January 31, 2012

There are few issues on the national landscape that concern me more than the impact of corporate money on our politics — its power to corrupt and distort, its power to change the outcomes of elections and legislation. We have seen much of that in the ongoing Republican primaries, just as we’ve seen it these past years in Washington and in every state. The truth is, there aren’t many things in our political system that are more powerful than corporate money.

But there are some.

There are ideas — big, bold, meaningful ideas — and the movements that drive them. Ideas like ending income inequality, fought for by a 99 percent movement that has remade the national conversation. We’ve seen the power of bold ideas in Ohio, where citizens mobilized against a vicious proposal to gut union rights, overcoming at the ballot box the millions of corporate dollars spent to support it. We see it, today, in Wisconsin, where a year after Gov. Scott Walker stripped the state’s workers of their collective-bargaining rights, more than a million Wisconsinites have signed a recall petition to strip Walker of his job. The power of big ideas is at the heart of the battle against SOPA and PIPA, the anti-piracy legislation that would restrict content on the Internet, and the organized effort to reject an unjust mortgage settlement and investigate financial crimes. And it was on full display these past months in the fight to stop a new oil pipeline, a fight where the people stood up to the big oil companies and their money — and won.

This is not meant to understate the impact of corporate money in our system; it is meant to suggest that we can defeat it. Doing so will take a protracted battle, both against corporate money itself and the causes that deploy it. But it will take something else too; it will take representatives of the 99 percent to step forward and run for elective office. Outside mobilization is essential, but we need 99 percenters on the inside, too. Our efforts shouldn’t just be about making politicians into allies; it should be about making allies into politicians. We need the activists, the marchers and movement makers to run. And we need it to happen this year. As we fight to get corporate money out of politics, we must fight to get the things that are bigger and stronger than corporate money into politics.

And that doesn’t just mean mobilizing 99 percenters to run for Congress. It means getting them to run for school boards and city councils, for county boards and state houses — the places where the vast majority of this nation’s laws are written, debated and passed. It means infusing our political system — at every single level of government — with progressive values and progressive allies. That kind of local effort is something the Tea Party understood well. Yes, there were dozens of Tea Party candidates who won congressional seats in 2010, but the less reported story was how many hundreds won seats at the state and local level; Republicans picked up 675 state legislative seats in 2010 alone. That’s where they remain today, building an infrastructure of political power that the progressive movement needs to match.

That’s a message that Progressive Majority, the only progressive organization dedicated to the recruitment and support of candidates at the state and local level, has been sending loud and clear. They’ve joined with Moveon.org, SEIU, USAction, Rebuild the Dream and a dozen more organizations in an audacious drive to recruit, train and support candidates at every level. More than 5,000 potential candidates have already signed up to run.

They include people like Bill Young, an Ohio teacher, who is running for the state house because he believes we need more educators in government. They include people like Jessica Garrow, who was so inspired by the fight to preserve union rights in Ohio that she decided to run for the Colorado University Board of Regents in her home state. And they include people like Karyn Lathan, an openly gay former police officer and Air Force veteran, who was recruited to run for the Arizona House. Not all of them will win. But those who run will have the opportunity to change the trajectory of political conversation in their cities and districts. And those who win will have the chance to shape a government that truly responds to the 99 percent.

Of course, success on this front doesn’t mean we neglect the others. No political leader, no matter how powerful, can change the political system alone. The movements that have proved so successful these past months in shifting the political center of gravity must redouble their efforts. Getting genuine progressives elected is just one step — but a critical one we must take.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is the author of the book “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama.”