PI Original Progress Illinois Wednesday April 1st, 2009, 2:08pm

Actually Measuring Electoral Success

From the 2005 World Series Trophy raised on Chicago's South Side rather than the North, to the rebirth of one of the NHL's most storied franchises after years of failure, to the dominance of the Bulls in the 90's, to the renowned formula of the '85 Bears, I've witnessed ...

From the 2005 World Series Trophy raised on Chicago's South Side rather than the North, to the rebirth of one of the NHL’s most storied franchises after years of failure, to the dominance of the Bulls in the 90’s, to the renowned formula of the ‘85 Bears, I've witnessed several different paths to building winning organizations.

Of these, some have been successful, some heartbreakingly familiar in their result, and some woefully misguided (Cade McNown, anyone?).

But any fan will tell you that process matters little to them – only that they can hoist a championship banner.

That being said, Vince Lombardi’s mantra -- “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” -- doesn’t apply to politics, policy, and people’s lives.  Winning a campaign is an achievement in itself, but one that matters so much more if the candidate goes on to implement policies that fix real problems.

Progressives should strive to build organizations and back candidates that serve this purpose.  But they need to do so intelligently.

In his recent In These Times column on Tom Geoghegan's candidacy, David Sirota wrote: "There is a value in backing long shots, even if those long shots lose."  But his logic fails when applied to the 5th Congressional District primary, as he attempts to do.  A more robust understanding of the nature of the race and the relative progressivism of the candidates offers more concrete lessons by which to make decisions about activism in future contests.

Though Geoghegan was heartily supported by some national progressive media outlets and bloggers, his candidacy never took hold with the progressive coalitions he would need to be victorious in the 5th. 

The labor community?  They were split among the two state representatives in the race.  The environmental movement? Never showed up, with the exception of some very committed Sierra Club volunteers supporting Mike Quigley.  Women’s groups?  Backed Sara Feigenholtz.  As for the established reformer and progressive organizations (IVI-IPO, Northside DFA, Citizen Action, etc), they were divided as well.

That national progressives ignored Quigley -- a politician who supported gay marriage in the 1990’s, wrote every piece of environmental legislation adopted in Cook County, openly defied his own party when prisoners were being abused in the local jails, and fought tooth-and-nail for accountability on both property taxes and tax increment financing  -- baffled local volunteers who were fighting to elect a progressive to Congress. (Full disclosure: I managed Quigley's campaign.)

While Quigley had already assembled a coalition of progressives, Geoghegan was busy forming a different one, outside of the 5th District.

It's true that Geoghegan brought fresh policy approaches to the table.  And it's always refreshing to see a candidate introduce new proposals into the debate. But a campaign is not just about ideas. As with policymaking, it’s about presenting constituents with clear choices, motivating supporters, building coalitions, surpassing countless hurdles, and finding a way to win.

When faced with a multi-candidate primary field like the one in the 5th District, progressives should ask the following questions before going with the "long shot":  Does this candidate's agenda vary significantly with the rest of the field?  Will he or she be able to push those other candidates towards more progressive positions?  And if the campaign is ultimately unsuccessful, will there be lasting infrastructure left in its place?

Once Election Day passes and the time arrives to measure "electoral success," the questions are much the same.

In the case of Geoghegan, there is scant evidence that a sizeable coalition exists in the district in the wake of his candidacy or that it will spur others to pick up where he left off.  Truthfully, only time will tell.  

So did backing his "long shot" campaign make sense for progressives?  I would argue no, as they already had a candidate in this race that was tested by elective office, in agreement with them on the overwhelming majority of their issues, and had an organization in place. 

We Chicagoans pride ourselves on being tough, and we certainly have strong opinions on how to build winning teams.

But politics, governance and people’s lives are not a game.  Flippant progressive decision-making shouldn’t be the norm when there is a better way to achieve the goals we all have.

Thomas C. Bowen lives in Chicago and has worked for Democrats and Democratic causes since 2004 after reporting for National Journal’s Hotline.

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