Innovative California Progressives Help Return State to Sanity With Effective Organizing

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.

“We need more revenue and we need to get it from the most progressive possible sources,” said Fred Glass, communications director for the California Federation of Teachers, which was part of California Calls’ coalition. “Progressive forces in California see it as their job to try and hold Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislature accountable for adequate revenues for public education and services.” 

The Fine Print: How They Did It

California Calls and its partners are breaking new ground in ways that progressives in and outside of California should heed. They will work with Democrats, as they did with Gov. Brown on Prop. 30, but they are not afraid to disagree or drive hard bargains—as they are not dependent on mainstream institutions for their electoral base and crediblity.

Instead, Thigpenn’s team and his partners—some of whom have been organizing among California’s growing immigrant communities and unions for decades—have a fine-tuned strategy. They start with a strong unapologetic economic justice message. They invest in building community organizations with technology and training. They work at cultivating and keeping relationships, by meeting yearround to listen, hear suggestions, explain new agendas and get feedback. And they have learned how to go beyond advocacy on local issues to engaging and shaping the electorate.

Last year, after Thigpenn and partners such as the California Federation of Teachers—the state’s second largest teachers union—forced Brown to make the proposal that became Prop. 30 more progressive by relying less on a sales tax and more on taxing upper income brackets, they sent 5,000 organizers into dozens of communities with the goal that each volunteer would find, engage and motivate 100 or more occasional or new voters.

In a state of 17 million registered voters, an army of 5,000 volunteers is nothing to sneeze at. But it’s also not unprecedented, especially when compared with labor’s biggest efforts or a presidential campaign. The usual center-left field organizing strategy in California is to buy lists of registered voters and then innundate those voters with messages at the last minute. In contrast, California Calls’ strategy was to tap into the multitudes who weren’t voting and engage them in a longer conversation that included voting in 2012.

“We did an analysis of the Obama surge in California in 2008,” Thigpenn said, saying he and his partners found 7 million new voters that year. “We played with the numbers and said, what if we could take just 15 percent of that total number, in 12 key counties where there are high concentrations of targeted voters… This was three years ago. And we thought that if we could do that, that could be the decisive difference.”  

Going into last November’s election, pollsters predicted that Prop. 30 would fail, leading to $6 billion in immediate cuts for schools and services. That’s because pollsters do not consider new voters as reliable—even though voter registrations were surging in October (in part because the state offered online registration). On election night, early returns showed Prop. 30 losing. But Thigpenn and his coalition knew those results didn’t include the communities in a dozen counties where they had been talking to people for two to three years. When the final tally came, not only had Prop. 30 passed but the voters California Calls had cultivated—African Americans, Latinos, Asians, immigrants, young people, union members, and other working-class people—voted at remarkably high rates. (Lower-than-expected turnout has always frustrated voting rights groups.)

“The average voter turnout in November in California was 71 percent. The average voter turnout of our folks, who said, ‘Yes, they’re with us,” was 80 percent. Now these are new and occasional voters, so typically they vote below average. In this case, they voted 9 percent higher, and the number of African Americans, Latinos, young voters, immigrants was just astounding,” Thigpenn said. “Young people voted 7 percent higher in 2012 than ’08. People of color voted 8 percent higher in 2012. So for the first time the electorate wasn’t overwhelmingly white. It’s typically 65 percent white and that was reduced by 8 percent. And probably most interesting, people making less than $50,000 a year voted 12 percent higher in 2012 than they did in ‘08.”  

Political scientists who track voting in underrepresented communities, such as Melissa Michelson of Menlo College, called the 80 percent turnout rate “astounding,” if, in fact, those were mostly new voters. She said that California Calls did what political parties have always done. “California Calls’ model of identifying supporters and then focusing on getting them to vote is, in a way, pretty traditional,” she said. “It’s also been the case for quite a long time now that low-propensity voters, ethno-racial voters, people of color, have not, in general, been the target of mobilization campaigns by major parties and major candidates.”

Michelson’s comments are flattering because Thigpenn’s coalition is not a political party. It’s an assembly of groups, unions and coalitions that have worked for years on economic and social justice issues, such as on inner-city issues in Los Angeles or Oakland, raising minimum wages in San Jose, or supporting day laborers in San Francisco or the Central Valley, and includes church-based groups.

“There aren’t shortcuts to building progressive power,” said Roxana Tynan, executive director of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which worked on the Prop. 30 campaign, but was more focused on a successful 2012 campaign in Long Beach that raised the local minimum wage. Her group, LAANE, was typical of those comprising California Calls; it has worked for years at the local level and grew as Southern California’s immigrant community and union workforce became organized.

“I think this shift in the state has been about 20 years in the making,” she said, citing a dozen labor leaders, immigrant activists, activists-turned-politicians and others who, like Thigpenn, started in community organizing and unions, such as fighting for janitors and hotel workers. “You have to start at the city level and be able to build community organizations with real depth, and build relationships with key progressive unions that have real depth in their membership… and really think about building political power in a smart way.”

Tynan said that LAANE, working with UNITE, the hotel worker’s union, fielded 800 volunteers last summer who contacted 45,000 voters, as part of the campaign to raise the minimum wage in Long Beach and support the state ballot measures pushed by California Calls. “The best long-term organizing is face-to-face. I know it’s very old-school -- but it works,” she said. “And while you bolster that with communication and social media and all the rest of it, there is no substitute for building a deeper base of people who will stay engaged over a long period of time.”

In other words, it wasn’t an accident that Prop. 30 passed, with a push by progressives working independently but alongside the state’s Democratic Party apparatus. Looking backward, Thigpenn and his allies can lay out the steps they have taken since 2009. Indeed, it’s easy after a series of political victories to forget just how entrenched and discouraging California politics were for progressives just a few years ago.

“The main thing is progressives have begun to think more boldly,” said Fred Glass, the California Federation of Teachers communications director. “The way we were doing politics wasn’t working very well.”

From 2008 To Now

As progressives across the country look at the political stalemates surrounding the federal budget, it’s worth remembering that California underwent a version of that dysfunctional dynamic starting in 2008. As Glass said, established political players, like his union, had been relying on the same strategy and tactics for years: giving political action committee funds to like-minded elected officials and candidates, and sponsoring and pushing ballot measures to try to do what what the legislature would not.

But in 2008, the Republican Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a handful of Republican legislators who could block a two-thirds majority needed to pass a state budget, kept winning. Their victories took $25 billion out of public education and human services. Those cuts were made worse by inequities in the state’s arcane property tax system, where rates stayed at 1978 levels for longtime property owners (following the passage of Prop. 13), meaning the largest revenue source for schools was frozen.

The GOP-led cuts were really felt at the local level. Teachers were fired. Class sizes increased. School supplies went missing. After-school activities and arts were canceled. University tuition went up. Programs for the elderly, mentally ill and others were reeled in.

Progressive leaders knew something had to change. Different groups started studying different options. The CFT “decided that we had three long-term goals and we would be working toward these goals no matter what else happened,” Glass recalled. “That was to overturn the two-thirds rule in the California Legislature for passing a budget, to overturn the two-thirds rule for passing or increasing any tax, and conduct an education campaign among our members and the public about fair tax policy, progressive tax ideas, so that when we would achieve the proper balance of forces in the legislature, we would be able to turn to a constituency that would be able to pressure them properly.”   

At the same time, Thigpenn was thinking about how to engage the new voters who had first elected Obama. While the CFT was planning and then executing what became a 48-day, 350-mile march from Southern California to Sacramento to promote its reforms—a tactic akin to what Cesar Chavez did decades ago—Thigpenn was meeting with 31 local groups from 11 counties, mostly in cities along the coast, with the idea of building up these groups institutionally with technology and training, and launching a series of ongoing discussions about economic justice challenges and solutions.

“We did capacity-building—getting people technology and computers and databases and training on that,” he said. “Then we did a number of what we called civic engagement programs. This was a time when all of the organizations for four to six weeks would go out and do phoning and door-knocking around a common issue or theme.” Thigpenn said the grassroots groups would do this every few months.

“We first started by asking people about the budget crisis, what the causes were, particularly what they thought about Prop. 13,” he said. “So we started there. Then we started asking, what about this solution or that? What about taxing the rich? What about reforming commercial property taxes? What about taxing corporations or closing corporate loopholes? And so with time we built a base of new and occasional target voters who agreed with us on a progressive agenda: taking the top, reforming corporate loopholes, reforming Prop 13, etc.”

As the Arab Spring unfolded in the media, different groups started looking past their traditional areas and asking what they collectively could do to break the budget deadlock. They started to focus on overturning the two-thirds legislative rule to pass a budget, using the state’s ballot initiative process. And they started looking for a Democrat they could back in 2010, who turned out to be former Gov. Jerry Brown.

“One of the lessons in California is we are far from perfect, but we do coalition politics really well,” said LAANE’s Tynan. “I think part of it is there is a generation of leaders who include Anthony Thigpenn at California Calls... who knew each other, who went to People’s College of Law together… and who have a real commitment to multiracial organizing and multi-issue organizing.”

In 2010, this coalition focused on two ballot measures and won: Prop. 25, reversing the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget, and beating Prop. 23, an oil industry effort to suspend environmental laws. “So this gave us the sense that we were onto something, in terms of being able to make a difference in these kinds of elections,” Thigpenn said.

As important, Jerry Brown was elected based on the promise that he’d be a political adult and bring the legislature’s misbehaving partisans together. While Brown tried and failed to do that in 2011—including finding a solution to the red ink -- Thigpenn’s coalition kept meeting with local constituents. “It was important for us to engage them, not just during an election time but in between election times,” he said. “Because one of the things we hear about during the phoning is voters complaining that, ‘We only hear from you in an election; we never hear from you again.’ We took that to heart.”

“We did nine of these statewide engagement programs in the last three years,” he said. “Seven of the nine were not election times. We kept engaging these folks, building these relationships, asking their opinion, testing ideas, and taking that feedback to fine-tune both the framing of the issues and the kinds of public policies that we want to put forth. So that was critical: anchoring in community-based organizations in an ongoing way."

By December 2011, the state budget crisis was still unresolved. California Calls and its partners were determined to put a millionaire’s tax on the ballot to stop more school cuts. A wealthy Silicon Valley heiress was funding a ballot measure with across-the-board tax increases to fund schools. And Brown was preparing his proposal, to raise both sales and income taxes. By then, the research that groups like the California Federation of Teachers and California Calls had done was ahead of Brown. They told Brown his plan wasn’t progressive enough and wouldn’t pass, both Glass and Thigpenn said. Brown replied that he did not have much faith in California Calls’ work among new and occasional voters.

“I remember the first meeting we had with him in December of 2011, first talking about what we were doing and his propositions,” Thigpenn said. “And he kind of told me, ‘Look, I don’t believe in community organizing. It’s too unreliable.’”

But Thigpenn and his coalition partners didn’t back down. They showed Brown polling data that only a tax on the upper-most earners would pass. And they forced Brown to make the proposal that made Prop. 30 more progressive—by raising tax rates on the wealthy and lowering his proposed sales tax increase from one-half to one-quarter percent.

“Once we forced the governor to compromise, that was in a sense, unheard of,” Thigpenn said. “Typically, the way these things happen is a group of power players in Sacramento decide what is to be done, and they come out to us and say, ‘Sign on the dotted line and become the troops to help us win it.’ So this really changed the dynamic. That we didn’t back down. We had ideas of our own. And they were forced to negotiate. When people saw that, they began to get a sense of their power, both individually and collectively.”

Then, during the early summer and fall, the California Calls coalition and its partners launched a new kind of field campaign that was outside of what the Democratic Party was doing. They set up training camps for organizers. PICO California, a coalition of church groups that was part of the coalition, fielded clergy who said that there was a moral dimension to making wealthy people pay more in taxes.

“If we vote yes on this proposition, we will be asking the rich to share the money they have gained from the suffering of the poor,” said Father Margarito Martinez, pastor of Los Angeles’ Our Lady of the Rosary of Talpa Church. “Fighting for money does not make us rich, sharing money makes us more human, more like brothers and sisters, and more like children of God.”

“For California to be a land of opportunity, we must provide enough funding for health, education and public safety to protect the state's poorest and most vulnerable residents, while opening the pathways of opportunity to all: a decent education, access to healthcare, and equal justice before the law,” Reverend Amelia Adams, pastor of the Open Door House of Prayer, said at the same press conference.

The messaging was built on anger and hope, which had come from the discussions that had been held during the past three years, Thigpenn said. Also, having younger people reaching out to new and occasional voters by calling them, knocking on their doors, and talking to them throughout the process, was a key to their electoral success.

“We discovered a few things,” Thigpenn said. “In addition to the classic kind of community organizing mantra that you have to tap into people’s anger and outrage, we actually found that an aspirational message about the California dream, about what’s possible, about what people’s hopes are for their families actually resonates a lot, in terms of motivating people to vote. So people are angry and we want to remind people of the consequences of the $20 billion being cut, but anger alone won’t sustain people: they just become cynical or afraid of us.”

This message, strategy and tactics led the coalition to turn out 6.18 percent of the yes vote on Prop. 30, which passed by 5.37 percent. Looking ahead, the coalition plans to keep talking to its grassroots groups with an eye to restoring some of the billions that have been cut from schools and social services. They know Jerry Brown wants to retire $23 billion in still-unpaid state debt in the next four years, but they also know where the billions in needed new revenue can be found: by reforming commercial property taxes, where longtime owners are assessed at 1978 values, which shifts the tax burden to newly bought homes; and by taxing oil and gas drilling, which unlike every other energy-producing state isn’t taxed in California.

The California Calls coalition thinks it can achieve these needed structural reforms. But just because the state’s new demographics favor progressive policies and government services, Thigpenn is quick to point out that “demographics is not destiny.”

Indeed, just as local organizers in California looked to their state capital several years ago and were mortified by reactionary policies and billion-dollar cuts by Republicans, so too are progressives in many states now looking at Congress and its poised cuts—whether the upcoming "sequester" or other entitlement "reforms." Thigpenn hopes what has been accomplished in California can be exported to other states, but he also knows that organizing takes time and every state political culture is different.

“We convened a meeting last May where there were 21 states represented, a mix of red and blue and purple states,” he said. “Everyone is trying to figure out what approaches actually work in building long-lasting and sustained power for social justice movements that in the end could have an impact on the national agenda.”

That work, and that struggle, will continue, in California and nationally. But in the Golden State, progressives have come out after a long dark night and appear poised to reshape state government. And that is no small achievement.

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