All posts by javgonz

Building And Turning Out The Progressive Base in California

(Welcome first time blogger Javier Gonzalez who did some very important and largely unsung work both building and turning out the progressive base this year. It’s important that we in the netroots are in touch with what’s happening on the ground and vice versa. – promoted by Todd Beeton)

(Cross-posted from The Courage Campaign)

Believe it or not, progressives and working people in California made great leaps forward in the November 7th election. While for many progressives the election was all about beating Arnold and for others it was about keeping the statewide offices in Democratic hands, for many of us who work politics the old fashioned way, we were focusing on building, for the here and now and for the future, and we did fantastic.

As the Executive Director of SOL (Strengthening Our Lives) my job was simple: put 300 full time staff on the ground in Orange, Fresno, San Jose and Los Angeles Counties. Our goal was to reach out to 300,000 voters and then beef up to a 1,000 full time staff to get our target voters out to vote.

What is unique about our work is four things:

  • we are not a Political Party – we are a Political Action Committee that runs Independent Expenditure campaigns funded by large progressive donors and labor
  • the vast majority of our time AND MONEY is devoted to talking to voters door to door
  • we hire community and labor leaders at all levels of our campaigns and not party huggers looking for a job/career. Our folks are activists by nature, motivated, hard working, credible messengers and adept at a grass roots message and approach to organizing the vote; and most importantly
  • we target unlikely voters – and Latino Immigrants to boot!


For those unfamiliar with electoral jargon or strategy, an unlikely voter is a voter that is deemed not likely to vote in the upcoming election. This is actually a majority of registered voters.

Unlikely voters are also among California’s most progressive voters. Unlikely voters earn less money and are less likely to have health insurance or own homes. There are higher numbers of unlikely voters among Blacks and Latinos than Whites. Among Whites, unlikely voters tend to be younger and less well to do. Building a progressive majority in California must both educate likely voters and get more progressives out to vote. The best way is by face to face voter education where we can have conversations and get people out to vote personally.

Imagine a political consultant handicapping a race for an aspiring politician. The consultant breaks the numbers down in a scenario as follows:

  • There are 300,000 people in the district
  • 200,000 of them are poor
  • Of the 300K voters, only 110,000 are registered to vote
  • In the last three similar elections only 50,000 voted
  • 30,000 of them are white
  • 5,000 of them are African American and the rest are Latino and Asian
  • There are three decent candidates in the race and probably 20,000 votes wins, and
  • Of the 50,000 that voted 40,000 have health care and 30,000 of them have household incomes over $60,000 a year.

The consultant then says “our base will be White and middle class voters. Let’s stay away from issues of race and class and focus on tax breaks, public safety and responsible government. We need to run the table on the more well to do and compete decently among people of color and stay away from radical proposals to health care, the economy and ‘other’ issues.” (plug other characteristics: environmentalists, gay rights, etc and the scenario still works).

Now, you get your moderate candidate and the result is, all too often, a moderate Representative. But this could change if we registered more regular people and inspired them to actually turn out to vote. In the above scenario just 10,000 more regular people voting in that race changes the math.

By adding 10,000 more working voices concerned about health care, the economy, the war, community services, and public education, the candidates are forced to defend their positions to those new voters. It’s simple really: turning out unlikely progressive voters forces the candidates to address issues they would otherwise avoid, perhaps change their position to address the concerns of progressives…and progressives are more likely to win.

This is not a novel idea. So why don’t others do it? Simple. It is too expensive and too hard. It took us weeks to recruit and train volunteers and staff. The full time effort took working 12-14 hours a day for 6 and even 7 days a week for 6 weeks. More importantly, we create a spirited and energetic feel that make our campaigns more like a movement of working people and immigrants fighting for better government for a better life. These types of campaigns have people asking “what else can I do? And not, “What time do we get to go home?”

This is what it takes to get people to vote and we need to stop focusing on what is wrong with everyone else and begin to invest in programs that get working people out to vote. As progressives we have lost the ability in California to mobilize mass numbers of voters to scope and scale. We need to get it back.

Yes, I understand that voters are cynical, blah, blah. I also understand that to most voters politics is mail and TV commercials. The majority of all of our opinions, ideas, and information about almost anything comes from friends, family and co-workers. That is, people they trust and people they relate to. We need credible messengers reaching out to voters and inspiring them to vote. SOL campaigns hire the same Janitors, hotel workers, laborers, parent activists, community college students, and community leaders you see fighting everyday for better contracts, schools, and safer communities. It takes them all of 15 seconds to win over voters face to face.

Of our targeted 300,000 voters we reached 140,000 doors and spoke to 112,000 voters. 96,000 of those voters stood with us in our fights. That is close to 86%! The results are proven: in the last two elections our targeted demographic turned out to vote at 21% higher rates and we were a major part of the efforts to Elect Tony Mendoza, Kevin Deleon and Jose Solorio to the Assembly and Lou Correa to the Senate in a heated battle with Republicans. We also helped to elect a completely new school Board in Fresno. These representatives can now work for the people and not their donors or political mentors.

In the future, we plan to expand to San Diego, San Bernardino and other parts of the North and Central Valley. We also hope to organize a mass voter registration effort. However, at some point we need to figure out how to connect with other progressive groups and funders to build even larger programs to win and make the types of reforms and changes we all hope for and desperately need.