ORLANDO, Florida — I have seen the present, and it works — I think.
I have spent the past week observing the official Democratic Party and unofficial 527 field operations in the battleground states of Ohio and Florida. And I have found something I’ve never before seen in my 36 or so years as a progressive activist and later as a journalist: an effective, fully functioning American left.
Those liberal organizations that already knew how to do politics — the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and a few others — are doing it better than they have before. Those liberal groups that stayed aloof from elections or phumphered ineffectually are now playing the game like seasoned pros. New organizations have arisen to mobilize sometime voters; the largest of them — America Coming Together (ACT) — will have 12,000 staffers in each of the three biggest battleground states (Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida) on Election Day.
And most amazingly, all the 527s — ACT, the AFL-CIO, the LCV, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, Emily’s List, MoveOn and 25 others — are working together under the umbrella of a single coalition, America Votes. They meet together, plan together, divvy up turf, parcel out messages, coordinate their mailing and phone banking.
Here in Orlando, ACT is getting out the vote in the black and Latino communities, while the LCV targets more upscale white suburbs. The Sierra Club plays the LCV’s role in Tampa, where it has a thriving chapter. “On the environmental side, we never figured out how to work together before,” says Allan Oliver, who heads the LCV’s Orlando operation. “Now, I’m on the phone to the Sierra Club every week; we say, how can we do this better?” The 527s even share their private polling — a common-sense pooling of knowledge that was utterly unthinkable before the prospect of four more years of George W. Bush concentrated the progressive mind.
The groups draw as well from a pool of progressive activists, who have journeyed from all across the nation to Ohio, Florida and other battleground states; I was reminded — minus the ideology — of the migration of leftist young men to Spain in 1936. The Orlando headquarters of the LCV was overflowing with preponderantly young staffers and volunteers on Monday afternoon, two-thirds of them, by Oliver’s count, from out of state. Matt, one of four people mapping out the Orlando get-out-the-vote program, came here from Oregon State during spring break. He’s still here.
In the Cleveland office of ACT, I met Ed Cyr, who came out from Boston on October 18 and, with his experience in voter mobilization in Cambridge city elections, found himself coordinating Election Day transportation in Cleveland. (“We’ve rented every minivan in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania,” Ed says.) Carolyn Jackson arrived in early October from New York’s Upper West Side (“no need to preach to the choir,” she notes), and is now running the office. Every time the phone bankers recruit a new Election Day operative, Carolyn sees to it that a bell — the kind they used to put on registration desks at hotels — is rung. For the 20 minutes that I’m in the office, the place sounds like a pinball machine.
The Democrats will have lots of people — party people, 527 people — getting out their vote in Ohio on Election Day. Putting together the estimates of the various party and non-party groups, I got a total of somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000. For a state of 10 million, with a potential electorate of 5 million, having 50,000 people to get those Kerry voters who need an extra zetz to the polls is nothing short of astounding. Partly due to these groups’ efforts, Kerry has already pulled ahead in Ohio, and I’m confident he’ll take the state next Tuesday.
The effect of these operations in the field was wondrous to behold. Last Friday, I went on a precinct walk through Garfield Heights, a white working-class Cleveland suburb, with members of a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local. Among other things, the walk revealed the potency of what AFL-CIO national political director Karen Ackerman had termed “our secret weapon” — an unheralded program called Working America.
Working America is the first genuine realization of labor’s “associate member” program. Canvassers recruit members by going door-to-door in neighborhoods where many union members live; for a nominal dues payment — routinely waived during this election season — members affiliate directly with the AFL-CIO, receive repeated phone calls and mailings on such causes as Bush’s war on overtime pay, and send post cards or e-mails to their members of Congress to oppose this potential change. These days, they receive election-related mail and calls from the AFL-CIO as well.
The AFL-CIO inaugurated this program in three states last year — not coincidentally, Florida, Ohio and Missouri. The goal was to open a line of communication with the nonunion white working class, and by the evidence of the AFL-CIO’s numbers and my Garfield Heights walk, the goal has been reached and then some. The three Ohio canvass operations have recruited 541,000 members — a clear majority of whom support John Kerry, according to the federation’s polls. In Garfield Heights, fully half the persons listed on the SEIU’s walk sheets were Working America members (the other half were either regular union members or retirees). Though it was just midafternoon, a number of working-age men were home. Asked what issue mattered to them most, they said jobs; asked their candidate preference, they said Kerry. Take Ohio’s unemployment rate, add the activities of ACT, Working America and other such groups, and you understand why this is one Bush-2000 state that won’t be Bush-2004.
If John Kerry is elected next Tuesday, the tsunami of volunteer activity within the independent groups will be in large part responsible. Whether this tsunami can be bottled — whether this coalition will take on a permanent life of its own, become an enduring progressive presence in American politics — is a question of resources, opportunity, Zeitgeist and even law (the legal status of the 527s may be under attack if Bush wins). But the leaders of progressive organizations, Democratic elected officials, and the hundreds of thousands of phone bankers and precinct walkers, each for their own reasons, want the outpouring of 2004 to become a fixture of American politics. “Progressives have been waiting for decades for a citizen-based movement to happen,” says Ed Cyr. “One that’s independent of the party, that’s integrated, that’s effective.”
“This is it,” says Cyr. “It’s happened.”