Laurel Wales teaches people how to run for public office, but her aim isn’t just to win elections. She hopes to build a broader, stronger progressive movement and a more representative democracy. “We want to change how elections happen,” she says. “We’re teaching them not only how to run for office, but what it looks like to run with the movement, for the movement, by the movement.”
Wales is the deputy director of movement politics at People’s Action, which is cultivating people to run at every level of government. It now has a slate of roughly 400 candidates who are planning to run on its “Rise Up” platform, which begins: “We are under attack — as poor and working people, as immigrants and refugees, as women, LGBTQ people, Muslims, as indigenous nations, and as people of color. We are under attack by growing corporate power that takes from our families and communities. But we refuse to be defined by these attacks. We know that, rising up together, we will win.”
People’s Action (formerly National People’s Action) had its founding convention in April, 100 days after Donald Trump took office. About 50 affiliate organizations and 1,300 members were present, including 72 of the candidates that it has trained — a few of whom addressed the convention. Wales recently spoke with In These Times about what’s next for the campaign.
Theo Anderson: How is a People’s Action campaign differently from, say, a generic Democratic campaign?
Laurel Wales: If you’re working for a [traditional] political campaign, you run for nine months and then, the day after the election, it all closes down. And that infrastructure is gone. But we see elections as a way to do deep leadership development with our base and train them on how to have conversations with voters. It’s not just about the candidate but about the program we’re building and what we’re fighting for on a larger scale.
The other piece is that we really work with folks to not use milquetoast campaign messaging — stuff that we hear all the time about good jobs and education. We really try to bring in the ‘why.’ And we put bold issues in front of folks. And we do not shy away from race. We see racism as something that has been used to divide us. If we’re not talking about it, and if we’re not moving voters to think about their relationship to that, we will never build the movement that we need to win.
We really try to put women, LGBTQ folks and people of color front-and-center when it comes to who’s running for office. There are a lot of structural barriers that have been put in place that make it difficult for them to run, and to win. So, we don’t want to throw just anyone out there and say, “You have to run now.” We try to be strategic about who they need to know, what base they need to be building, and how much money they need to raise. We want to be sure that we’re not just a protest movement, but that we really are clear about how to win and gain governing power. So, if it’s not the right time or moment for the people we’re working with, we’re not going to force them to run.
Theo: What does the relationship between People’s Action and the candidates look like after the trainings?
Laurel: We’re looking to build support structures and relationships. We believe that it’s incredibly important to not think about this as one individual at a time, but as a cohort and a wave of people who are really thinking about governing.
We know that, once they get elected, they’re going to face a set of other pressures. Once you get into government, it’s hard. You’ve got lobbyists coming to visit you. You’ve got constituents and communities coming to ask for your vote. So, we’re building a cohort of folks who have run from our base, who are part of our movement, and can use each other for support once they’re in government.
Theo: What effect did the election last fall have on recruitment?
Laurel: Folks felt some inspiration from the Bernie Sanders’ message around a political revolution. And then, when Trump won, there was a level of rage and outcry against what had happened. And those two pieces together have set people up to say, “I can really do this.”
We focus a lot on running on people of color for office, and when they look at who currently represents them, and they see a majority of older, white men, that is also helping spark a feeling of ‘enough is enough.’ And with the support that we’re able to provide, and the community they’re building with us, they’re getting ready to take that step.
Theo: So many progressives write off the Democratic Party as a broken vehicle for progressive values. How do you navigate that challenge?
Laurel: We are not afraid of challenging corporate or neoliberal Democrats. We’re also not afraid to challenge Democrats who have been bad on race, class and gender issues. The Democratic Party is a longstanding institution and a field of struggle. There are a lot of relationships and connections to the party. But, at the same time, we’ve seen Democrats pass and push for legislation that doesn’t work for working people, communities of color and low-income communities.
In a campaign led by Maine People’s Alliance, voters voted to raise the minimum wage and eliminate the state’s tip credit. It was on the ballot last year and won by an 11-point margin. And then, this year, we saw the Democrats restore the tip credit [which allows restaurant owners to pay workers below the minimum wage]. That was done by Democrats. They could have stopped it, and they didn’t. And we will not support the kind of Democrats who do that.
Different strategies might work in different areas. And in some areas, a third party might be an option. But that isn’t true everywhere. We care more about how we get to a place where we have a stronger, more reflective democracy and candidates who are willing to co-govern with the people in their community. So that’s why we we’re not just building the Democratic Party, but we’re building something that can both push and use the party as a vehicle to do this work. We’re building a movement that relates to a party, or the parties. How do we get to a place of co-governance, where the people in our communities really feel heard and feel that they are part of the government process?
Theo: People’s Action is interesting and rare, in that it’s best known for movement work, but also does this electoral work, and tries to bridge the two.
Laurel: We can either let elections happen to us or for us. And, for a long time, the progressive movement has let elections happen to us. As somebody who has gone back and forth between community organizing and election work, I’ve felt that deep divide for a long time.
But I really feel that we can start to bring those two fields together. It can be deep, relational community organizing in the context of an election. That’s what good politics is. And that’s why we don’t call ourselves just a political program. We want a radical change in the way politics is done. And we’ve seen it work. We can’t keep doing things the same way and expect different results. We have to start thinking differently about the way that we do this work, and bringing those fields together.