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Progressives hope local wins offset national setbacks

After losses in Congress, the liberal wing of the Democratic party hopes a win in the Chicago mayor's race can fuel a rebound in other local races.
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Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson celebrates with supporters after defeating Paul Vallas after the mayoral runoff election late Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

For many progressives, the past decade has been littered with disappointments. But recent down-ballot victories are providing hope of reshaping the Democratic Party from the bottom up, rather than from Washington.

In Chicago earlier this month, a former teacher’s union organizer unexpectedly won the mayor’s race. In St. Louis, progressives secured a majority on the municipal board. The next opportunities could lie in Philadelphia and Houston, which also hold mayoral elections this year.

The focus on lower-level contests already has helped progressives gain power and influence policy at a local level, organizers say, shaping issues such as the minimum wage. It also may help the movement find future stars, with today’s city and county officials becoming tomorrow’s breakout members of Congress and only moving further up the political ladder.

“Progressives have taken a look at how to be strategic and how to build power,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants who was a leading national voice for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ’ 2016 and 2020 presidential bids. “If you look around and you say, ‘Who is ready to run for president?’ If your field is shallow, what do you have to do? You’ve got to build the bench.”

This year’s focus on state and local races follows years of incremental progress and some stinging setbacks. Sanders electrified the left with 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns that centered on bold calls for universal, government-funded health care. But he lost each time to rivals aligned with the Democratic establishment who advocated for a more cautious approach.

On Capitol Hill, progressive candidates successfully defeated several high-profile incumbents during the 2018 midterms and the election of candidates like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But from New York to Michigan and Ohio and Texas, prominent progressives were defeated during primary campaigns last year. And, as President Joe Biden now gears up for reelection, he faces no serious challenge from the left.

Still, Sanders and others have left their mark, pushing mainstream Democrats to the left on key issues like combating climate change and forgiveness of student loan debt while inspiring some of those at the forefront of today’s movement.

That includes Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, who appealed to a diverse and young electorate as he campaigned with Sanders and other top congressional progressives.

“Let’s take this bold progressive movement around these United States of America,” Johnson said in his victory speech.

Our Revolution, an activist group which grew out of Sanders’ 2016 White House bid, endorsed Johnson and progressive candidates who recently won three of four seats on the St. Louis City Board of Aldermen. That gave progressives a slim majority in a city where the mayor, Tishaura Jones, is also a self-described progressive.

Our Revolution said it activated its 90,000 members in Chicago an average of three times each to urge them to vote for Johnson, and made 100,000 phone calls in St. Louis. The group is also backing Helen Gym, a progressive former Philadelphia City Council member who is among roughly a dozen candidates competing in next month’s Democratic mayoral primary.

“When we win on the ground in our cities, that’s actually the blueprint, because we cannot wait for Congress,” Gym said during a recent call with Our Revolution volunteers.

Our Revolution’s executive director, Joseph Geevarghese, said local progressive organizing, including for races like school board, is more effective now than it has been in decades.

“We’re building power, bottom up, city by city,” Geevarghese said, adding that ”in major metropolitan areas you’ve got credible progressive slates vying for power against the Democratic establishment.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a Democratic National Committee member, countered that there doesn’t have to be tension between the party’s left and moderate wings. She said Johnson called for addressing “quality of life issues” such as homelessness through consensus-building, rather than ideological confrontation.

“Every one of these cities are complicated places and you have to work together to get things done,” Weingarten said. “You have to work with people you don’t always agree with. And that is a strength and not a weakness.”

It hasn’t all been rosy for progressives. Moderate candidates topped progressive alternatives in last week’s Denver City Council races.

But there are more opportunities ahead. In the nation’s fourth-largest city of Houston, Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who has been an outspoken progressive in Congress since she got there in 1995, is running for mayor.

And the left isn’t abandoning congressional races.

Progressive champion Rep. Barbara Lee and fellow Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, who was a vocal supporter of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ’s progressive campaign for president in 2020, are among those running to replace retiring California Sen. Dianne Feinstein next year.

In Arizona, Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, a progressive 43-year-old Iraq war veteran and Spanish speaker who represents much of downtown Phoenix, is trying to unseat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. She left the Democratic Party last year and, if she seeks reelection, would run as an independent.

“Working-class Democrats are getting elected, and corporate Democrats are not,” said Chuck Rocha, a key architect of Sanders’ 2016 campaign who heads Nuestro PAC, which has endorsed Gallego. But Rocha was quick to caution that Gallego isn’t running as “a progressive or liberal savior.”

“He’s going to run as ‘I was an enlisted Marine who had to sleep on my mama’s couch until I got a bed in college’ and has been a champion of working-class folks in the state of Arizona,” Rocha said.

Questions about a resurgent Democratic left come as Biden prepares to formally kickoff his reelection campaign and will have to decide how to frame his political vision and ideology to appeal to swing voters. After besting Sanders and Warren in the 2020 primary, Biden embraced major progressive goals, promoting expanding social programs and climate-change fighting green energy.

Biden eventually oversaw passage of dramatic federal spending increases, including on health care and green technology. He tried to forgive student loans for millions of Americans, but saw the plan challenged in court.

On other issues, however, Biden has been more moderate. After major legislation to curb police brutality and institutional racism stalled in Congress, the president signed an executive order to make modest reforms. He also has said repeatedly that, rather than heed calls by some progressives to cut funding for law enforcement, the answer should be more police funding.

More recently, the president angered liberal Democrats by failing to veto Republican-championed legislation reversing new, local crime regulations in the nation’s capital and approving a major oil drilling project in Alaska.

Biden campaign aides say he’s shown flexibility to best respond to ongoing political and policy challenges. And Rocha said that Gallego will benefit from Biden’s 2024 campaign, which should rely heavily on promoting his administration’s legislative accomplishments and how they benefited working-class families in swing states like Arizona.

But some progressives say the White House should take notice of the movement’s down-ballot wins.

“I hope he’s paying attention,” said Hannah Riddle, director of candidate services for the activist group the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Running on economic populism is a winning strategy. And that model can be replicated all over the country.”


Weissert reported from Washington.


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