Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Working Families Party member and mayor-elect of Jackson, Mississippi / Wikipedia

Pulling Left

A conversation with the Working Families Party’s Joe Dinkin

Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Working Families Party member and mayor-elect of Jackson, Mississippi / Wikipedia
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Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.

Sarah Jaffe with Joe Dinkin:

Joe Dinkin: This is Joe Dinkin, National Campaigns and Communications Director at the Working Families Party.

Sarah Jaffe: We are now a couple of weeks out from the elections and it was a pretty good night. Who knew?

JD: I think it is being widely seen in the media as a good night for Democrats, but I think there is a more interesting thing . . . going on. . . . I think it was a good night for progressives. That is true in Virginia, and it is true in the municipal races that were unfolding around the country. I think the story out of Virginia that everybody was reading about was the governor’s race. It is a good thing that [Ralph] Northam defeated [Ed] Gillespie. Gillespie would have meant terrible things for healthcare and for the rights of immigrants and for voting rights. All manner of Trumpism that would have befallen Virginia if he had been elected.

Down ballot what we saw was [that] Democrats picked up [fourteen] seats in the House of Delegates[1]. I think most of the Democratic Party operatives were expecting to pick up more like three to five or three to six seats. The candidates actually won in some of the toughest districts. The more uphill, Republican-leaning districts were [where] some of the most progressive candidates [were] running, people like Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman, who were the first two Latina candidates to be elected to the state legislature in Virginia; Danica Roem, the first trans candidate[2]; Lee Carter, Democratic Socialist and member of DSA. All those candidates were running as . . . full-throated and bold progressives.

I think it blows up this prevalent myth in the Democratic Party that the way to win swing districts is with these boring, moderate, uninspiring white men, generally, who run these cautious campaigns where they try really hard not to offend anyone. These candidates in some of the swingiest races in Virginia who won were candidates running as full-throated progressives and they were a diverse slate and really blew up that idea of the Democratic Party and proved that, at the very least, there is another way to win—which is having a progressive vision and actually inspiring people with the change that you want to make in their lives and telling them how you are going to do that.

It blows up this prevalent myth in the Democratic Party that the way to win swing districts is with these boring, moderate white men.

And this wasn’t just Virginia. Around the country there were municipal races. The Working Families Party, in total, endorsed [over] a thousand candidates in 2017. Around the country we were seeing a new crop of movement progressive candidates picking up the mantle to run for local office and winning. These are a lot of candidates who are not out of the traditional structures of the Democratic Party but whose backgrounds are often in union organizing or in community organizing groups or in social movements, and that kind of candidate was running on these very bold and transformative visions in a lot of cases and being rewarded by the voters for it. I can tell you a dozen stories of some of the most interesting ones.

SJ: Before we get into specifics, talk a little bit about the Working Families Party for people who are not familiar with its work before the last couple of years. Talk about how you spread out into places like Virginia and Alabama.

JD: The Working Families Party was founded in 1998 as a kind of reaction to the Bill Clinton era/[Democratic Leadership Council] (DLC) wing of the Democratic Party, which was a Democratic Party that would pass welfare reform and NAFTA, [a party] that we saw as chasing money on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley and seeing that as a way to win by raising Republican sources of money, or what had been traditionally Republican sources of money, to be able to compete with Republicans on a financially equal footing—and in doing so abandoning, to lesser or greater extent, the issues of the labor movement and of the civil rights movement and of the feminist movement and of the environmentalist movements.

The Working Families Party was founded as a way to have another political tool in the arsenal to force Democrats to actually listen to the progressive base. We grew pretty slowly at first: New York and then Connecticut, Oregon. In 2007 or 2008, we really were still in only three or four states.

[In 2009], we saw the growth of the Tea Party, which, in a sense, did what we wanted to be doing in reverse. It totally changed our thinking about both the opportunities for us to grow and the need for us to grow at a much faster scale and even to be able to do that in a space where the election law didn’t permit us to operate as we traditionally had in a place like New York or Connecticut with the cross-endorsement or “fusion” balloting system—which really only exists in a handful of states. . . . It allowed us to have a new conception of how to grow that mostly involved recruiting and training candidates and running them in Democratic primaries against more conservative opponents.

Then we had two other big growth spurts in the past two years: one, sort of through the Bernie movement. We were one of the first national organizations to endors[e] Bernie. . . . [O]ut of Bernie’s campaign came a lot of new interest and energy into growing local Working Families Party branches all around the country. Then, another in 2017, sort of after the election of Donald Trump, I think almost every organizing group and political organization left of center has seen new energy in 2017. We have seen a growing number of people interested in a more muscular vision of inclusive, multiracial populism and more people coming out of the woodwork to try to prosecute their politics in a different way.

SJ: Talk a little bit about the way that has worked. You are coming into places where you don’t have the same kind of on-the-ground base that you have built over the years in somewhere like New York. What has it been like working in someplace like Alabama or Mississippi?

JD: In 2017, those thousand candidates cover more than twenty-four states. At this point, we have membership everywhere. We have state chapters that are chartered and recognized by our national body in [twelve] states, but [we] have membership everywhere.

What we did [for] the mayor’s race in Jackson, Mississippi for Chokwe Lumumba, or in Birmingham, Alabama definitely looks pretty different than how we might have existed in a place like New York, where we built this base starting from a handful of progressive unions and community organizations. The labor movement in a place like Mississippi or Alabama is just so much weaker that there is much less of a base to start from.

We do have this national membership that engages with us primarily online and what we were able to do was work with the campaigns, with Lumumba’s campaign in Jackson and with Randall Woodfin’s campaign in Birmingham, [Alabama] to figure out how we could be most helpful. That included mobilizing the local volunteers we had to kind of get activated in the campaign. That included creating some national systems of support including national phone banking and national texting teams that volunteers from anywhere could participate in.

It sort of varied from campaign to campaign. In the case of the Lumumba race in Jackson, we were able to embed some experienced field operatives to help provide training and volunteer mobilization locally. In the case of Woodfin, the campaign was pretty different. I think one thing that is a strength of ours is having the electoral and political experience and sophistication and then being able to lend that in a whole variety of different ways to campaigns to help the good guys win.

SJ: How has this been a change from the fusion strategy in New York, when you are working in places that don’t have a Working Families Party ballot line?

JD: The ballot line is definitely a valuable piece of real estate if you think about it one way because it instantly makes you relevant in every election, and the places where we have ballot lines, we definitely have more of an ability and an obligation to get involved in many more races because you are on the ballot. If you are on the ballot statewide you are more compelled to have to make a choice in every instance.

In a place like Alabama, there was actually only one race we endorsed this year. We didn’t have dozens of candidates all across Alabama. We had one. We had the mayor’s race [in Birmingham] and we were very enthusiastic about that and we pushed all the energy that we could into that race, but it wasn’t at the same scale as a place like New York or Connecticut where we have existed for longer.

SJ: One of the big questions that people are asking right now is often framed as a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, whatever that means. I was thinking of it when you were saying “progressives.” It’s even a fight over “what is a progressive?” In the post-Bernie Sanders moment, it keeps getting framed as being about Bernie Sanders in a way that I think forecloses an understanding of what is happening on the ground in different places. What is the Working Families Party’s role in this moment, in these kinds of struggles that are happening?

JD: I think you are right that this sort of progressive phenomenon has manifested in a lot of different ways in different parts of the country. Not just Bernie, but Bernie is definitely a piece of it, and Bernie sort of brought it to the national stage. But there are local groups around the country that are pushing the bounds and changing the dialogue.

Bernie . . . revealed that there was a deep well of both voter support and mobilized volunteer energy behind—especially on an economic justice agenda—a much bolder set of economic policies than had been considered in the mainstream of political dialogue.

Look, I think around the world the neoliberal consensus over the last thirty years is atrophying as people see that it is not working. It is not lifting standards for most people, and especially in the years since the 2008 financial collapse that hit America—and frankly a lot of parts of the world harder than America—we are seeing an international phenomenon of both the rise of a very scary ethno-nationalist right and a new set of energy behind a bold and social democratic, populist left.

We see ourselves as part of that movement, and . . . we bring, in particular, the tactical electoral skills. . . . We can train candidates, recruit candidates, train campaign managers, provide resources to campaigns, and help the new social movements figure out how to actually win local office. I think that is a unique role for us: to bridge the gap between the energy of social movements and the machinations of politics.

SJ: The Working Families Party operating with the fusion strategy in New York was very clearly trying to pull the Democratic Party left. Is that still where we are at? Is there room to talk about another party? You have some elected officials who were elected not on a Democratic Party ballot line but on a Working Families Party ballot line. What is the role of that right now?

JD: I think we engage with the world as it is and the world as it is is a constantly changing thing. We have definitely taken advantage of the ability to elect Working Families Party members in partisan elections where we can, in their own right. Two [members were] elected just recently in . . . in the City of Hartford. . . . [There was Shontá Browdy], a candidate running against the . . . school privatization movement that continues to sweep the country and ravage school systems, especially in communities of color[3]. And in Windham, Connecticut, Rose Reyes—a Latina woman who was a major part of the push to stop cooperation between the city and federal immigration officials, basically, and [to] protect immigrants—[is now] a Working Families Party member [of the town council].

So where we have the ability to elect people who are real movement leaders and part of our movement on our own ballot line, we are more than happy to do it. . . . In most instances, it is easier to elect somebody inside the context of the Democratic Party primary. Sort of the same strategy that Bernie pursued, running inside the Democratic Party primary.

We are flexible enough to pursue different opportunities, but for us, what is important is that we build strength outside the Democratic Party. We see the party itself as sort of a battlefield between a variety of constituencies and ideologies that we think we are sort of shifting the balance.

SJ: Looking forward to 2018, what are you looking at? Are you looking at particular battleground spaces? Do you have your eye on any candidates?

JD: I’ll name one who I think really exemplifies what we want to be doing this cycle is Randy Bryce, the Ironstache. He is a Working Parties Family member and union ironworker running against Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District.

What is important is that we build strength outside the Democratic Party.

He provides the perfect contrast to Paul Ryan—where Paul Ryan wants to cut healthcare to give a giant tax break to billionaires, Randy Bryce wants to provide healthcare for all, create millions of jobs rebuilding infrastructure, and wants to pay for it by taxing the billionaires. The contrast is just perfect, and in a race that was not really seen as one of the competitive races on the radar of the national political class, Randy has raised very serious money and incredible volunteer energy and enthusiasm and has now made the race competitive. He was just endorsed by Bernie Sanders and now even the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] (DCCC) is calling it a race to watch.

I think there is an opportunity for us to be identifying and supporting and recruiting candidates that really exemplify the kind of progressive, inclusive, populist policies that we want to see and showing that people running on that kind of vision are a lot more competitive than people might already think.

SJ: Back to New York and the fusion ballot line. If Andrew Cuomo runs again what happens?

JD: There will be a Working Families Party state convention in New York sometime in June of next year. There will be a lot of debate and discussion among people about what to do and how to handle it and what candidates are running. I think it is obviously going to be an intense and deliberative debate. I think people are going to want to figure out what is the best path to actually advance our worldview.

I think what people who read about the 2014 New York situation might not know is that it actually was a really contentious, deliberative, and democratic process where two hundred members of the Working Families Party state committee—who are not political insiders of any stripe, [they] are grassroots activists who carry petitions for Working Families Party candidates, that is usually the way you get on the state committee—were taking a look at what they felt like was a really tough choice between a candidate they saw who was exciting and embodied their values and a candidate who they disagreed with a lot but was the incumbent and likely winner and willing to make serious policy concessions. He promised things like a [$10.10] minimum wage and an end to hydrofracking, and though Andrew Cuomo renounced every promise he made to the Working Families Party, we also got those [two] policies.[4]

So I think people are going to try to figure out what the best way to actually advance policies, and it will depend on what candidates are running.

SJ: How has the structure of the party changed from in the beginning where it was very much built on the backs of unions and community organizations? How is that changing with a more national outlook?

JD: I would say we have always wanted to have a healthy tension between the weight and muscle of institutions and the energy and idealism and drive of individual activists. I think as we have grown nationally, especially in places where the labor movement isn’t as strong, the balance can look a little bit different place to place. We are in a moment where the energy of individual activists is kind of at an all-time high. I think you are seeing a lot more of that kind of come into the party, too.

SJ: How can people who are all over the place become members of the Working Families Party, get you to get involved in local races there if you are not already and find out more?

JD: People can sign up for our email list at www.WorkingFamilies.org. If you want to be part of one of the national volunteer campaigns that [are] supporting candidates all across the country in 2017 . . . you can sign up to join one of our national volunteer teams at bit.ly/WFPheroes, and people who want to think about getting involved or starting a local branch can reach out to us via email and ask about how to get started.

 

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

[1] On November 20, Virginia’s Board of Elections voted unanimously to delay certification of two House races based upon claims that dozens of voters got the wrong ballot. The results of a recount, if it takes place, could alter the balance of power in the legislature’s lower chamber.

[2] Danica Roem is the first open transgender candidate elected and seated in a state legislature.

[3] In April, Joshua M. Hall, a WFP-endorsed candidate, won a special election in Hartford for a seat in the state house of representatives.

[4] In December 2014, Cuomo banned hydraulic fracking in the state of New York. In April 2016, Gov. Cuomo signed into law a two-tier minimum wage increase in which New York City and its environs will hit $15 for most employees by the end of 2018. Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties will hit $15 by the end of 2021, with the rest of the state hitting $12.50 by the end of 2020.

 

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Nation Institute. Her book, Necessary Trouble, is out from Nation Books.

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