With an eye on 2020 and beyond, progressive grassroots activists join forces in Philly

Progressive activists gathered in Philadlphia this weekend for the first meeting of Pennsylvania Stands Up (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

PHILADELPHIA — Gillian Krazter has some simple, but perhaps counterintuitive, advice for candidates running for office.

“We hear a lot about messaging — sure messaging is important. But mostly, I want [candidates] to go talk to people, ask them what’s important to them, and then shut up and listen,” Kratzer, chair of the Blair County Democratic Party, told the Capital-Star.

Blair County, which is home to the city of Altoona, isn’t exactly a target for Democrats hungry to push Pennsylvania into the blue column during the November elections. President Donald Trump took almost 74 percent of the vote there in 2016.

But visiting the first meeting of Pennsylvania Stands Up, a new statewide progressive grassroots coalition, Kratzer was one of a number of activists from in and outside the Democratic Party arguing that progressive politics needn’t be confined to upscale urban centers to be effective.

And in the years to come, their politics, many argued, could be the building blocks of a new progressive majority built on door knocking and shared ideals, not just enthusiasm to beat President Donald Trump.

More than 300 canvassers, activists, and hopeful candidates gathered at the Philadelphia Marriott on Friday and Saturday for panels on everything leftist, from in-depth canvassing techniques to the impact of prison gerrymandering.

Made up of 10 already active groups concentrated in the eastern half of the state, Pennsylvania Stands Up is focused on “ending oppression, not just winning an election,” Political Director Dan Doubet said.

But electoral wins still figured prominently at the summit — as a means, not an end. Sixteen candidates for state legislative office made stump speeches before the crowd Saturday, sharing everything from the loss of a son to suicide to fiery invective against misogyny.

Before any of them spoke, they were sworn to a 10-point manifesto, which named health care as a human right, called for an end to reliance on fossil fuels, and demanded union rights for all.

But the agenda also laid out the activist group’s strategy to win the fights ahead. Candidates must pledge to “govern in collaboration” with constituents, knock at least 5,000 doors each, and eschew “corporate donors” and instead accept contributions from at least 200 small donors.

Jonathan Smucker is a co-founder, and strategic advisor for Pennsylvania Stands Up and a veteran of Jess King’s unsuccessful 2018 run for the Lancaster-based 11th Congressional District. He said that adopting such a platform allows candidates and elected officials to be successful by voicing the concerns of everyday people — not the already powerful.

Smucker pointed to upset Democratic wins in Lancaster’s historically red suburb of Manheim Township, in last year’s municipal election. Democrats won, Smucker said, because candidates dared to stand firm against developers’ political influence.

“The problem is people not willing to pick fights with powerful institutions and accumulated wealth in this country that need to be picked,” Smucker told the Capital-Star.

Getting it done at the doors

No fight better lays out the theories of change than the ongoing Democratic presidential primary.

With Pennsylvania’s April 28 primary still more than a month away, it’s still unclear whether U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., or former Vice President Joe Biden will emerge victorious. The eventual winner of that nominating contest will face a tough general election campaign against President Donald Trump. 

A Feb. 25 University of Wisconsin battleground poll showed Sanders leading Biden 25-20 percent in the Keystone State. That was before Biden’s Super Tuesday wins.

That same poll showed the race within the margin of error between Trump and the pack of Democratic hopefuls. 

But not every progressive is in for Sanders. Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, endorsed Biden within days of the candidate’s April 2019 announcement. 

Kenyatta, in his first term in the House, said that Biden’’s platform on such issues LGBTQ rights, which includes a proposal to study and prevent suicide among queer youth, showed a progressive leader even if Biden didn’t back Medicare-for-All.

Kenyatta did not attend the summit, but he told the Capital-Star Saturday in a phone interview that the divide between Biden and Sanders supporters was not over values but just the path forward.

“I don’t think it’s anti-progressive to say, ‘how do we actually get things done that we talk about?’” Kenyatta said.

Summit attendees heard from Sanders and Biden surrogates on Saturday 

Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor, speaking for Sanders, riled up the crowd with a stark choice between a bright future built on Sanders’ ideals or a return to what she said was an untenable pre-Trump status quo with Biden.

Terry Gillen, a former aide to Gov. Ed Rendell, during Rendell’s term as Philadelphia’s mayor, pitched Biden as the most electable candidate for a “very conservative country.” 

Eliza Booth knows about conservative neighbors living in Lancaster. An organizer with Lancaster Stands Up, she’s fully in Sanders’ camp.

She wants an “organizer-in-chief,” as Sanders has described himself during the campaign, who knows that winning one election is not the end of the fight, but just the beginning.

While Lancaster Stands Up, a local chapter of the statewide group, has already endorsed Sanders, Booth said they’ve also already committed to beating Trump no matter the Democratic nominee in November.

If Biden then becomes president, Booth said, then the grassroots’ job is to hold him accountable to their progressive agenda. And if Trump wins, it means she continues with the same organizing she’s pushed since 2016.

“We’re going to keep going regardless who wins,” Booth said. “Will our strategy change a little bit? Probably. But generally speaking, we are not going to stop talking to the people, our neighbors,  … to get more involved in their community and come back in engagement with their government.”