Two houses. Three days. Eight candidates. Sixteen Indivisible group leaders. 416,818 paths to a Democratic victory in 2020.
Our allies at Indivisible National in D.C. are part of a coalition including the Communication Workers of America, Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) Action, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Sierra Club, SEIU, and 32BJ SEIU. Together these groups aim to bring grassroots organizers and activists to the table to help choose our next Democratic presidential nominee.
To that end, Indivisible National reached out to sixteen group leaders from Texas, Nevada, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Iowa, Virginia, and, of course, California. We were invited to spend three days together in D.C., living in two multistory rental houses and attending workshops and candidate forums. The theme of the event was democracy expansion — free and fair elections and pro-democracy reforms of all three branches of government.
Day one was described as activist training, but was really a call to arms from Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, plus some group discussions at our tables with members of other coalition partners. Rev. Dr. Barber invited us to join the Poor People’s Campaign. Then he spoke about the history of democracy expansion, from the Declaration of Independence to the Reconstruction Amendments to the Voting Rights Act, and also about the Supreme Court’s continued history of reversing democracy expansion. He challenged us not just to fight for the presidency, but to strive for what Coretta Scott King, in her moving Solidarity Day Address, called “not right vs. left, but violence vs. non-violence” — and to fight even for our right to self-government.
Day two: Rev. Dr. Barber was a hard act for the eight presidential candidates to follow during the seven hour forum at the historic (and very gilded) Warner Theater. The candidates took the stage one at a time to give a short pitch and answer audience questions (including questions from several Indivisible representatives) about voting rights, the filibuster, judicial reform, campaign finance reform, etc.
You can watch a recap and nearly the whole thing; here are a few highlights that stuck out to me:
- Seeing our own Leah, representing this young but mighty organization we built together, take the stage with powerhouses like Planned Parenthood, NAACP, SEIU, and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
- Julian Castro’s story of how he quit his job as a lawyer and put his financial future at risk in order to avoid conflicts of interest on the San Antonio City Council.
- Cory Booker saying we don’t need to eliminate the filibuster if we just elect a supermajority of Democrats instead, and almost inspiring us with his oratory to believe it.
- Elizabeth Warren declaring that we must amend the Constitution to give everyone the right to vote, and the right to have their vote counted.
- Beto O’Rourke introducing his plan to require each member of his cabinet to hold monthly town halls and hear directly from constituents like us.
- Amy Klobuchar boasting about the fundraising record she holds: most money raised from ex-boyfriends.
- Bernie Sanders getting BY FAR the loudest cheers — and no line for the restroom during his speech (nothing against Bernie, just being practical).
- Jay Inslee living up to his reputation by bringing literally every question back to climate change.
- Kirsten Gillibrand bringing up the rules change the Republicans were just then getting ready to go nuclear on to turn the Senate into a rubber stamp for judges.
- Hearing the inspiring personal stories of the questioners who are starting unions, teaching children, standing up to injustice, and protecting their communities all over the country.
Over dinner, Indivisible group leaders and staff discussed our impressions of the candidates. There was some general agreement: people were particularly impressed with Warren and surprised at how funny Klobuchar is in person. But it was most interesting to hear how experiences differed: some thought Booker was showboating while others were moved to tears, and some found Inslee charming while to others he came across as insincere.
Despite a lot of jokes about reality TV and “confessional videos” we didn’t really spend enough time at the shared houses to get in any drama or much bonding — we all went straight to bed (as far as I know!) and were up and out early for our final day at Indivisible Headquarters.
Day three: After loading up on some decadent breakfast tacos, we got started with a presentation from Indivisible National’s political data manager Olivia Robinson on Indivisible’s tactics for winning elections: expand and protect voting, build a coalition, and motivate core voters. She also talked about how various demographic groups sort into the categories of base voters, swayable voters, and opposed voters; and about the many (up to 416,818!) possible combinations of states we could use to win. You can find a lot more detail in her presentation, but the main takeaway was: don’t believe anyone who tries to tell us that there is only one path to victory or only one kind of “electable” candidate.
Next we heard from associate political director Lucy Solomon about Indivisible’s experience working with local groups to nationally endorse Congressional candidates, using as examples the campaigns of Ayanna Pressley in MA, Andrew Gillum in FL, and Harley Rouda here in CA. As it happened, several of the group leaders involved in those endorsements were in attendance. It was especially interesting to hear the story of how the Indivisible endorsement put Gillum on the map, as well as the division it caused within Indivisible groups throughout the state. Since for various reasons Indivisible East Bay never really considered getting involved in any statewide races, it was fascinating to hear the inside story of how our highest hopes and worst fears around endorsements both played out in the same race.
Then policy director Angel Padilla spoke about some of the legislative priorities Indivisible National is pushing in Congress right now. Though it is unlikely to be signed into law until 2021 at earliest, we talked about building support for H.R.1 – For the People Act of 2019 — and just how far Congressional Democrats, and we ourselves as activists, would be willing to go to force this democracy expansion bill through. Angel’s presentation is here if you scroll down to the bottom.
The final item on our agenda was a media training from consultants who shared tips about everything from how to craft and stay on message to what to wear. A webinar version of the training will be available soon.
In summary: We learned a lot. At this point all the candidates and their talking points have started to run together in my mind; but I expect that over the next 11 months, as I work with others at Indivisible East Bay to figure out how we want to engage in the primary in a way that makes both the candidates and our group better, I’ll benefit from having heard them answer the questions of that room full of grassroots leaders about the fundamentals of our democracy.
That said, I think the most lasting effect from this trip for me is the in-person connections I made with people from across the country whom I would never have met if not for this movement. It was delightful to meet the D.C. union organizer knocking on doors and working on a series of nursery rhymes about the evils of the GOP. It was inspirational to meet the Texan who got kicked out of a Ted Cruz event — and he followed her out to keep arguing! Heartening to meet the Floridian whose events our volunteers had texted to recruit volunteers for — when I told her I was from Indivisible East Bay she remembered that immediately and told me how much it meant to her that we had reached out. I tried to tell her that giving us concrete tasks we could do in swing states was as much a favor to us as our texting was to them, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
These are the moments that make me believe that we are building more than a winning coalition — another blue wave — more even than a movement. We are building an inclusive and expansive community of people who care for one another and work for one another — and that’s how we’ll build a better world.