How Courage Campaign helped put the right and ‘corporate Democrats’ on their heels
As I was lining my stomach in preparation for the vice presidential debate, I saw this tweet flutter down my Tweetdeck:
— CourageCampaign (@CourageCampaign) October 4, 2016
As a proud native Californian who left the state in the midst of the Great Recession, my little heart has often been warmed by the news coming Golden State, which is now the fifth-largest economy in the world, with a population of registered voters larger than the total population of 46 states. But the best news from the west may be that the growing prosperity and expansion of voting rights have paved the way for a flurry of long-delayed progressive achievements.
So I reached out to Courage Campaign’s Executive Director and President Eddie Kurtz to see if there’s anything progressives in a purple state could learn from the bluing of California.
Kurtz began by noting that the efforts of Courage Campaign — a close cousin of our beloved Progress Michigan — is just one part of a vast ecosystem of activism on the left powered by a historic demographic transformation.
And, he insisted, the man who probably deserves the most credit for Democratic revival in California is actually a Republican — Pete Wilson.
“Many of the leaders in California’s Democratic party, including [California Senate President pro Tempore] Kevin de León, we’re inspired to get into politics by Prop 187,” Kurtz said, name-checking the anti-immigrant ballot proposition backed by Governor Wilson as he sought re-election.
The “Prop 187 Effect” — which quickly drove a state that had elected Republican governors in four straight elections to the left — was actually slowed by the sudden rise Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“They’re very different, of course,” Kurtz said. “But his appeal was a lot like Trump’s.”
You could say Trump combines some of Arnold’s charm with the worst of Wilson’s vitriol towards Mexican-Americans.
Courage Campaign formed from the ashes of the Howard Dean campaign in 2005, in the midst of an especially bleak period on the left both for the nation and California.
While the Govenator took some remarkable, especially for a Republican, action on climate change, he presided over a tenure of divided government that even with mounting cuts still had exploding debt, as California’s economy slowly reeled from the tech bust towards the Great Recession, which leads us to the first turning point.
- California’s Progressive Convening
Around 2011, Courage Campaign’s Founder and then Chair Rick Jacobs wanted to find out how to get invited to the big meeting where everyone on the left gets together to for movement building. He figured he wasn’t invited.
It turned out that it just didn’t exist.
Courage Campaign decided to change that, and the result was California’s Progressive Convening, where a simple idea that seems obvious in retrospect — like most great ideas — was born.
- Millionaire’s Tax of 2012
As many of California’s leading activists, union leaders and elected officials gathered at the first Progressive Convening, the urge was to find a big idea that would could unite the movement and inspire the public.The answer came from a simple question: What if we tax the rich?
“The California Federation of Teachers made the difference,” Kurtz said. “They had to money to do poll the idea.”
And the numbers showed California — the state with the most millionaires and billionaires — was ready to ask those who could afford to pay higher taxes, which the state could use to invest education and other public services.
We wanted to show “the power of unabashedly progressive rhetoric,” Kurtz said. The campaign was unapologetic and populist, in the good way, as you can see from this ad they produced.
The CFT backed the initiative, which qualified for the ballot, forcing Governor Jerry Brown to back a more moderate proposition of his own.
“We played chicken with the governor,” Kurtz said.
It worked. The result was a compromise that increased the sales tax while also raising taxes on the rich, a winning measure that has helped the state go from constant budget crises to constant flirting with surpluses.
- People’s Report Card for California
Even success finds new struggles. The improving economy, budget situation and general progressive drift of California soon revealed a high-value problem: The state was electing Democrats — lots of them, up and down the ballot — but too many of the Democrats seemed to be putting corporate interests over the wishes of their constituents.
Despite big legislative majorities, 2015 was a bad year for California’s progressives. The international triumph of the Paris Agreement on climate change was not matched with a historic piece of legislation in the state to slash emissions, which would ensure California’s role as the state most determined to reduce its carbon footprint. Likewise, the movement for $15 minimum wage was scoring successes across the nation but the richest state in the union hadn’t yet taken that crucial step toward the minimum wage.
The problem, Kurtz suggests, was a lack of vision.
“Sacramento really is a small-town that runs the fifth-largest economy in the world,” Kurtz said.
Courage Campaign saw an opportunity.”No one had ever done a comprehensive report card of the state’s legislatures across all issues,” Kurtz said.
The goal was accountability, the sense that every bow to corporate interests had a cost. The People’s Report Card for California was designed voters an accurate read on how courageous their representatives are, the Campaign developed a methodology that rated elected officials on close votes. It was massive task put together by three full-time staffers and lots of outside help. And one of the key factors in the success was the “Hall of Shame” that highlighted those reps who’d earned an “F” grade.
Kurtz doesn’t credit the report cards as being the entire motivation for the Campaign’s entire slate of legislation becoming law in what they call the “Most Progressive Year in California’s History.” Timing played a key roll. Progressives were emboldened by the success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign as corporate-leaning Democrats became preoccupied by infighting.
Still, the success is undeniable, a testament to what progressives can achieve when they have a little courage.