Teaching Democrats 'How to Fight': PCCC's Adam Green & Stephanie Taylor
This is the second in a series of profiles of leading progressives in Washington, D.C.
To look at Stephanie Taylor and Adam Green, you'd hardly guess they are two of the most feared people in Washington -- at least among certain Democrats on Capitol Hill. But as co-founders and principals of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the casually dressed thirtysomethings have spent the last two years shaking up the Democratic establishment with a mix of moxie and innovation whose reach has been felt in the West Wing of the White House.
Former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (now the frontrunner in Chicago's mayoral race) had some choice words for PCCC when the group ran ads against conservative Democrats who refused to support the public option during the health-care reform battle ("fucking retarded," Emanuel called the ads), and some have speculated it was PCCC, among others, that White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs had in mind when he made dismissive remarks about "the professional left."
Stephanie Taylor smiles sweetly when reminded of the criticism. "There are millions of people in this country who are hungry, millions of people who can't see a doctor, millions of people who don't have a job, and that's what's important," she says. "I don't care what the White House thinks about me; I care about doing something about that problem."
"Look," says Green, "we're trying to change the Democratic Party -- the national Democratic Party. And that necessarily means stepping on some toes… We don't go out of our way to step on toes, but we do need to be strategic, and sometimes making an example out of someone is important."
Take Blanche Lincoln, for example. After the former U.S. senator from Arkansas turned her back on the public option -- a publicly financed health-care program -- during the battle for health-care reform legislation, PCCC backed a primary challenge to Lincoln by Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter. PCCC raised $300,000 for Halter and and sent two senior PCCC staffers -- Michael Snook and Keauna Gregory -- to run Halter's field operation. The field program was designed in such a way, Green says, to allow unions and progressive groups like MoveOn and Democracy for America easily plug in. And they did.
PCCC then recruited DFA and MoveOn, along with prominent progressive donor Michael Kieschnik, to help fund a TV ad featuring 75-year-old Pauline Wildman, a PCCC member in Arkansas, talking about what Lincoln's support for cuts in Social Security would mean to her.
"We then collectively donated the ad to the [Halter] campaign," Green explained to me in an e-mail, "and the campaign immediately took down their consultant-made ad aimed at seniors and put the PCCC-directed ad up in its place."
Halter may have lost the general election, but Lincoln's chances weren't rated any better. And notice was served on the Democratic Party: back liberals, not Blue Dogs who vote with Republicans on issues that are important to the well-being of everyday Americans.
Teaching Democrats How to Fight
But PCCC is more than an electoral campaign shop; in fact, it's not easy to arrive at a succinct description of just what it is. For starters, it's an online community whose membership is approaching 700,000, according to Taylor. It's also a lobbying operation on specific, targeted issues; a pressure group, and a resource bank of talent and strategy advice for progressive Democrats. Perhaps more than anything, though, PCCC has made itself a media magnet in both mainstream and alternative Web sites and publications: every effort, every issue campaign, every electoral gambit is designed to fuel a story that inserts the progressive position into the national political discussion.
"A story is part of organizing," Green says, "so I think about the story."
During the week in December when debate swirled around the Obama administration's deal to extend the Bush tax cuts even to the wealthiest Americans, Green was quoted in the New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico, and appeared on CNN, MSNBC and National Public Radio.
Often a PCCC story starts with a poll -- sometimes commissioned by the group -- and an online petition drive directed at the group's members. Then there are ads, often on video, run online and in targeted markets.
In the case of the tax cuts, a CBS/Wall Street Journal poll showed a majority of Americans, even a majority of Republicans, favoring the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for anyone making more than $250,000 per year. PCCC launched a petition drive among its members, which also helped it raise money for a television ad that featured video of Obama on the presidential campaign trail promising to end those tax cuts.
In the meantime, reporters were treated to a steady flow of e-mails from Green, updating by increments the story they were building. The drumbeat builds pressure on journalists to cover the story, as each highlights pick-up of PCCC's efforts by media outlets. Several e-mail updates featured a "most valuable player" of the day -- people who are hardly progressive heroes. One was Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a conservative Democrat, who chided the president for an apparent lack of faith in Senate Democrats on their commitment to hold the line on the fat-cat tax breaks. Another was Chuck Todd of NBC News, who got the award for asking the president if he wasn't telegraphing his negotiating strategy to the Republicans by saying he was willing to talk about maintaining the tax cuts to the rich.
And that's what seems to make Green and Taylor crazy about this president -- and Democrats in general: the frequent failure to put up a good fight.
"Democrats run away from a fight; fighting is seen as a bad thing," Green says. "We at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are teaching Democrats how to fight. And I think looking at this tax-cut debate really encapsulates the entire problem in the Democratic Party, where Democrats went into it showing all their cards, and only talking about compromise."
The Poet and the Party 'Hack'
The political partnership of Taylor and Green, at first glance, seems unlikely. With her measured speech, polite demeanor and freshly scrubbed face devoid of makeup, Taylor could easily be mistaken for a highbrow academic or introspective artist -- paths that would have been natural to travel after she received her MFA in poetry from Columbia University. But she was bit by the union bug during her undergrad years at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where her mother worked as a secretary at the university medical center.
"I grew up in a working-class household," she explains. "[I] got really involved in the labor action group [at UVA], as the daughter of a worker and as a student, supporting workers who were trying to organize… And so that's really where a lot of my politics come from." Those politics led her to organize for the Service Employees International Union, work for the AFL-CIO, and later for MoveOn, where she and Green worked together.
However unlikely it may seem for a poet to find a career in organizing, Taylor sees a connection. "I think as a writer you have to be willing to put yourself out there; you have to make yourself very vulnerable," she says. "And I think, in some ways, you do that with organizing when you're organizing against power. I mean, it's definitely making yourself vulnerable just saying, 'This is what I think and I'm going to say it,' and put it out in the world."
Green's persona is more brash, but in an engagingly personable way. He barrels into conversations with the rapid-fire speech of his native New Jersey -- a land of brass-knuckle politics -- where he once served as communications director for the state Democratic Party. His roots are middle-class. "We were a politically aware household, not a political household," he says of his family. His father, however, did run for, and won a seat on, the local school board. Green studied political communication and economics in the nation's capital at George Washington University, where, he says, "every third person is going to be president of the United States."
He went on to law school at UVA; it was on campus that he first met Taylor, who was handing out pro-worker flyers as he was passing out promotional materials for Bill Bradley's presidential campaign. (The two later got to know each other better in 2006, at an organizing conference, Rootscamp, hosted by the New Organizing Institute.)
Green's evolution from "being a Democratic hack to being more of a progressive movement person" originated in work he did for the party on the 2002 senatorial campaign of Tim Johnson in South Dakota, for which Green served as press secretary. It was there he saw the power of economic populism work for his candidate.
At one point in the campaign, Green says, a big agribusiness firm took out ads against Johnson -- who had a record of supporting family farms -- in every daily newspaper in the state. And Johnson decided to fight back aggressively.
"And there was a key moment where there was a press event at a local library, that was just flooded with all these local people in cowboy hats," Green recalls. "And there was this one guy who gets up there, and he's like, 'Look around this room. Look at all these cowboy hats. Pretty much every one of us is a Republican. But we're standing with Tim Johnson because he fighting for us for our economic interests and our family farms.' And I was like, huh, I mean, these are all people who are very pro-life, very pro-gun, and went to church every week -- culturally conservative -- but by being willing to pick the fight on economic populism issues, this Democrat was able to get their support. And if he hadn't, the only contrast in the race would have been on these cultural divide issues, and he would have lost."
But his transition out of the party structure, Green says, picked up steam in 2004, just after John Kerry's loss to President George W. Bush in a campaign that was brutally fought by Republicans and their right-wing allies (e.g., Swift Boat Veterans for Truth), and not so brutally fought by Democrats. Green was freshly unemployed, having served as the DNC's Oregon press secretary on the presidential race. Debates between liberals and progressives over the fate of the Democratic party dominated alternative media, and Green was particularly inspired the positions being taken by David Sirota. "He would make a case for Democrats to be bolder, which spoke to me in my South Dakota experience, while others were saying, 'No, we just lost; we have to become more centrist.'"
Right around that time, he received the offer from MoveOn to come aboard to lead the organization's media accountability campaign. It proved pivotal; had the Democrats offered him a job first, he says, he might have taken it.
Dancin' With the One That Brung Ya
The initial idea for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Taylor and Green say, was to create an organization focused on electoral campaigns, but one that would do more than raise money for progressive candidates. Unlike other organizations that do that sort of work, PCCC was determined to help build field organizations for their endorsed candidates, and to provide resources to candidates for creating their own media, and give advice on campaign strategy.
But early on, they decided they needed to do more. "Our vision has kind of expanded to a hybrid model of electoral advocacy and lobbying, because they're all related," Green explains. "So, it's about getting progressive candidates into office, maintaining relationships with them in office, and then using those relationships to pass progressive legislation."
Those relationships are critical to PCCC's effectiveness, Taylor adds. "[W]e feel really strongly that we're not interested in the advocacy model where we're just throwing phone calls into offices because we're just throwing something at the wall and trying to make it stick," she explains. "If we're asking our members to take action, we want to know that their time is going to be well-spent."
The PCCC strategy for getting that legislation passed can be novel.
For instance, during a critical week in the battle for health-care reform, PCCC, together with Democracy for America and Credo Action, urged its members to call individual members of Congress, asking them to step up and voice their support for including a public option in the Senate version bill via a legislative process called reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority for passage. (After Republican Scott Brown won a special election in January 2010 for the Senate seat vacated by the death of Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., it became more likely that the only way the entire health-care reform bill could pass would be via the reconciliation process, opening the door for using it to pass a public option.) It’s rare that members of the House will call on the Senate to invoke one of its unique procedures, but the groups were seeking ways to pressure senators.
On the Monday and Tuesday of that week, Green says, members of the three advocacy groups put in 10,000 calls to Congress. "And we got zero takers," he says. "Zero."
That Wednesday, though, PCCC recruited Rep. Jared Polis, a freshman from Colorado, and Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, to sign a letter to be circulated to their colleagues, making the same request. "Instead of saying, 'Will you lead?', 'Will you be first on this issue?', it became, 'Will you follow?' 'Will you sign that letter over there?' And immediately, people started signing. And within a week, we got 120 members of Congress on the record -- about half the Democratic caucus."
Then they got Michael Bennet, Colorado's junior senator, to circulate a similar letter in his chamber.
Further cementing the relationships that made the letter possible, PCCC helped raise $35,000 each for Polis and Pingree for the 2010 midterm elections, Green says.
While any political will for the public option fell in the face of the fight over abortion coverage fomented by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, PCCC found a model it aims to repeat with the "Will you follow?" letter.
PCCC's strategy also encompasses making quick-to-launch simple Web sites devoted to a single issue or topic, often involving a petition. One morning, Green says, he and Taylor were having coffee, and she said to him, "I want the public option."
"So we launched WeWantThePublicOption.com," Taylor says, laughing. For one press event, petitions gathered through that site -- and via Credo Action and the Democracy For America sites -- were printed out, adding up to reams of paper, to be delivered to the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid by then-Rep. Alan Grayson, the progressive firebrand.
Petition deliveries to Congress don't ordinarily make news. But the perfect storm of having a very quotable member of the House throw down a gauntlet to the Senate drew a lot of big media (AlterNet was there) -- who got a nice payoff when Capitol Police, just following congressional policy, refused to let Green and other leaders carry the petitions into the building, so Grayson stepped forward to schlep them himself.
Since then, PCCC racked up another important primary victory that almost replaced a Republican incumbent in New Hampshire's second congressional district. PCCC threw in big behind Annie Kuster, seen as the underdog in the Democratic primary, in her face-off against Katrina Swett, who bears two brand names in Democratic politics, as the wife of former Rep. Dick Swett and the daughter of the late Rep. Tom Lantos. Swett also served as co-chair for the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who was then a Democrat.
Kuster's finish against incumbent Republican Charlie Bass (also a brand name in New Hampshire politics) was unexpectedly close -- the margin was 1 percent -- giving Green and Taylor a taste for wins they're convinced lie ahead.
The Kuster campaign was part of PCCC's Open Seat Project, which Green and Taylor say is at least as important, if not more so, than launching primary challenges to incumbent Democrats (as in the Halter challenge to Blanche Lincoln). In races all over the country, Taylor says, Democrats are vying for open slots on the ballots, and PCCC aims to get into those races early to support the most progressive candidate in a Democratic primary. (In Kuster's case, PCCC was on the ground six months ahead of the establishment Democratic party.)
It's a strategy designed not only to reorient the Democratic Party away from the so-called center; it also ensures an ongoing relationship with any candidate PCCC supports -- especially helpful if she or he makes it into Congress. "So that way we don't lose progressives that we just helped elect to the lobbyist world," Green says, or to the world of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But just as the PCCC itself was conceived as something of a progressive answer to the DCCC, in July the group launched its own lobbying firm in answer to the infamous lobbyists of K Street: they call it the P Street Project.
Creativity and Experimentation
For a small organization -- 14 staff members -- PCCC's impact is impressive. Since the organization's inception in January 2009, it has raised $3 million online, according to Taylor, and Green is fast becoming a familiar face on cable news shows. They've done it by leveraging scale and operating on a shoestring, with no official office, and sometimes recruiting talent from their Web site.
"We have a very scrappy mentality," Taylor says. "We're always looking for what we do -- you know, how can we take what we have and make it work…Creativity is incredibly important, I think."
"As is experimentation," Green adds.
Before the final vote for health-care reform in March 2010, the February letter circulated by Sen. Michael Bennet in support for the public option had drawn the support of 40 senators (27 signers, and additional 13 who issued their own statements), and PCCC had located video clips of an additional 11 saying that they supported a public option. If those 11 backed up their talk with a vote, the Democratic leaderships would have had the 51 votes needed to pass the measure through reconciliation. PCCC made a television ad of those video clips, to put heat on the 11 who hadn't signed the Bennet letter.
Throughout the public option fight, the administration often indicated its willingness to trade it away. So in September 2009, PCCC raised $100,000 online to run an ad featuring the signatures of former Obama campaign staffers and volunteers, calling on the president to deliver the change the staffers thought they were fighting for. While the fee to the New York Times was not negotiable, other aspects of its production were. So, instead of turning to one of the political graphics shops in D.C., PCCC turned to members of its own online community.
Through a membership initiative called Next Generation of Talent, Green and Taylor launched a competition for drafts of the ad they wanted to run, paying each of those invited to submit a small fee. The winner, Drew McConville, got a $2,500 fee. He isn't even a professional designer. And the ad went on to win a gold-level Pollie, the awards doled out by the American Association of Political Consultants. Green estimates they might have had to pay a graphics shop $20,000 to create the same kind of ad.
The Next Generation of Talent initiative is PCCC's talent bank, where members willing to contribute their skills to the organization's work can list their particular form of human capital. "People can let us know if they're a designer, or if they're a musician, or if they speak Spanish…," Taylor says.
It's a model that Taylor and Green want to see progressive political campaigns appropriate.
"There are college students who can put together a better YouTube video for a hundred bucks than a consultant would for $5,000. So find those people," Green says. "And we try to be the bridge; that's where the institutional knowledge comes in. Nobody has time on the front end of a campaign to achieve the scale needed to find talent. So we're kind of like this second hub that stores talent."
With experimentation comes a lot of risk; the process doesn't work without a failure or two. "Our goal is to win," Green says. "There's this image of the left as, oh, these are people who like standing on principle, but they're okay not winning. That's not our position. But along the way to winning, it is integral to what we do to experiment, and that means having a few bumps along the way."
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the amount raised by PCCC for the Halter campaign; it is $300,000, not $100,000. Also stated in error were the number of senators who signed the letter circulated by Sen. Michael Bennet in support of the public option: It is 27, plus statements in support of Bennet's position issued by an additional 13 senators, for a total of 40. Then PCCC located video clips another 11 senators saying that they supported the public option. Had those senators committed to passing the public option through reconciliation, Democrats would have had the 51 votes needed for passage.