Photo Credit: Steven Rosenfeld
On Wednesday, one day after Berniecrat Tim Canova lost a Florida U.S. House primary to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose scheming to sabotage Sanders’ bid for the presidency forced her resignation as Democratic National Committee chair, Our Revolution, the newly formed progressive group created by Sanders, offered its condolences in an email.
“Last night was a tremendous night for our political revolution. Out of the five progressive primary campaigns we supported, three were victorious. But we did lose one, a big one, in Florida: Tim Canova against Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” said Jeff Weaver, Our Revoution’s newly installed president, who met Sanders in his 1986 campaign for Vermont governor.
Canova took on the corporate Democrat most despised by the Sanders legions (in June, Wasserman Schultz had tried to delay new federal regulations reeling in predatory payday loans). Backed by Bernie this spring, Canova raised several million dollars from Sanders’ nationwide network. But when Sanders launched Our Revolution last week in a national webcast, and listed some of the candidates they would be supporting this fall, Canova wasn’t among them. Sanders didn’t make any last-minute campaign appearances in Florida either, although Canova was listed among 60-plus candidates on Our Revolution’s website just days before his primary loss. Canova told reporters he left messages on Bernie’s personal phone, but got no reply.
“The three candidates who won last night — Dwight Bullard in Florida, and Martín Quezada and Juan Mendez in Arizona — join Zephyr Teachout, Pramila Jayapal, and other Our Revolution candidates who have already won their Democratic primaries,” Weaver’s cheerleading continued, omitting they were all incumbents. The email ended with a pledge to “take our country back from the billionaire class” and below that, a big red “Contribute” button.
Just how much Our Revolution is going to contribute to sustaining and building a nationwide progressive movement is the big question. This goes beyond Bernie believers who cringed at the last-minute distancing from Canova. When Sanders launched Our Revolution, he promised the group would be led by progressives to shepherd a continuing wave of activism to hold the Democratic Party accountable, and to elect candidates to local, state and federal office.
That high-minded pronouncement didn’t come in a vacuum. It came after a majority of the new group’s young staffers—said to be among the best from his presidential campaign—quit after Weaver was given the top job. They may not appreciate that Sanders would want to have someone he trusts overseeing the most valuable mailing list in progressive politics today, the Nation noted. But in their statements they said they didn’t like Weaver’s apparent plans to tap big-money donors whose names could be kept secret just like in any other super PAC, and that Weaver wasn’t cut from the same grassroots cloth as their nationwide base.
Then on Monday, Our Revolution announced the names of its new board members. Many are nationally prominent progressives, such as civil rights leader Ben Jealous, Texas firebrand Jim Hightower, former Communication Workers of America president (and Our Revolution board chair) Larry Cohen, and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner. Others are Huck Gutman, a lifelong friend and poetry professor who became Sanders’ Washington chief of staff, and a few younger activists. The old guard and their graying generation seem to have taken the helm, raising more questions about what will become of the most successful insurgent presidential campaign in decades.
The Bernie Delegates Network Petition
The shape, direction, agenda and transparency of Our Revolution has become an issue in progressive circles. The most obvious reason is that for political change to occur the movement, as Sanders himself has said, has to be bigger than any candidate. With that principle in mind—that elections have to be subsets of social movements—the organizers of the Bernie Delegates Network, which has been keeping in touch with 1,250 of their 1,900 delegates at the Democratic Convention, sent out a petition Tuesday concerning the new group’s agenda, inclusiveness and candidate endorsements. The petition was posted on RootsAction.org, and received several thousand signatures in its first hours.
The statement politely lauds Our Revolution’s goals, said Norman Solomon, a California-based Sanders delegate, former congressional candidate and co-founder of the network. “At the same time, there are three real concerns. One has to do with foreign policy. One has to do with the structure of the organization and accountability. And there’s a third element, which is the need to make clear that this is not just a Democratic Party operation, and that given the situation independent candidates may be supported, as well as some third-party candidates if deserving.”
“At the August 24th event, despite linking the new project to a very broad heritage of feminist, civil rights, ecological, and labor activism, one particular focus was notably absent: International relations and antiwar activism and policy, including such matters as intervention, bases abroad, drones, nuclear danger, disarmament, the military budget, adherence to international law, and more,” the petition said. “We believe ‘Our Revolution’ should address these immense violations of human well being as well as their connections to all the other topics already addressed.”
Remarkably, Sanders didn’t mention anything about foreign policy, the military budget, overseas military adventurism or Pentagon spending when he launched Our Revolution on August 24. The only reference to this topic, once a mainstay of Sanders’ speeches, were a few words in a press release quote from Ben Jealous announcing the new board’s formation.
“I am proud to join the board and continue volunteering for Our Revolution. Bernie’s transformative campaign was just the beginning,” Jealous said. “We now have to follow through on our promises to help pass criminal justice reform, the $15 minimum wage and climate change legislation while stopping our endless wars and the TPP, and electing true progressives from the Deep South to the Northwest.”
To Solomon, the absence of foreign policy discussion suggests a possible reluctance to criticize Hillary Clinton. But he said now is the time to lay a foundation to push back against a Clinton administration some progressives fear could be more hawkish than Obama’s.
“From the standpoint of the Bernie Delegates Network and activists I’m organizing with, including but not only through RootsAction, we really want to push very hard against an incoming Clinton administration before it takes office—in their transition period,” he said. “And to the extent that means we will push against Our Revolution if at all, that remains to be seen. It’s hard to know where that is. I think that’s where point number one of the statement and petition comes in. We have a militarist in the next president if Hillary Clinton wins. It is essential from the standpoint of Our Revolution that there not be ambiguities about where it stands. And right now there’s no clarity at all.”
Inclusiveness and Transparency
The petition’s second point concerned the makeup of Our Revolution’s decision-makers and accountability. It reads, “At the August 24th event, even knowing that there is time for change, and knowing that a startup requires attributes that can transform over time, the picture of a new organization that emerged evoked concerns of having a typical corporate structure including a board and a chief executive but having no explicit membership rights, powers, or even responsibilities and little visible evidence of diversity, as well.”
Speaking personally and not for the Bernie Delegates Network, Solomon echoed the complaints made by Our Revolution staffers who resigned over Weaver’s appointment, saying he was not the right person for the job. “I have a concern about Jeff Weaver being the head of this whole operation,” Solomon said. “I am speaking only for myself. The skill sets and the sensibility that may be needed to run an election campaign are apt to be distinct from the mix that is needed to do the kind of relationship building with progressive groups and grassroots groups around the country. It’s unclear to me whether the hard-boiled election sensibility is going to have a counterweight at the top of Our Revolution. Who is the counterweight?”
The press release announcing the new board doesn’t reveal much except its lofty goals and appointees. It does not reveal who might become the counterpoint to the board’s forceful new chair, Larry Cohen, the former president of the CWA union and the presidential campaign staffer who led its anti-global trade agreement protests in Philadelphia.
“We therefore hope and trust there will be a wide discussion of the need to arrive at ways for decisions to reflect and benefit from the will and backgrounds of those doing the work,” the petition continues. “We hope you share the belief that our political revolution should be foreshadowed by the shape of our own projects.”
Finally, the petition urges Our Revolution to be mindful of not appearing to endorse almost all Democrats. While the website’s candidate endorsement page does include a few non-partisan candidates, such as Ben Choi and Melvin Willis, both running for city council in Richmond, a San Francisco Bay Area city dominated by a Chevron refinery, petition authors wonder why the group is not supporting more independents and third-party candidates, especially at the local and statewide levels.
“At the August 24th event, and on the Our Revolution website, we are concerned that many will get the impression that only progressive Democratic Party candidates will get Our Revolution support, not Greens, for example,” the petition said. “We hope it will become more clear that Our Revolution will support progressives of all kinds whose campaigns can usefully educate and especially elicit and organize support for social change, including trying to win office to advance that change.”
Solomon said this more nuanced local front is where progressive issues and candidates need to be nurtured. “That is where there is the potential,” he said. “It’s very labor intensive. We have such a big country. There are so many communities to be supportive of and work with. This is not just identifying this is a person running for state legislature or Congress, they’re progressive.”
A telling example comes from Prince George’s County in Maryland, where a Sanders delegate, Suchitra Balachandran, is working to block the repeal of term limits proposed by incumbents.
“I’m working to inform residents on this question and hopefully to kill it on the ballot,” he said on Wednesday. “In 2018, there will be five vacant council seats. How wonderful it would be if Our Revolution could energize Prince George’s County and we could slate five progressive candidates for the council. Unfortunately I don’t think that is in the works for this organization.”
Unfortunately, Our Revolution’s press department, the consultants at RevolutionMessaging.com, did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story. They sent the Monday press release announcing the board’s formation, which was available online, and no more. But the concerns raised by the Bernie Delegates Network and RootsAction petition signatories are not going to go away. In its first 24 hours, 122 Sanders delegates signed on as did more than 3,400 supporters writ large.
Some of those signatures came with brief comments, suggesting Our Revolution didn’t include them anymore.
“Not a good-enough explanation on 8/24 as to why Bernie is backing off. I am in shock with the realization that Bernie slipped through our fingers and now Our Revolution seems to be going in the same direction,” wrote Joanne P. “Just like Occupy. Revolutions start from the ground up but they also need a leader. Bernie was that leader. Someone we can trust. DWS won her primary. Bernie did not stand behind Conova. Why? I’m totally destroyed. Fight from the inside??? I just don’t see it.”
“The problems with Our Revolution are the same problems that I had with Bernie’s campaign,” wrote Andy M. “Bernie’s campaign was better than Hillary’s, but it was not ideal. If Our Revolution is just to be another Democratic booster club, who needs it. It has to be more than that to be truly progressive.”