Last month, voters in Multnomah County, Oregon, approved a ballot measure to offer free preschool to every child and a living wage to every preschool teacher. The proposal, paid for with a tax on the rich, passed by a whopping 64%. Multnomah County, population 813,000, includes Portland and its east-side suburbs and is Oregon’s most left-leaning and populous county.
Under the measure, the county will phase in tuition-free preschool for all three- and four-year-olds, taught by preschool teachers paid $38.80 an hour and assistant teachers paid $19.91 an hour. It’s funded by a 1.5% to 3.8% top marginal tax on high incomes that only the top 8% of county income earners will pay.
The measure was referred to voters by the elected Multnomah County Commission, but its most important details owe everything to an extraordinary campaign spearheaded by Portland DSA.
Now several years of determined and savvy political organizing, guided by socialist principles, will result in the highest rich-people tax rate in the nation and the redistribution of $200 million a year—from bank accounts where it won’t be missed—to pay for a basic right that comes standard in European social democracies. The preschool program will also turn unsustainable childcare jobs into viable careers, save parents over $10,000 a year per child, and give thousands of parents the chance to work or attend school who previously stayed home because they couldn’t afford preschool.
For Portland DSA, the campaign was first conceived in early 2017 as a “tax the rich” effort. Bothered by economic inequality, computer scientist John Bethencourt and other members researched tax policy and calculated how much revenue different tax structures could bring into local government. When in the midst of an economic boom, the City of Portland announced closures of swimming pools and community centers, DSA members packed budget hearings with the message, “No cuts, no closures. The money is here. Tax the rich.” Portland City Council members publicly lamented the cuts, but lacked the nerve to act on DSA’s proposal to raise revenue by taxing the rich.
“We realized that going and yelling at the mayor, which is what we did at that point, wasn’t going to go anywhere,” says Portland DSA member and campaign co-coordinator Emily von W. Gilbert. “You have to think about an analysis of power, and try not to engage in the wishful thinking of advocacy, of appealing to the morals of elected officials.”
DSA organizers started thinking about taking the tax-the-rich proposal directly to voters via a ballot initiative. They shopped the idea around to local unions and other potential allies, but decided such a plan would more likely succeed if paired with something the public wanted.
Other Portland DSA members were organizing childcare workers. What about universal preschool?
“We thought it would be small enough to be winnable, big enough to be meaningful, and something people could get really excited about,” Bethencourt says.
Universal preschool is a fitting plank in the socialist policy arsenal because it’s a public solution to a demonstrated market failure. As economists including Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz declared in a joint statement in support of the ballot measure, preschool is a “public good” that can only be efficiently provided by the public sector. When preschool is left to the private market, parents struggle to afford tuition, teachers struggle to survive on the wages, and preschool providers struggle to stay afloat. Universal preschool is also a socialist-feminist cause, because its low-wage workforce is overwhelmingly female, and because when families can’t afford preschool, it’s most often mothers who stay home, sacrificing earnings, education, and career.
The tax the rich committee asked retired economist Mary King—a DSA member and former PSU faculty union leader—to review their tax calculations. It would become all she’d think about for the next three years.
Bethencourt and King presented the tax the rich idea as Portland DSA’s first homegrown electoral project, with universal preschool as its centerpiece. The chapter voted unanimously in April 2019 to make it a flagship campaign aimed at the November 2020 ballot, and von W. Gilbert left the Portland DSA steering committee to focus solely on the campaign.
The campaign launched publicly in mid-2019 as the Universal Preschool NOW! Coalition (UP Now). DSA members registered a political action committee, reached out to unions and other community partners to assemble a coalition, and began talking with attorneys and pollsters. A field team tabled every weekend to build a list of supporters and sign up the volunteers they’d need to gather signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
But almost immediately, they discovered a formidable obstacle: competition. At the instigation of a “venture philanthropy” called Social Venture Partners, Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson had begun an elaborate public process to talk about expanding access to preschool. County staff gathered input from over 50 organizations, mostly foundation-funded nonprofits; they included the Portland Business Alliance and a Kindercare executive, but not the teachers union nor any childcare workers. Unlike the universal and funded program that DSA members envisioned, the county plan was a means-tested school-year-only program for low-income families. Vega Pederson’s “Preschool for All” (P4A) plan would cover just half the county’s kids in 10 years time, and have an assistant teacher wage floor of $15 an hour, barely above the Portland-area minimum wage. And whereas UP Now had started with the tax mechanism, P4A hadn’t figured out how to fund it.
King and others were convinced P4A’s halfway approach would be a grave mistake. Universal programs like Social Security and Medicare generate their own durable political support and become untouchable, while programs aimed at the poor limp along with miserly appropriations. Head Start is the perfect example: The 55-year-old preschool program is perpetually underfunded and serves just two in five poor children today.
UP Now leaders saw major differences between their proposal and the evolving P4A proposal, but instead of antagonizing the competition, UP Now leaders met with P4A leaders and tried in good faith to get the county to make its proposal more like theirs. P4A wouldn’t budge. Von W. Gilbert thinks county leaders wanted as many children as possible in preschool, but didn’t believe something big could win. Having grown up in social democratic Sweden, she was free of those doubts.
“I was raised with universal preschool,” she says. “Nobody can tell me it isn’t possible.”
Going forward anyway
P4A aimed for the November 2020 ballot, too, and all it needed was a majority of the county commission to refer it to voters. But the UP Now coalition decided to proceed with the more laborious signature-gathering route to the ballot. With the advice of unions and Left groups that had won initiative campaigns, they convened a coalition of more than 30 organizations, and worked with one of the state’s most experienced ballot initiative attorneys to draft ballot language. They invited the teachers union president, Portland Jobs With Justice director, and the head of the local chapter of National Organization of Women to leadership roles as chief petitioners. And they drew up a signature-gathering battle plan.
Though Portland DSA was the driving force from the start, the coalition was real. Core activists didn’t hide their socialist convictions, but neither did they expect allies to adopt explicitly socialist messaging.
On Feb. 25, UP Now submitted prospective initiative language to the county elections office for approval to circulate. That’s when adversaries appeared. Lawyers for the Portland Business Alliance filed several legal challenges.
Then the pandemic hit. Spirits sagged. How could they gather signatures in a world on lockdown, without public gatherings, while social distancing?
The business group’s legal challenges were dismissed, but they had their intended effect: They delayed signature gathering by four months. By the time county election officials approved the initiative petition for circulation on June 1, UP Now would have just five weeks to gather 22,686 valid signatures of registered voters by the July 6 deadline to get on the November ballot. Even Bethencourt and von W. Gilbert, the campaign co-coordinators, doubted it was possible.
The effort started slowly. But it soon gathered momentum. On social media, supporters shared links for individuals to sign and mail petitions. Volunteers canvassed parks and business districts daily and combed Portland’s massive Black Lives Matter marches nightly. Teachers set up signature tables in public spaces. Moms and kids solicited passersby from their driveways. Café owners put up signs and gathered signatures.
By deadline day, more than 2,000 individuals had signed and mailed single-signed petitions, and more than 600 volunteers had turned in signature sheets. Bethencourt personally collected 1,816 signatures, and two others topped 1,000. Amid a pandemic, a grassroots campaign had gathered 32,356 signatures in five weeks—one out of every 15 registered voters in the county.
“We were over the moon,” Bethencourt recalls. “It was a total David and Goliath feeling. We had done what everybody, even us, thought was impossible.”
Time to make a deal
The outpouring of public support suggested the audacious measure could win. Overnight, the tone changed in talks with P4A. P4A leaders may have thought the business group’s legal challenge would finish off the rival proposal. Now they had a serious political problem: Sending two proposals to the ballot could confuse voters and lead both to fail, and the P4A proposal was unquestionably the weaker of the two. When Vega Pederson presented her P4A proposal to her colleagues on the County Commission, several balked at the prospect of having two competing measures, and wanted to know why the county’s proposal wasn’t universal. P4A and UP Now negotiated a merger, and P4A was rapidly modified to approximate UP Now. The merged measure would have a slower rollout and a lower tax rate, but it contained all the essentials: open to all kids, high wages for staff, funded by a tax on the rich.
With UP Now’s blessing, the Multnomah County Commission adopted and repealed the UP Now measure, then referred its own substantially similar measure to voters.
The final sprint
The accord was on policy, not on how to campaign for the measure. Now the two groups ran parallel campaigns. UP Now hired a field director and waged a grassroots voter contact program of phone and text banking. P4A ran a more conventional “air war” with Internet ads and mailers.
And the opposition? The Portland Business Alliance blinked, likely after reckoning that the political costs would be too high to fight a measure that polled as high as 70%. It was one thing for PBA to try to kill it in the dark with legal maneuvers. What kind of reputational damage and internal division would the business group suffer if it publicly campaigned against a universal program for children—making enemies of the county’s elected leadership along the way?
In the end, it wasn’t even close: Voters approved it by nearly 2-to-1, with more than a quarter of a million votes in favor.
The New York Times called it “one of the most progressive universal preschool policies in the nation” and a national model. Vox predicted it could set an example for others around the country.
When residents of other jurisdictions hear that the residents of Portland have nice things, they may start asking why they shouldn’t have them too.
Within Portland DSA, a solid contingent of members now have experience campaigning, working in coalition, negotiating with electeds, and winning. Bethencourt says they’re itching to identify the next project.
Victory has a way of raising expectations. As a beloved children’s book says, “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk.”
“We want to inspire similar efforts everywhere,” Bethencourt says. “We think there’s a lot of potential for action at the local level.”
Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article appears in the Winter 2020 print edition of Democratic Left.
Illustration by BLUE DELLIQUANTI