Home / General / How to Organize Around Elections

How to Organize Around Elections


As I’ve said repeatedly through this election cycle, big national elections are not the primary vehicle for change in this country, nor should they be the singular focus of progressives. It’s my contention that the real change in electoral politics happens on the local level. Like conservatives who began organizing in their cities and counties in the late 1950s and early 1960s and then took over the Republican Party, progressives need to do the same for the Democratic Party. Avoid vanity third party campaigns and instead turn local elections into organizing campaigns for social change.

Thus, I read this Elise Foley piece with great interest. Last year in Phoenix, undocumented Americans who wanted to make change within the political system decided to dedicate themselves to help a Latino firefighter named Danny Valenzuela run for City Council. Calling themselves “Team Awesome,” they organized the district for a year and got him elected. Latino turnout rose 486% from the previous election.

This is how to do it.

The Arizona Democratic Party is trying to build upon this today to elect Richard Carmona to the Senate. Not surprisingly, that and the growing Latino power of Arizona is the real point of the article. But I think the more interesting question is the relationship between organizing and progressive politics on the local level.

Those undocumented Americans who organized to elect Valenzuela to the City Council have created more positive change than the entirety of third party presidential runs since World War II.

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  • Karen

    Exactly. The first legislative body the Republicans took over in Texas was the Dallas County Board of Commissioners, one of history’s great thankless positions. Now there are TRAVIS COUNTY positions with no Democrat or progressive running. That’s in indigo Austin, boys and girls, and we have R’s running unopposed.

    Progressives can find small posts in red states to run for, also many city boards and commissions need appointees and can’t find them. Try for those. Instead of seeking the Great National Messiah, hozabout running for local school board and publicizing just what horrors the Republicans are unleashing on our schools?

    • You are correct. Bobby Knight, no liberal messiah, said it best:

      The will to win is overrated, everyone wants to win, who wants to lose? What counts is the will to prepare to win.

      God is in the details.

  • Chester Allman

    Great story, and a good illustration of an important point.

    Also, I would like to suggest that as we build the liberal counterpart to the conservative movement, it should be known as “Team Awesome” going forward.

  • Warren Terra

    Some infelicitous phrasing there: “Those undocumented Americans who elected Valenzuela to the City Council” should be “Those undocumented Americans who got Valenzuela elected to the City Council”. The former would have been the vote-fraud fantasy the Fox News insists goes on; the latter is what actually happened.

  • BobS

    We have a situation in our township where the Hatch Act forced a (good) Independent candidate for our board to withdraw from the race due to her employment at the post office. There’s a current (mostly bad) Republican member of the board running for re-election who is also the police chief of a neighboring village. His police department is the recipient of federal funds. Would the provisions of the Hatch Act that prevent a postal employee from holding elected office also apply to that police chief?

    • rea

      Not unless the position of police chief is federally funded. The Hatch Act prohibits federal executive branch employees, other than the president and vice president, from participating in political campaigns. It’s a tad overbroad.

      • BobS

        Thank you.

      • thelogos

        Sadly, it’s why I can’t run for the local school board, fer buddahsakes!

  • DrDick

    Exactly right. If you want to change the system, magical voting is not going to do anything except make you look silly. It takes a lot of time and work to do this. You have to start locally, but do it all across the nation, building an organization, grooming candidates, and developing a funding mechanism. Then move to legislative campaigns and then gradually on up the food chain. It is a long slow slog which takes decades. This is true whether you want to take over the Democratic Party (a formidable, but doable task) or build a viable third party (an even more daunting task with a lower chance of success). If you are not willing to commit yourself to this level of involvement, you are just pissing in the wind.

    • Bill Murray

      and are you doing any of this DrDick or are you happy with the current Democratic party? If you aren’t doing anything or are satisfied with the current party, you come off like like a Republican pundit telling Obama how to run his campaign.

      The big thing is finding alternate funding sources, because the higher party levels will defund you if you get too far out of their control

      • DrDick

        I am not happy about the current Democratic Party, but I do not have the time or energy to do this. My point was specifically addressed to the third party/don’t vote crowd, though to a degree it does apply to myself and others who bitch about it but do not work more actively to change it. I do campaign and write letters for the best candidates I can find and donate to them, however.

        You are absolutely right about funding, though organization and recruiting and grooming candidates so that they are effective if they get elected are also important.

        • Speaking as someone in a functionally one-party town (Dem), I can tell you that when you attempt to take on entrenched Dem interests through Dem party channels, you’re up against master politicians with impeccable funding. In SF, you can make just as much headway with a well-organized third-party challenge as you can stalking the offices of City Hall as a Dem.

          Funding and organization are one reason that challenges from outside are often necessary.

          • “Speaking as someone in a functionally one-party town (Dem)


            you’re up against master politicians with impeccable funding


            Funding and organization are one reason that challenges from outside are often necessary.”

            So out of this incoherence I’m getting something like “but that’s so haaaaaaard! Waaaaaah!”

            • Walt

              You are truly an inspirational leader, Brien.

            • DocAmazing

              It isn’t surprising that that is what you’re getting, Mr. Jackson, since that’s what you went in with.

              Tell you what: if you want to make real change in your community, try changing the Republican Party from within. Come on back and tell us about the results you get. We’ll be most interested.

      • jeer9

        The big thing is finding alternate funding sources, because the higher party levels will defund you if you get too far out of their control.


        The reason wingnuts were able take over the Republican party is that the leadership and big money interests wanted it to happen. There is little to no evidence that Dem leadership and its funders want their party to become more progressive. They’re quite happy with the status quo and the Iron Law of Institutions. The important thing is to keep outsiders from causing disruptions (Stein is handcuffed for hours in an empty warehouse) and civil unrest from becoming too visible (failed last year; success this year).

        The Dems couldn’t find a primary challenger for McCaskill and apparently grasping that the Republicans might nominate the craziest loon to oppose her (because that’s never happened before) involves impossible knowledge. And if you think Donnelly in Indiana is much of an improvement over Mourdoch, you haven’t looked at his voting record recently. He probably won’t make stupid public comments about rape but that doesn’t mean he disagrees with such thought.

        Reform from within is magical thinking on a grand scale, as if groups of activists are slowly going to triumph over the monied interests aligned against them, rising from the local city or county level to unseat the perfidy powering state and national affairs. Even now, reform from outside (OWS) seems like a minor dreamy blip on the radar screen, one that was surmounted without much need to address the 99%ers’ concerns at all. The protesters needed a candidate to rally behind, and sadly there wasn’t one.

        Warren shows promise for 2016 if she can get by Brown, though Cuomo remains the uninspiring favorite.

        • Eric

          The reason wingnuts were able take over the Republican party is that the leadership and big money interests wanted it to happen.

          Not really. There were plenty of bigwigs, donors, and establishment politicians who were quite happy with the way the Republican Party was. In fact, they turned the conservative wing back several times until conservatives began their party takeover from the bottom in the 1960s.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Cuomo remains the uninspiring favorite.

          Based on what? Is that like how Lieberman cruised to victory in 2004?

        • 4jkb4ia

          But that crazy loon could win. It is very possible. Anyone to the left of McCaskill will have to work as hard as she did to win over rural Missouri and escape being tied to Obama as much as she was.

          Also too, it was easier for the people to the left of McCaskill to run for Lt. Governor, which was wide open, and get known around the state in that position.

          • 4jkb4ia

            More to the point, Ed Kilgore got it exactly right when he said that the Republican Senate primary was a contest in “I am crazier than you.” This was true for the entire time the candidates were running.

        • JL

          The protesters needed a candidate to rally behind, and sadly there wasn’t one.

          Disagree. Occupy wasn’t (and isn’t) itself politically unified, and rallying around one person probably would have broken its back, as that one person would have inevitably alienated and driven away a decent chunk of the most dedicated people. As it turns out there were only so many people of any left-of-center ideology who were willing to put in the needed work, so Occupy had to work with the often-uneasy motley coalition of ideologies that actually showed up. Keeping Occupy to the things that people could more or less agree on allowed it to survive.

  • Foley gets it exactly right when she writes, More significantly, Latino turnout increased 486%.

    Having a city councilor on your side is great, but having all of the city council candidates (even the hostile or inattentive ones) realize that there are a whole mess of votes in those Latino neighborhoods – votes that could put them over the top, or votes that could cause them to lose – is what really matters.

    Now, attention must be paid.

    • Rhino

      Yes, by an establishment who will now spend a lot of time cracking down on these undocumented campaign workers. There is a reason why illegal immigrants hesitate to stick their necks out, and I expect a lot of these people are about to get deported.

      • Maybe, maybe not. I certainly know which way I want that to go.

        But from a larger perspective, that’s a secondary concern. All of those newly-organized new voters aren’t going away. They’re going to vote in the next election and the one after that and the one after that, and attention must be paid to them. Not to the undocumented activists, but to the voters.

        • Rhino

          Agreed on the lingering effects, less sanguine on the future prospects of any undocumented person who rocks the boat… Which would also create a huge chilling effect.

  • Wido Incognitus

    Undocumented Americans is the most absurd euphemism that I have ever read.

    • Amok92

      Perhaps but do you have any suggestions? Undocumented worker doesn’t cut it unless you add undocumented student, undocumented stay at home parent, undocumented business owner etc.

      • John

        Undocumented immigrant?

    • I agree. It could just as easily refer to, for instance, all of those American-born old people who don’t have birth certificates.

      A more neutral, accurate term would be “Paperwork-deprived America-joiners.”

  • bob mcmanus

    a) Simple nostalgia for a politics of 100 years ago. The only localism possible even in the 60s was “off the grid” and unnoticed or not exploitable by the PtB. A variation on escapist survivalism.

    b) We don’t have any time. Look to the NE. In the next 5-10 years or sooner there will an event of condition that kills millions or ten of millions and somebody will take over and change the world. It better be the good guys, and we better be ready.

    Matt Stoller gets it.

    • a) Tell that to the good people of Burlington, VT.

      b) We don’t have time to engage in useless posturing, either. Four years after shouting yourself hoarse in favor of Mike Gravel or Dennis Kucinich in the 2008 presidential primary, has it gotten you anywhere? How about 12 years after voting for Nader?

      • Rhino

        It’s gotten him exactly what he wanted: republicans elected. The guy is a fucking republican operative. Quit helping him.

    • bob mcmanus

      Endnotes.org.uk, tiqquen, theorie communiste


      “The fact that the struggles of the current cycle (restructuring) do not con-
      stitute a political project is a structural feature of the historical process that
      defines the content of the coming revolution of our period.”

      We aren’t in the pre-Fordist era anymore. If it worked one hundred years ago, forget it. There is no longer any “local.”

      We are always already in revolution, catastrophe, systemic collapse as ruling ideology…neoliberalism. Financialisation is the constant restructuring of capital as a means of making the proletariat unnecessary and politics impossible and irrelevant.

      What to do? Stop being a tool and get in their way.

      • NonyNony

        Put up or shut up mcmanus. That kind of radicalism demands taking to the streets.

        Are you organizing it? Or are you just advocating voting for third party candidates who aren’t going to win to send a message to those clowns in washington by dressing up like a clown?

        If you aren’t prepared to break the system down then you’re a poser. If you are prepared to break the system down why are you wasting your time on blog comments instead of organizing?

        • bob mcmanus

          Obviously you haven’t followed the 10:37 link and read carefully.

          “Organizing” is no longer the way. It just reproduces the proletariat for capital at the proletariat’s expense.

          Let me help you

          “The only way class struggle can overcome itself is the production of multiple rupture practices in the development of the unavoidably reformist struggles. The multiplication of rupture practices will be produced within these struggles. These practices will necessarily advance the struggles, which will necessarily be struggles for the reproduction of life against capital. Any effort to ‘unify’ the different struggles of fractions of the proletariat in the common struggle that would support the supposed common interests of the class (any effort for the class unity) is a manifestation of the general limit of the current dynamics of class struggle. The only generalisation that can be produced is a generalisation of practices which will put any possible stabilising of a ‘proletarian success’ into question.

          Occupying and trolling.

          • The Brain

            World domination through trolling! Finally, a plan for which Pinky is perfectly suited!

          • UserGoogol

            That certainly explains a lot.

      • Rhino

        Does Rove pay you buy the hour, the word, the link? Or is there some sort of performance metric based on how many votes you syphon away from democratic candidates?

        As for Stoller, pretty obvious he switched sides in 08. Or maybe it’s tertiary syphilis.

        • John

          It should be noted that Stoller, like many of his ilk, was awful even when he was on our side. It’s just harder to notice then.

          • DocAmazing

            I like the songs he wrote with Lieber.

    • Matt Stoller gets it.

      This is so wrong it should be ungrammatical.

      • Rhino

        I think he gets it from Karl Rove, in unmarked envelopes, actually.

    • Just Dropping By

      In the next 5-10 years or sooner there will an event of condition that kills millions or ten of millions and somebody will take over and change the world.

      [Citation Needed]

  • Jameson Quinn

    I’ve made at least 15 calls and emails to various places over the past month trying to get lists of AZ latinos/spanish speakers so I could phonebank from Guatemala. The first response I got was yesterday saying that any day now they might have something for me.

    • Jameson Quinn

      So if anyone could help me find a phone number for Team Awesome, I’d love to call them and see if I can help. They don’t sound to me like the kind of folks who’d get tied up in bureaucracy like everyone else I’ve tried.

      • Jameson Quinn

        On the other hand, the fact that I don’t have a facebook could be a problem with kids like that.

        • The Lorax

          [email protected]


          • Jameson Quinn


            • Jameson Quinn

              But I was right about the facebook thing. They screen their calls with Google Voice, and I doubt they check their email as often as their wall.

  • Excellent point. The problem is it’s very hard to get the numbers for this. I’m in a one party town, and primary voter turnout is ~17%. And even the people that do vote tend to not know much about the people running.

    Here, it always comes down to a handful of local activists to do the heavy lifting. You make a good point about third party candidates, but let’s be clear about something. Third party voters get flak because they don’t give their vote to the Democratic candidate. Not volunteering is far more harmful, yet barely gets mentioned.

    Thanks for the blog post. If the “netroots” spent more time encouraging people to get active instead of talking about what’s hot in the media, we might get enough boots on the ground to make a big difference.

    • I’m in a one party town, and primary voter turnout is ~17%.

      I’m confused. That sounds like an ideal situation for a primary insurgent. You have to flip a very small number of voters, and bring a small number of new voters to the polls, to win a primary.

      • Yeah, especially if you target “lower” offices that more entrenched interests may care less about than, say, mayor. Also. to the extent that most of the work is done by a few people, if you can organize them then you’re really in business.

        • We are to some extent. In fact, I’m running (unopposed) for the local commission here. There are only 200+ seats, they represent ~2,500 people, and are a great way to build a local base. If we had a couple thousand people working together, we could probably take them over in a few years (many are corrupt and embezzle the money the city gives them).

          The problem is, we don’t have enough people for that at the moment. There was an effort to organize progressive commissioners a couple weeks back, but it didn’t turn out so well and there’s been no followup. I might try to do something similar, but right now I’m already behind reaching out to all the contacts we made at the DNC for another campaign.

          • Hey, good for you for sticking your neck out. Best of luck.

            • Thanks, I’ll be sure to let you guys know how it goes.

        • Eric

          Progressives could take over every ward organization in a major city, if they could just get 4 or 5 people to attend every meeting.

      • It hasn’t worked out well because of a few issues:

        1. You get several candidates in the race, and people split on deciding which insurgent to support.

        2. Low voter turnout means low participation. When you’re trying to work on a few different issues and races, you get spread very thin. Sure, if we just had one percent of the city working with us – hell, even half a percent – we’d be in great shape. But it ends up being very difficult to recruit people and keep them involved.

        This is why I don’t see money as such a big problem in national politics. If people were more engaged, I’m sure we could overcome a monetary advantage. But unfortunately, very few people are involved in organizing, and most of the people who wield the mic don’t try to push more people to join.

  • 4jkb4ia

    The phenomenon of immigrant groups organizing to get political power on the local level has existed for as long as there have been immigrant groups. As the article pointed out, the demonizing of Latinos by elected officials was an important motivator to organize to get more power.

    Because it’s one ethnic group or the members perceive themselves as one, it’s easier to have solidarity than among “progressives” broadly defined. It is also simple to figure out if the group has political power–they have representation that can make sure that they get tangible things. Progressives are more ambiguous about whether they have representation and if that just means making a lot of noise.

  • Just Dropping By

    Real change happens locally, but I’d submit that it’s also critical to organize around off-year elections. As I understand it, black and Hispanic voters have significantly lower turnout for off-year elections, which is why Republican typically do better in off-year elections. If that turnout pattern doesn’t change, the “outgoing tide” effect of off-year elections is going to become more severe as Democrats become increasingly reliant on the black and Hispanic segments of the electorate.

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