Liberals Are Taking Lessons from Tea Partiers

Some liberal activists have become frustrated at their top issues being hung out to dry by the gridlocked Congress; others felt called to respond to the tea party movement with their own brand of local organizing.

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The day Carlos Odio walked down the halls of the Executive Office Building next to the White House to tell his boss he was quitting his job, he assumed he’d be delivering a shock.

Odio was deputy associate director of the White House Office of Political Affairs, where he consulted on Latino affairs, all the while knowing, he said, “change doesn’t start in Washington.”

His supervisor was Patrick Gaspard, now executive director of the Democratic National Committee, who said he was saddened to hear that Odio would not be working on President Obama’s reelection campaign.

“But I can’t say that I was surprised,” Gaspard said. “Carlos has an abiding passion for grassroots activism.”

Odio went on to direct the Candidate Project, an arm of the New Organizing Institute that has more than 7,800 pledges from progressives who plan to run for a political office at various levels of government in 2012. His transition from national to local politics is being mimicked by other organizations and activists—mostly young ones—across the Left.

Some of them say they grew frustrated when their top issue was hung out to dry by the gridlocked Congress; others felt called to respond to the tea party movement with their own brand of local organizing.

Odio said he had expected the energy generated by Obama’s 2008 election to bring more local liberals into politics, but reigniting that fire and passion required some grunt work on the part of organizations like his.

“You always assume someone else is doing it,” Odio said.

But they weren’t. The Candidate Project is the first of its kind to bring potential progressive candidates in touch with local party offices, funders, and organizations that can help drive their campaigns. He said he took a page from the tea party playbook and built from the bottom up, creating a decentralized network.

The Candidate Project doesn’t dictate candidates’ platforms, but it hopes they will be aligned with generally progressive principles, he said.

Proponents of the Dream Act are now running a similar network. Carlos Saavedra is the national coordinator of the United We Dream Network, which ties together a group of activists who once had their sights set on a national law to grant citizenship to children of illegal immigrants through college education and service in the military. Unlike Odio, Saavedra didn’t have energy to harness after the bill was blocked in December 2010. He had pieces to pick up.

Three months after the vote, 220 leaders from pro-Dream Act organizations met in Memphis, Tenn., and essentially asked, according to Saavedra: “What the heck do we do now?”

They found their answer in legislative battles at the state level. They formed the United We Dream Network and began organizing hunger strikes, community meetings, vigils, and visits to senators in battleground states for immigrant issues. “Mobilizing,” is how Saavedra described his strategy.

That’s the same way that many up-and-coming progressive organizations describe their approach to giving grassroots groups what they need without dictating their exact message or funding them entirely.

The Energy Action Coalition has a network 10,000 strong filled mainly with the type of young activists who have been members of groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace since their founding. But talk of cutting the EPA budget, starting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and ending subsidies to Big Oil brought local activists to Washington in droves. The coalition’s campaign director, Whit Jones, credits Washington for raising the issues that energize environmentalists, but he has seen more results on a local level.

“Things go to Congress to die,” Jones said one day after the Senate blocked a bill to end oil subsidies.

The group is responsible for closing more than 60 coal-fired power plants that operated on college campuses, an issue brought to Jones’s attention by the coalition’s student members. He calls the tea party a “wake up call for the progressive movement,” because it forced groups like his to harness local momentum. But he argues the conservative movement was never as grassroots as it appeared because of its mega-donors like the Koch brothers, owners of one of the nation’s biggest energy companies.

Many progressive leaders say what their organizations lack in money, they must make up for in people.

That’s a lesson Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, has known for 18 years. His is a centralized, platform-specific, tried-and-true model that has yet to take root within young coalitions joining the progressive ranks today.

Wowkanech and his full-time staff target union members to run for public office and train them at schools funded by the AFL-CIO. So far, he has helped 685 union members get elected to public office, where they have passed pro-labor bills, increased the minimum wage twice, and pushed the marriage-equality bill on Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

The New Jersey group always submits its plans and results to the national AFL-CIO, Wowkanech said, and headquarters has in turn provided funding and consulting. But it was just this year that the national organization really began to take notice of the work in its New Jersey branch, he said. Wowkanech has spent the past few months traveling to Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, and soon will go to Ohio to teach his strategy to other state AFL-CIO affiliates.

But Wowkanech gives this advice to his audiences: “This is not something you can build overnight.”

Unlike Odio’s Candidate Project, the AFL-CIO ensures that the members it selects have funding, training, and a strong voter base. That’s something many of the rising progressive organizations aren’t in a position to buy, and, following the style of the Occupy movement, a centralized approach is frowned upon. Odio recognizes that some of the candidates who have signed on to run in their local elections this year may not agree with his views. But that’s a reality he has accepted.

“It takes a lot of trust,” Odio said. “But we just believe you need more people involved to have more voices in the democracy.”

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.