New York Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a rally in Boston last week. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Columnist

“Only in the darkness can you see the stars,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us. Now, even in the bleak night of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, there are stars that offer hope. If Democrats take back the House in next month’s elections, the Congressional Progressive Caucus — already one of the largest and most diverse values-based caucus in the Congress — will make certain it won’t be business as usual. The CPC will have the leaders, even greater numbers, a compelling reform agenda and increasing institutional muscle to drive the debate — while exposing the corrosive corruption that pervades every corner of the Trump administration.

The CPC has 78 members; after November, it is likely to number more than 90. The CPC PAC has endorsed 41 candidates this cycle; more than a dozen are shoo-ins, and virtually all of the remainder are running in seats that are in play. Twenty-two are on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” list of targeted races. If Democrats pick up the 23 seats they need, progressives will be leading the way. And in a Democratic-majority Congress, CPC members are in line to chair a stunning 13 committees and 30 subcommittees.

New members will bring new energy and new ideas. With her stunning primary victory over Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already catapulted herself to national attention. She’ll likely be joined by remarkable leaders such as Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, Rashida Tlaib from Detroit and, with any luck, future stars such as Katie Porter of California and Gina Ortiz Jones of Texas.

For more than the past decade, CPC members have helped forge the progressive agenda that is winning the battle of ideas within the party. Medicare-for-all, tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage and more have become increasingly regular fare for Democratic candidates. The CPC annual “shadow budget” has provided a coherent statement of bold progressive priorities. On trade, public infrastructure and climate change, CPC members have led the call for fundamental reform.

Now, the CPC is building the organizational muscle to help bolster this momentum. The CPC PAC has grown dramatically over the past cycle, raising $1.5 million since the middle of last year, largely in small donations while refusing to take money from corporate PACs. The CPC Center’s annual summit provides a vital meeting ground for progressive legislators, public scholars and activists, and CPC leaders hold regular consultation with outside allies. (Disclosure: I serve on the CPC Center’s board.)

This week, a transformed CPC Center is announcing a major expansion, building a clearinghouse to provide policy analysis on key issues, along with talking points and communications support, modeled on the old Democratic Study Group that Newt Gingrich defunded when Republicans took power in 1994. The new Center will also help build a diversified farm team of progressive staff, place fellows in congressional offices to spearhead specific issue areas and draw on experts in think tanks and academia, forging new inside-outside connections. Progressives will be in the position to further drive the debate in the House, while helping to mentor new legislators entering Congress.

For years, the CPC has been criticized as being less than the sum of its members, as only about 30 of CPC members have voted together consistently. That is beginning to change. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chair of the CPC with Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), notes that, as a CPC poll showed this spring, “our reform agenda has widespread popular support, even in so-called ‘swing districts.’ ”

No Democratic leader can be elected without significant support from CPC members and incoming progressives. Pocan says progressives will be looking for commitments to move bold reforms. Crowley’s defeat opens up space in the leadership. Already Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Katherine M. Clark (Mass.) are gearing up to run for Democratic Caucus chair and vice chair, respectively. Rep. David N. Cicilline (R.I.) is competing for the new elected position of assistant majority leader. Progressives will also be seeking greater representation on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which has critical responsibility for assigning members to committees. And with Grijalva stepping down, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) is in line to join Pocan as co-chair of the CPC, with young leaders such as Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) taking on more responsibility.

Progressives remain far removed from taking power in Washington, as Kavanaugh’s nomination demonstrated. The right wing’s infrastructure and big donors’ interests are powerful and entrenched. Yet, with the increasing sophistication and capacity of the CPC and its allies, a Democratic triumph in the House next month can mark not just a blue wave, but the beginning of a progressive sea change.

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