From Winning One-Off Elections to Developing Independent Political Infrastructure and Co-governing

As organizers, we are so accustomed to resisting people in power that we often can’t help but see people in public office as anything other than targets. In our electoral work, we’ve also tended to cede too much control to the Democratic Party and its independent affiliates, many of whose members do not share our deeper agenda. These dynamics mean that we can confuse access to people in positions of power with the ability to actually influence them. We need to step back and ask, “What kind of relationship do we want with our allies in public office in the first place? What is our role to play in the political process, and what is theirs?”

To advance our governing agenda, we cannot treat public officials solely as opponents. It’s also insufficient to see anyone with “Democrat” behind their name as supportive of our goals. While we certainly need to be able to win general elections against conservatives, we also have to cultivate strong, mutually-accountable relationships with people in positions of authority who share our deeper agenda. This means remaining clear-eyed about the exceedingly limited political terrain that these public officials must navigate within the current system. 

The first step toward building these kinds of strategic relationships is to create independent political infrastructure that is controlled by, and accountable to, our organizations. That work starts by engaging in direct electoral work, including forming 501(c)4s, political parties, political action committees and other formations that are extensions of our organizational vision. While these structures must be legally separate from 501(c)3s or other strictly nonpartisan entities, they should still be part of the same overall strategy to build governing power. 

Second, we need to shift the role of our grassroots organizations from ground troops to strategists in our electoral fights. Right now, many of the organizations that engage in direct electoral work rely on the Democratic Party or its independent affiliates, like America Votes, to recruit and develop candidates, manage voter data and determine what to say to voters. But while our short-term goals will sometimes overlap with theirs, at some point our long-term goals will diverge. The Democratic Party exists for the transactional purpose of electing Democrats to office. Period. We, on the other hand, exist to make and sustain transformational change. Instead of depending on the Democratic Party for strategy and infrastructure, we will have to build the power to negotiate with it directly. Our role is to create and maintain control of our own electoral strategy, to broker the relationships we need to reach our goals and to claim credit for our work so that we can build stronger, mutually-accountable relationships with public officials. 

Third, we need to adopt a co-governing approach when working with our elected officials. Instead of treating election day as the moment of victory and the job of an elected official as “delivering” on our agenda, we can learn to include the tenure of our champion’s time in office in the timeline of what it will take to win our potential victory. That means that we need to shed a deeply-held idea in community organizing that elected officials are separate from us as a movement. We can do that by asking ourselves questions like, “If we elect this champion, how will we work together to advance our shared agenda? What is the political terrain our elected ally will find herself in and what can we do to help shape a more favorable terrain? What is her role as an elected official and what is our role as a community organization?”

To co-govern and build independent political infrastructure, organizers can take a number of steps, including: 

  • Assessing the track record, leadership, capacity and financial backing of your state’s Democratic party and other broad-based progressive political formations. Looking for openings to influence the Democratic party or to expose oppositional corporate forces who are working to influence them. 
  • Assessing the gaps in independent political infrastructure between your alignment table partners and filling them. Examples of infrastructure that might be needed include shared data infrastructure, narrative and communications capacity, research capacity and more. 
  • Asking strong leaders in your organization to run for public office. 
  • Supporting the elected officials you have chosen with research, communications, strong campaigns or administrative staff. 
  • Supporting the elected officials you have chosen in the process of building coalitions with other elected leaders. Staying responsive to the other capacities that they need to be successful once they are in office.

See Case Study: Working Families Party: Developing Independent Political Infrastructure

Case Study: Working Families Party (WFP): Developing Independent Political Infrastructure

In the 1990s, New York Democrats started following the national trend towards neoliberalism. Frustrated by both the Democrats’ refusal to pursue a progressive agenda and the role of labor in state politics, the Communications Workers of America, the United Auto Workers, ACORN and Citizen Action of NY formed the Working Families Party (WFP) in 1998. WFP’s goal was to pursue an inside-outside strategy for advancing an economic and racial justice agenda at the state level. Other unions and groups joined soon after the party’s ballot line was secured. Thanks to New York’s unusual voting laws, the WFP could cross-endorse candidates from other parties.

In 2012, after years of building political power through electoral and minimum wage campaigns, WFP and its allies and affiliates helped elect enough Democrats in the State Senate to give them a numerical majority. In response, powerful interests, especially in the real estate industry, took advantage of both the cynicism of some Democratic elected officials and the limited attention that most voters pay to Albany politics, to reverse the will of the voters. Their lobbying meant that five Democratic senators (and eventually, a total of eight Democratic Senators) formed the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) and started voting with Republicans, instead of with their party, in order to give Republicans control of the Senate. This arrangement was tacitly supported (and likely engineered) by the state’s powerful, centrist Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, who could have used the power of the Executive Branch to break up the IDC. Instead, he used the bottleneck that the IDC’s refusal to vote with the Democratic majority created to advance his political agenda. For six years, this dynamic prevented most progressive legislation from moving forward, with the exception of those bills that the governor wanted to sign, when he wanted to sign them. 

In our movements, progressive organizations tend to rely on the Democratic party and its independent affiliates, like America Votes, for their electoral strategy and infrastructure—from developing candidates to managing voter data. But in this case, it was clear that key members of the Democratic party had been swayed by corporate forces to abdicate their responsibilities to their constituents. This is what made the work WFP did to build independent political infrastructure that was accountable to its membership so crucial. Because WFP had built infrastructure that was not controlled by the Democratic Party, it was able to mount a challenge to the IDC that the members of the Democratic party had neither the willingness nor the power to mount themselves.

In 2014 and 2016, WFP worked to end the IDC through a variety of means, including recruiting primary candidates who could challenge members of the IDC for their seats. They also used the threat of a primary challenge against the Governor himself to press the Governor and labor, to end their support of the IDC. While WFP’s efforts to kill the IDC during this time ended in failure, their strategy did help shift major parts of the labor movement away from the Senate Republicans by convincing them to support the Senate Democrats’ effort to win back a solid majority. The work WFP did in those two cycles helped lay the groundwork for the wins they were able to secure in 2018, when the IDC was successfully dissolved. However, it also eventually led to the fracturing of the WFP coalition. WFP endorsed Cuomo in the lead up to the 2014 election, but because the coalition had dared to challenge him, Cuomo pulled funding from community organizations that were part of WFP and pressured unions to pull out of the formation. 

In 2018, WFP organized powerfully to end the IDC, and worked with other community organizations to recruit challengers for all 8 seats. They also recruited actress, Cynthia Nixon, to challenge Cuomo in the primary, and she was able to use her celebrity status to highlight the barrier to progress that Cuomo and the IDC “Trump Democrats” had represented for years. Though Cuomo would go on to win the governorship once more, he was forced to move to the left on several issues that WFP had worked to elevate in the media and with voters. Importantly, 6 of the 8 WFP-endorsed candidates won their primaries and unseated IDC members, and that, along with the work WFP did to successfully defeat Republicans that election cycle, meant that they were able to win both a Democratic Senate Majority and a new bloc of progressive champions within that majority. 

By this time, WFP had worked to win a Democratic Senate Majority for 2 decades and had worked to defeat the IDC for 3 election cycles (6 years). If they had achieved the former without the latter, the Democratic Senate Majority could have easily remained under the control of corporate Democrats beholden to real estate interests. Instead, 2019, 2020, and 2021 brought transformational legislative victories on issues that included rent control, criminal justice reform, public funding of elections and tax reforms. Achieving both goals was due to numerous factors. The four most important were: the opening created by the political moment; WFP’s success in shifting the narrative about the Senate and the IDC; WFP’s ability to set the stage for the races long before 2018; and the strength of WFP’s independent electoral infrastructure and strategy.