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Chicago Progressive Groups Aim to End Rahm Emanuel’s City Council Stranglehold

Two Chicago coalitions are working to elect progressive candidates in the 2015 elections—and build an enduring movement.

Photo credit: Grassroots Collaborative

In These Times

By Kari Lydersen

The Chicago mayoral race has drawn national attention, with Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, progressive Alderman Bob Fioretti and most recently long-time progressive leader Jesus “Chuy” Garcia challenging Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his seat in February 24 city elections. Even before Lewis was forced to withdraw because of a cancerous brain tumor, however, many assumed Emanuel—and his $9 million war chest—would prove unbeatable.

Regardless of the mayoral outcome, two major Chicago coalitions are working to change the city’s political course by targeting the 50-member City Council, trying to elect more progressive candidates willing to challenge the mayor while also building a durable political grassroots movement.

On November 15, Reclaim Chicago will announce its endorsements in 10 to 15 aldermanic races. Group leaders have been interviewing candidates and deciding endorsements based on a platform that includes promoting a living wage, high-quality public schools, criminal justice reform and infrastructure spending; and opposing privatization, cuts to pensions and layoffs of public workers.

In the three months leading up to the election, Reclaim Chicago will campaign for the candidates it endorses with door-to-door canvassing, political organizer trainings and community meetings.

“Our strength is mobilizing a well-trained group of citizens who will do face-to-face canvassing to talk to residents one-on-one about our vision—about what Chicago should look like and about these particular candidates,” said Reclaim Chicago spokesperson Kristi Sanford. “We can’t finish the work in one electoral cycle—we’re trying to over time build an independent political organization that holds officials accountable.”

While Reclaim Chicago focuses on grassroots campaigning for specific candidates, Grassroots Illinois Action also targets City Council with a slightly different approach. In October, Grassroots Illinois Action, which draws on supporters from faith-based, labor and community institutions, unveiled the project Take Back Chicago, including a website that ranks sitting City Council members based on their votes on issues deemed important to working people. By highlighting elected representatives’ records on issues like the minimum wage, affordable housing, public schools and fair taxes, Take Back Chicago aims to hold Council members accountable and boost progressive members with strong records.

Both groups are 501(c)4 non-profit organizations that can lobby and endorse candidates. Reclaim Chicago is a project of thePeople’s Lobby, a national grassroots organization, and the National Nurses United labor union. The People’s Lobby played a major role in the successful campaigns to elect Christian Mitchell and Will Guzzardi to the state legislature by winning the March 2014 Democratic primaries. (In Chicago, Democrats are virtually guaranteed to win in the general election.)

Guzzardi, who won the 39th district on the northwest side of Chicago over political machine-backed incumbent Toni Berrios called the People’s Lobby “incredible partners” in his campaign.

“They were amazing. Their organizers were diligent and focused and disciplined,” Guzzardi says. “They fit in perfectly with the model we were building, which was one focused very strongly on door-to-door and grassroots work and bringing a progressive message, particularly about the economy.”

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How Did Minnesota Stay Blue in the Midterms? By Embracing, Not Running From, Progressive Values

Minnesota bucked the nationwide swing to the right. The national Democratic Party could learn a few things from how they did it.

Photo Credit Aaron Landry Flickr

In These Times

By Jacob Wheeler

In the land of Lake Wobegon, progressives still reign.

Republicans gave Democrats a national wholloping during Tuesday’s midterm elections, seizing the Senate, expanding their lead in the House, and gobbling up governors’ mansions in Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois.

But Minnesota bucked the rightward trend. In the upper Midwestern state known for progressive politics, Scandinavian sensibility and high voter turnout, Al Franken easily held onto his U.S. Senate seat (winning 53 percent of the vote), Governor Mark Dayton convincingly won reelection (by 5.5 percent), and the Democratic-Farm-Labor Party (DFL) held onto five of its eight Congressional seats.

Franken’s and Dayton’s landslide victories were particularly noteworthy because each of them had to endure statewide recounts in their initial runs for office. Franken won in 2008—a “wave year” for Democrats—by only 312 votes. (He later jokingly called that “the most efficient Senate race in history.”) Dayton won his first gubernatorial election in 2010 by less than 9,000 votes.

Republicans did regain control of the State House by ousting 11 DFL incumbents, mostly in rural Minnesota: they now have a four-seat majority (Democrats control the State Senate, which was not up for reelection this year). But the GOP failed to win seats in all but one of the first-ring suburbs of the Twin Cities, despite several tight races. In typical midterm election years, House seats in the suburbs of Eagan, Edina, Shoreview and Minnetonka would typically swing red. This year, they all remained blue.

The DFL’s successful defense of the suburbs around Minneapolis and St. Paul, and convincing victories for Dayton and Franken, could offer valuable lessons for progressives nationwide as they lick their wounds and try to develop an effective political strategy for 2016.

How did Minnesota Democrats do it? By focusing on women’s issues, fair pay and raising the minimum wage, and by championing—not running away from—progressive accomplishments such as workers’ rights and President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The community organizing group TakeAction Minnesota has focused much of its attention on building infrastructure and forming relationships in those first-ring suburbs, and bringing conversations about economic inequality and gender inequity to people’s doorsteps.

“We’ve been organizing in the suburbs—building relationships, recruiting volunteers, knocking on doors and working the phones,” said TakeAction communications director Greta Bergstrom. “The issues we focused on were women’s economic security, pay equity and raising the minimum wage. These are issues that poll highly in Minnesota, and we didn’t see Republicans attacking or opposing us on those issues.”

It doesn’t hurt that the Twin Cities’ first-ring suburbs, like suburbs across America, are becoming more ethnically and economically diverse. It also didn’t hurt that Mike McFadden, an investment banker who lost to Al Franken in the U.S. Senate race, fared poorly with Minnesota women on Tuesday. The DFL party successfully portrayed McFadden as running a white male-centered campaign that offered little in the way of women’s issues. The party lumped him together with Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who voted against the Violence Against Women Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act.

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The Black-Brown Alliance That’s Turning Kansas Blue

Why is Pat Roberts running for his life in the Kochs’ home state? Ask community organizers.

In These Times

By Sam Ross-Brown

Heading into the November elections, you could be forgiven for assuming the GOP hold on Kansas isn’t going to loosen. The home base of the Koch brothers, the state has become a poster child of Tea Party Republicanism, toeing the far-right line on voter ID laws, abortion restrictions and a host of other issues. In 2012, the National Journal rated the congressional delegation from Kansas as the most conservative in the country—and that was before a Koch-funded campaign succeeded in ousting moderate Republicans in that year’s primaries. Oh, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach happens to be a leading author of Arizona’s SB 1070, the infamous immigration law that critics say encourages racial profiling. Kobach helped write the bill while serving as legal counsel at the far-right Federation for American Immigration Reform.

But in the lead-up to November, Kansas’s red-state armor began to show some cracks. Since mid-August, Gov. Sam Brownback, a Tea Party darling up for re-election this fall, has been polling 2 to 6 points behind challenger Paul Davis, a Democrat. Same with Kobach, whose cozy 5-point lead over his leftwing challenger shrunk to within the margin of error last month. Even Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, whose tenure in Congress predates the Reagan era, appears poised to lose his seat—polls show him trailing his little-known challenger, Independent Greg Orman.

Kansas People’s Action (KPA)—an black- and Latino-led organization dedicated to fighting crony capitalism, racism and big money politics—isn’t shy about taking credit for the turnaround. “Their poll numbers are down in large part due to the work that we’ve been doing,” says KPA’s executive director, Sulma Arias. That work includes reaching out to a set of 112,000 less-frequent voters who are black and Latino. The message they tell voters? “Kobach is trying to game the system by messing with the ballot and pushing restrictions on voting that help him and his friends, like Brownback and Roberts,” says Arias.

Arias is referencing measures like the state’s voter ID law, authored by Kobach. It requires that would-be voters in Kansas prove U.S. citizenship when registering and show a valid photo ID on Election Day—a dual test 7 percent of eligible U.S. voters cannot pass, according to a Brennan Center for Justice study. African Americans and Latinos are particularly disenfranchised by such laws: 25 percent of blacks and 16 percent of Latinos lack the requisite ID.

When the law was passed in 2011, Arias was running Sunflower Community Action, an affiliate of National People’s Action, a national network of community organizing groups. In her two-year tenure as executive director, Arias had made it her mission to broaden the group’s focus from working with an exclusively black membership in Wichita, primarily on affordable housing, to reaching out to the state’s growing Latino population, initiating campaigns to secure driver’s licenses and in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants.

Believing that Kobach was overstepping his bounds as secretary of state—a position that typically entails enforcing laws, not writing them—Arias decided someone needed to take on Kobach and his policies directly. So Sunflower launched a 501(c)4 advocacy arm, KPA, that set its sights on challenging the policies that have been championed by the state’s far-right Republican leadership, particularly Kobach and Brownback.

Teresa Garvey, a bookkeeper and Peruvian immigrant living in Wichita, learned about Kobach in 2012 when she saw KPA organizer Louis Goseland talking about him on TV. “He said Kobach was pursuing illegal immigrants instead of doing his job,” she recalls. “I wanted to find out what he meant by that. It made me want to get involved.” She’s now an active KPA volunteer. Working with the group has made her think for the first time “about the experience of black or poor white communities, how we could work together to make Kansas a better place,” she says.

Like Garvey, Reverend Carieta Cain Grizzell, of Wichita’s Grant Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, first took notice of KPA as the anti-Kobach campaign gathered steam in 2012. “That was when I first heard about Louis Goseland and the KPA,” she says. “So I went to a meeting and I really got excited about what they were doing. It really fell in line with what I’ve been about all my life.” Grizzell says she was particularly galvanized by KPA’s work against the Kobach-authored voter-ID law. “It’s like poll taxes,” says Grizzell. “Kobach has made voting rights a farce in the state of Kansas.”

For Grizzell, KPA’s ability to unite many different kinds of people around an issue like voting rights illustrates how vital the group’s work is. “I really like the fact that it brings together the African-American, Latino and poor white communities,” she says. “We work together as one united front.”

KPA has made it a mission to expose how policies Kobach and Brownback supported—from voter ID laws to the food stamp cuts in 2013 that kicked 20,000 Kansans off the rolls to an SB 1070-style immigration law—breed racial and economic injustice.

The immigration campaign gained national attention in the summer of 2013, when 300 KPA activists converged on Kobach’s residence in Kansas City to call for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship. Many activists placed empty shoes on Kobach’s doorstep, symbolizing their deported family members, friends and neighbors. Kobach quickly issued a scathing response to the action, calling the activists “illegal aliens” and accusing them of “KKK type of intimidation.”

The comments ignited a national firestorm. Perhaps more importantly, they galvanized black and brown communities in Kansas to see their struggles as connected. “The black community thought of itself as separate until Kobach made that KKK comparison,” says Reuben Eckels, KPA’s deputy director and a pastor at New Day Christian Church in Wichita. Many weren’t very aware of Kobach’s policy record, he says. “We took his KKK comments to the African-American community and started talking about voter registration,” Eckels says. Arias says the converse was true for Latinos, who were aware of Kobach’s draconian immigration laws but less aware of issues like voter ID regulations.

The protests over police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, also helped knit together Kansas’s African-American and Latino communities. Just days after the protests began, Arias connected deportations and detentions in Kansas with police brutality in Ferguson in an online essay, “Why Ferguson Matters to Latinos.”

“We, as Brown, Hispanic, Latino and Immigrant community should be yelling just as loud, ‘Hands up don’t Shoot,’ ” she wrote. “This is the time to stand together in rage and love for our communities.”

Soon after, Sunflower began gathering blacks and Latinos for community forums and solidarity actions around Ferguson. A week and a half later, at a community forum organized by Sunflower, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer pledged his support for introducing a mandatory dashboard and body camera program for the city’s police department—a demand Sunflower began voicing in 2005. Officials plan to have the program operational by the end of the year.

Black-brown unity is on full display as voting day approaches. This spring, KPA launched a political action fund to reach out to voters. Powered by Latino volunteers like Garvey and African-American volunteers like Grizzell, KPA Political Fund is one of the only voter campaigns in Kansas to make use of a predictive dialer, a device that saves time by dialing automatically. In addition to educating voters about Brownback and Kobach, KPA Political Fund has lined up monitors to observe both primary and general elections, making sure that eligible voters without ID are allowed to use provisional ballots, as required by law.

But Eckels stresses that while KPA has worked very hard to oust Kobach and Brownback this November, the group is an independent organization. “We’ve been let down by both parties,” he says. “We’re more interested in holding people accountable to the issues. Eventually, we may field our own candidates.”

For now, an upset of Brownback or Kobach would be a major coup. Even with sinking poll numbers, the two have a long list of wealthy allies, from the Heritage Foundation to the Koch family, and there’s no reason to think they’ll go down without a fight. But Garvey and Grizzell remain confident. “We’re now at a place where almost a quarter of Kansas is black and brown,” says Grizzell. “That’s power.”

Read the full story at In These Times.

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Protect Our Democracy!

Published on February 5, 2014 by in Featured

To the Supreme Court:

Since his law took effect 13 months ago, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has created a restricted list of voters whose right to vote in state elections has been suspended because they don’t have a passport or birth certificate. US Supreme Court: Protect Our Democracy by putting a stop to Kobach’s restrictions on voting!

Thank you.

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People First Iowa

“Corporations are not people!” That was the message at the “People First Iowa” lobby day hosted by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement on January 14. Over 200 members from across the state braved the freezing rain to descend on the Statehouse in Des Moines on the second day of the legislative session – the day Governor Terry Branstad delivers his annual State of the State Address.

CCI came out swinging just before the big day, releasing an alarming analysis of Iowa’s long-term budget outlook that shows an initial $88.8 million shortfall in Fiscal Year 2015 that will have to be covered by dipping into Iowa’s surplus fund in order to pay for the start-up costs of corporate property tax cuts Branstad is proposing – set at $135.9 million in FY15 but scheduled to grow to $277 million next year, eventually peaking out at an unsustainable $380 million per year.

In response to the Branstad budget, CCI is demanding that the legislature raise new revenue from the very wealthy and big corporations in order to fully fund the vital public services that everyday people and hardworking families depend on. Their “People First Iowa” initiative includes:

  • Raising the minimum wage – more personal income means a larger tax base, and more money in workers’ back pockets means more demand, which creates more spending;
  • Combined corporate reporting – to close a loophole in Iowa tax code that allows out-of-state corporations like WalMart and McDonalds to avoid paying income taxes on sales generated in Iowa;
  • Ending the Research and Development Tax Credit, which gives out-of-state corporations like John Deere and Rockwell Collins a tax credit so large that they end up receiving a rebate check from state government rather than actually paying any taxes themselves;
  • Closing three tax loopholes that factory farm polluters get on their manure pits, animal feed, and electricity.
  • Passing a Corporate Tax Transparency Act that would require publicly traded companies doing business in Iowa to publicly post the state taxes they pay, or don’t pay, so that everyone knows.

Each year of his administration, Governor Branstad has pushed an agenda of corporate welfare for his wealthy donors. In Iowa, that means big factory farms get lax regulations, cushy political appointments and tax breaks while preschools close, mental health services get shut down and wages stagnate. It’s a situation where polluters rule, and people suffer.

But each year, from the first day of the legislative session, Iowa CCI has been there to push back against this one percent agenda with policies that would raise revenue for everyday people by making corporations pay their fair share.

Throughout the day, CCI members met with their legislators, lined the hallways as Governor Branstad walked to deliver his speech, rallied in and outside the Statehouse, and demanded at each turn that their elected officials work for them, not corporations. Legislative powerbrokers – including Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum, House Minority Leader Mark Smith, and Senator and Democratic Candidate for Governor Jack Hatch – all affirmed that they supported the CCI agenda and would fight for their issues.

It was a powerful day of victory for members of Iowa CCI, who come from all walks of life, but are united behind a vision that puts people before corporations. But the fight is just beginning, and this legislative session they are ready to go on offense. Winning a real people first agenda is going to take hard work, perseverance, and energy, and Iowa CCI has the right combination of all three.

The lobby day in Iowa is just the start of a season of powerful legislative actions across the country. Next week, the Illinois People’s Lobby will gather to celebrate Martin Luther King by demanding that their elected officials support a people first agenda. Later this month, Kansas People’s Action will do the same, followed by our affiliates in Minnesota, New York, Colorado, Maine, Michigan and across the country.

Follow the action online here, and on twitter by keeping up with #ppl1st

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Hundreds of Kansans Gather to Kick of Legislative Session: Promote Economic Security & Human Dignity for All Kansans

250 Kansans rallied at the State House Rotunda in Topeka to kick off the new legislative session and call on Gov. Sam Brownback, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and the Kansas legislature to enact policies that build an economy, democracy, and state that works for everyone in Kansas.

Sulma Arias:

“Imagine if Kansas was a place that grew prosperity for all its people. Imagine if our state government worked to ensure that every family and every city and small town was thriving. Governor Brownback has led us far away from that hope. He is turning our state into a corporate tax haven, a Cayman Islands of the Midwest where CEOs and the ultra rich are responsible to nobody and where life gets harder and harder for hard-working families. We demand that the Governor change course now.”

Kansas People’s Action (KPA)—part of the National People’s Action network—is fighting to create jobs, expand voting rights and participation, expand Medicaid, fully fund schools, and make corporation pay their fair share of taxes. With nearly 20,000 Kansas voters on a dysfunctional suspended voters list, 16,000 fewer jobs in Kansas than there were when Gov. Brownback took office, and the Governor’s executive decision not to expand Medicaid (which puts the lives of hundreds of Kansans at risk), KPA will work to urge Gov. Brownback, Secretary of State Kobach, and legislators to institute policies that reflect the best interests of the people.

Rev. Reuben Eckels:

“We fought and died so that we could actually exercise our right to vote. But now those rights are being trampled on again by new restrictions and justifications for making voting harder. Kobach’s restrictions don’t affect the ultra-rich. They are barriers set up against every-day people, especially those who look like me. We are asking Kobach to stop promoting voter restrictions and begin increasing voter participation and democracy.”

Similar campaigns are being run across the country at the city or state level in places like Maine, Minnesota, New York, Colorado, Iowa and New Mexico, where advocates are building momentum in a movement for economic justice and fairness to help restore working Americans who are still recovering from the economic crisis.  These diverse coalitions are moving city and municipal legislation and running statewide campaigns to end tax breaks that favor the wealthy and corporations to stabilize local economies and invest in communities.

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