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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Radical Democracy, Voter Organizing and the Right to the City!

Leonardo Vilichis and Jon Liss talk strategy at an exchange in Maywood, CA.
By Jon Liss

To win the Right to the City, we have no choice but to contest and win elections in the cities and regions where new working class organizations are based.  Cities are majority people of color, majority women, and are where new immigrants and LGBTQ people are concentrated.  There is no other way and there is no other choice.  Yes, building leadership and running campaigns is important as we develop the capacity to run urban areas by and for the people. There are many strategic and tactical decisions that need to be discussed, tried, evaluated and tried again.  Yet no matter what, we
still need to win elections - period.

We need a movement in the scale of tens of thousands to millions

There is no better time to carry out massive outreach than elections.  In an active election cycle, 10,000 to 200,000 households are visited.  Each visit is an opportunity to present ideas, engage in struggle, and to listen and learn.  Each election gives us the opportunity to grow our organizations by thousands of members.  If our ideas don’t carry us on the doors, that probably says something about the quality of our ideas!  To win power - whether through elections or direct action - we need tens of thousands of supporters.  Participating in elections in part is a process that allows us to build power by growing the scale of our work.

We need to build power blocs that unite a multitude of sectors

To build electoral power we need to also build voting blocs that are outside of the narrow geographic space and the limited population demographic where most new working class organizations focus our energies.  No matter how well organized, a handful of neighborhoods are not enough to win power in cities and urban regions.  To contend for power, we must have a much deeper analysis of which groups of people we want to organize and build power with, and why we want to build power with them.  In most cities, this means actively developing programs that build unity between immigrants and African Americans, working class people of color and gay and lesbian urbanites, unionists and more.  The Democratic Party, in most cities, has been doing this for years.  They do this without a responsive urban political program, without a deep leadership development program and without a very active base.  Surely we can do better.  Building alliances are critical components of winning the Right to the City, and elections are a very concrete expression of the state of the alliances that we are building. 

We need our own candidates that are grown from the grassroots

In our current state of organizing, most of us doing voter work are not developing our own candidates or platforms.  This must change.  While we can debate whether or not to participate in the Democratic Party or as an independent, Green or even Republican candidate, we must dedicate resources to both create urban platforms that move masses of voters, and to recruit and train candidates who are capable and who share our values and views.  Our candidates need to be well-versed on a wide range of issues, to articulate a vision, to be able to dedicate hundreds of hours of time and be ethical and morally unassailable.  If we hope to get there, we’d better get started on raising the bar on our leadership development programs to a higher level.

The Right to the City Civic Engagement Workgroup understands that we live in country in which the electoral structures are stacked against us.  Completing the democratic revolution in the United States is part of our ongoing struggle.  We stand on the shoulders of the suffragettes who won the right to vote for women.  We stand on the shoulders of over two decades of Black struggle that won African Americans the right to vote. 

Today’s struggles to expand democracy include structural challenges such as the stacking of the political deck with two Senators selected by states like Montana, Wyoming or Idaho, which have both low populations and very few residents of color.  At a national level this leads to a built in white and conservative bias in the U.S. senate.  States like Virginia and Alabama still deny ex-felons (disproportionately African American) the right to vote unless they’ve received gubernatorial pardons.  Similarly democratic rights are denied, in almost all elections, to non-citizens - even those who are long-term tax-paying residents. 

At a local level, very few jurisdictions build their local budgets from the ground up with popular participation.  Important decisions like zoning - which dictate who will live in the cities of the future - are decided in hyper-technical board rooms by specialized lawyers.  How can cities regulate and control the flow of capital?  How can we prevent large businesses from relocating?  While we must fight in the electoral system of today we - as the Right to the City Alliance- must fight and win radical democratic structures that better allow ever expanding participation and popular power. Electoral abstentionism has been the default practice of most of our Right to the City organizations until very recently.  To continue this practice is to cede power to the dominant ‘minority’ who currently run most of our cities. 

RTTC Civic Engagement members sat in the seats of the Maywood City Council where a progressive majority has been won.

Get in the game 
Join together to engage and win power.  Challenge the institutions and ideas that dominate our lives and that are destroying our planet.  This is not the work of any one organization alone.  We need to seize the current political moment and boldly experiment with ideas, platforms, training programs and campaigns. Together, however, we can:

• build organizations to scale

• build urban majority voting blocs through alliance organizing / voter work

• train candidates who are leaders for our communities and beyond

• develop precinct leaders and field workers who lead neighborhoods during elections and lead campaigns afterwards

• win radical democratic reforms that help us better build power and open the way  for still greater social transformation. The state and elections are a place for radical contestation, transformation and power building, but only if we make it so. 

Jon Liss is the Executive Director of Tenants and Workers United and Virginia New Majority (PAC), and a steering committee member for the Right to the City Alliance. The ideas and views of this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Right to the City Alliance.

Watch Jon Liss on GritTV: Progressives and it's Discontents

Jon Liss playing a practical joke on organizer Claire Tran by stealing her pretzels at the RTTC Member Congress.

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