The founder and former leader of Hate Free Zone, a civil rights organization created in the wake of 9/11 and now known as OneAmerica, Jayapal is one of a growing number of organizers, activists and others of similar backgrounds who are now working to change our political system from the inside. At every level of government, these leaders, including many women of color, are injecting new ideas, challenging outdated orthodoxies and providing moral and fearless leadership. In the House alone, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has helped spark important new debates over climate change and a Green New Deal, while freshmen insurgents are already taking on prominent roles in discussions of foreign policy, immigration and other key issues.
In “Why I Run: 35 Progressive Candidates Who Are Changing Politics,” a collection of essays edited by veteran Democratic speechwriter Kate Childs Graham, Jayapal explains the mind-set that is motivating many political outsiders and insurgents to make the leap from activism to electoral politics. “I realized that I was tired of trying to get other people to do the things I, and our communities, felt should be done,” she writes in the book, which also features contributions from Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Minneapolis city councilwoman Andrea Jenkins, among others. “And I realized that we organizers were ceding important political space by not thinking about elected office as another platform for organizing.”
While having more organizers and activists in the electoral arena is clearly a good thing, they still face enormous financial and political obstacles to running, often including resistance from the Democratic establishment. Many have also internalized the message they have received both implicitly and explicitly that elected office isn’t for them. As Jayapal writes, “I viewed myself as the outside organizer, not the insider politician.” Several contributors to “Why I Run” echoed that sentiment. “I wasn’t endorsed by the Democratic Party,” writes Philadelphia city council member and former community organizer Helen Gym. “I had plenty of doors shut in my face.” Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez recently answered a tweet suggesting that she should have run for local office before the House by saying, “The only reason I wasn’t told to run for city council was because I was consistently told not to run at all.”
It’s plain to see why members of the party elite aren’t eager to see more insurgent candidates entering the fray, especially at the federal level. They often view grass-roots activists and people from marginalized communities, at best, as potential allies who can organize for Democratic candidates and help carry them to victory. When it comes to recruiting candidates, the party is still largely guided by an unhealthy addiction to candidates whom big donors prefer and by faulty notions of who is “electable.” This was painfully clear in the 2018 primaries, when establishment gatekeepers such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sometimes fought to defeat progressive insurgents, and there is little evidence at this early stage that it will be different in the 2020 cycle.
Fortunately, a new generation of progressive activists is not waiting for permission to compete in races up and down the ballot. A growing network of activist groups including Justice Democrats, Run for Something and the Collective PAC is working to recruit candidates with more diverse backgrounds and to lend them critical support, joining organizations such as Working Families and People’s Action that have been working this insurgent terrain for years. Boosted by grass-roots energy, these candidates have proved that they can win. And once elected, they are driving new narratives and creating real change from within a system that was designed to keep them out.
For too long, the homogeneity of our candidates has served to thwart progressive ambitions and suppress important voices, especially those of working people and minorities. While the ascent of Jayapal and other unorthodox leaders might be evidence that a new era of progressive leadership is underway, we still have a long way to go. If progressives are serious about not just winning elections but also truly expanding the possibilities of our politics, it’s critical to encourage and empower diverse candidates of all backgrounds to participate.