A Democratic Spring: 12 Left Challengers Taking On the Party Establishment in 2018
The scattering of challenges to the Democratic establishment after Bernie Sanders’ run has become a tidal wave.
May 14 | June Issue
The shock of Donald Trump’s election inspired an organized, determined resistance on many fronts and in many forms. One could be called a “democratic spring”: a long-germinating rebellion within the Democratic Party that gained strength with Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid and might just save the withered institution from itself.
The Left has sprouted an independent electoral infrastructure, including the formation of new groups like Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Indivisible and Brand New Congress; the invigoration of existing political organizations like the Working Families Party; and a shift toward greater electoral engagement by groups like People’s Action and the Democratic Socialists of America.
Another trend, propelled by Trump’s grotesque misogyny and the emergence of the #MeToo movement, is a surge in the number of women running for office. As of mid-April, 331 women had filed to run, easily beating the old record of 298, set in 2012. Of those, Democrats outnumber Republicans 248 to 83.
Yet another is the galvanization of young people. A March survey by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 37 percent of people under 30 definitely plan to vote this fall, the most interest ever recorded in the poll, with Democrats driving the surge. In 2014, only 23 percent of respondents under 30 had definite plans to vote.
Removing Trump from office, whether through the impeachment process or the next presidential election, is a high priority for progressives. But when Trump is finally gone, an even more daunting challenge will remain: creating a political system that represents the people and the public interest.
This goal will not be achieved overnight, to say the least. It’s worth remembering that the current incarnation of the GOP began to take shape in the mid-1970s, with the fusion of corporate interests and a resurgent Christian Right. At the time, the Republican vision of breaking unions, redistributing wealth to the wealthiest, slashing corporate taxes, gutting the public sphere and privatizing public education must have seemed an impossible mountain to climb. Reforming the Democratic Party into a vehicle for a progressive agenda is no less daunting, given the way corporate money has swamped and deformed our democracy.
But a key lesson of the GOP’s radical shift to the right is that party transformation is possible, and primaries, more than general elections or conventions, are the soil in which party transformation takes root. Primary candidates often offer competing visions for the future, and challengers to an incumbent must either affirm or deny the party’s status quo.
Sanders’ 2016 bid is a case study on the effect a serious challenger can have. His relatively narrow loss to an icon of establishment politics, Hillary Clinton, suggests the depth of anger and desperation for reform within a broad segment of the party. The implications of the Sanders campaign will unfold for many years, but one clear effect is the spread of policy ideas pushing the party left, including Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college, free or subsidized child care, criminal justice and campaign finance reform, progressive taxation, and policies addressing economic inequality.
The 2016 Democratic Party platform at least nodded to many of these ideas, largely because of Sanders’ influence. Over the past 18 months, in a series of state party conventions and special elections, these ideas have been the distinguishing mark between progressives and establishment Democrats. The current midterm contests are the most forceful and comprehensive expression of this ongoing challenge and will set the stage for epic battles to define the party in 2020 and far beyond.
The national news media have spotlighted and obsessed over a few races, most notably Marie Newman in Illinois, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Randy Bryce in Wisconsin, Cynthia Nixon in New York and Ben Jealous in Maryland. All merit the attention, but the focus on a few high-profile candidates obscures the passion for change and the range of issues inspiring a plethora of progressives to run—in defiance of Trump, surely, but also in response to the failures of the Democratic Party.
The dozen candidates for state and federal offices profiled below have attracted relatively little national press, but they offer a wide window on the multi-dimensional movement to transform the party. In a U.S. House race, for example, Sarah Smith prioritizes an antiwar stance. In state legislature races, Jovanka Beckles focuses on affordable housing and Alessandra Biaggi calls out campaign finance corruption. Some will win and some will lose, but all are aiming to help grow organizations, coalitions and a grassroots base that have the power to fundamentally change the status quo—beginning inside the Democratic Party and radiating out.
Whether this momentum will amount to a political revolution is unknowable. One painful truth underscored by the Trump era is that, though the arc of history is long, it doesn’t bend toward any definite conclusion. And yet, primary by primary, issue by issue, perhaps progressives can bend it ever so slightly toward justice once again.
A Socialist Takes On the Pittsburgh Machine
PENNSYLVANIA, May 15 General Assembly, District 34
The reenergized Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is flexing political muscle in western Pennsylvania. In 2017, DSA candidate Mikhail “Mik” Pappas defeated Magisterial District Judge Ron Costa, a member of a prominent political family. Costa sent a letter to potential voters warning that DSA “is a splinter group that has called for the elimination of prisons and police as well as drastic changes to our law.” He lost by 11 points.
Summer Lee’s campaign mirrors the Costa-Pappas race. Lee, 30, is a DSA member, ending mass incarceration is among her highest priorities, and she’s challenging another Costa, Paul, who has represented the 34th District since 1999.
Lee, with Sara Innamorato—another young DSA member seeking to take out yet a third Pittsburgh-area Costa, Dom, in the District 21 race—are emblematic of the Democratic Party’s leftward shift. “Even in a time of intense political turmoil,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted, “the choice in these races—between an almost iconic old-school Pittsburgh name and an emerging progressive movement—could hardly be more striking.”
Lee calls for a moratorium on new prison construction and an end to mandatory minimum sentences and cash bail, which she calls “a barbaric relic of the past.” She’s also prioritizing the issue of economic inequality and wants to amend the state constitution to create an equitable tax system.
A Progressive Against Chevron, for Rent Control
CALIFORNIA, JUNE 5 State Assembly, District 15
The success of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) in advancing an anti-corporate agenda with limited, grassroots resources “is virtually unheard of in American urban politics,” a political scientist at San Francisco State University told radio station KQED. In 2016, the RPA was the driving force behind California’s first new rent-control measure in 30 years. The RPA has also consistently outmaneuvered Chevron, whose refinery in the city is a major employer. In 2014, for example, the company spent $3 million to defeat three RPA members in their bid for the Richmond City Council. They all won.
As an RPA and City Council member since 2011, Jovanka Beckles, 55, has been immersed in these battles. Her movement roots give her the potential to exert real influence in the Democrat-controlled California State Assembly, where the establishment and progressive wings are locked in a struggle to define the party.
Richmond is located 20 miles north of San Francisco, one of the nation’s hottest housing markets, and affordable housing is at the heart of Beckles’ platform. She foregrounds housing as a basic human right and calls for the overturning of the state’s 1995 Costa-Hawkins law, which “preempts” the right of cities to impose rent control on multi-unit housing built after 1995, or on any single-family homes or condominiums. Before the law, Beckles notes, “cities with rent control had stable rental markets, but [afterward] rents began to rise uncontrollably.”
A Teacher Moves the Debate Left in a Purple State
NEVADA, JUNE 12 Governor
A Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist calls this race “a microcosm of the debate splitting the Democratic Party nationally over whether to run moderates or strident leftists.” Chris Giunchigliani’s primary opponent, Steve Sisolak, has moved left to narrow that gap. He once believed abortion should be legal only in the first trimester, for example, and now opposes only “very late, late term” abortions. Giunchigliani, 63, raised about $1 million in 2017, an impressive haul, but Sisolak had $5.75 million on hand, which means Giunchigliani’s prospects hinge on an energized progressive base. The general election presents a prime Democratic pickup opportunity in purple Nevada, where the incumbent Republican, Brian Sandoval, is being term-limited out of office.
Sisolak and Giunchigliani are both members of the Clark County Commission, which recently approved a $750 million subsidy to the NFL’s Oakland Raiders for a new stadium in Las Vegas. Giunchigliani, who for nearly 30 years taught special education, was the only member to vote against the deal, arguing that the money should be invested in schools. For the past two years, Education Week has ranked Nevada schools last in the nation. Sisolak, the former owner of a marketing company, pledged to donate his salary as governor to charity “until we get this problem turned around.” Giunchigliani called the pledge a “silly stunt.”
Politicized by Her Daughter’s Death
NEVADA, JUNE 12 U.S. House, 4th District
Amy Vilela’s bid to unseat incumbent Democrat Ruben Kihuen seemed like a long shot last summer; Kihuen won his 2016 primary race by about 14 points, and the general election, in a purple district, by 4 points. But in December, Kihuen announced he wouldn’t run again, after a lobbyist and a former staff member accused him of sexual harassment. Vilela, 43, with the backing of progressive groups, became the frontrunner in what is now a crowded Democratic field. Her platform is detailed and robustly progressive. On foreign policy, for example, Vilela calls for “replacing the war on terror with a Marshall Plan for the Middle East.”
Medicare for All has become a rallying point for progressives. For Vilela, it’s a crusade. In 2016, her oldest daughter, Shalynne, died from a pulmonary embolism after she couldn’t provide proof of insurance during a trip to the emergency room. Politically radicalized by that tragedy, last summer she decided to challenge Kihuen, who supported the Affordable Care Act but not Medicare for All. In her campaign kickoff video, she denounced the “barbaric, profit-driven” U.S. healthcare system.
This emphasis makes her stand out in the Democratic field. One of her strongest opponents is Steven Horsford, who held the seat before Kihuen. Horsford has been vague about his position on Medicare for All, offering that he isn’t “one who’s going to come out and say I’m for or against” it, but that he is “for healthcare for all of us.”
Taking on a Purple District
MICHIGAN, AUGUST 7 U.S. House, 11th District
Donald Trump swept into office on a wave of xenophobia aimed at Muslims and immigrants. If she wins, Fayrouz Saad, 34, will be the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. Saad, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, worked in Obama’s Department of Homeland Security as a liaison with immigrant communities.
Republicans have become increasingly vulnerable among white, college-educated women, and the district consists of affluent suburbs northwest of Detroit. Mitt Romney and Trump won it by about 5 points in 2012 and 2016—but Obama won it by 2 points in 2008. The incumbent Republican is not seeking re-election, and the wide-open field in a purple district makes this a winnable race for both parties. The race will test how well a progressive agenda plays in suburban America.
Saad is a product of Michigan’s public schools, including the University of Michigan, and has positioned herself as the most progressive of the five Democrats in the race, emphasizing Medicare for All, infrastructure investments, higher wages, immigration reform and education. On education, she has an excellent foil in billionaire Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education, who helped make Michigan a laboratory for right-wing experiments with privatization. Education Week recently ranked the state’s schools 34th in the nation overall. Saad is calling for free community college, more funding for teachers’ colleges and apprenticeship programs, higher teacher salaries and fewer standardized tests.
ENDORSED BY Justice Democrats
A Teamster vs. the Democratic Establishment
KANSAS, AUGUST 7 U.S. House, 3rd District
Incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder has voted with Donald Trump’s agenda more than 90 percent of the time. His campaign contributors include the payday loan industry, banking and accounting firms, pharmaceutical companies, and the Koch brothers. But here’s a twist: The district went for Hillary Clinton by a point in 2016. That makes it a strong test case for Democrats’ ability to pick up purple seats in ruby red states. Specifically, if progressive Brent Welder, 36, wins the nomination and goes up against Yoder in the general election, he will test the power of a muscular left populism in a district that includes parts of suburban Kansas City.
Welder, a labor lawyer who represents workers and was the national field director for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, is making Yoder’s corporate cash (and his own refusal to take corporate PAC money) a major theme of his campaign, along with expanding workers’ rights to organize. This race would be a stark battle pitting loads of corporate cash against grassroots organizing and activism. Yoder raised about $1.8 million in 2017 and had about that much on hand at the end of the year. Welder, meanwhile, raised about $256,000 and had $179,000 on hand. He intends to close the gap, as he told The Young Turks Network, by running “the biggest grassroots campaign of any congressional district in the country.”
An Anti-War Candidate
WASHINGTON, AUGUST 7 U.S. House, 9th District
Washington’s 9th, which includes parts of Seattle, distills much of what progressives deplore about the Democratic establishment. Residents voted against Donald Trump by 47 points, making it one of the nation’s bluest districts. But the incumbent, Adam Smith, is among the most conservative Democrats in Congress, according to Progressive Punch, a vote-tracking site. Military contractors like Northrop Grumman are among his biggest contributors. The state’s Democratic Party has gone out of its way to deny the challenger, Sarah Smith, 30, access to its voter information data, thus tilting the race toward the incumbent.
Adam Smith, who has been in office since 1997, seems to be feeling the heat. He has the 49th most progressive record in the House in 2017-18, versus a lifetime rank of 173 out of the 192 Democrats currently serving. Unseating him is a long shot, but Sarah Smith takes the long view. “This is a marathon,” she said in a recent podcast. “This is going to be a building, large-scale movement.”
Sarah Smith is putting an anti-war, anti-imperialist message front and center. She connects it to Adam Smith’s hawkish voting record and the corrupting influence of corporate PAC money, which she says she’ll reject. She promises to help end “legally protected bribery” and supports legislation to create publicly financed elections.
A Christian Socialist
HAWAII, AUGUST 11 U.S. House, 1st District
Kaniela Ing, 29, is a rising progressive firebrand who doesn’t pull punches. A state legislator running for U.S. House, he is calling for tuition-free college, affordable housing, moving the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, a $3 trillion infrastructure plan, universal basic income, a federal jobs guarantee, paid family leave, pot legalization, a ban on private prisons and the impeachment of Donald Trump so that “we can focus on progress beyond resistance.”
The DSA member won his seat in the Hawaii legislature by 26 points in 2012, after knocking on 15,000 doors. He defeated the far-right Republican incumbent in a solidly red district. A year later, when the Hawaii legislature debated same-sex marriage and heard five days of testimony, many from fierce opponents, Ing thanked them. Then he made his own passionate case for legalization, noting that he grew up in a conservative Christian home and identifies as a Christian. “I’m trying to adhere to [the apostle] Paul’s grand thesis of love and acceptance of all,” Ing said. “It is time we as Christians help form a more tolerant and accepting church right here in Hawaii, in the true spirit of aloha.”
Ing’s politics are shaped by the deep inequalities of his home state. Last year, he compared Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to abusive “sugar barons” after Zuckerberg began suing residents of Kauai to force them off their land. Ing says that his first priority will be “reshap[ing] the rigged economy.”
Riding the Wave of Teacher Strikes
ARIZONA, AUGUST 28 Governor
Arizona’s governorship is a tantalizing pick-up possibility for Democrats. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by only 4 points, and the incumbent governor, Dave Ducey, is polling badly, largely because of the GOP’s deep cuts to the state’s education budget. Arizona now spends about $4,200 less per pupil than the national average, and at press time, there were rumblings of a statewide teachers’ strike. Education Week recently gave Arizona schools an overall grade of D+, ranking it sixth-worst in the nation.
Ducey’s fundraising advantage is huge. In January, he had about $2.8 million on hand, versus about $100,000 for David Garcia. Ducey’s PAC contributors, according to the Arizona Capitol Times, “read like a Who’s Who of the state’s business interests.”
Garcia, 48, wants to make Arizona a “solar superpower” and fight the Trump administration’s deportations, but the issue of education—Ducey’s vulnerability—is his sweet spot. Garcia is an associate professor of education at Arizona State University, and he calls for big investments in early childhood education and for free community college. His extensive plan for public schools would “raise teacher pay, shrink class sizes, support all students and move from privatization schemes to trustworthy school options where choice doesn’t come at the expense of fraud, greed and a lack of transparency.”
A Mayor Against a State’s Right To “Preempt”
FLORIDA, AUGUST 28 Governor
Andrew Gillum, 38, the mayor of Tallahassee, is one of three Democrats with a viable shot at winning the Florida gubernatorial primary. The stakes in the general election could hardly be higher. The current governor, Rick Scott, came to power in the Tea Party-driven wave of 2010. He is a public-sector-slashing, climate-change-denying ideologue who will be term-limited out of office and is now running for the U.S. Senate. Filling his shoes with a progressive would be huge. Gillum’s platform calls for hiking the state’s corporate tax rate from 5.5 percent to 7.75 percent to raise $1 billion annually for education investments.
Before the Parkland students launched a national movement, Gillum may have been Florida’s most prominent gun-control advocate. In 2017, he successfully defended a Tallahassee city ordinance that bans the use of firearms in public parks. But the court declined to rule on the broader, fundamental question in the case—whether the state has the right to “preempt” local ordinances. Red state legislatures are using that strategy to squash progressive policies in blue cities. Gillum used the brouhaha to create Defend Local Solutions, an organization devoted to pushing back against overreach by state governments. He’s deftly leveraging both issues—gun control and local control—to distinguish himself in the race.
ENDORSED BY Our Revolution
Vows To Be “The People’s Lobbyist”
RHODE ISLAND, September 12 Lieutenant Governor
Rhode Island, in 2017, became the eighth state to pass paid sick leave. Aaron Regunberg, 28, a Brown University graduate who represents Providence’s District 4 in the state House, was the driving force behind the bill. The bad news? The General Assembly applied the law only to organizations with 18 or more employees and mandated only 24 hours of paid leave. Even worse, it banned local governments from passing their own, more generous paid leave policies by attaching a “preemption” provision. That’s a tactic typically used by red state legislatures to squash local progressive initiatives—but in Rhode Island, Democrats hold 33 of the 38 seats in the House and 64 of 75 seats in the Senate. Regunberg promises to be “the people’s lobbyist” and use the lieutenant governor’s office “to bring folks together and build coalitions to get more ambitious progressive policy changes.”
Regunberg has been a strong advocate for renewable energy during his two terms in the General Assembly, which earned him the support of both labor and environmentalists. Soon after he announced his candidacy, five unions endorsed his campaign, also citing his work on paid sick leave, raising the minimum wage and criminal justice reform. His opponent, incumbent Dan McKee, a centrist Democrat, has angered teachers unions by supporting charter school expansion, but won the backing of Walmart heir Alice Walton, a big charter school booster.
Taking On the Cuomo Machine
NEW YORK, September 13 State Senate, District 34
For several years, a group of eight Democratic state senators in New York, known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), aligned with the GOP to hand Republicans the levers of power. The New York Times called it “one of the oddest political arrangements in the country.” Alessandra Biaggi, 31, who’s running against the group’s leader, Jeff Klein, called it “a complete atrocity.” Under increasing fire, the group disbanded in early April, and a group of seven challengers, including Biaggi, aim to oust the former IDC members.
From 2004 to 2016, Klein received at least $320,000 in campaign donations from real estate developers—more than any New York legislator. That support once made Klein “virtually untouchable politically,” as one local publication put it in 2016. But times have changed. Klein is under investigation over a sexual harassment charge, which he denies, and seems newly vulnerable.
Biaggi, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, is emphasizing protections against sexual harassment and assault, as well as “making sure that every person in the district has a good, well-paying job.”
ENDORSED BY Working Families Party
Update: An earlier version of this story stated that Our Revolution endorsed Sarah Smith. The piece has been update to clarify that this was a local chapter, Our Revolution King County. The national organization has not yet endorsed in this race.
has contributed to the magazine since 2010. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States.
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