Writing a New Story: Opening Remarks to the Fall 2018 Conference

It’s a lot more fun to welcome you to D.C. this year than two years ago.

On November 6, this community—every single person in this room, and millions beyond—did what we had to do. We pulled our country back from the brink with a massive turnout that shifted the balance of power in Washington, assuring a check on the corruption and lawlessness of the Trump administration for the next two years. We took a big stride toward the theme of this conference—Taking Our Democracy Back. Let’s take a few moments to acknowledge and celebrate that.

At the critical state level, where the DA and our sister organization the Committee on States invested heavily through the State Victory Fund and our other State POWER Funds, we made substantial gains. For years many progressives largely ignored state elections at our peril, and together we vowed to change that when we adopted the DA’s 2020 Vision four years ago—and we have.

There is a lot more to do. We’ll get going today and tomorrow, because the fight for 2020 starts yesterday. But what a different landscape we face as we meet today. Democratic gains in the House not seen since the post-Watergate election over forty years ago, and this despite the other side using every trick in the redistricting book to rig the map. At least 380 state legislative seats flipped from red to blue since 2016, and seven governor’s offices flipped last week, with the particularly sweet sight of the Koch brothers’ favorite, Scott Walker booted from the Wisconsin state house.

There are now 27 Democratic attorneys general, in critical front line posts for assuring accountability in the Trump era, and four of the new ones elected last week are African-Americans. In Texas, 3 million more people voted in 2018 than in the last midterms, and along with Beto’s narrow loss—but lifted up by his incredible performance—Texas has new Members of Congress, a slew of new state legislators, progressive district attorneys in three more of the state’s biggest counties, and 19 new African-American women judges in Harris County, Texas, which is bigger than 25 states.

All statewide offices in New Mexico were swept by Democrats, and we were joined last night by the Governor-elect, Michelle Lujan Grisham. All statewide offices in Michigan are now held by women, and Nevada’s assembly is now the first majority female chamber in the country. There are six new blue governing trifectas in states around the country, and SIX, the organization of progressive state legislators that DA Partners came together to form a few years ago after years of statehouse domination by ALEC, has offices in four of them, ready to support progressive governing.

A new generation of diverse leadership is taking its place in America after last Tuesday, and it’s a privilege for all of us to be part of it. Tomorrow night when we end our two days together we’ll celebrate women’s leadership when we’re joined by a number of the new Members of Congress, including Lucy McBath of Georgia, an African-American woman whose son Jordan was killed six years ago at a gas station by a white man because he refused to turn down the volume on the rap music he was playing—she will now take the seat that Newt Gingrich once held—and Xochitl Torres Small and Deb Haaland of New Mexico.

What does it mean to take our democracy back? It’s a stirring phrase, but beyond the rhetoric, what is the plan? To me, it’s all about power, and how we think about power is the critical question threading throughout today and tomorrow—what power we’re up against, what the sources of our power are, and how we use it now that we have more of it.

We’ll start this morning with analyses of what happened, understanding that even with most of the votes counted and most of the results in, the data we need to truly learn is still not fully available. There are some clear trends, and we’ll discuss those, but we have to be careful to be as rigorous as we can in understanding what happened, and that is just as important when you have a good election day—maybe even more important—than when you have a bad one. If the data doesn’t jibe with the assumptions we started with, we have to be prepared to rethink them, and learn from both success and setbacks.

That said, I think we now know more clearly a few things now than we did before last Tuesday:

  • First, unapologetically progressive candidates who excite and inspire core progressive voters—who run campaigns of joy and hope, not fear, expand the electorate, and stress kitchen table issues of everyday concern to ordinary working families—can come tantalizingly close to winning in red and purple states. When all the votes are counted from last Tuesday, we may be able to call Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum Governor, but even if we fall short, their achievement is nothing short of historic, and we can get there next time.
  • Second, and closely related, is that we can’t win unless we take the field, and take the field we did this cycle, competing everywhere with the most impressive and diverse group of candidates in history. The map for progressive gains is wider than ever before, opened up by the stark failure of Republican rule in states like Kansas and Oklahoma. Later today we’ll hear from leaders in red states how they are thinking about the path back to power in places with proud progressive histories that we have too often neglected in recent years.
  • Third, when progressives work together from inclusive coordinated plans, invest in people to people organizing, and get smart on digital, we can win and win big. A critique traditionally made of progressive donors and groups, and one that honestly hits close to home for many of us, is that we have at times diffused our impact by spreading money across too many organizations, movements and initiatives. In the past election cycle, the DA community—not just our own funds, but our close allies in efforts that also involve many DA Partners such as Way to Win, Win Justice, NextGen, For our Future, Planned Parenthood and LCV Action Funds and others—changed that culture considerably. We not only raised more money than ever before when democracy was on the line, we spent it in a disciplined, aligned way that worked. As DA Partners meet tomorrow to plan our investment strategies for the next few years, we need to keep these lessons in mind and double down on them.
  • Finally, I said in opening our April conference that “we need to have a laser-like focus on the rules of democracy itself—the rules that govern power. Because when the right takes power, from the state to the federal level, their first, second and third items of business—more important to them than any single policy change—are to consolidate their power, and strike at the sources of ours.”

We now have a chance in Congress and in many more states to show that we really get that, and to act on it, and later today you’ll hear from three leaders of key progressive organizations—Derrick Johnson of NAACP, Dierdre Schifeling of Planned Parenthood, and Sabeel Rahman, the new President of Demos—who spearhead a broad coalition of groups in our community who are making democracy the first priority. The smashing victory in Florida, opening the way for a million and a half formerly incarcerated persons to vote is a terrific example of the kind of game-changer we need to replicate across the country.

So let’s get started on our fall 2018 DA conference. I’m particularly excited that we are joined these two days by a number of new leaders of color taking the helm of key progressive institutions, and we’ll have an opportunity to get to know them, and their visions about power, in special breakfast and lunch sessions tomorrow, and in other plenaries and salons.

After 2016, many of us felt we had lost the narrative. The moral arc of the universe, we feared, may have veered from the path of justice. We had a chance this year to write a different story, and we seized the pen with determination and passion. Now let’s join together to write the next chapter.