Clubs as Levers for Enlarging Party, Moving It Left; The August 30 Guest Workshop

On Wednesday, August 30, 2017, El Cerrito Democratic Club members hosted over 30 activists from at least 5 East Bay Democratic clubs for a seminar on how clubs can be catalysts for victories by Democratic candidates in primary elections and passage of progressive policy goals. Our speaker was Hans Johnson, founder and president of the East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD) from Eastside and Northeast Los Angeles.

Hans gave a thorough summary of the work of EAPD, just over 3 years old but already with 800 members. His anecdotes detailed how club leaders engaged Democrats in an area where party institutions had formerly ignored grassroots activists, their diversity, and untapped capacity. As a result of the club’s sustained advocacy, L.A. City and the state of California took bold action to stop blight in rivers and neighborhoods caused by throwaway plastic bags, and led the transition to reusable bags and biodegradable packaging that reduce waste and dumping. EAPD played a pivotal role in both passage of SB 270, the statewide plastic bag ban, and protecting it through a statewide campaign that defeated the related Prop 65, and approved Prop 67, on the November 2016 ballot.

Many of the activists in attendance were especially interested in Johnson’s explanation of how current State Controller Betty Yee benefited from ardent club support in her narrow June 2014 primary victory over Assembly Speaker Emeritus John Perez. While such a razor-thin margin is unusual in statewide races, it prefigures outcomes we can anticipate from Democrat-vs.-Democrat contests as the top-two primary becomes embedded in our state and statewide elections. Club support will be an indispensable part of the strategies for winning these narrowly decided victories.

“What kind of Democrats are we going to elect?” Hans asked, alluding to the party platform as a reflection of progressive priorities amid efforts to undermine adherence to them by corporate and polluting interests and anti-union, anti-women, anti-LGBT, and anti-immigrant advocates or others intent on eroding separation of church and state. “And will our model of club-building guide other states as we work to defeat Trump and prepare to govern in 2020 and beyond?”

While Democrats in California have and should retain a strong grip on the levers of state legislative and political power for the foreseeable future, we still face the challenges posed by Citizens United and unconstrained corporate spending for independent expenditures. In the face of such threats, our own party’s complacency can result in lackadaisical party operations, allowing moderate Democrats to gain traction and hamper implementation of our progressive party platform.

Hans discussed some nuts and bolts of growing and leveraging Democratic clubs’ clout, by building and maintaining lists and sustaining regular communication. He stressed the importance of using clubs’ influence in primary elections, often decided by turnout at just half or a quarter of general-election levels, but which determine which Democrat advances to that showdown. He encouraged vigilant clubs to endorse early, coordinate with each other, and increase influence by developing a strong press strategy, including op-eds and blog posts amplified through social media.

This lively discussion featured questions and ideas from club presidents and a candidate in attendance. The evening’s program also highlighted the richness of East Bay Democratic organization and our emerging diversity. We should continue to work together to engage bystanders and register and re-register voters and inculcate progressive values in the party by encouraging and recruiting capable and proven party activists from diverse backgrounds to run and serve in the party structure. In this way, and several others, the grassroots are reshaping our party and rewriting the playbook for building and using the power of our party.