From Narrow Base Building to Building Majoritarian Power

We cannot win, wield and sustain governing power without majorities. Yet, in our work as organizers, we often do not strive to build majoritarian power. To do so requires three shifts in our current approach: 1) building base to lead a constituency, 2) building a multi-racial working class majority and 3) forging alliances to change the political conditions.

Building Base to Lead a Constituency

A hard fact about our movement’s approach to base building is that we do more mobilizing than organizing. As a result, we are nowhere near the scale of power we need to advance a governing agenda. Too often, an organizer recruits a grassroots volunteer to join an organization’s campaign by asking them to speak on behalf of others or to fulfill a shift on the doors. Occasionally, they might be allowed to make minor decisions about the direction of the campaign itself. But at the conclusion of the campaign, the volunteers find another campaign to join and our organizing is back to square one. We don’t hold onto our members, who are the basis of our organization’s power. 

Another limit on many of our organizing models is that we have often prioritized developing leaders as representative voices for our communities, rather than aiming to develop leaders who are organizing others in their communities to act effectively for change. As a result, we have built organizations that can advocate to people in positions of formal power, but we have not built the constituency-wide power we need to shift the terrain of power itself. A workers’ organization that focuses on lobbying elected officials to change policy is operating in a different realm of power than a workers’ organization that has built enough constituent power to determine who gets into office.  

To shift toward building base to lead a constituency, organizers can take these steps: 

  • Assessing your organization’s reach into its constituency. How many people are in the constituency that you organize? What percentage of the constituency can your organization reach? What percentage of the constituency will reliably follow your organization into action? 
  • Setting goals with your members for how many people they will organize and lead into action in concert with your organization’s mission and campaigns.

Building a Multi-Racial Working Class Majority

As we strive to organize and lead our own constituencies, we also need to connect with other organizations and constituencies to build a multi-racial working class majority. While leading an entire constituency represents an almost unprecedented scale of power for most of our organizations, it is not nearly enough to win real governing power; that requires cross-constituency power with people of different racial, social, economic, gender and geographic backgrounds who see a common interest in working together. 

It is no small feat, for example, to build power in both urban Black and Brown communities and in suburban and rural communities with poor and working class whites. But it will be necessary if we want to build lasting governing power at the state and federal level. Building a multi-racial working class majority that can decide electoral outcomes, establish new narratives and sustain our agenda means that many of us will have to set aside our instincts toward ideological and political purity in order to honor and overcome differences.  

To shift toward building majoritarian power across constituencies, organizers can take these steps: 

  • Researching the demographics of your state and assessing what constituencies can add up to a governing majority. 
  • Prioritizing campaigns that build new power, bring in new constituencies and foster cross-constituency relationships to grow. 
  • Building alliances that enable your organization to develop a strategic division of labor to organize across constituencies and geographies.  

Forging Alliances to Change Political Conditions

If we are going to build multi-constituency majoritarian power, we will need to consider building alliances that transcend the limits of issue coalitions. We often build these coalitions to demonstrate broad support for an issue or candidate and to win short-term victories. Organizations usually join them knowing that they will concede some amount of control and creativity in return for the increased impact that is possible when more allies step forward on a campaign they care about. Coalitions are often meant to navigate the existing political landscape, but they are rarely designed to change it. 

In several states, longer-term strategic alignment processes have taken root, seeking to change the political terrain. These processes, or alignment tables, are made up of power-building organizations that represent different constituencies, and who share strategic analyses and practices for building popular power and winning campaigns. These tables are focused more on building power and shared infrastructure than they are on winning short-term outcomes. Alignment tables are a place where allies practice building political unity, develop shared power analysis, and envision and lead broader strategies that aggregate and expand power. 

Alignment tables can play an important role in building a multi-racial working class majority voting bloc at a state level. Specifically, alignment tables provide a space for organizers who have built a deep base in their own constituencies to think about building a majoritarian bloc that transcends their constituency and geography.  For example, power-building organizations that are rooted primarily in urban communities of color have used their alignment tables to develop a strategic division of labor to build bases in suburban communities of color or predominantly white, working class rural areas. Two examples: 

  • In New York state, the alignment table is made up of power-building organizations that are predominantly based in New York City, who share a theory of change that the power base for progressive change in the state is a combination of communities of color in the New York metropolitan regions together with communities of color in smaller cities across the state. The New York alignment table provided one space where these organizations could think together about complementary approaches to expansion into smaller cities in Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and Western and Central New York.  
  • When the Florida for All alignment table started in 2014, their member organizations only had meaningful infrastructure in two urban areas: Miami and Orlando. They recognized that, if they were going to build towards governing power in the state, they needed to build power across issue areas, constituencies and geographic regions. So they invested in geographic expansion: Florida for All member organizations are now building bases in 35 of Florida’s 67 counties, including Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and Tampa as well as many rural counties.  Additionally, the table invested in staffing for coalitions in six regions of the state (with two more on deck), allowing their alignment to have a locally attuned “micro-geographical” approach to its issue and electoral campaigns.  Florida for All has also invested in building issue tables addressing criminal justice reform, housing justice, preemption, budgeting and revenue. Finally, the table has created several constituency tables to ensure that different communities can build cohesion and power, including a Black Alignment Group, Florida Para Todos (a Latino Constituency table), and an Asian and Pacific Islander table along with Faith in Florida’s work to cohere faith leaders across the state and some efforts at building a table of youth organizations. This investment in building the infrastructure needed to build multi-constituency and multi-geography power is an important part of the power that the Florida for All table has built over the years.

Alignment tables look different in different places, but some common characteristics include: 

  • A small membership of select organizations that represent different constituencies and share strategic analyses and practices for building popular power and winning campaigns. Trust is at a premium, and power, credit and resources are negotiated and shared by members of the alignment table.
  • There is a shared commitment to strengthening each member organization’s capacity, and often intentional work is done to support or incubate emergent organizations, especially in under-resourced communities and sectors, such as Black, Indigenous, and youth organizing. There is also a diversity of organizational forms, such as 501c(3)s, 501c(4)s, PACs, LLCs, and volunteer organizations that allow the alignment to access the tools, resources and protections that it needs.
  • The public leadership of alignment table members is seen as primary, over that of the table itself, and groups encourage each other to lead publicly. Some alignment tables are not even publicly-known entities. 
  • The short-term campaigns of alignment tables are designed to advance the table’s transformative vision and to overcome the structural barriers that stand in the way. 

See Case Study: Harold Washington for Mayor: Building Base to Lead a Constituency and Building a Multi-racial Working Class Majority

Case Study: Harold Washington for Mayor: Building Base to Lead a Constituency and Building Multi-racial Working Class Majority

In 1983, Harold Washington became the first Black mayor of Chicago. The story of what it took for him to come to power clarifies just how important it is to both build a deep base in our core constituencies and to build broader alliances across constituencies.  

Before running for mayor, Harold Washington was already a well-known politician in Chicago’s Black community. But – in a city that had been so profoundly dominated by a powerful white-led political machine for decades –  it would be an uphill battle for Washington to win the mayoral seat.  But there were three factors that opened the possibility of his success: First, there was a political opening because of a split in the white Democratic vote.  Second, organizers in the Black community built a demonstrably effective electoral power-building operation.  Third, there was a multi-racial coalition – including Mexican and Puerto Rican voters as well as some white liberals – supporting Harold Washington’s campaign. 

Starting with the political opening: Harold Washington had two opponents in the Democratic primary, Jane Byrne (the sitting mayor) and Richard Daley, Jr., both of whom were white. Why did Democrats have such a split ticket?  From 1955 through 1976, Chicago had the same mayor – Richard Daley –  who had led an incredibly powerful political machine in the city, known as the “Daley machine.”1  After he died, the machine fell into disarray. Jane Byrne, a white woman, ran as an anti-machine candidate, promising to challenge downtown and bring in neighborhood groups. But, once in office, she restored some old machine people to her administration and refused to respond to the demands of community groups. And she had real challenges managing the city. So Richard Daley’s son – also named Richard Daley – stepped in to challenge her.  This split in the white establishment created an opportunity for Harold Washington to come to power. The fact that Washington has two white opponents was crucial, because they split the white vote in the primary. Washington knew that this split would be a crucial opening that made it possible for him to win, but he also knew that it wasn’t a guarantee. 

He knew that it would take both deep power inside the Black community and a broader multi-racial coalition to bring the primary home.  So – before he committed to enter the race – he made demands on Black organizers in the city: they would first need to raise $100,000 and register 50,000 new Black voters. In other words, he asked organizers to prove that they could build meaningful power in his core constituency before he would even agree to run. The “Draft Harold” effort generated a massive wave of grassroots activity in the Black community. Organizers doubled the number of voter registrations that Washington had demanded, bringing in more than 100,000 new voters. 

This power in the Black community was central to Washington’s victory.  In conversation with Black activists, he once said, “if the people who believe in us will take it upon themselves to talk to other people, we can dispel this business about ‘I can’t win.’ We’ve got the votes out here. Why can’t I win? Except for saying that, ‘People won’t come out and vote.’ We have 670,00 Black registered voters in this city. Do you know how many votes I need to win this campaign and run away? Do you know how many I need? 450,000 votes, and I can walk in.” (DeVinney and Lacy 1990)

But, as central as it was, electoral power in the Black community would not be sufficient for Harold Washington to win in such a multiracial city.  In the same speech, he said, “We have never argued that we want anything short of a coalition.” He found his primary coalition partners among the Latino organizers, who wanted to end the hacienda politics of the Chicago political machine.  Building on years of “outsider” organizing, these organizers built electoral operations like the Independent Political Organization, rooted in the Mexican community of the Near West Side, and mobilizing in the Puerto Rican communities of the North Side. Washington also found slim support among some sections of white “lakefront liberals,” who were critical of machine politics in the city.  

Turnout in the hotly-contested primary was massive; seventy-two percent of registered voters came to the polls for the primary election.  Washington won the primary by 33,000 votes, bringing in 85% of the Black vote, somewhere between 9 and 25% of the Latino vote and somewhere between 8 and 20% of the white “lakefront liberal” vote. Deep power in the Black community, combined with support from Latino and liberal white voters, brought home this historic win for Washington.   ​​

In Chicago, winning the Democratic primary would usually mean a candidate was a shoo-in to win the general election. But the white-led Democratic establishment decided to shift their support to the Republican nominee, Bernard Epton, whose slogan was “Epton, before it’s too late.” This didn’t stop Washington. The powerfully-organized base he had built in Black community and the growing base in Latino communities meant that even in the face of white Democratic defection, he was able to win the general election. Washington took more than 99% of the Black vote and 82% of the Latino vote (a notable expansion from the support he received in the primary), demonstrating that when you build a deep enough base in your core constituencies, your bloc can move from having the power of a swing vote to having the power of a deciding vote. 

Unfortunately, winning the office of the Mayor wasn’t enough for Harold Washington to be able to truly govern. A group of 29 white aldermen banded together to create a bloc to challenge him, voting down everything his administration tried to move, for years. But from the moment he was elected, Washington set out to change that equation. He invested in the work of building a multi-constituency bloc that would not only re-elect him in four years, but that would also win his administration a majority on the City Council. He was able to accomplish this in a few ways. 

First, he built relationships with community organizations, neighborhood by neighborhood. Chicago is the home of Alinsky, and there were strong neighborhood organizations in almost every ward. Washington developed relationships and partnered with them to host public forums in each community. He built a particularly strong sphere of influence in Mexican and Puerto Rican communities, but he also went into the openly hostile territory of white, ethnic neighborhoods. Notably, he often went into wards where aldermen were opposing him, and he appealed directly to their voters. It was a tactic to create grassroots pressure on reactionary aldermen, and it made it possible for Washington to bring home some minor legislative wins and to set up for later electoral challenges in those wards.  

Second, he fought for and won tangible gains for the constituencies he represented.  In the early days of gentrification, Washington made significant commitments to redistribute resources away from the corporate real estate forces developing Chicago’s downtown and toward working class communities that were struggling with de-industrialization. He used his power in city government to drive private investment toward meeting community needs, demonstrating a commitment to addressing issues that touched poor and working class voters, whether they were Black, Brown or white. By delivering on his vision in material ways, he laid a solid basis for a multi-racial working class coalition. 

Finally, Washington’s team built an organization called the Political Education Project, to develop candidates and electoral capacity in the communities where he was building alliances. This tactic was particularly effective. After winning a court challenge to racially gerrymandered maps, Washington multiracial coalition was able to further consolidate political power in Black and Latino communities. Forcing a special election in 1986, they brought four new allied council members into office, including two council members in predominantly Black wards, Luis Guitierrez (representing a Puerto Rican ward) and Chuy Garcia (from a predominantly Mexican ward). These victories gave Washington his first majority on the City Council, albeit a narrow one which still required his vote as tiebreaker. But Washington could finally begin to really govern. 

While these victories weren’t built by a formal “strategic alignment” of organizations, Harold Washington built a de facto alignment of organizations that was designed to build a large enough multi-constituency bloc to win progressive control of the city council. In the 1987 election, Washington was re-elected, and his multi-racial coalition won a majority of city council seats. He was able to make some powerful early moves in this time, especially on affordable housing and immigration.  

Tragically, seven months into his second term, Washington died from a massive heart attack. His coalition effectively collapsed shortly afterwards, and the political machine was able to quickly reassert its dominance. There is much to be learned from this history about the tenuousness of these kinds of political coalitions and what it would take to build a durable bloc. But still, Harold Washington permanently changed the political power equation in Chicago, shaking up machine politics and putting Black and Latino communities in a fundamentally different position to govern.  

This case study drew heavily on three sources: Gary Rivlin’s Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, Teresa Cordova’s  “Harold Washington and the Rise of Latino Electoral Politics in Chicago,” and the “Back to the Movement” episode of Eyes on the Prize.  Much appreciation to Rishi Awatramani for his feedback on this case study, which improved it greatly.  All errors and omissions remain our own. 

1. The Daley machine had incorporated Black elected and leaders (termed “Plantation politics”) and Latino electeds (“Hacienda politics”). A crucial part of the story about why the Daley machine decayed is that there was a crisis among his Black machine members. This is what allowed Harold to get support in his first run from the machine electeds (who would eventually usurp his legacy after he died).

Case Study References:

Cordova, Teresa. 1999. “Harold Washington and the Rise of Latino Electoral politics in Chicago,” 

Chicano Politics and Society in the Late Twentieth Century, edited by David Montejano, University of Texas Press.

DeVinney, James A., and Madison D. Lacy, dirs. 1990. Eyes on the Prize: Back to the Movement: 1979-Mid 1980s. PBS.

Rivlin, Gary. 1992. Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, Henry

Holt & Co.

Vecchione, Judith., et al. 1995-1997. “Back to the Movement: Mid 1979-mid 1980s.” Eyes On the

Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years. Alexandria, VA: Atlanta, PBS Home Video; Turner Home Entertainment.