Ben Jealous addresses a People’s Summit audience on a panel called Electoral Politics: Beyond Neoliberalism and Trumpism. The panel brought together progressive elected officials and electoral candidates discussing the role of electoral politics in allowing the U.S. people to “seize power in this country,” as moderator and The Nation editor, John Nichols, put it.
Also included on the panel were Long Island elementary school teacher, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) member, and Assembly-elect Christine Pellegrino; Carlos Ramirez Rosa, Chicago Alderman and 25-year-old activist with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights; emergency room nurse at Sutter Health in Sacramento, CA Dotty Nygard, who brought National Nurses United into her hospital; and the anti-war Californian Congressman Ro Khanna.
Nichols: “What does this movement bring to the Democratic Party?”
“I’m a story-teller so I’m going to stand up for a second.
“Look, I got started in New Hampshire, and that had special meaning to me because my father’s family has lived in the northern mountains of New Hampshire for generations, like hundreds of years.
“And, my mom’s family is from Virginia, she grew up in Baltimore, they moved up there when she was six months old. In fact, this afternoon, I’ll fly out of here because they are renewing their vows tonight, they’re 50th wedding vows. Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of loving versus Virginia, and they’re marriage 50 years ago was against the law. My mom’s home state of Maryland so she’s finally going back to the church that the law barred her from getting married in, wearing the wedding dress that her grandma made her, which she’s very proud to still fit 50 years later.
“So, there we were, and you start traveling with Bernie across the country and we’re making the dates, and you know in February I was the case that all of us of good conscience in this country had to come together to back the candidate who could beat Donald Trump, and they said we were crazy to even talk about Trump, but we were seeing something. And eventually, you know, we had won in Michigan, and we had almost won in Illinoise, and now we were headed to Missouri and I figured if we had gone from Chicago and Detroit, we must be going to St. Louis, but the plane landed, air Bernie landed, and we looked out the windows and there wasn’t like a three-story window in sight, and I was like, ‘This ain’t St. Louis. Where are we?’
“Jeff Weaver was like, ‘Ben we’re in the Ozarks.’
“Now, a Black man in America, if you have not yet been to the Ozarks, you aint’ exactly rushing to get there. But I was like, ‘C’mon, let’s go.’
“So we get down to southwest Missouri State University and you know it looks a little bit like Detroit, a little bit like Chicago because we were turning away 7,000 people at the door, and there’s 5,000 people packed inside. Get backstage, I pop my head out, and the greatest diversity I see in the room is that 20% of the men in the room are in deer hunting camouflage.
And I look back at Weaver, I said, ‘Who’s bringing out Bernie tonight?’
And they said, ‘You are, Ben.’ And I said, ‘Really, this crowd? The best we can do is the former head of the NAACP?’
“And he said, ‘Ben, look I know this ain’t your comfort zone, but just step beyond it, it’ll be fine.’ And you know, that’s the best thing any of us can do is step beyond our own comfort zone.
“And so I go out there and I give my speech and you know when I close my eyes in the middle of my speech I could’ve been in Detroit, I could’ve been in Chicago, I could’ve been in Baltimore. And I open them up, yup, 20% of the men still in deer hunting camouflage.
“And so I decide that night to just stand backstage and listen to Bernie’s speech ‘cause I know what the applause lines are in the inner cities. And as Bernie says, “We will win the fight for 15,” cheers go up. “Healthcare for all” cheers go up, but I’m getting more anxious, not more firm, ‘cause we’re coming to that place where Bernie would call for the police to stop killing unarmed Black men and women.
“And I knew how loud those cheers were here in Chicago, all we had gone through, and if it were any more tepid in the Ozarks when all of us were in a dead spring across this country trying to make sure Bernie won, I knew I would be a little off in a way you can’t afford to be, so I was getting a little anxious.
“And then Bernie made the call, and the cheers were just as loud in the Ozarks to stop the killing of unarmed civilians by the police as they were in Chicago, as they were in Detroit. In fact, they were so loud and so sustained, John, I pushed my head through the curtain and I looked up to the left where all those guys, they must have been in a hunting club in deer hunting camouflage, were clustered and half of them were standing on their chairs with their fists in the air.
“And I really didn’t know what to make of it.
“I knew there were white men who stood for racial justice, but, you know, that had cost my father his inheritance, and I didn’t think I would find a critical mass in the Ozarks ever, but there they were.
“Bernie gets off stage, he’s running back to get a drink of water, I grab his sleeve, I say, ‘Senator.’ He says, ‘Ben.’ I said, ‘did you hear that?’ He says, ‘Hear what?’
“I said, ‘The applause lines, Senator, were exactly the same as they were in Detroit and Chicago, even when you called for the police to stop killing unarmed Black men and women.’
“And he said, ‘Ben, I’m glad you stayed to hear that. That’s the revolution in this revolution.’
“And that’s what each of us is called to be.
“But here’s the other thing, and I want you to pay attention to this, because groups like priorities USA are spending a bunch of money polling to try to figure out the obvious.
“I sat there thinking, ‘What just happened? How did that happen?’
“You know, the Democratic Party is good at this thing called identity politics. But we don’t do it with everybody, because, you know – women – they tell you, ‘well go talk about the ERA, even though it’s the 40th year in a row and we still ain’t got a plan.’ And Latinos, they’ll tell you, ‘Well, go talk about comprehensive immigration reform.’ And Black folks, maybe it’s ending mass incarceration or it’s bringing jobs back to the inner city, but they’ll – when it gets to working class white men we haven’t had much to say for, like, 25 or 30 years since we brought Wall Street into our Party.
“But here’s the funny thing: the only thing they wanna hear about is restructuring the economy, making it possible for us to all have access to the American Dream again. Healthcare for all, ensuring that the minimum wage actually catches up with inflation, making it easier to organize, making things in this country again, a pathway to prosperity, ensuring that all of our kids can afford to go to college without going into debt, and Bernie had done that for half an hour. And just like any other group, on the Left, in the Democratic family, if you spend half an hour talking to folks about their needs and how you’re going to address them – well, guess what? – when you ask them to be an ally to somebody else, they’re ready to do it.
“Now here’s the rub, as President of the NAACP, you know I mobilized in 2012, our organization, we were credited with turning out 1.2 million unlikely voters in the Black community. The unlikely voters are always the poorest voters in our cities, in our community.
“When I went home to west Baltimore from the Ozarks, the voters in the neighborhood, my own family members who are reluctant to vote sometimes, they were waiting for the same conversation that the brothers in the Ozarks were waiting for. They were waiting to be told, “How are we going to fix these problems? How are we going to bring jobs back? How are we going to make things again? How are we going to make it possible for our kids to go to school?”
“We do that, and we will win.
“That’s what Christine did. That’s what Carlos did. That’s why Ro was able to go to a very progressive district and take out an incumbent. That’s why this nurse will be in Congress.”
Nichols: “You think you can do that in Maryland?”
Jealous: “Oh, yeah. No, let’s be clear. So there’s Bill who’s running and there’s Danielle who’s running. Look, let’s be really clear, y’all. Maryland – Bernie won 36% of the vote. This will be a three to eight way race. All I got to do is get to 40[%], and we’ve won the primary.
“Now let’s talk about the general. A republican governor of a state that’s 2-1 Democrats to Republicans won in a year where there was the highest tide of Republican turnout we had ever seen and the lowest tide of turnout we can remember. He won by 60K in a year when 125K who had voted in 2010 did not show up in 2014. We give folks a reason to turnout; we do what we do best and we organize, and there’s no way that in 2019, Maryland has a Republican governor.
“But here’s the other part, brothers and sisters. I’m an organizer, I’ve always been a community organizer. I’m the son of organizers. This is not about me becoming governor. This is about making it possible for our families, and our movements – the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the LGBT equality movement – all of our movements being able to govern, being able to have faith that our government reflects our interests, moves our families forward. This is not me; this is us. This is us.”
Nichols: “Will everyone please stand up? … In a few years you’re going to want this photo,” said Nichols after taking a photo of the panel with a cheering crowd behind them. “Because this is a photo of the future of our politics!”