Why progressives have such a hard time making progress, chapter 4,312 | Slag Heap

Why progressives have such a hard time making progress, chapter 4,312

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Here's a post I've been kicking around for awhile, and now I have an excuse to write it. 

Early today, Brenda Frazier -- a former county councilperson and longtime champion of the well-intentioned -- came out with an endorsement in the race to replace Don Walko in the 20th legislative district.

She's backing Tim Tuinstra, who Frazier credits for "represent[ing] the independent Democratic values I have stood for throughout my career." 

So congratulations, Tim Tuinstra. Well done. The backing of Frazier certainly suggests progressives can vote for you in good conscience.

But there have been other endorsements in this race. For example, a couple weeks back, those LGBT-advocatin' folks at Steel City Stonewall Democrats backed their candidate in the race. Their choice was Mark Purcell.

So congratulations, Mark Purcell. Well done. The backing of the Steel City Stonewall Democrats certainly suggests that progresives can vote for you in good conscience. 

And while this is going back a month or so, another candidate in the race, Dan Keller, has also won some support ... mostly from labor groups.

So congratulations to you, Dan Keller. The backing of unions like the Laborers certainly suggests ... 

OK, you get where this is going. Because we've seen this movie before. With all these folks racking up endorsements, it's clear who the real winner is: Adam Ravenstahl, the mayor's brother.

Ravenstahl, it hardly needs mentioning, has the endorsement that really matters -- that of the Democratic Party committee. It's especially key since this race is both a special election for 2010 and a regular election to hold office in 2011. In a special, only the party-endorsed candidate gets to run as a "Democrat": Everyone else has to run under some other name. 

Such races rarely turn out well for challengers. I'm reminded of last year's special election in city council district 2, where Theresa Kail Smith bested three challengers.  Or the 2003 special in city council district 7, where Len Bodack defeated five challengers. Or the 2002 special in city council where Twanda Carlisle beat six challengers.

Or, hell, the most obvious example of all: last year's mayoral race, in which Kevin Acklin and Franco "Dok" Harris split the "Anyone But Luke" vote, helping him to win every ward in the city (albeit by smaller margins). 

This is the point where we progressives to decry the all-powerful Democratic "machine," and its restrictive party rules. I'm on record as saying those complaints are overblown, but the party committee really can make its influence felt in a special election (and in regular races that are tied to it). 

If anything, progressives should probably envy the party's ability -- limited though it may be -- to exert at least a bit of discipline. As I've written at excruciating length before, local progressives are in short supply. The best chance of winning is to have only one "Anybody but 'X'" candidate, because there just ain't enough of us to go around.

(The exception that proves the rule is Natalia Rudiak's city council election last year. But that was a circumstance in which it was the machine that fragmented -- proof that its power derives largely from the fact that its opponents are typically so weak.)

Yes, I realize how problematic it is to say all this. We're progressives! We should respect the process, and celebrate a broad array of choices! It's great for voters to be able to select the candidate which best aligns with their interests and sympathies ... rather than having some party boss make up our minds for us!

And to all that I say, "Len Bodack." There's something to be said for winning, even the kind of partial victory that comes from painful compromise. (See also Casey/Santorum.)

The problem is that absent a second party in town, there's no primary process or other means for forcing that compromise upon us. So we end up with the Steel City Stonewall Dems, for example, having to choose between Tuinstra and Purcell -- both of whom seem to me (and others, apparently) eminently worthy of the endorsement ... and both of whom will most likelybleed the other of votes. 

But obviously, you can't expect the candidates to police themselves. Candidates jump into races because, God love 'em, they often really think they're the best person to challenge "X." And progressives seem especially prone to a sort of self-defeating utopianism. Often times, they get into races precisely because they ignore political calculations about their chances. So it's hard to cite such calculations as a reason to drop out.

Sometimes candidates do try to bump each other off the ballot, by challenging petitions and so on. But that can backfire as well. I heard a lot of ill will directed at Kevin Acklin when his campaign suggested Dok Harris should be removed from the ballot. And there was plenty of vitriol directed at Harris from Acklin's camp as well. By the end of that race, I wouldn't be surprsied if those two camps resented each other at least as much as they did the incumbent.

What to do about it? Beats the hell out of me. Republicans don't seem that interested in competing here, and besides -- they're Republicans. Starting a third party? Just the thought makes me tired. Trying to change the Democratic Party from within? Sounds great in theory. But in practice, it's pretty telling that Anthony Coghill has managed to field more candidates for the party committee -- in one fell swoop -- than just about all the progressives I know put together. 

It's just a goddamn mess. And when I get notice of endorsements in races like the 20th, I feel happy for the candidates ... and sorry for everyone else. 

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