Believe it or not, Wisconsin Progress executive director Scott Spector emerged from election night in November 2014 feeling hopeful.
While most progressives were lamenting the national sweep by rightwing Republicans that propelled Ayn Rand acolytes Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Ron Johnson into powerful committee chairs, and union-busting governor Scott Walker to his third victory in a row, Spector and the small staff at his fiver-year-old, grassroots organization were looking at something very different: under-the-radar, local elections. There, he sees real progress.
Spector’s groups recruits and trains progressive candidates for local office, with a winning record of about 70 percent.
Local officials who oppose the spread of school vouchers and sand frac mining, for example, have an impact not just in their local communities—where they have been standing up to a corporate-funded push to overcome local control. They also have influence with state legislators, who listen to local elected leaders.
Spector sees hope in recent efforts by the county boards to impose zoning decisions to limit frac sand mining.
He also sees a growing farm team of progressives ready to move up to higher office.
It’s really hard to focus on these smaller efforts when national election results are so all consuming.
But if we don’t do what the Republicans did in the 1980s, when they ran a bunch of rightwing candidates for dog catcher, who went on to become Newt Gingrich’s freshman class of 1994 in the Republican wave year in Congress, we will always be playing defense, Spector says.
Average spending this year for a state assembly race in Wisconsin by the coalition of business groups led by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce was about $200,000.
Progressive groups spent $10,000 on average.
But money is not the whole story.
“If you look at spending on these races, it is astronomically against progressive candidates. That hurts,” Spector acknowledges.
But he points to the loss of state representative Mandy Wright of Wausau, who raised a solid $100,000, as a cautionary tale. Wright's opponent raised almost nothing during most of the race, and then got cash infusion from outside groups including American Federation for Children and the Jobs First Coalition totally more than $200,000.
In the end, Wright lost by fewer than 100 votes.
“They were smart. They knew she is a champion for progressives, so they took her out,” Spector says.
The problem was not the outsized money in the race. It was that “there wasn’t an effort by progressives to go in and say, ‘We have to protect Mandy,’” says Spector.
That realization caused Spector’s organization to change tactics.
“The failure on our end is we don’t invest in long-term campaigns, which includes keeping the people we have,” he says.
This year, Wisconsin Progress has decided to narrow its focus. Instead of casting a big net and trying to recruit and train hundreds of candidates, as it has in the past, it is focusing more narrowly on building long-term relationships and providing continuing support to a smaller, target group.
“We want to train fewer people, but the people we do train we want to train in a more significant ways—ways that transcend one election cycle,” Spector says.
“It used to be you show up at a training, get some assistance, and go on your way,” he adds. “Now we want to invest for the long term: how to be an effective city council member, how to be an effective school board member, how to be a champion.”
Part of the purpose of the trainings is to build a farm team of leaders who can go on to higher office. But there is also a lot of important work to be done at the local level.
The right has already realized this, of course.
In 2014, the Koch brothers, through their group Americans for Prosperity, poured money into the Kenosha school board race and the county board election in tiny Iron County—site of a massive, and controversial, proposed mine.
In 1973, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) began bringing together corporate lobbyists and state elected officials. The corporations ghost-write legislation, vote on it, and supply it to Republican state legislators to carry back to their states.
Now ALEC has a project to target local elected officials called the American City County Exchange:
The local version of ALEC has not been a big success so far, and has been offering free memberships after failing to get much buy-in.
That’s partly due to a more community-minded attitude among officials at the local level.
“They don’t know who the progressives are and who the conservatives are on the city council and the school board,” Spector says. “We have members on city councils in places you’d be surprised about.”
And those people can have a major impact. “Boards are easily swayed by a voice of reason. That’s how we elect champions. Boards go along, they are just waiting for someone to take that leadership role,” Spector says.
And those progressive local officials also have an influence at the state level.
Spector cites the ill-fated Taxpayer Bill of Rights: “Republicans in the state legislature couldn’t pass it because we had hundreds of local electeds saying, ‘You are going to harm services. It’s not the right thing to do—locals had a huge role to play.”
In the fight over the expansion of school vouchers, which drain money from public schools to subsidize private school tuition, Spector sees another important local fight.
Despite the enormous power of the school choice lobby in Wisconsin—a top funder of state campaigns—“no one campaigned on vouchers,” Spector says. “Millions of dollars are being spent, and no one campaigned on it.“
That’s because so many local communities do not want vouchers to come to their towns. School boards, superintendents and principals are going to have a big voice in the fight.
And then there is the growing political power in towns and counties in Western Wisconsin, where local resistance to frac sand mining has become a big fight.
“We were involved in three county board fights involving numerous seats last year, where the big issue was frac sand mining,” Spector says. “Almost all of our candidates won.”
Even in places where progressive candidates lost, there is growing opposition to the corporate-financed, Republican-led assault on local communities.
Lee Nerison, a Republican state rep Wisconsin Progress opposed in Southwest Vernon County, has become a leading voice against frac sand mining.
On a candidate questionnaire before the election,Nerison touted his anti-fracing bona fides: “Having served as Chair of the Vernon County Board, I know firsthand all that our local officials do for us, and I am a strong supporter of local government,” Nerison wrote. “This past session, I helped block the frac sand mining bill which I thought went too far in undermining local control. Also, I voted to fund additional staff at the DNR to monitor frac sand mines for compliance with environmental laws.”
Local officials can weigh in to push for better policy—or at least less egregious versions of the bad bills their state representatives are pushing through. Over time, there could be a bigger shift.
“Our battle is for 2020 redistricting, That’s what we are pushing towards,” says Spector.
Wisconsin is a good place to start recruiting a farm team of local elected leaders, because the state has more local officials than any other state in the country in thousands of municipalities and townships around the state.
And winning these races is imminently possible. Most cost less than $1,000. Many are uncontested. For the most part, outside forces don’t play in them.
“Our message to progressives is: Step forward! Get involved!” says Spector. “The best way to do that is to run.”
Ruth Conniff is the editor-in-chief of The Progressive.