ATLANTA >> The Virginia House of Delegates. The Arizona attorney general’s office. Atlanta City Hall.
Seats of power unaccustomed to intense political attention are the focus of liberal groups as they try to turn the Trump resistance movement into tangible victories.
Long-established organizations such as MoveOn.org to newer outfits like “Our Revolution,” the offshoot of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful presidential campaign, are backing scores of candidates for down-ballot races in 2017 as a precursor to next year’s elections, when Democrats will try to dent the GOP’s monopoly in Washington.
They’ve already picked up some victories.
Newly elected Mayor Chokwe Lumumba won in Jackson, Mississippi, promising to make the city “the most radical ... on the planet.” New York lawmaker Christine Pellegrino, a Sanders delegate in 2016, prevailed in a special election in a state House district President Donald Trump won easily in November.
“There’s a groundswell of progressive leaders already running and winning,” said Joe Dinkin of the Working Families Party, which endorsed both Lumumba and Pellegrino. “They’re doing it by taking ideas pundits may have called outside the political mainstream and putting them at the center of the conversation.”
It’s a page from the conservative movement’s playbook, with activists and their chosen candidates operating mostly outside the official party structure to reshape Democrats’ identity from the ground up. They want to win seats held by Republicans — as Pellegrino did in New York — and elect more liberal candidates even in Democratic strongholds, like Lumumba in Jackson.
The idea, they say, is not just to build a stronger bench that produces future senators, governors and presidents, but redefine the party by delivering on issues from a minimum-wage increase and universal health care to overhauling police practices and the criminal justice system.
“We don’t have to wait for 2020,” said Annie Weinberg, the chief elections strategist for Democracy for America, the political action committee founded by former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.
“We can fight and win on these policies now,” Weinberg added, describing an “inclusive populism” she says speaks to working-class angst, like Trump did, while maintaining Democrats’ current positions on social policy.
Weinberg says her group has heard from “more than 7,000 people” expressing interest in running for office. The organization has endorsed dozens of candidates in 2017, including a slate of Democrats aiming to flip control of the Virginia House of Delegates this fall.
Working Families, meanwhile, is sending out more than 1,000 candidate questionnaires to 2017 municipal candidates.
At MoveOn, executive director Ilya Sheyman says he expects his group to back “dozens and dozens of down-ballot candidates” in the coming election after barely playing in local races for the first 19 years of its existence. “It’s not enough just to fight in federal races given how much the down-ballot races will affect what happens to the Democratic Party five, 10, even 15 years from now,” Sheyman said.
In Atlanta, mayoral candidate Vincent Fort, long a liberal voice in the Georgia General Assembly, has the backing of Our Revolution and Working Families.
Fort said the ideas he and other candidates on the left are offering have been around long before Trump’s election.
“City Hall for too long has been under the control and too responsive to the 1 percent,” Fort said, offering a localized version of Sanders’ presidential stump speech, only subbing local developers and the city’s professional sports teams — all recipients of various tax credits and outright subsidies — for the Vermont senator’s digs at “millionaires and billionaires” at “the big banks.”
But Fort said he’s perfectly willing to feed off the anti-Trump energy.
“We are a critical juncture in this atmosphere,” he said. “In a Trump world, we need strong elected progressive officials ... and people understand that if there’s going to be change, it’s going to have to happen at the local level.”
Democracy for America is focusing on a Washington state Senate special election that could give Democrats “trifecta” control of the state — the governor’s office and both legislative chambers — and the group has endorsed 16 candidates in the Virginia House of Delegates, which is now controlled by Republicans.
Those legislative races in Virginia and elsewhere will in turn play a critical role in shaping Congress. State lawmakers draw congressional district boundaries, a task that Republicans used after the 2010 census to give the GOP a considerable advantage in building a U.S. House majority.
Democracy for America has lined up behind a 2018 Arizona attorney general candidate, January Contreras, who could become a key voice in fighting Trump administration immigration policy.
A Working Families candidate in Detroit could be a quiet influence on a presidential race. Garlin Gilchrist is running for city clerk on a platform of making it easier to vote in the largest city of a battleground state that Trump won by 10,000 votes.
And where they don’t win, the liberal activists say they will see progress. Democracy for America made 300,000 phone calls in a Kansas special congressional election this spring that national Democrats had largely ignored. Republican Ron Estes still won, but by 6 percentage points — after a 30-point GOP win last November.
“We do play to win,” Weinberg said. “But we know this is not a three-month process or a six-month process or even a one-cycle process.”