On Electoral Strategy

Franklin Roberts

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent piece on electoral strategy from the Collective Power Network (CPN), which draws heavily on our chapter’s work in local races. Learning lessons from our past work is key for developing better strategy for the future, and this is a great start to that conversation. Folks should absolutely read the piece; it’s concise and makes a clear case for how to approach elections as socialists.

I generally agree with the approach that CPN lays out–e.g. strategic use of the Democratic ballot line, mass canvassing, avoiding paper endorsements. However, our discussions should also include the following considerations that were not fully addressed in the piece:

1) The changes our wins have delivered: Our electoral victories have not yet led to much socialist legislation or state policy. Electing socialists legitimates our demands and gives us a larger platform to promote them, but these don’t have a significant impact on working people’s lives. Aside from Lee Carter’s insulin price cap, I am not aware of our candidates passing any socialist legislation. The critical mass of seats required to get bills passed is not coming soon, so we should be clearer about what wins accomplish in the short to medium term.

2) Our ability to hold candidates accountable: It is not clear to me that we can hold all of our previously-endorsed elected officials accountable. The elephant in the room here is Marc Elrich. Certainly the biggest win for our chapter in terms of the size of the electorate, Elrich has so far mainly governed as a progressive. I think most would agree he is far superior to his 2018 opponent, a rich healthcare executive, but there’s not a strong case that he’s a socialist.

Elrich has taken positions that go against our chapter’s values and organizing efforts. For example, though our chapter is working to defund MPD here in DC, Elrich was recently quoted in the Washington Post saying large cuts to the Montgomery County police budget are a “utopian vision.” He has also failed to fully end Montgomery County government cooperation with ICE. This potential distance between his politics and our chapter’s was foreshadowed when he accepted the endorsement of the MoCo Fraternal Order of Police in the 2018 election (for transparency, I voted against de-endorsing Elrich over this action). I am not aware of any attempts by our chapter to move Elrich on these issues, and it is not clear to me that we have the leverage to do so. We should give greater weight to our ability to influence candidates after election day in future endorsement discussions.

3) Our endorsements’ role in coalition-building: Fighting for the world we want requires organizing for radical demands. These demands will often not have the support of most voters and candidates may therefore be unwilling to back them. Exactly what coalitions we want to build and what values we are willing to compromise for the sake of electability should be included in any endorsement discussion.

CPN lays out very clearly the potential of larger progressive coalition work and how it can build ties between our chapter and labor and progressive organizations. It is important to make clear that who we endorse can also harm our relationships with organizations we want to work with and support. If we again endorse a candidate who is dismissive of defunding cops or is endorsed by cop unions, it will certainly call our commitment to abolition into question. This would be a particular liability in a moment when we are beginning to work with abolitionist groups like Black Lives Matter DC and Black Youth Project 100 who are leaders in the mass protest movement against police and prisons.

4) The value of backing candidates that aren’t a sure thing: Former chapter stalwart David Duhalde has already pointed this out, but we should be explicit about when, if ever, it is worth backing a candidate that doesn’t have a clear path to victory. David pointed out how even a losing campaign gives us the opportunity to learn and build capacity. There is also a good case for building or strengthening organizational relationships through endorsements. Irma Corado’s campaign in Virginia was an opportunity to build on the relationship our NoVa branch and Migrant Justice working group had built with La ColectiVA and make Fairfax cooperation with ICE a major issue in the race. I don’t regret any of the doors we knocked for Irma, despite her losing by a wide margin.

Similarly, the strongest argument for endorsing Will Merrifield in the At-Large Council race was the potential to build connections and relationships with Black communities in Wards 7 and 8 (I voted to endorse both Will and Ed). If built right, those connections would not end on election day and could have laid the groundwork for continued organizing East of the River (thankfully, our chapter is doing great work with tenants EOTR through Stomp Out Slumlords). There are clear downsides to endorsing a long-shot candidate, but we should also recognize the potential benefits and not rule these candidates out entirely.

5) Finally, the relative value of electoral work vs. other organizing: Finally, we should talk more about how electoral organizing fits into our larger project to build socialism and how to best relate it to our other campaigns. I don’t see our membership’s time as zero-sum; some folks are more excited by electoral work than non-electoral work and vice versa. CPN is right that we should look for places where electoral and non-electoral efforts can strengthen each other; the Reclaim Rent Control campaign and Janeese campaign are a great example pointed to by CPN.

All that said, mobilizing voters is fundamentally different than organizing people to wield power in their workplace or apartment building (or in any other arena of class domination). Organizing requires building long-term relationships; canvassing for elections, while it may result in thousands of interactions between our chapter members and voters, typically involves short-term and shallow connections. Organizing for independent working class power is absolutely fundamental to a socialist project and should always be our main priority.

I am proud of our chapter’s electoral work, and have knocked doors or made calls for most of the candidates we’ve endorsed. Our electoral organizers and volunteers have put long hours into these campaigns, and our wins have been inspiring–particularly Janeese Lewis George’s absolute rout of developer-backed Brandon Todd. This post is offered in the hope of a deeper discussion of the benefits and potential downsides of future electoral work, and its place in our larger project of building socialism in the DC area.