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Innovative California Progressives Help Return State to Sanity With Effective Organizing

New tactics and hands-on organizing help California Calls redraw the Golden State's political map.

Photo Credit: Kris Fortin,


Progressives who want a path to a political future where an emerging electorate is bypassing the budget battles now afflicting Congress and where decades of damage wrought by right-wingers is slowly being repaired, should look to California. There, a historic coalition of local organizers and labor unions have been remaking the landscape since 2010 by engaging “overlooked” voters.

For much of the past decade, California had terrible state budget deficits, a legislature held hostage by rules allowing a minority of anti-tax Republicans to cut $25 billion from education and human services, even as it became the first state where its communities of color, which were politically marginalized, gradually outnumbered white residents.

But in 2009, as yearly spending cuts began mounting, a coalition of progressives with deep roots in local organizing and labor unions in working-class communities set out to change the political status quo. In 2010, they helped to repeal the super-majority rule giving the GOP its power in the legislature’s budget fights. Last November, they were the linchpin in a statewide vote raising $6 billion a year in taxes for schools for seven years. The 2012 election also defeated an anti-union ballot measure and closed a corporate loophole capturing another billion in tax revenues.

At the heart of this rising progressive tide is a new kind of California voter, one perpetually overlooked by the state's political mainstream, including Democrats, according to Anthony Thigpenn. The longtime Los Angeles-based organizer heads California Calls, a statewide coalition of local groups that found, inspired and turned out half-a-million "infrequent" and "unlikely" voters in 2012, providing the margin of victory for Prop. 30, which raises taxes on incomes over $250,000 and sales tax by .25 percent.

“We wanted to produce a different kind of swing voter,” Thigpenn said. “This was young voters, working poor voters, people of color, immigrants, even disillusioned progressives, who typically would not vote—they may turn out to vote for a presidential election, but they won’t go down ballot and vote for propositions, etc., because they don’t think it makes a difference.”

The Los Angeles native, now pushing 60, has been an organizer for four decades. In the mid-1970s, he worked as a machinist by day and organized against police abuses by night. In the 1990s, he helped run city council races and then tried to create multiracial coalitions, especially when the state's GOP pushed anti-immigrant measures. Lydia Chavez’s 1998 book about that fight says even then Thigpenn was telling “occasional” voters that they had to vote, just as he was telling groups they had to create coalitions, because power only responds to power. But unlike the 1990s, Thigpenn realized that today there is a new majority of California voters—non-wealthy individuals from communities of color—who hold the state’s political future in their hands.  

“Our goal was to educate and mobilize that force of people,” Thigpenn said, referring to California Calls’ strategy and mission. “We thought they could be the decisive difference in winning, and that we would not have to moderate our message, but the same message of income inequality, of the need for the top tier to pay their fair share, would resonate and motivate these folks. And that’s the campaign we launched.”

Progressives aren’t used to winning, or to winning big. But that’s the only way to describe the passage of Prop. 25 in 2010, which ended the GOP’s lock on passing state budgets, and Prop. 30 in 2012, which will provide $40-plus billion in new revenues for schools. This winter, for the first time since 2008, California is not facing billions in budget cuts, although $23 billion in debt remains and $8 billion in human service cuts have not been restored. Looking ahead, the coalition wants to reverse those cuts by reforming other holdovers from California's GOP-dominated days: raising commercial property taxes and closing oil and gas tax loopholes.