Locals Focus on Elections and Today’s Other America

National and state elections took place this fall as our economy struggled to recover from the worst recession and greatest levels of inequality since 1929. Some DSAers were able to find ways to make a difference in the elections, volunteering as canvassers in swing states or for local candidates. Many used the 50th anniversary of our founder Michael Harrington’s historic book The Other America: Poverty in the United States to re-introduce the “invisible poor” into the public discourse, urge mobilization for solutions, and celebrate our organization’s history. They strove to combine analysis with coalition building that addresses the profound structural causes of the current crisis and the threat to democracy posed by the corporate-funded right wing. Here are a few examples of effective local actions: 

Motor City Mobilizes

For many years, Detroit DSA members have volunteered together in elections – to the point that the Michigan State Democratic Party has come to respect them as significant players. Candidates actually seek their volunteer work in close but significant races. So the Detroit comrades were prepared and well positioned when the unexpected happened.

The newly redistricted Michigan 11th Congressional District was considered a safe Republican seat for incumbent Thaddeus McCotter, with 57 percent registered Republicans. The Democrats’ sacrifice candidate, Dr. Syed Taj, was running on a platform of creating jobs and protecting Social Security and Medicare. But McCotter’s nominating petitions were thrown out for massive fraud, and he resigned his House seat. The Republican primary went to volatile Tea Partier Kerry Bentivolio, disliked even by his own party. Suddenly, the race was up for grabs.

DSA Local Chair David Green gave a house party, a form of fundraising allowed, indeed encouraged, under election law. The checks collected at them are made out directly to the candidate’s campaign, not the DSA Political Action Committee (PAC). The fundraiser for Taj exceeded expectations. Among those in attendance were Rep. John Conyers, Jr., Mich, State AFL-CIO President Karla Swift, AFT-Mich. President David Hecker and other union notables. Only the credibility that comes from years of campaigning could bring such prominent people to the party.

As polls showed the race dead even, DSA volunteers showed up on three Saturday mornings as an organized group. Some canvassed while those unable to walk longer distances phone-banked – as a DSA group. The local publicized the dates to its members on its website and Facebook page, sent email, and followed up with phone calls. Unfortunately, Taj lost by 46 percent to 53 percent, as most Republicans voted a straight ticket.

Detroit DSA also educated their members about DSA member Michelle Fecteau, who ran for the state Board of Education, and for attorney Mark Bernstein who ran for University of Mich. Board of Regents on a platform of making college tuition affordable; both won in close races.

Earlier in May during the primaries, Detroit DSA drew over 100 people to a fundraiser for Rep. Conyers at Colors Restaurant. The guest of honor was Jim Hightower, progressive radio commentator, syndicated columnist, and editor of the Hightower Lowdown. He entertained the audience with his humorous observations on Republicans, the Tea Party, and Mitt Romney. Co-hosts were Reverend David Bullock, president of the Detroit branch of Operation PUSH; David Hecker; Tim Carpenter, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, and Marjorie Mitchell, executive director of the Michigan Universal Health Care Access Network. DSAers in Atlanta, San Diego and Chicago also held fundraisers for Conyers, using the house party format. After overcoming a primary challenge, Conyers again won in the general election, with 81 percent of the vote.

Winning in Massachusetts and California

In September, first-time candidate Mary Keefe, backed by the Mass Alliance – a coalition that includes Boston DSA – won a five-way primary election to emerge as the Democratic Party nominee for state representative in the 15th (Worcester) district. Keefe ran as an open progressive, supporting a hike in the gas tax, abortion choice, gay marriage, and environmental protection against strong conservative opposition. She was also the only candidate to endorse the revenue bill supported by the Campaign for Our Communities, which would raise $1.4 billion in new revenue, mostly from the rich, for schools, potholes, transit, police, parks and libraries. (Worcester has lost 40 percent of its local aid from the state in the last decade.) Her other backers included the AFL-CIO, Neighbor to Neighbor, Mass. Nurses, SEIU, and Carpenters local 107. Boston DSA volunteers organized three car caravans to Worcester for door knocking and voter ID, including on election day. Keefe won, 76 percent to 24 percent!

In California, non-partisan propositions are typically the arena where the class struggles take place. This year DSAers found it particularly important to work for Prop. 30 (school and university funding through a slightly higher sales tax and higher income taxes on personal incomes over $250,000) and against Prop. 32 (which would have banned labor unions from using payroll deductions, their main source of income, for political spending). DSA volunteers in our four California locals jumped into the fray, and their efforts were successful, part of a historic turn-around for the state. San Diego DSA also volunteered for former Rep. Bob Filner’s successful campaign to become Mayor of San Diego.

East Bay hosted a presentation by Lenny Goldberg of the California Tax Reform Association about corporate tax dodging, progressive solutions to state budget problems and organizing for Prop. 30, and leafleted at a city fair and at commuter train stations (BART) for Prop. 30 and against Prop. 32. Duane Campbell reports tabling on the Sacramento State campus, offering a popular course on “The Economic Crisis and its Alternatives,” speaking on these issues in a number of classes to previously uninformed students, and working with the Sacramento Progressive Alliance. “We had some great victories in California,” says Campbell. “We defeated the billionaires’ efforts to crush organized labor and to continue the anti-tax radicalism.”

The Other America turns 50: Calls to action, not nostalgia

Central Ohio DSA held a panel presentation in October marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Other America and the current state of poverty in America. The program included a seven-minute clip from the film Ain’t I A Person on the nature of poverty, by Keith Kilty, who also moderated. This was followed by a reminiscence and social justice framing by Bob Fitrakis of Columbus State Community College, a local activist and publisher of the Free Press; a presentation on economics by Fadhel Kaboub, assistant professor of economics, Denison University; and an historic view by Kevin Boyle, professor of history, Ohio State University. Linda Cook, senior attorney at the Ohio Poverty Law Center, explained economic exploitation and costs that weigh on the poor, followed by a presentation by Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, director, Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.

Boston DSA was a major player in a highly successful day-long symposium on “Poverty Since the Great Society” at Brandeis University, attended by 120 people. Former YDS organizer and Brandeis graduate student David Duhalde was lead organizer, and current YDS organizer Jackie Sewell gave a GET UP presentation on the student debt crisis. Speakers included professor and American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner and journalist Bob Herbert. The event was sponsored by the Heller School for Social Policy’s Poverty Alleviation Concentration and funded by the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice (founded by Jules Bernstein, a DSA veteran, who also spoke).