If elections in progressive areas were decided by readers of The Nation
and listeners to Pacifica Radio, Torie Osborn and Norman Solomon would have finished first in their respective races for State Assembly in Santa Monica and Congress in the North Bay. But while both have a mathematical chance to make the runoff via absentee votes, neither performed as well as their high-profile activist careers warranted. Osborn and Solomon join a long list of activists whose efforts to start their political careers at too high a level led to defeats. We saw this in activist Tom Hayden’s losing U.S. Senate race in 1976 (and his subsequent victory in the State Assembly) and in MoveOn activist’s Ilya Sheyman defeat in an Illinois Democratic congressional primary this past March. Activists seeking political careers should follow the lead of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who got his career rolling by running for Burlington mayor after losing statewide races, and San Francisco’s Assembly member Tom Ammiano, who built his political base at the local School Board.
Torie Osborn and Norman Solomon are two of the nation’s most principled progressive activists. Both would do a wonderful job in government. But neither is likely to get this chance in the near future, with Osborn needing a political miracle to make the District 50 November runoff and Solomon facing nearly insurmountable odds in California’s Second Congressional district even if late absentees put him in a runoff against Jared Huffman in the fall.
Both ran in progressive districts yet were not the preferred choice of the majority of progressive voters. Why?
I think both were impacted by not having previously been elected to a lower local office. Osborne was beaten out by an incumbent Assemblymember (moving to a new district) and the current Mayor of Santa Monica; Solomon will finish over 20% behind current Assemblymember Jared Huffman, whose political career began as the elected Director of the Marin Municipal Water District.
Local offices build name recognition, a funding base, and enable politicians to provide services to the electorate that bolster future support. It also creates a record of accomplishment that says that the activist can be effective on “the inside.”
Only Wealthy Can Skip Steps
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Bloomberg, Al Franken, and Richard Riordan all skipped the steps progressive activists need to build political careers because they had wealth and/or name recognition. And while Republicans clear the field for their celebrity candidates, Osborn and Solomon faced other progressive candidates and the latter a fellow progressive activist.
Progressive activist Tom Hayden had money and statewide name recognition in his 1976 primary challenge to incumbent Democratic Senator John Tunney, but not the political infrastructure to defeat a sitting U.S. Senator. After lowering his sights to the Santa Monica Assembly seat, Hayden won, and then went on to serve in the State Senate.
Hayden’s tenure in the Assembly showed how activists in local offices expand their electoral base for future races. I almost fell out of my chair when I heard my very Republican parents extolling Tom Hayden because he was supporting the survival of a beach club they belonged to in his Santa Monica district. My mother actually said that she “loved” Hayden for his efforts, as the longtime anti-war activist won a vote he never could have gained without providing such constituency service.
SF Activists as Politicians
When district elections returned in 2000, voters elected three activists to the Board of Supervisors who had not previously run for elective office: Chris Daly, Aaron Peskin and Jake McGoldrick. Daly and Peskin proved remarkably effective because they avoided the standard politician “go along to get along” approach, and in the former’s case were particularly willing to ruffle feathers to get things done.
Even critics of Daly and Peskin respected their ability to move their agendas. Both gained this experience from years as activists, a very different background from those taking office after serving as legislative aides or working for the city.
Today, only three members of the Board of Supervisors were frequently seen at City Hall hearings and protests in the decade prior to their election: Eric Mar, John Avalos and Christina Olague. Activists have not often fared well when starting their political careers by running for the Board, as even prominent gay activist Cleve Jones failed to win in his only Supervisor campaign (Activist Ross Mirkarimi began his electoral career with his District 5 race but his preceding years of Green Party work laid the groundwork and his chief challengers in D5 were fellow activists).
Executive v. Legislative Offices
Bernie Sanders did not simply use the Burlington Mayor’s office as a stepping-stone to higher office; he also transformed politics in the state. Mayors often have greater power to create change than even a veteran Congressmember, yet activists seem more inclined to pursue legislative positions over executive ones.
That makes sense if you are trying to get a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, where a five-member Board makes decisions for several million people. But Solomon’s race involves one seat in a 435- member body run on the basis of seniority and majority party rule. Osborn was seeking to join a California Assembly whose Democratic majority is far from progressive and whose legislation is subject to the dictates of Governor Brown.
The size of such legislative bodies also causes some progressive voters to support candidates they believe will better “work the system” over those whose selling point is their standing out from the pack.
Will the high-profile electoral difficulties of Solomon and Osborn discourage progressive activists from running for office? Let’s hope not. I used to work with a guy from the Oregon Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) named Ben Unger who won his state legislative primary in a moderate district in Oregon. Unger faces a tough fight in the fall but this could be the start of a career that propels a longtime grassroots activist to state and even national political influence.
We know that movement building begins at the local grassroots. The same holds true for successful political careers for progressive activists.
Randy Shaw is author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.