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Progressives hope 'One Nation' coalition can recapture grass-roots fervor

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; A03

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, the "tea party" movement must be honored.

In an effort to replicate the tea party's success, 170 liberal and civil rights groups are forming a coalition that they hope will match the movement's political energy and influence. They promise to "counter the tea party narrative" and help the progressive movement find its voice again after 18 months of foundering.

The large-scale attempt at liberal unity, dubbed "One Nation," will try to revive themes that energized the progressive grass roots two years ago. In a repurposing of Barack Obama's former campaign slogan, organizers are demanding "all the change" they voted for -- a poke at the White House.

But the liberal groups have long had a kind of sibling rivalry, jostling over competing agendas and seeking to influence some of the same lawmakers. In forming the coalition, the groups struggled to settle on a name. Even now, two of the major players disagree about who came up with the idea of holding a march this fall.

In this respect, at least, the liberal effort already resembles the fractious tea party movement. In February, some tea party groups skipped a long-planned gathering in Nashville in protest of alleged profiteering by convention organizers. Tea partiers have also argued about which candidates represent the movement.

Despite the friction among liberal groups, the effort behind One Nation was born of a certain necessity: At one of the first meetings, Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, said, "Raise your hand if you can push your part of the agenda all by yourself."

No hands went up.

Indeed, a promised overhaul of immigration law is virtually dead this year. Legislation that labor unions say would make it easier for them to grow their membership is stalled in Congress. The jobless rate is 15.4 percent for blacks and 12.4 percent for Hispanics, compared with 8.6 percent for whites.

"Having been confronted with the specter of the tea party . . . we felt it urgent to organize the majority of this country, which voted in 2008 and has gone back to the couch," said Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP. "We've been split off in different directions."

The groups involved represent the core of the first-time voters who backed Obama, including the National Council of La Raza, the Service Employees International Union, the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, and the United States Student Association. (The effort is separate from the Democratic Party's plan to spend $50 million trying to reach those same voters.)

Their aha! moment happened after the health-care overhaul passed this spring. Liberal groups, which focused their collective strength to push the bill against heavy resistance, felt relevant and effective for the first time in a long while. That health-care coalition, composed of civil rights groups, student activists and labor leaders, liked the winning formula.

"In many ways, the bitter fight for health-care reform has painfully highlighted that we must go back to the grass-roots organizing that won us the election in the first place," said George Gresham, president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

Liberal leaders see "much of the progressive agenda at risk in this election," said Paul Starr, a professor of public affairs at Princeton University and co-editor of the American Prospect, a liberal magazine. "There is no choice but for these groups to get together. The historical pattern is that voter turnout falls disproportionately among minorities and young people at these midterm elections, so they are fighting a historical trend."

Leaders of the groups have been meeting for about three months in a planning process that some participants called arduous, debating everything from the name of the coalition to what the branding and logo should look like.

The coalition's first goal is to plan a march to "demonstrate to Congress that these agenda items have support across multiple demographics," Jealous said. The demonstration, to be held Oct. 2, will center on pressing for more government spending on job creation.

"This is a way to create some intensity," said Eric Rodriguez, vice president of the National Council of La Raza. "Month after month, we spend time pointing to these employment figures, and we're still not breaking through on the disparities in a way that we think is important."

At their national conventions this week, NAACP and La Raza leaders will talk to their members about "One Nation," and they are seeking money from foundations for the effort. They hope it will be a show of force that will remind Congress and the White House that they are out there.

Some activists say Obama has not lived up to their expectations, and Michael McGerr, a professor of history at Indiana University who has studied political campaigns, said he could be pushed harder.

The effort has a historical parallel in a story that Obama has told on the campaign trail. According to the story, when labor organizer and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to press his issues, Roosevelt told Randolph that he agreed with him, but that Randolph should "go out and make me do it."

"They are calling the Democratic Party back to what has been the pattern of successful liberalism in the 20th century," McGerr said.

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