by Kellen Squire
Recently, there was an article on Daily Kos titled: “Obama Was Never Part Of The Problem, And Democratic-Socialists Cannot Win Everywhere.” It was a welcome departure from the normal “hot takes” of where we find the Democratic Party today. While I didn’t agree with all of its premises, its talk about the need for a big tent, how there’s room for the Conor Lambs and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes to exist equally in order for us to save the country, really hit home for me.
It also, as good articles tend to do, provoked a lot of discussion in some of the political circles here in central Virginia. Are we doomed to a “purity cycle” a la what the Tea Party did to the Republican Party in 2009 and 2010? Where do we compromise, if at all, with the “establishment” or with Republicans or independents or (insert interest group here) on the platform and values that we hold as progressives to build our tent? How do we not just win, but win big enough to fix the systemic damage that’s been done to our Republic? Are groups like the DSA the “new Tea Party,” and if they are, is that a good or bad thing?
At the end of it, I came to the same conclusion I did before decided to embark on my run for the Virginia House of Delegates in the Trump Winery’s District:
It doesn’t matter what label you want to put in front of it. Our core Progressive values don’t live on the fringes of our society – they’re the mainstream. Progressivism is the new American center, and we can run on that message in every single zip code in our country.
Let’s talk about that. But first, it might be helpful to define what a “progressive” is. This is the list of questions the PCCC asks when they vet progressives on their political stances:
- Do you believe that big corporations have too much power in our economy and our democracy?
- Do you believe that global warming is real, and that we should take aggressive steps to combat its effects?
- Do you believe that universal health care is a human right?
- Do you support legislation to make sure that everyone who works has the right to paid sick days each year?
- Will you fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 or more for everyone?
- Do you believe we should expand Social Security so all our citizens can retire with dignity?
- Do you support the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, including teachers and firefighters?
- Do you support major investment in public infrastructure, including repairing crumbling schools and roads, creating more clean energy, and wiring communities with high-speed Internet?
- Do you believe women should make their own decisions about their health and their bodies?
- Do you support the Movement for Black Lives?
- Will you fight for universal pre-K and affordable, quality child care for the kids in your community?
I dare any one of you to tell me that’s a list of crazy leftist demands, or the Sharia Homosexual ISIS Communist Liberal agenda the Republican Party, Corey Stewart and Donald Trump love to rail against. And if you don’t want to believe me, you could believe the PCCC’s own polling. Or, how about Gallup? Or how about literally any firm doing reputable issues polling in the country?
Yes, that’s right – even on hot button topics, like the perennial wedge issues of abortion and guns, progressive positions consistently poll at wide margins of support across the political spectrum. And yeah, that absolutely includes Democrats, Independents, and often even pluralities, if not outright majorities, of Trump voters. You can quibble with groups like the DSA if you like, but though I’m not a socialist, the vast majority of their platform tracks with a progressive one, and they’re out there fighting like hell to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
So what’s the secret, then? Why aren’t we winning from NY-14 in New York City, to Tom Green County, Texas? For that matter, if I claim to be proof that you can run as an unapologetic progressive anywhere, then how come I lost my election 60/40 last November?
Let’s break it down together.
It’s fairly well known that while “Obamacare” was horribly unpopular, the “Affordable Care Act” was (and still is) incredibly popular. At almost a decade’s distance, we can lambast President Obama and Congressional Democrats for not recognizing and taking advantage of that more effectively. But there’s no excuse for us not to recognize and utilize that ruthlessly across the board as we fight to save our Republic.
This is absolutely true, even for perennial hot-button topics that are deeply ingrained and polarized in American culture, like abortion and guns. For example, every once in a while you’ll see Republicans cherry pick a poll that they smugly preen and bandy about, purportedly proving that a plurality of the American public doesn’t approve of abortion. To do that, of course, Republicans purposefully ignore the crosstabs on those results – that not “approving” of abortion does NOT mean you want to make it illegal, or that you want to shame and demean women in the process.
They also ignore the very reason that Conor Lamb is currently a US Congressman – his predecessor, Tim Murphy, not only desperately pressured someone to have an abortion, he sent multiple texts literally saying, “Oh, that ‘pro-life’ shit? Pfft! None of us believe any of that! Only those crazies do, and they scare me! We just say it to get elected.”
That’s a winning message anywhere in the country. For instance, if you look in the polling linked above, literally 91% of the country approves of birth control. So if the Republicans want to engage you on that, if the hill they want to die on attacking you is “Birth control should be less available,” then hah! Be my friggin’ guest!
These are messages that resonate with almost every single American. That approval rate for birth control mirrors the number of American women who’ll end up using it in their lifetimes. It’s something that speaks to them. Something they’ve gone through. Something that they can connect to. We have to connect the progressive values that we’re fighting for in a way that resonates with people’s own lives.
It’s tougher for progressives to do that than we like to admit. C’mon, own up to it. We like wonk. We love policy. We love to see the numbers match up, and although that’s a good thing overall, in a way it’s been a weakness for us. That, and we’re almost universally concerned about actually fixing things than engaging in the sort-of “race to the bottom” Nixonian messaging the GOP loves to engage in. It won them a few elections, albeit at the low, low price of destroying the political discourse in our country today.
It’s a cross we have to bear; the other folks will always have an easier time because they just want to wreck as much crap as possible. We gotta make it work fighting upstream against that fact. We don’t have to go down the road the GOP went on – fearmongering and lying – we just have to find a way to connect those progressive values to the “kitchen table.”
Do that, and you can run on them anywhere.
ISSUE CURRENCY: TRUST IS KEY
If you hold every possible position on every possible issue… nobody trusts you. Voters are sick and tired of that sort-of BS… but, yet, politicians still insist on engaging in it.
I always love to give the example of my friend, Tom Perriello, who unapologetically stood with President Obama and behind his vote on the ACA when almost nobody else would– and only lost his Congressional seat in deep-red VA-05 by such a small margin that around 5,000 votes would’ve flipped it, when people in much more “liberal” districts were getting blown out of the water.
Tom’s courage under fire (literally, he had the gas lines at one of his relative’s properties cut and had to face armed and spitting-mad Tea Party protesters at town hall after town hall) in 2009 and 2010 should’ve been a wake up call to show folks how to fight and win… but it wasn’t.
We can’t go back and change that now. We can only go forward – and forward is exactly where we need to go. Tom Perriello’s example shows us how it to get it done. You go out and fight unapologetically. You wear your sense of service and devotion to the folks in your district on your sleeve. You go out to where people live, and you listen – listen! You can’t just wait for your turn to talk, with your pre-written talking points – you have to listen to the people you want to serve.
That’s what got Tom the crossover votes he won, or how he moved a “non-voter to a voter,” as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – a candidate who seems to have absolutely have gotten that message – would say. That’s what got people off the couch in VA-05, where in other districts across the country they sat, disaffected, unwilling to stand up. But even after knowing the cost now, I can’t really blame ’em for sitting 2010 out in other districts.
Why show up for someone who won’t show up for you?
FOCUS: RELENTLESSLY LOCAL AND TRUE TO YOURSELF
One of the things I think the article mentioned above meant when they talked about running different candidates in different areas is this: you have to be honest to yourself, and honest to the area you’re running to represent.
After I lost my race here in Central Virginia, I got asked to run for, headline, or consider a bunch of other races, from the 5th *and* 6th Congressional Districts, three state Senate Districts, school board, Board of Supervisors, and even Lieutenant Governor (in 2021). It was humbling to be thought well enough of to be considered like that, but I declined every single one without hesitation.
Half of those seats were in districts I don’t live in. While that’s perfectly legal – and in the case of the state Senate districts, for instance, thanks to gerrymandering I literally live only 60 feet from one of those districts, and a hundred yards from the other – I just wasn’t interested in either moving or running somewhere I didn’t live. I’m also not currently suicidal enough to want to run for federal office. And I am reminded of the old joke about how the Lt. Governor’s only job is to check the Governor’s pulse every morning and run for Governor four years later. While, as an ER Nurse, I’m ideally trained for the former task, I have zero desire whatsoever to be the Governor. I’ll leave that to Justin Fairfax, Mark Herring, Jennifer McClellan, Sam Rasoul, Levar Stoney, Tom Perriello, or one of the other very highly qualified names you hear floating around in the tea leaves for those jobs in Virginia.
Because who I am – and the sort of politician I am – is shaped by the people and community I live in and fight for day in and day out.
One of the most frequent questions you get asked out on the trail, knocking doors and introducing yourself to folks, is: are you a Republican or a Democrat? And that was an easy answer, because I was running as a Democrat. But we are such a big tent, that says so little about who you are as a person and a candidate. Even “progressive” just scratches the first few surface layers.
With unlimited time to talk to folks, I would call myself a progressive/populist liberal-tarian. I’d explain that I was more consistently libertarian on issues than my opponent, much less most of the Virginia State legislature, and that, no, being in favor of Medicare-For-All or Universal Pre-K didn’t make me any less of a libertarian, because both of those programs significantly increase personal freedom.
How many times have you heard someone say: I’d quit my job, and follow my dreams; stay at home with my kids; go back to school; retire… but I don’t dare lose my health insurance, because one medical catastrophe will destroy our family financially forever? And as for childcare, my God – my daughter’s childcare for when I was at the University of Virginia cost me more than my entire UVA Tuition. Seriously, I could have rented her a one-bedroom luxury apartment on the Corner in Charlottesville for less! And now with three kids, I mean, really – it’d be cheaper to put ’em in an Uber and have the driver circle the block until I get off work than it’d be to pay for daycare.
Even the most stalwart Republicans who wanted desperately to argue those points with me gave up – because they had no way to argue. That wasn’t just because they couldn’t fight it on the merits. Not just because that’s truly what I believe, and I was living my slogan of “people before party” advocating for those populist, working-class ideas. But because that’s what the people in my deep red district wanted to hear. This slice of almost entirely rural central Virgina could care less about abortion or healthcare or guns or whatnot – they wanted to know I’d stand up to fight for them, to help them power their own success, and then get the hell out of the way.
This was the secret to a lot of the campaigns here in Virginia’s House of Delegates races last fall, win or lose – we had candidates who knew themselves, their districts, their people, and ran their campaigns to suit them, instead of what some consultants from Richmond or DC told them to do. Katie Sponsler in the 66th; Donte Tanner in the 40th; Elizabeth Guzman in the 31st; Josh Cole in the 28th; Lee Carter in the 50th; Brent Finnegan in the 26th. They all knocked the doors off every historical baseline for their districts because they lived their district’s story. But if we blindfolded you, and stood us all up in a line, you’d be hard pressed to find even a micron of difference in the values we held and were fighting for.
That’s the secret people are driving at when they say Conor Lamb and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can’t win everywhere. It’s true; they can’t. Because they’re honest to their own districts (not to other people’s districts) – and if you’re going to jump into the fray, you have to be, too.
OKAY, SURE- BUT, I MEAN, YOU LOST.
Yeah. I sure did; and we worked damn hard and ran a hell of a campaign. We out-organized anyone, ever, in the history of this slice of Virginia. We had more individual donors in six months than my opponent had in almost sixteen years, and more small donors by an order of magnitude than he’s ever had. Our volunteers cranked out thousands of post cards, texts, and phone calls. We made him spend half a million dollars on a race he wasn’t supposed to even be opposed in – money that it was his job to send to other candidates by virtue of his role as the House Republican election chair. And the margin in ten of the 100 races for House of Delegates last year was less than 3-4%, less than 400 votes in half a dozen of those – as many of you are well aware.
We made a real difference. Yet here I am. Instead of in Richmond, I’m back doing one of the things I’m apparently most talented at: being an opinionated (jerk) on the Internet.
Doesn’t that specifically preclude the title of this very missive? If we lost, how can I have proven anything?
That story can be told by some polling we got access to late in the campaign, showing us tied with our opponent, in a dead heat… amongst informed voters. Regardless of people’s political persuasion, the lower on the ballot a race is, the less likely it is people even know a race is going on, much less who the candidates are or anything about them. Aside from “are you a Republican or Democrat”, the question I got asked most at doors was, “you’re running for the house of what?!?”
For better or worse, that’s why I lost. It wasn’t because I had a 0% score from the NRA, even though I could outshoot and knew more about guns that my opponent any day of the week and twice on Sunday. It wasn’t because I was endorsed by Planned Parenthood, or because I actually have to perform abortions in the course of my job as an ER Nurse. It wasn’t (just) because of the “D” in front of my name. It was because so many Virginians have become so sick and tired of the whole process they don’t even want to know what’s going on with it, much less participate in it. And the ones who did show up mostly stuck to the (L)etter they knew best, even if one-on-one they’d have liked me, the values I held, and the issues I stood for much better.
Hey – thems the breaks. I knew what I was getting into when I signed on to run, but I did it anyway. Because the only way to change that, the only way to fix those problems, is to get out there and run. Run for something. Work on a campaign. Volunteer to write post cards or knock doors. Donate. Get the word out. Be a part of the change you want to see.
And you don’t need to be afraid, whether you’re in 54220 or 76940, 24018 or 22911, 33050 or 91104, to run and stand up for those progressive values we hold dear.
Kellen Squire is an emergency department nurse from Barboursville, Virginia and former candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates