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What Georgia tells us about what is to be done

Marvin Randolph

President, ONYX Communications

February 10, 2021

The Georgia electoral victories of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in November, Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the U.S. Senate in January have jolted both Democrats and Republicans into a sudden cold, hard understanding that the future is now. Ex-President Trump remains in denial, as he infamously begged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” him 11,000 votes. Democrats are ecstatic and Republicans are panicked. All of them are shocked that a Democratic victory in Georgia should come so soon, so dramatically, and have such consequential impact on the politics of our nation. But over the past decade a tight-knit group of electoral organizers of color have worked together across the South, and Georgia as an affirmation of our “theory of change”. Let me offer some reflections on how we move forward. 

“Elections are about math”

The Obama election in 2008 showed progressives and people of color that our mantra should be, “There are more of us than there are of them.” In a shocking number of districts, states, and nationally, we win if there is enthusiastic turnout among base African American voters in an electoral coalition with Asian and Latino voters, white progressives and labor voters, and educated white suburban voters, especially women. Both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden won the popular vote in this nation. “There are more of us than there are of them.” Thank you, Georgia for putting an exclamation mark on this point.

But the key phrase above is “enthusiastic turnout” among voters of color. It is terrifying that six of ten white voters in this nation voted for Donald Trump, even after four years of watching the damage he caused our nation. That memory is seared into the consciousness of our movement. So also, should be the memory that Obama was elected President (twice) without a majority of white voters.

There is much attention paid to reaching moderate and suburban white voters, the “Soccer Moms” and “Obama - Trump” voters. In every close election each group claims that their work was critical to putting us over the top, and each one of those groups is correct. However, our theory of change begins with the premise that the Democratic coalition must work and invest over time to engage, stabilize, and activate our natural base among Black and other natural Democratic voters. “Enthusiastic turnout” among Black and other base Democratic voters is not consistent (or a given), and cannot be taken for granted. To borrow from an analogy Georgia Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams frequently makes, the difference between winning white voters back versus getting infrequent Black voters to turn out, is like the difference between converting Catholics to Baptist, rather than just getting Baptists to go to church. 

Think back to the 2016 Presidential election. If you knew that the fate of the election would hang on 80,000 votes in three states (MI, PA, WI) and had to decide where to direct critical resources, what side of that analogy would you be on?  My challenge to the movement is simple. Let the cruel calculus of election math guide that choice. Let us look dispassionately at those many places where we absolutely cannot win without the enthusiastic turnout of African Americans and voters of color. Wherever this is the case, let us get serious about engaging and mobilizing those communities.

Let us invest in communities baked into the progressive mathematics of winning. Just as Stacey Abrams, Congresswoman Nikema Williams, Leslie Small, Nse Ufot, LaTosha Brown, Cliff Albright, Mondale Robinson, Adrianne Shropshire, Steve Phillips, Quentin James, Stefanie Brown James, Joel Caldwell, Melanie Campbell, Jessica Byrd, Aimee Allison, Andi Pringle, Chris Smith, DeJuana Thompson, Ucha Ndukwe, Adelina Nichols, and so many others did in Georgia. All of these are names that if you don’t know, you should. If nothing else by the end of this piece you will know what their contributions and tireless work, in the face of doubt and challenge, has gifted this movement. They deserve our thanks and our confidence. More importantly, they deserve our support.

In honor of their contribution, we should start by accepting a cold hard mathematical fact that our movement seems slow to accept. A fact that our opposition certainly understands, as evidenced by their choices and behavior. The Republican party may not have read many things, but they read the census. They know that they can’t stop this shift in the composition of the electorate, but they can pump the brakes. By locking up and deporting people of color, gerrymandering, suppressing, depressing and repressing the vote. We need to take a lesson from what their fear has driven them to do. And stop operating from a place of lack and scarcity. If Georgia taught us nothing else, it’s that it is time lean into the other side of that math – and press the gas.

“Overnight change takes 10 years”

The November victory of Biden in Georgia was deliciously sweet. The magnificent campaign knocking two Georgia Republican incumbents out of the U.S. Senate during the January special elections was momentous. Not only did it deliver control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats, but the voters of Georgia are now represented by an African American minister and civil rights champion and a Jewish investigative filmmaker. This “overnight” success comes after 10 years of work by Black and other organizers of color across the South. We have won primaries and lost the general elections in Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, Maryland, and Georgia. During this period, we have collaborated on turning Virginia from Red to Blue, North Carolina from Red to Purple, battled in the trenches in Florida, came within striking distance in Mississippi, and won and lost a Senate seat in ruby red Alabama. In Georgia leaders created an aligned and mutually supportive infrastructure for partisan campaigns, c4 independent expenditures, and community organizing in the Black, Latino, and Asian communities. 

During this same period the work of our Latino sisters and brothers and labor allies have helped to turn Nevada and Colorado from red to blue, and transformed the politics of Arizona from the blood red anti-immigrant foaming at the mouth of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Governor Jan Brewer, to electing two Democratic U.S. Senators. In Texas Beto O’Rourke shocked Senator Ted Cruz, and gave the Republican Party a cold reality shower, cleansing them of any illusion that their continued political dominance is automatic.

The point is that there are very good organizers of color working hard in what are seen by outsiders as politically impossible situations, winning local victories, taking losses, and building for the future. There is a collective of Black, Brown and Gold experts who know and like each other, and who are having politically transformational impact. This work should be supported and grown. Recovering white working-class voters to the Democratic coalition will require the same kind of 10-year strategy, and the same sort of collective of organizers. And geometrically expanding this growth across the nation in base communities that delivered us this victory will require the same. 

“Messengers Matter”:

If the enthusiastic turnout of Black and other base Democratic voters is an essential ingredient in winning, then our messengers matter. This is true with both the candidates we run, as well as with the mediums by which we communicate (field, digital, phones, radio, television, etc). In Georgia Rev. Warnock was a known and loved leader in the African American community with a lifelong track record on civil rights. He was not a “safe” or “moderate” candidate. He ended up out-polling his running mate Jon Ossoff, and I doubt anybody would suggest that the Democrats would have won the Georgia Senate seats if he were not on the ballot.

Black and other marginalized, alienated, and disappointed voters need to be excited, organized, and mobilized in order for them to believe in their own potential electoral power. This takes exciting candidates. It takes electoral professionals who are from the communities and know how to talk to them. It takes a Democratic Party elite that will invest seriously in their base voters and the election professionals and community organizers who know them best. It takes organizing at the local level and local victories to build momentum, and it takes the building of infrastructure. This is built over time.

Few would dispute that the Georgia victories would have been possible without the losing campaign (more accurately stolen campaign) of Stacey Abrams in 2018. That campaign built electoral muscle and infrastructure. However, in 2018 former NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous also lost in Maryland, and former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum lost in Florida. Those campaigns also built electoral muscle. This year when President Biden and Rev. Warnock won in Georgia, Black candidates Mike Espy and Jamie Harrison lost their Senate races in Mississippi and in South Carolina. The Espy and Harrison campaigns also built electoral muscle and infrastructure. And, lest we forget, in the midterm Espy shocked the nation by forcing a runoff, coming within striking distance in Mississippi. 

Again, the point is that this is a long-term strategy that is beginning to bear fruit, as was seen in Georgia. This requires exciting candidates of color who are willing to take risks. It requires the building and sustaining of community organizing among communities of color. It requires nurturing the emerging community of effective Black, Brown, Gold community and election organizers of color. It requires white allies to accept leadership from these organizers of color. It requires losses that build towards wins. It requires leaders like Leslie Small of Georgia Engaged, Nse Ufot of New Georgia Project, LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright of the Black Voters Matter Fund, Adrianne Shropshire of BlackPAC, Aimee Allison of She the People, Quentin James and Stefanie Brown James of the Collective PAC, DeJuana Thompson of Woke Vote, Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and Black Women’s Roundtable, Andi Pringle of MarchOn, Mondale Robinson of the Black Male Voters Project, our own firm of ONYX Communications who have been leading, building, and learning for years.

For those who continue to say that our core strategy must be to run safe and moderate candidates, preferably white veterans, in order to capture white suburban women voters, I would ask that the results of this strategy be judged equally with the results of investing seriously in communities and candidates of color. During this election cycle three white Democratic candidates for Senate - two of them women and all of them veterans - lost in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas. If we are to do an autopsy and have a debate, let it be a balanced one.

I am not arguing that running exciting Black candidates is the only winning strategy. The victory of Doug Jones for the Senate in Alabama showed that. But I am arguing that no Democratic candidate can win without effective messengers and organizing to engage, organize, and mobilize communities of color. Period, full-stop. It is part of the inescapable math in winning elections for both progressive, even moderate democrats. 

“Relational Organizing”

There is a lot of thought being put into the question of how the Democratic coalition can recover its base among white working-class voters. The ugly race-based demagoguery of President Trump’s coalition showed how dangerous to our nation a failure to do so is.

Here I believe that the work done by African Americans in the South and by Latinos in the West and Southwest is useful to our entire Democratic coalition. When Democratic Party elites take Black voters for granted and only show up with street cash to harvest votes at election time, they harvest a cynical Black electorate and depressed turnout. When Democratic leaders called immigration reform a “third rail” issue, increased deportations, and ignored the Latino voting potential, they again harvested an angry Latino electorate with no loyalty to the Democratic Party and low turnout. We need to do better.

It is the organizers in these communities who have combated this cynicism and built organizational strength over the past ten years. Voters are approached and engaged in Georgia in the off-years over issues like health care. The hotel workers of UNITE HERE and anti-deportation activists of Puente and Mijente created c4 organizations and mobilized to successfully defeat Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona. In Georgia, Nse Ufot of the New Georgia Project works closely with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, building year-round alliances across race.

This is called “relational organizing”, and it is the opposite of last-minute media bombing and transactional GOTV efforts. It takes the pain and the issues and the leaders and the institutions of people in disappointed and disillusioned communities seriously. The vitality, successes, and lessons learned about “relational organizing” from these groups are a gift to the larger Democratic coalition of labor, women’s organizations, environmentalist, and Party elites as they begin what will be a 10-year effort to re-connect and re-engage with alienated White working class voters.

“Be a friend to get a friend”

Finally, as we figure out how to move forward together inside a larger progressive coalition, there is one more key lesson that should be taken seriously. It’s a lesson I learned long ago from the immediate past President of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the legendary Wade Henderson. You have to be a friend to get a friend.

I am a friend of Gustavo Torres, the leader of CASA, which organizes and does political work in MD, DC, VA, and PA. CASA is an immigrant rights group, but when a Black man was shot by police in MD, CASA was there in support. When former NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous ran for Governor of MD, Gustavo was a key leader supporting Ben’s campaign, and CASA in Action mobilized voters for him. When Gustavo and CASA ask for support from the African American community for immigrants, will they get it? ABSOLUTELY! There were friends when we needed them, and before they needed us.

Too often white allies in the progressive coalition take the support for their causes and candidates from communities of color for granted. The African American community has been devastated by mass incarceration, police brutality, limited access to higher education, poverty, and low levels of personal wealth. These issues are real and we need real allies. The time to “be a friend” is long before you need our support. The way to be a friend is to reach out, connect, listen hard, and work to build a fair alliance. The response will be more than reciprocal.

Marvin Randolph is the President of ONYX Communications and Southern Elections Fund. He has been an electoral organizer for over 35 years, leading voting and organizing campaigns in over 31 states at the Democratic Party, NAACP, Service Employees International Union, Project Vote, NAACP National Voter Fund and Community Change.

In the 2018 midterm, Marvin managed over $17 million in Independent Expenditures (IEs) across the nation, a $7 million IE supporting Stacey Abrams Georgia Governor’s race being one of the largest. ONYX managed programs totaling over $3.5 million for clients in GA, MI, WI, IL, CO, CA and TX during the 2020 election cycle.

When asked about his ONYX Team, Marvin says: “If running a campaign is like building an orchestra and you asked which instruments that we solo, we would say – Field, Phones, Radio and Digital. If you ask what instrument we prefer to play. We are at our best when we play the orchestra.” 

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