Three out of five ‘Our Revolution’-backed candidates prevailed in elections on Tuesday, but the organization’s 510(c)(4) structure backfired in the case of the candidate running against Debbie Wasserman Schultz, argues Saikat Chakrabarti
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Debbie Wasserman Schultz fought off a strong primary challenge bid to hold on to her House seat against law professor Tim Canova, an outspoken Wall Street critic aligned with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.
DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE (D-FL): Today I am so proud to be the Democratic nominee for Florida [inaud.] Thank you so much.
NOOR: The primary coming not long after she resigned as DNC chairwoman following the email scandal that showed her favoring Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, even though she long denied that during the primary. The defeat for Canova comes as another blow for the progressive movement still reeling from Sanders’ primary defeat to Hillary Clinton and the launch of Vermont senators’ new organization Our Revolution that some say was overshadowed by the mass resignations of several of its staffers. Well, now joining us to discuss this is Saikat Chakrabarti. He’s a cofounder of Brand New Congress. Previously he was the director of organizing technology for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Thank you so much for joining us. SAIKAT CHAKRABARTI: Thanks for having me. NOOR: So, during her campaign, Deborah Wasserman Schultz defended her record.
WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: People across South Florida care about jobs. They care about Social Security. They care about having a representative that’s going to be their voice and that’s going to have their back. And that political, extraneous stuff is not something that is part of their life.
CHAKRABARTI: Of course she’s going to continue defending her record, but we know that she was at some point a supporter of payday loan sharks, essentially, and sort of from the old political mindset of taking centrist positions to capture certain demographics, saying whatever is politically salient at a given point. I think it was sort of summed up very well in the–I think it was a townhall or a debate that there was between Canova and Wasserman Schultz where they’re asked for their positions on fracking, and Canova just straight up says, I support banning fracking, right, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz gives a very roundabout sort of, well, legislation and regulation should work, and we all sort of know that it’s not working and fracking can usually be a serious health issue, not to mention we have this serious problem of climate change and we have to take pretty bold positions if we actually want to fix the problems that are facing us right now. NOOR: And so this message, it resonated with people around the country. Bernie Sanders helped Canova raise, I think, something like $3.4 million this year, which is a lot of money for someone that’s challenging a six-term incumbent in office. And he fought a fierce campaign. He didn’t concede defeat in the usual manner last night. Canova didn’t call Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Instead he said, I’ll concede that Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a corporate stooge. So talk about why you think he fell short in this effort. And you didn’t work directly on his campaign, but your organization helped support him. CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. My organization Brand New Congress, we definitely supported him in spirit and on social media. And congressional races are very difficult to win one-by-one. I think incumbents in Congress have over 90 percent rate of keeping their seats. And a lot of whether or not an incumbent wins a congressional race comes down entirely to money. Canova was in sort of lucky position of being one of the few congressional races that got a little bit of a national media spotlight. He was able to raise a lot of money despite being an insurgent candidate. But at the end of the day, Debbie Wasserman Schultz outraised him through largely corporate donations and brought out the big guns of the Democratic Party to come and campaign on her behalf. And it was a steep race. He cut the lead dramatically. He started from way far behind and got very close, and in a pretty short period of time. And this is one of the things is we all realize that these sort of big campaigns were trying to unseat people who contain so much power is going to take a lot of effort and it’s not always going to happen overnight. And if we look at the–Our Revolution actually sent out an email today talking about how we actually won, I think, three out of the five primaries that were sort of coming up for election in the last week, I think. And if you go to Berniecrats.net, a lot of progressive candidates have been winning their primaries. So there is a movement going. We’re not going to win every single one. But having said all that, the bigger point here is despite all of this media attention and the fact that he was able to raise more money than most insurgent candidates and he still came short, what does that tell us about the movement as a whole? And is this even possible, right? And I think what we saw from the Canova campaign is it is incredibly hard to win these seats one-by-one. The best shot we have at sort of taking on Congress, taking on all these incumbents, is if we’re able to shine a national media spotlight and raise millions of dollars in the style of Bernie Sanders all at the same time. NOOR: And so Sanders helped Canova do that. But several staff members of Our Revolution, which is the Sanders campaign-inspired group, have resigned in protest. And so The Atlantic had a piece how the political revolution failed Tim Canova. Specifically one of the concerns was the leadership of Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ former campaign manager. And we wanted to play a clip of [Claire] Sandberg on Democracy Now! addressing the leadership of Jeff Weaver, but also the tax structure of Our Revolution. Let’s play that clip.
CLAIRE SANDBERG: And specifically had chosen a legal structure for the organization that had already prevented us from doing effective organizing for candidates like Tim Canova, who has talked about how we have left him hanging, which is true: as the group was formed as a C4, we legally couldn’t coordinate with Canova, couldn’t return his calls, couldn’t mobilize thousands of Bernie supporters locally in Miami or across the country to participate in his field operation.
NOOR: And how much of a factor was that? And in the Atlantic article they talk about how Our Revolution was making phone calls to the same people that Canova’s campaign was also reaching out to, and so Canova’s campaign had to contact Our Revolution to make them stop, which raised all these legal issues, because that structure, the C4, they can’t directly coordinate with political campaigns. CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Claire’s absolutely right. I think structuring Our Revolution as a C4 sort of put a death knell in the organizing efforts. In hindsight it’s really difficult to say which single factor would have helped or hurt Canova’s campaign, but in races like Tim Canova’s or Bernie Sanders’, you have to take every little bit you can get. So whenever you set things up to sort of hamper your ability to be effective, certainly it’s going to play a role. And so I totally–I agree with Claire there. It probably would have been better served had Our Revolution not structured itself as a C4. And C4s, they can’t do political activity as their main purpose. That’s sort of the definition of what a 501(c)(4) is. So I think there’s definitely going to be a place for Our Revolution. And I think Our Revolution is going to continue to be a fundraising powerhouse. They’ll probably be doing a lot of TV advertising and digital advertising and probably do a lot of issues-based campaign work. But at this point I do have a hard time seeing how Our Revolution’s going to be able to provide support necessary for specific campaigns and candidates to actually put into office. And I think that’s what Claire was sort of speaking to, as Our Revolution’s decided not to play that role of being a significant support structure for the political revolution, which by being a C4 you can’t be explicitly political. NOOR: One of them is Zephyr Teachout, which is significant because she is a progressive candidate that was ahead in the polls in the New York congressional race until a super-PAC donor–I think it was hedge funder–he dropped half a million dollars in the campaign. And she actually, Zephyr Teachout actually challenged him to a debate because of the enormous amount of money that he was bringing in, influencing the election. So talk a little bit more about the broader implications of what’s going to happen next for Bernie Sanders. And if it’s not going to be Our Revolution leading the way, then what is it going to be? CHAKRABARTI: Well, I don’t know what Bernie Sanders himself is personally going to be doing, and I hope he continues to play a very active role in supporting the movement as a whole. But I think this movement is made up of lots of people and it’s sort of at its core a people’s movement. So I think there are going to be a lot of groups who come together for common causes. Our Revolution I think is going to continue playing a large role in that. They will still be a group that people look up to. They’ll still be a group that people will go to for guidance on knowing who to support and where they can help out. And I think Our Revolution is actually doing a good job on their side of trying to direct people there and trying to direct people to good candidates to support. But to talk a bit about what you just mentioned with Zephyr Teachout and the super-PAC donor, it’s imperative that however this movement evolves, it continues to be funded and supported and fueled by small donor contributors and the people as a whole. The goal here at the end of the day is–or the problem at the end of the day is that we all recognize that the current interests that influence our government are fueled largely by super-PAC money, large donors, these handful of wealthy people who get such an outsized influence and have so much power. And we have to compete with that. But we can’t compete with that by creating our own versions of wealthy donors that just do it. Like, to have an actual power structure where people actually hold the power, it needs to be distributed power. It needs to be power that’s coming $27 at a time, essentially. So, yeah, I think Zephyr’s challenge to the super-PAC donor was great, I thought, because at the end of the day, you know, why is this guy giving $500,000 to the opponent? And it’s obviously so he can influence policy. Or maybe he just really likes the guy, but probably it’s to influence policy. And so it makes total sense that Zephyr wants to go to the source, figure out what is it that he wants and how is he trying to influence policy, because we know what–the rest of us were actually donating in small donor amounts. We know what we want, which is to take back our democracy, right? NOOR: Alright. Well, thanks so much for joining us. CHAKRABARTI: Alright. No problem. Thank you. NOOR: And, you know, you are the cofounder of Brand New Congress, so we’ll have you on again soon to talk about this broader strategy of eating a whole new Congress, not just focusing on these small battles, but trying to overturn the whole system. CHAKRABARTI: Yup. NOOR: Look forward to having you on again soon. CHAKRABARTI: Alright. Look forward to being back on. Thanks. NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.
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