By Bill Boyarsky
It sounded like an impossible dream. But the women and men, mostly Latino and African-American, who filled a Los Angeles basement meeting room at a union headquarters weren’t dreamers. They were practical working people who struggle every day to pay bills and educate their kids.
They were members of California Calls, a coalition of community organizations working on issues ranging from improving schools to stopping home foreclosures. This particular session, lasting most of a recent Saturday, was designed to train people to campaign for California Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase to provide financing for strapped public elementary and high schools and community colleges. But more than organizing for the tax increase, the meeting provided an illuminating look into the future of progressive politics—a future more focused on improving the day-to-day lives of working people and less on frequently attacking a progressive ally, President Barack Obama.
Bobbi Murray, a journalist and activist, had alerted me to the meeting. I met her 20 years ago when she and a colleague, Sharon Delugach, were working in a rag-tag narrow storefront office in South Central Los Angeles organizing an effort to get out the vote for progressive causes. As I settled into a chair for the interview on that long-ago day, Delugach warned me about a broken spring—too late. The headquarters is gone as is the chair, but 20 years later, Murray is still at it. “That little precinct operation is all grown up—really, really grown up—into a statewide outfit,” she wrote me in an email.
While the ballot measure campaigns are important, Murray said the long-range goal of California Calls is “to shift California’s voter demographics away from a conservative-leaning older white majority like those who supported Prop 187 [an anti-immigrant measure that passed in 1994] and kill tax initiatives and toward a younger voter base that includes people of color in proportion to their numbers in the state.”
Accomplishing this is probably easier than it was 20 years ago, but still difficult. The minority population has increased since then. Latinos now make up 38 percent of California’s population, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, but are only 16 percent of likely voters. African-Americans, 6 percent of the population, turn out to vote in numbers reflective of their population. Asian-Americans, 13 percent of the population, don’t quite match African-American turnout. Non-Hispanic whites now number 40 percent of the population and account for 66 percent of the vote.
Those at the meeting were focused on matters that could improve their lives. The Brown tax increase proposal is designed to help accomplish that by improving the financial health of public schools and community colleges that have provided a historic path into the middle class and beyond. The plan would raise statewide sales taxes by a quarter of a cent and add a surcharge to income taxes of those earning more than $250,000 a year. The income tax surcharge would expire after seven years, the sales tax increase after four.
The campaigners know their job won’t be easy, especially in the state that gave birth to the tax-limiting Proposition 13 in 1978 and the nationwide anti-tax movement.
“A lot of people don’t pay attention to the propositions, a lot of people don’t vote, a lot of people aren’t eligible,” said Natalie Demus, an African-American woman from Los Angeles. Demus has long been active in the Community Coalition, a South L.A. group in which African-Americans and Latinos fight for better schools and against substance abuse, among other causes. “We’re trying to organize in a way to influence the greatest number of people,” she told me.
California Calls drops the rage that sparked earlier campaigns to focus on hope, a message that clearly appeals to upward-striving working people.
Sabrina Smith, deputy director of California Calls, said the campaign seeks to evoke a sense of California before the anti-tax movement when the state had great public universities, community colleges and a public school system that ranked high in national standings. “We are talking about hope, dreams, what people care about,” she said. The theme is: “Together we can restore the California dream.”
The dream was expressed by people at the meeting, particularly one young African-American woman who talked about the struggles she has had to get an education. It was a success story about how her mom got her going. Heads nodded in appreciation throughout the room.
I came away from the meeting with two thoughts.
I was impressed by the participants’ focus on practical solutions. The emphasis on practicality may be a national phenomenon. Roads upward are being closed as public schools are starved financially and classes are shut down in community colleges and public universities, where tuition is rising. This focus on solutions, and his detailed analysis of our problems, was why former President Bill Clinton’s speech to the Democratic National Convention was so well-received. And why President Obama, who was more vague, got a chillier reception.
I was also struck by what the meeting meant to the future of the progressive movement, especially the relationship of Obama critics to Latinos and African-Americans, who overwhelmingly support the president.
This was the point of an essay “Saving Obama, Saving Ourselves,” by one of the foremost leaders of the old left, Tom Hayden. The essay was published on his Peace and Justice Resource Center website.
“Why Obama’s achievements are dismissed or denied by many on the white liberal-left is a question worth serious consideration,” Hayden wrote. He said it could be post-2008 disappointment. Possibly, he wrote, it “could be pure antipathy to electoral politics” and a feeling that it is impossible to change established institutions. Or maybe the liberal left feels there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans.
“Or,” he wrote, “It could even be a white blindness in perceptions of reality on the left. When African American voters favor Obama 94-0 and the attacks are coming from the white liberal-left, something needs repair in the foundations of American radicalism.”
I saw real energy among the men and women at the California Calls meeting, all of them eager to spend a sunny Saturday in the basement of a union headquarters. Their reality is life—schools, kids, homes. Although I doubt if many would consider themselves radicals, they are the new and growing foundation of progressive politics.
Chucho Mendoza of Fresno is an organizer for Communities for a New California.