Election 2004

Bright Spots

Nov. 2 wasn't a wash for progressive causes. Anti-war senators won by landslides, polluters were voted out of office and progressive initiatives on the minimum wage, education, and drug policy won in states that Bush dominated.
Asking people to look on the bright side of Election 2004 is, to quote Kristina Wilfore of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, "a little like asking Mrs. Lincoln how the show was." Progressives are reeling and grasping for bearings after a confusing and upsetting loss on Nov. 2. And why shouldn't they be? For millions, it was the first time they'd dared to hope in a long, long time.

But there are reasons to remain hopeful. Despite the high-profile electoral losses and the passage of 11 anti-gay measures, there were dozens of successes and encouraging trends for the progressive cause – most of which came at the local level. Poor Dr. King; he's always turned to when things look bleakest – and now is no different. The latest of his inspiring words making the rounds in post-election e-mails: "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice."

This story is about focusing for a moment on some of the important successes from this past Tuesday. And "success" isn't simply code for "where Democrats won." Success, for the purposes of this article is defined by initiatives, candidates and trends that favor anti-war stances, a strong defense of the environment, sane drug policies, and a movement toward a just and tolerant America.

Down to business.

Conscience and Politics Can Play Nice Together

The seven Democratic senators who voted against the Iraq war all won re-election – and they did it by an average margin of nearly 30%.

Anti-war Democrat senators who won:
Barbara Boxer – California – 58%-38%
Daniel Inouye – Hawaii – 76%-21%
Barbara Mikulski – Maryland – 65%-34%
Patty Murray – Washington – 55%-43%
Russ Feingold – Wisconsin – 55%-44%
Ron Wyden – Oregon – 63%-32%
Pat Leahy – Vermont – 71%-25%

Zoom in and the point becomes even clearer. In Oregon, where Kerry, who voted for the war, won by a mere 4 percent, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden won by over 30 percent "despite" his vote against it. Wisconsin, which was too close to call on election night, didn't take very long to declare Russ Feingold, who voted against the war (ignoring warnings from his staff), the winner. He won by 11 percent. Writer John Stauber concludes, "The lesson is this: Russ Feingold proves that an anti-war, populist Democrat, a maverick campaigning to get big money out of politics, can win and win big."

These statistics should strike fear out of the Democrats the next time issues of war and peace are on the table. Maybe, just maybe, if they can persuade the Democratic establishment to disabuse itself of the mistaken belief that reelection comes to those who adopt the safest position, rather than to those who make a strong case for the values they hold most dear, it has a shot at being relevant in the 21st century.

Dean Dozen

Howard Dean supporters were devastated when their man was taken down after the press, doing a fine impersonation of a pack of wolves, disingenuously played and replayed "the scream" 633 times – before apologizing for it. Curiously you didn't hear the press dub themselves "flip-floppers."

But Dean didn't just drop out and angle for a cabinet position. He quickly threw his weight, and organizational structure, into a new group called Democracy for America (DFA) whose mission is to support progressive-minded candidates in primarily local elections "from city council or local school boards to U.S. Senate," and to ensure that every race is contested.

Every two weeks, a pool of 12 candidates was chosen from races around the nation, dubbed the "Dean Dozen," and given public support by the governor himself – though sometimes, the group's spokesperson Laura Gross conceded, "it was a baker's dozen, or two dozen; it depended."

On the premise that "Democrats can't be afraid to run in certain places like Montana and Georgia and Texas, just because they're so-called red states," DFA campaigned for candidates who would otherwise have been left to the wolves or who may never have run at all. "We never said we'd win all the races," Gross said, "but you've got to start somewhere and you can't be shy about running, and that's what we did."

Amazingly, in what were not cherry-picked races designed for a boastful post-election press release, 31 of the 102 of the Dean Dozen candidates were victorious. An amazing 15 of the 31 had never run for office before. Among the highlights:

  • The mayor of Republican-dominated Salt Lake City, Utah, is now a Democrat.
  • Openly gay candidate, Nicole LeFeveur, won a seat in the Idaho state legislature.
  • In heavily Republican Alabama, progressive Anita Kelly was elected as Circuit Court Judge.
  • In Florida, a first time, Dean-inspired candidate, Susan Clary, won as Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor.
  • Montana's governor is now a Democrat, Brian Schweitzer.
  • Heavily Republican New Hampshire elected Democrat John Lynch, kicking the incumbent and ethically challenged Gov. Benson out of office.
  • Arthur Anderson won the race for supervisor of elections in electorally-challenged Palm Beach County, Fla.
  • Suzanne Williams won a state senate seat in Colorado, giving the upper house a Democratic majority.
  • In North Carolina, openly gay Julia Boseman was one of several Democrats to defeat Republican incumbents to take back control of the State House.

According to Gross, "These are all types of people: male, female, black, white, Latino ... when people talk about rebuilding the Democratic party, that's the start of it. You have to start at the base of this organization, the grass roots level and build your way up. That's what the Christian Coalition did 30 or 40 years ago and hey, they're obviously pretty successful."

And DFA's activists? Gross said that "after the election, our people were more energized than ever. There were 450 meet-ups on Wednesday night. Our blog traffic is up 300 percent, our site traffic is up 300 percent. People don't want to have this 'woe is me attitude.' They want to get up and get active again."

Taking the Initiative

The received wisdom spewing from pundits and papers that the nation is overwhelmingly conservative and that the election constituted a "mandate" for the Bush agenda. But the reality is of course more complex than that. This view is buttressed by the number of progressive initiatives that managed to pass across the nation.

Residents of the "red" states of Florida and Nevada, for example, voted overwhelmingly in favor of something Bush refuses to even consider: raising the minimum wage. Despite "intense opposition from pro-business groups," not to mention Florida Gov.Jeb Bush in his neck of the woods, both states raised their minimum wage by a dollar to $6.15. In Nevada, 68 percent of voters went voted for it; in Florida, the number was 71 percent. Meghan Scott, the communications director for Floridians for All, the group that sponsored the Florida initiative, said, "Once people heard what Amendment 5 was and what it would do for Florida's working poor, people really got it."

On education, the story was similar. Bush passed, yet perenially underfunds, the much-mocked "No Child Left Behind" program. So, while voters in the "red" states of Arkansas, North Carolina, and Nevada supported their president, they also felt the need to support initiatives that strengthened their education systems beyond No Child's parameters. Whether it was the Nevada voters' majority decision to require lawmakers to fund K-12 before anything else, Arkansan's decision to use lottery revenue for education, or North Carolinians' decision to use money collected from fines for schools (they also chose to have a more equitable distribution of funds between schools), voters demanded that their tax dollars fund their public schools. Once again, a progressive value supported by "red" state majorities.

In California, voters supported a stem cell research initiative at which, on the federal level, Bush barely throws pennies. While California tends to be more liberal on social issues, it's difficult to overstate the importance of this measure. Due to its size, and thus the size of the measure's funding ($3 billion), California support for stem cell research effectively is U.S. support for stem cell funding. Call this a smart investment. Watch how California's state economy will be further diversified and enriched when the dividends from this potentially life-saving research start coming in. Speaking to the L.A. Times, Berkeley professor Bruce Cain noted that this initiative, "really highlights how California has become the capital of the 'second nation' and is going to the left when the rest of the country goes right ..."

But the "second nation" didn't stop there. Californians also passed a measure that goes against the prevailing wisdom of the Bush tax cuts. In order to expand mental health programs, those earning more than $1 million per year will see their income tax rise by an earth shattering 1 percent. The San Andreas Fault is expected to survive the hike.

In a similar move, Maine voters opposed a cap on property taxes. It's difficult to overstate the importance of this vote as well. Flying in the face of the think tanks, pundits and rhetoric of the right, citizens who vote to keep the door to further taxation open are citizens who understand the true meaning of family. Taxes are each American's contribution to the well-being of all Americans. If this isn't a victory for progressive values, it's difficult to say what is.

Going Green

The environment, according to (and thanks in big part to) the League of Conservation Voters, was a big winner. Of the LCV's 18 "Environmental Champions," all 18 won. Of the "Dirty Dozen," four went down in flames. In the eight congressional races into which significant LCV resources were invested, the LCV won seven of them. Sure, a candidate like Barack Obama was destined for victory, but others like Ken Salazar, who beat millionaire Pete Coors by just three percent, were surely given a boost by the LCV's effort to expose Coors' anti-environment agenda which, in addition to helping elect the greener candidate, may make others reluctant to embrace an anti-environment agenda. And indeed, LCV president Deb Callahan asserted, "LCV will now take this successful electoral blueprint and apply it in both elections and policy debates around the country. We will not rest until all three branches of our government are represented by pro-environment public servants."

Writing about drug policy initiatives that were on the ballot this November, Steve Wishnia notes that, "Even as 59 percent of (Montana's) voters were going for George W. Bush and two-thirds opting to ban gay marriage, Montanans were approving Initiative 148, which would allow medical marijuana use by patients with a doctor's recommendation, by a 62-38 percent margin." Basic initiatives (like decriminalization and/or medical use) also succeeded locally, in Oakland and, surprisingly, in Columbia, Missouri. Bolder initiatives like full legalization or less restrictive medical use laws, were only narrowly defeated in Oregon and Alaska – an amazing trend in a nation weaned on DARE and the drug war.

The Ultimate Measure

Conventional wisdom holds that Americans voted against their best interests on Nov. 2. While focusing only on the broad stroke does lean toward that conclusion, a careful analysis reveals a more complex picture. Progressive issues and candidates won by big margins at a state and local level. On many of the issues that would positively effect the majority of Americans: minimum wage, the environment, taxes, and sane drug laws, for example, significant advances were made when put straight to the electorate. Sure, there is the daunting cultural divide with respect to gay civil rights and women's rights but it's certainly not the wholesale "values" difference we're led to believe.

Likewise, if voters' support for those who voted against the Iraq War teaches us anything about the ability to present a diverse electorate with an attractive progressive platform it's that progressive candidates must articulate the fact that all issues are reflective of our values and not simply questions of gays or abortion. Sure, they'll lose blocs of voters devoted to single issues, but those voters simply seeking to elect the candidate they can believe in will follow the candidate who firmly believes in their own position. And they'll do it every time.

Did we miss some examples of progressive victories on Nov.2? Send them in to [email protected],

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Evan Derkacz is a New York-based writer and contributor to AlterNet.