A coalition builder's lesson for progressives

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Some 500 days into the Obama administration, the White House touts passage of its economic recovery program and health-care reform legislation and the expected approval of the financial reform bill. They are impressive accomplishments. Yet corporate lobbies and their minions in Congress significantly weakened each. Sure, we can't expect the president to fix everything in a year. But, as I've argued before, if progressives are to alter the hostile political environment that arms the lobbies and forces President Obama -- and, even more, fearful centrist Democrats in Congress -- to shrink from bolder reforms, they must build and mobilize a broad reform movement that transcends left-right divisions.

Now, we have a compelling blueprint of just how to do that. A new book -- "The DeMarco Factor: Transforming Public Will Into Political Power" -- shows that that kind of organizing is no pipe dream. Written by Michael Pertschuk, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and co-founder of the Advocacy Institute, the book focuses on the strategies and leadership of organizer Vincent DeMarco, who has waged successful advocacy campaigns in Maryland and Congress for 20 years.

DeMarco and his allies mobilized nonpartisan advocacy coalitions outside of the usual progressive groups and scored legislative victories over such potent corporate and ideological adversaries as the National Rifle Association, the tobacco lobby and conservative opponents (including Wal-Mart) of health-care expansion. Electing even the best-intentioned president and legislators will never be enough to achieve major policy change. DeMarco's approach demands a parallel, long-term effort to elect people based on their commitment to vote for proposed legislation. That means waging campaigns that force candidates to sign concrete pledges of support for particular bills.

This approach often requires more than one election cycle, and it means waiting to lobby legislators until after broad coalitions have been formed and all members have helped shape the legislative objective, so that their commitment is strong, deep and lasting.

DeMarco's campaigns begin with aggressive public education to raise awareness and build intense public support. "When you fight for a bill that Vinny has organized on," said Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who worked closely with DeMarco as a state senator, "you know that there is an army of voters behinds you."

Consider DeMarco's successful fight against the tobacco industry. After building strong health and faith coalitions in many states for the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, he and his colleagues mobilized the national Faith United Against Tobacco coalition to press for federal legislation to give the FDA expansive powers to regulate tobacco products and their marketing -- legislation that had languished for more than a decade.

The coalition spanned the religious and political spectrum, from the liberal United Methodists to the conservative Southern Baptists. And despite heavy opposition from all but one tobacco company (New York's Altria, formerly Philip Morris), it is the only major legislation on Obama's agenda that garnered close to a majority of Republican votes, even from conservative tobacco states. According to DeMarco, the critical time for achieving success is not when the legislature convenes, but when its members are most vulnerable -- during the primary and general elections. For candidates, the allure of campaign money is that it funds successful elections. The only thing legislators fear more than alienating big donors is losing. Citizens maximize their electoral power by making a candidate's refusal to support proposed legislation a real threat to his or her election.

Pertschuk describes the thinking behind this tactic: "Get concrete, redeemable pledges from candidates before they are elected, and defeat even a handful of candidates who refuse to pledge, and you have erected a bulwark against the otherwise seductive pleading, lubricated by campaign contributions, of insider lobbyists."

There is no shortage of veteran community organizers who can apply their skills and strategies to DeMarco's successful template. Twenty thousand of them engaged in the Obama presidential campaign, and many are waiting for such an opportunity now. One proposal is for philanthropists interested in building a progressive infrastructure to find and fund a DeMarco-like organizer in every state.

"The DeMarco Factor" is a must-read for these challenging times. It shows us how to bring people into the fold, rather than just folding.

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