Progressive Local News
The May 2002 election is over. Oregonians have spoken - at least somewhere around 40 percent of them have - and the results are in. What does this year's first election cycle mean for progressives? Our impact at the ballot box remains negligible, locking us into another two years of Right-Centrist leadership that is incapable of overcoming the current economic crisis but more than willing to suppress efforts by the Left to do so.
At the state level, two of the three statewide offices have been handed to centrist Democrats. Barring some incredible lapse on his part, Ted Kulongoski should handily defeat the GOP's choice for the November showdown - Kevin Mannix. Kulongoski, awash in campaign dollars while empty of ideas, easily crushed his opposition within the party, including Bev Stein, the closest thing progressive's had to a candidate in that race (Stein may have been moving to the center over the past few years, but she is still smarter than all the gubernatorial candidates combined).
State Senator Susan Castillo secured the office of State Superintendent of Education with over 55 percent of the vote largely thanks to incumbent Stan Bunn's ethics meltdown. But there is little reason to believe she will push beyond the centrist position stubbornly held by the Oregon Education Association (OEA). If that proves true, we'll see Castillo continue the Sisyphean effort to save our schools without bringing in new tax dollars.
The closest thing to a progressive victory among the statewide races was Dan Gardner's easy win for the position of Labor Commissioner. Gardner, a union electrician and state lawmaker, has turned out to support progressive causes in the past.
At the local level the picture is no brighter for progressives. Diane Linn easily secured her position as Multnomah County Chair without abandoning the center. More left-leaning Serena Cruz won a second term to the County Board, but her eyes are on Hales' council seat That leaves the County board politically in line with Linn.
The city races are even more sobering because progressives made efforts to shift the balance of power on the Portland City Council. Liz Callison challenged Commissioner Erik Sten over his handling of the Water Bureau, rounding up about 22 percent of the vote the process (Sten won with 57 percent of the vote). Peter Alexander took on Commissioner Dan Saltzman on a wide range of issues. He won 16 percent of the vote by the time the ballots were counted (Saltzman won by 66 percent). In both these races the challengers filed at the last possible moment, leaving only eight weeks to campaign. They also had only a fraction of the war chests held by the incumbents.
One of the biggest influences on these two races was the media blackout. Here were challengers advocating creation of a municipal utility district, public investment in cooperatives, and creation of an independent civilian police review board to name just a few. But as one reporter reasoned, these races didn't have any "sizzle" so why cover them?
Add it all up and the picture is not a cheery one for progressives. We may have a community that attracts people from around the country and that occasionally earns a presidential epithet or two, but this isn't a community that has real power or appears to be building that power. We may be able to reclaim the streets for a few hours a few times a year but we aren't able to mount serious challenges at the ballot box.
This is where someone will say that our focus on electoral politics is misplaced. No real change can come from that process. I agree. Bourgeois politics will never be able to resolve the conflicts within capitalism. But a movement that believes it can completely eschew electoral politics is an infantile movement.
Power is built in the streets through collective action. But that doesn't mean electoral politics doesn't have a role in that process. When progressives hold some of the levers of government they can do a great deal to assist the work in the streets. How much more effective would our direct action campaigns be if we had enough power on the city council to curb growing police repression? The election of a Peter Alexander or Liz Callison is not a magic bullet for winning the struggle. The election of progressives like these - or the passage of ballot measures - creates additional spaces in which we can organize the community and expand the size of our movement.
But it is also hard work requiring commitment and discipline. Capitalist democracy is not shaped to make life easier for the powerless. The barriers presented to progressive grassroots campaigns are considerable and intended to be so. However, they can be overcome and when they are the results can be remarkable if people are willing to com-mit to spending time doing things like going door-to-door to talk to strangers (possibly even going so far as to travel beyond the Hawthorne district and the few other neighborhoods sprinkled with lefties), phone banking, fundraising, and all the other tasks necessary for a successful campaign.
It also means that progressive political parties have to get serious about how they conduct campaigns. As I've said in these pages before, 2002 is the time to begin developing a strategic plan, recruiting candidates, and developing party capacity for 2004 and beyond.
Today, even after recent successes by the Right, western Europeans enjoy rights and privileges that far exceed our own. From the recognition of much stronger workers rights to economic safeguards most Americans only dream about, western European society is supported by a progressive infrastructure that came about through two centuries of long and bloody struggle. An important part of that struggle took place within the realm of electoral politics, the creation of worker-based political parties - many of which are still waging the good fight - that won elections, drove through progressive legislation, and continued to support the struggle in the streets for more liberty and justice.
It is a history that more Americans would do well to learn, particularly in here in progressive Portland. Doing so could make a big difference. It could mean the difference between Portland being a city with a truly progressive movement or a city where interesting Bohemian enclaves are permitted to exist as local color and progressive politics is a lifestyle rather than a vibrant, diverse, militant (and at times fun) struggle it must be if we are to prevail over capitalism.
The choice is easy. Making it happen will be hard, so let's get to work.
Thanks and farewell
Over the past two years I had the pleasure to work with a group of new activists around the issue of police accountability. As with other parts of the emerging Left - like Sisters in Action for Power - working with these new comrades was not only a privilege, it helped to chip away some of the cynicism that had been creeping into my thoughts about the movement. One of these new activists, Greg Cluster, demonstrated remarkable skill as an organizer and a leader. Greg left town last month to continue his education in Boston, working in a special education program with urban youth. Before leaving, he generously made a four-year financial commitment to The Portland Alliance that will help us through the rough waters we are currently navigating. All of at the Alliance want to thank Greg, wish him the best in Boston, and urge him to rejoin us in the struggle here in Portland as soon as he can.