PI Original Josh Kalven Saturday January 31st, 2009, 11:34am

Lessons On Building A Progressive Movement

As you probably know, math professors don't usually up and run for office. And yet, starting in the spring of 2007, I - an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, someone who as a teenager dreamt of nothing more than teaching math for a living - ...

As you probably know, math professors don’t usually up and run for office. And yet, starting in the spring of 2007, I – an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, someone who as a teenager dreamt of nothing more than teaching math for a living – embarked on a campaign for State Representative in Illinois’ 17th District, a journey that would ultimately lead me to effectively end my academic career by not seeking tenure.

So, what happened? In short, I saw the world falling apart around me. America was becoming a place unlike the one I’d learned about in school. All of a sudden, we were facing terrible problems and suffering through worse decisions -- decisions that tolerated and even encouraged torture, economic inequality, and an environmental crisis that threatened the planet.

Watching these developments awoke in me a patriotism that I hadn’t noticed before. It made me angry that America – my America – was being defiled in this way.  And for a few years early in the Bush administration, I was despondent that so few seemed to care.

So when I noticed concern about the direction of our country finally growing, it came as an invigorating jolt. A new progressive movement began to blossom, fueled at first by the same outrage I felt, and soon channeled into a powerful new policy agenda and political force. I saw this movement of new political actors as the great hope for America’s future, and I felt called to participate in it in any way I could, initially as a volunteer and organizer, and eventually as a candidate for public office.

This is a long way of explaining that I ran pretty explicitly as a progressive movement candidate. That, in turn, had clear implications regarding where I drew my support – implications I didn’t quite understand when the campaign began.

First of all – and perhaps this is unsurprising, but it’s certainly good news – the progressive movement itself embraced my candidacy enthusiastically, wholeheartedly, and immediately. In other words, I was instantly recognized as “one of us” and supported accordingly. This included substantial support from the netroots (both here locally, as well as in the national blogosphere), in addition to help from organizations like Democracy for America, public officials like Jan Schakowsky and Debra Shore, and thousands of people who, like me, had become politically active as an anguished response to the events of the last decade. This grassroots energy led us to raise more than $435,000 over the course of the campaign – much of it online and none of it through the Democratic Party of Illinois.

Secondly – and maybe this is unsurprising too, but it’s certainly bad news – this movement support did not for the most part translate into backing from the issue advocacy groups that many think of as progressive. Indeed, my Republican opponent’s endorsement list included Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, SEIU, AFSCME, and IEA, among others. Now, these endorsements came for a variety of reasons: some of these organizations simply don’t understand the potential of the progressive movement, others are threatened by it, and a few even made the right call – after all, it can be important for issue advocates to help supportive incumbents regardless of the opposition. Specifics aside, though, there’s an important lesson here. When building a movement, you have to identify a diverse group of self-identified members as well as a larger group of allies. Many issue advocacy organizations -- including those listed above -- are valued allies of the progressive movement and it’s essential that we be clear about that distinction and its consequences as the movement grows. A sober assessment of actual committed participants in the movement makes it clear that we have a lot of work left to do on that front.

Third – and perhaps this also should have been unsurprising, but it sure as hell surprised me – the next community from which I drew substantial support was the political reform world. This translated into support from organizations like IVI-IPO (which had never before endorsed a Democrat in this district), elected officials like Alexi Giannoulias and Forrest Claypool, and a really fascinating coalition of people across the district, from ordinary progressive Democrats who were fed up with corruption in Illinois to borderline libertarians who were excited to support a candidate who eschewed the support of the state party and was willing to speak honestly about systemic flaws in our government. This wasn’t just a coincidence: the progressive movement was born out of feeling a deep betrayal about our government’s conduct. Consequently, political actors who organize themselves around ordinarily unspoken critiques of the political status quo represent very valuable potential allies to the progressive movement.

Fourth, we almost won. My opponent was a 12-year incumbent whose favorable/unfavorable rating was 52/19 when we polled in July of 2008. In other words, she was well known and well liked; when I started talking about running for this seat, most people treated me like I was crazy for even trying. Meanwhile, I opted to turn down funding from the state party (they typically underwrite the majority of top-tier challengers’ budgets). In spite of all this, we received over 48.5 percent of the vote.

I’m not one for moral victories, but think about that for a moment. Since you’re reading this piece on Progress Illinois, you may identify as a movement progressive. Know then that the unorthodox coalition that supported my campaign, begun entirely inside the movement, nearly accomplished this supposedly impossible task via the sheer force of grassroots fundraising and organizing.

We didn’t quite get there, and that means there’s plenty more to learn. But the fact remains that this is a hell of a good start.

As someone once said, we do have the power to change this country. So let’s figure out how to use it most effectively.

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