloar said that the Morse run should be seen as part of an ongoing struggle by the movement and “another exposure of the corporate power” behind powerful establishment Democrats like Neal whose views on climate and health care run counter to those of the party’s base supporters. “It will be disheartening because it will feel like defeat,” she said. “We ran a grassroots campaign, but money can win you a lot of things.”

“This election has forced us to up our game, and we’ve been strengthening relationships with neighboring DSA chapters in Pioneer Valley, Troy, the Capital Region, and across the state of Massachusetts, as well as with National DSA to organize better and be more impactful,” said Amillie Coster, spokesperson for Berkshires Democratic Socialists of America. “We’ve sharpened our focus on local electoral politics in order to establish a lasting basis for our ongoing work on a range of pressing issues, from housing justice to defunding the police.”

“I have to believe that a lot of the loss of progressive voters in Mass this year is from the smear campaign and the local media’s lack of coverage — but also the national climate around race and fear,” added Coster. “White voters are voting safer in areas that were previously very progressive.”

Update: September 8, 2020, 10:25 p.m.
This article has been updated to clarify that the creation of meme accounts was not an explicit strategy of Sunrise, but was undertaken by volunteers from Sunrise and other groups independently.

Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England.

Aída Chávez is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., covering Congress and the impact of public policy on diverse communities. Prior to joining The Intercept, she worked for The Hill and Cronkite News – Arizona PBS. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2017 with a B.A. in journalism and political science.