The blog of Frederick Clarkson

Archive for November, 2004

The Secret of the Christian Right

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The Christian Right played a major role in the reelection of George Bush, as well as in the election or reelection of many members of the U.S. House and Senate. However, the extraordinary over-reaction by many in the media, and by many Democrats, is a product of a sustained ignorance about the growth of the Christian Right as an organized movement over the past 15 years. The success of the Christian Right is at least in part the result of the failure of almost everyone to change they way they do business in response.

The Christian Right has been steadily animating and expanding their base constituency among protestant evangelicals and conservative Catholics for 7 or 8 election cycles now. Major survey data suggest that this movement currently comprises about a quarter of the electorate. There is really nothing surprising about the movement’s growth or its electoral successes. The Christian Right has been the best organized faction in electoral politics for over a decade. Obviously too, there are greater concentrations of Christian Right voters in Red states than in Blue states.

As Democrats and moderate Republicans regroup, they need to consider the key ingredient of the success of the Christian Right. (Its not what most people think.) The main secret to the success of the Christian Coalition and related groups in the movement, is that they organize across the electoral cycle. They seek out like-minded voters; train prospective activists and candidates; update their data bases; analyze electoral data; and figure out where they need to expand and gain strength. In other words — they plan for the next election, and the one after that. They do this in the context of, but independently of the Republican Party.

I have written about the development of the Christian Right for 20 years. I have also watched the activities of the Left, and interest groups affiliated with the Democratic Party. As a rule, they prepare less well for the next round of elections than the Christian Right. Progressives and Democrats do seem to spend an inordinate amount of time armchair-quarterbacking the Democratic National Committee, or opining about “the message.” Others seem to think that giving people information, or “the facts” will lead to winning elections. As important as information is, information alone has never won an election anywhere, to my knowledge.

Progressives and Democrats need to learn from the success of the Christian Right, and make some changes. This can be done in part, by individuals and small groups digging into their own communities — and figuring out how to be able to deliver more votes in more places next time. For example, people who live in Blue oases in Red states need to turn their oases into strongholds that turn out progressive voters in numbers disproportionate to the rest of their state. Obviously, this is especially true in swing states. In Blue states that could be bluer — or that want to correct the view of some elected Democrats that they need to become more Republican in order to win reelection — it is important to make sure that their constituency is big enough — and strong enough — to be able to ensure that elected officials are reliably Democratic in their views, their activities and their votes.

To make all this happen, there is no point in waiting for big changes to come out of interest groups based in New York and Washington. They are too heavily invested in the status quo. I hasten to add, that its obviously not that these groups want the Christian Right to win; its just that they are slow to change their thinking, and for changes in their thinking to trickle down to the parched grassroots.

What then to do? It is important for progressive Democrats to figure out how to do it for themselves — and to start doing it. One third of the U.S. Senate, and all of the U.S. House of Representatives are up for reelection in two years. The story is similar for every state legislature in the country.

The Democratic Party needs new leadership. This means you.

Written by fred

November 12th, 2004 at 6:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Two Bellwether Victories for Progressive Democrats in Massachusetts

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Progressive democrats enjoyed two smashing victories in Massachusetts on November 2nd. The elections of two candidates, running for different offices at opposite ends of the state are remarkable triumphs that among other things, may be seen as ratifications of the need for an independent judiciary; affirmations of the justice of marriage equality; and clear voter rejection of anti-gay and anti-immigrant bigotry. These two bellwether races will be talked about for years to come.

Peter Vickery of Amherst won his seat for Governor’s Council (the eight-member body that confirms judicial appointments in Massachusetts) 63% -37%, from his sprawling western, Massachusetts district that comprises 93 towns and cities. Of these, Aaron Wilson, his conservative opponent won only four — his hometown of Holyoke, neighboring South Hadley, and the tiny towns of Montgomery and Russel. Among the highlights of the Vickery victory were lopsided wins in Springfield, the largest city in the district, 24,008 to 12,833; Amherst — 8,563 to 1,574; Northampton — 10,474 to 3,390; and Pittsfield — 10,263 to 3,857. The total vote tally was 176,291 to 102,575. See for a town-by-town breakdown.

Carl Sciortino won a remarkable victory to become the next state representative from Somerville and Medford. Sciortino, a young, gay, progressive health care worker, defeated Vincent Ciampa, a conservative anti-gay marriage state rep. in the Democratic primary in September. Dissatisfied with the result of the primary, Ciampa waged an anti-gay-edged, sore-loser, write-in campaign as an independent in the general election. Ciampa, a lieutenant of then-House Speaker Tom Finneran, falsely claimed that Sciortino was a one-issue (gay marriage) candidate. In fact Sciortino had articulated a broad progressive agenda from education to health care. Ciampa’s gay baiting was joined by an even uglier campaign by the Article 8 Alliance — an outfit originally organized to oust the justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, that legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts. Article 8 is the section of the state constitution that describes the process for removing judges. One of the reasons the Alliance likes Ciampa, is that he supports their proposal to introduce a “bill of address” to remove the judges they don’t like.

Although Ciampa’s write-in votes are still being counted, The Boston Herald, among others, reported that unofficial results suggest Sciortino won by a margin of 60% to 40%.

The anti-gay character of the Ciampa campaign was so extraordinary that it drew the attention of Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara. A few days before the election, she wrote: “In a joint statement… state Democratic Party chairman Philip W. Johnston, Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, and state Senator Jarrett T. Barrios described themselves as ‘sickened by the outrageous and vulgar claims made by the Article 8 Alliance.’ Would that Ciampa had done the same.”

Vickery was faced with a different kind of sliming by Aaron Wilson. Wilson, like Ciampa, is a former democrat with ties to part of the establishment, and who ran one-on-one as an independent against the democratic candidate. Wilson’s sliming tactic was nativism.

Vickery had won a closely, but civilly contested democratic primary against three better-known candidates. He ran forthrightly as a pro-choice, pro-marriage equality, pro-labor and pro-clean elections candidate. He spoke everywhere about the need for judges of high competence, integrity and independence; who support civil and constitutional rights; and are nobody’s patronage appointments. He spoke of the need for greater diversity on the bench. While the primary contenders educated the public about the office and compared views and qualifications in debates and in the press — ex-democrat Aaron Wilson coolly watched, banking his resources and planning his campaign.

Early in the general election, Wilson claimed that Vickery was ineligible for office because he has been an American citizen for only two years. In fact, the Secretary of State’s office stated that Vickery was indeed eligible. Undeterred, Wilson continued to sling the slime — and repeatedly called on Vickery to withdraw.

Vickery has lived in the U.S. for ten years, is a graduate of Boston University Law School, and became a citizen as soon as he was eligible. He has been active in public life all during this time; was a member of an Amherst law firm and an elected member of the Amherst Town Meeting. He served on town committees, and was elected vice-chair of the Amherst Democratic Party. He is, by any reasonable measure, a solid citizen.

Vickery refused to get down in the gutter with Wilson. Indeed, Vickery, who was born in Wales, publicly embraced his identity as a “new American.” He made the need for greater diversity on the disproportionately white state bench a hallmark of his campaign. He actively campaigned in the African-American and Latino communities — and placed campaign ads on Spanish language radio stations.

“He [Wilson] played the nativist card,” Vickery said on election night. “There is no getting around the fact that I wasn’t born in this country. But the people in western Massachusetts don’t like an anti-immigrant stance.”

Most leading democrats, including U.S. Reps. John Olver and Richie Neal, the AFL-CIO, the National Association of Social Workers, among many others, supported Vickery. But some democratic elected officials abandoned the party candidate, and backed Wilson. One of these, Springfield City Council member, Tim Rooke, lost to Vickery in the primary. Rooke was joined by Republican Senate Minority Leader Brian P. Lees, and Republican Mayor Richard R. Goyette of Chicopee; Democratic state Reps. Thomas M. Petrolati of Ludlow, and Michael F. Kane of Holyoke; Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett; and Democratic mayors Michael J. Sullivan of Holyoke, Richard A. Cohen of Agawam, and Richard K. Sullivan of Westfield.

Wilson also took an oddly disingenuous stance on matters of civil and constitutional rights. Wilson stated — in debates and to reporters — that his views on such matters as abortion and marriage equality were irrelevant to the job of selecting judges — and he refused to disclose his views to voters and reporters.

But Wilson happily informed conservative interest groups of his views. For example, he hid his anti-abortion views from voters and the press — until I exposed them on this blog two weeks before the election. I found out by checking out the questionnaire of Massachusetts Citizens for Life — the leading anti-abortion lobby in the state. If his views on abortion were irrelevant to the job, then why did he feel the need to tell them to this group and not the rest of the electorate?

The Upshot

That Sciortino and his allies in the Commonwealth Coalition, Neighbor-to-Neighbor, the AFL-CIO, and Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts, among others, prevailed, is a testament to the vitality of progressive electoral forces, the crumbling of the conservative, GOP-allied empire of Tom Finneran, and voter rejection of the anti-gay bigotry of Ciampa and his allies.

That Vickery was able to prevail over Wilson, despite the endorsements of prominent Republican and Democratic pols — and that none of the endorsers was able to deliver any of their cities for Wilson, except his home town of Holyoke — I think shows two main things: the vitality of the progressive democratic movement in western Mass; and the growing recognition of the need for sufficient Democratic party loyalty and discipline — to avoid pushing progressives into third parties, and to sustain sufficient party strength and unity to win the governor’s race in 2006.

Finally, the Sciortino and Vickery wins are also solid blows against the corruption-ridden patronage politics that have alienated citizens from government, and disouraged voters from wanting to be members of either of the major political parties.

Written by fred

November 4th, 2004 at 12:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized