A Newly Elected Democratic Socialist On How to Win in Trump Country

Ross Grooters explains how he won a city council seat as an open socialist in Pleasant Hill, Iowa—which last year went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

Isaiah J. Poole, People's Action

Ross Grooters won his election to the Pleasant Hill City Council in Iowa this year.

I’d like to think of myself as ordi­nary,” says Ross Groot­ers as he describes his life in Pleas­ant Hill, Iowa, an east­ern sub­urb of Des Moines. But then he cor­rects him­self. Most people’s pas­sions or enjoy­ment are not going out and doing activist things, so that’s where I’m not an ordi­nary Joe.”

“If we talk to people on issues in a universal way, we are going to get their vote.”

Indeed, it has been a long, strange trip for Groot­ers. After grow­ing up as an Air Force brat” in a con­ser­v­a­tive Cal­i­for­nia fam­i­ly in the 1980s, this Novem­ber, Groot­ers was elect­ed to the Pleas­ant Hill City Coun­cil as a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, hav­ing run on an open­ly left-wing platform.

Groot­ers’ vic­to­ry this year came in a town that in 2016 vot­ed for Don­ald Trump over Hillary Clin­ton by a five-point mar­gin, show­ing that even in a Repub­li­can-lean­ing area, social­ists can win elections. 

Groot­ers, whose day job is a loco­mo­tive engi­neer for Union Pacif­ic Rail­road, is active in Iowa Cit­i­zens for Com­mu­ni­ty Improve­ment, a Peo­ple’s Action mem­ber orga­ni­za­tion (the present author is a mem­ber of People’s Action com­mu­ni­ca­tion staff). The Iowa CCI Action Fund endorsed Groot­ers, and trum­pets his win as a major vic­to­ry for the organization.

Ross was one of the first move­ment can­di­dates that we recruit­ed and trained, and that our new Iowa CCI PAC endorsed and worked to get elect­ed,” read a post-elec­tion state­ment from Iowa CCA Action. His suc­cess, the orga­ni­za­tion said, was pow­ered by vol­un­teers knock­ing over 4,000 doors and hav­ing over 1,500 con­ver­sa­tions — not by buy­ing ads and court­ing big-mon­ey donors.”

Groot­ers moved to Pleas­ant Hill 12 years ago, where he now lives with his wife and daugh­ter, and joined Iowa CCI a few years lat­er. I real­ized polit­i­cal­ly mind­ing my own busi­ness and hav­ing polit­i­cal apa­thy was not going to make my life bet­ter,” he says.

His city coun­cil cam­paign reflect­ed many of the issues that he says ani­mate him per­son­al­ly: the strug­gles work­ing-class fam­i­lies like his own face with stag­nant wages and ris­ing health care costs, the anti-immi­grant fer­vor divid­ing his com­mu­ni­ty and a clean water bat­tle that is pit­ting Iowa fam­i­lies against pow­er­ful cor­po­rate agri­cul­tur­al interests.

Groot­ers ran on a pledge to fight for a high­er min­i­mum wage in the face of a state ordi­nance that pro­hibits coun­ties and munic­i­pal­i­ties from rais­ing their min­i­mum wage above Iowa’s state-wide min­i­mum of $7.25 an hour. He also promised to bat­tle cor­po­rate agribusi­ness­es as they try to weak­en reg­u­la­tions designed to stem the seep­age of fer­til­iz­er and ani­mal waste into streams and ground­wa­ter, as well as to spon­sor a res­o­lu­tion des­ig­nat­ing Pleas­ant Hill a wel­com­ing com­mu­ni­ty.” Dur­ing the cam­paign, he spoke out against the Trump administration’s attempts to com­pel local law enforce­ment to help round up and deport undoc­u­ment­ed immigrants.

Groot­ers is care­ful to steer peo­ple away from the idea that just because he won a local elec­tion in Trump coun­try, he has mas­tered the art of get­ting Trump vot­ers to elect an unabashed social­ist. The turnout in the Novem­ber 2017 elec­tion, he notes, was a frac­tion of the turnout in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion a year ear­li­er. Nonethe­less, he believes his suc­cess offers lessons for oth­er pro­gres­sive and left can­di­dates who find them­selves in seem­ing­ly unfriend­ly polit­i­cal terrain.

Whether you are on the left or the right of the polit­i­cal spec­trum, every­body is fac­ing the same eco­nom­ic hard­ships,” Groot­ers says. He calls it the specter of what hap­pens if’’” — the fear of being one pay­check away from finan­cial dis­as­ter because of a med­ical emer­gency, a lay­off or some oth­er sud­den expense. To address these fears, Groot­ers says his cam­paign focused on talk­ing to vot­ers about what has to change so that they can thrive rather than being left out of a pros­per­i­ty being enjoyed by only a small group of the wealthy and well-connected.

While Groot­ers believes in con­nect­ing the strug­gles of white work­ing-class peo­ple to the plight of com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and oth­er mar­gin­al­ized groups, when our mes­sage is around iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, it is not a win­ning mes­sage.” What works bet­ter, he explains, is con­nect­ing with vot­ers around shared val­ues and needs.

If we’re means-test­ing what we’re sell­ing to vot­ers, we’re already exclud­ing a lot of peo­ple who should be vot­ing for us,” Groot­ers says. The best social pro­grams we have are ones that are uni­ver­sal,” he explains, as opposed to pro­grams like the Afford­able Care Act, which, though it helped many peo­ple gain health­care cov­er­age, was struc­tured in a way that kept mil­lions of oth­ers from ben­e­fit­ing. If we talk to peo­ple on issues in a uni­ver­sal way, we are going to get their vote,” he says.

Grooter’s bot­tom-line advice for pro­gres­sive and left can­di­dates run­ning on a bold peo­ple-cen­tered plat­form in tra­di­tion­al­ly Repub­li­can dis­tricts? I would say don’t be afraid to run as what you are and what you believe in. Find a way to con­nect those issues to what every­body in the com­mu­ni­ty is feel­ing, and I think you will do just fine.”

Isa­iah J. Poole is a mem­ber of People’s Action com­mu­ni­ca­tion staff
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