New Report Encourages Progressives to Challenge Incumbent Corporate Democrats

Interview with Jeff Cohen, media critic and co-founder of RootsAction.org, conducted by Scott Harris

[Producer’s update: According to the New York Times, July, 4, 2019, Tiffany Cabán’s 1,100-vote lead evaporated after the count of paper ballots, putting Melinda Katz 20 votes ahead in the hotly contested primary. Cabán’s side also accused elections officials of improperly invalidating over 2,000 affidavit/provisional ballots before counting the paper ballots. A recount is likely.]

Progressive Democrats have seen major electoral victories over the past two years. One of the most notable was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s June 2018 primary defeat of incumbent New York Rep. Joe Crowley, the fourth-most power Democrat in the House, who many observers predicted would someday become speaker of the House. Ocasio-Cortez, 28, a former Bernie Sanders organizer and Democratic socialist went on to win the November general election and quickly gained national prominence with her outspoken advocacy for the proposed Green New Deal.

In this year’s primary season, another progressive New York activist, openly queer Latina Tiffany Cabán, claimed victory in a six-way race for Queens district attorney — defeating the Democratic party machine’s chosen candidate.

Now the progressive online activist group RootsAction.org has published a new report titled, “Bad Blues: Some of the House Democrats Who Deserve to be Primaried,” which includes summaries of the voting records of 15 conservative incumbent Democrats, encouraging progressive challengers to take them on in primary elections. While the group concedes that incumbents are difficult to defeat, they spell out the many benefits of the grassroots organizing that is a necessary part of electoral campaigns. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jeff Cohen, founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and co-founder of RootsAction.org. Here, he discusses the “Bad Blues” report, and why he believes it’s critical that progressives move now to defeat legislators who no longer represent the interests of their constituents.

JEFF COHEN: There’s a lot of congressional districts where they’re completely blue. In many of these districts, the voters, the constituents want their congressmember to move in a progressive direction and stand up for working class and middle-class people, stand up for the environment. And what we found in a lot of these blue, very Democratic districts is that the member of Congress representing those districts seems to be owing more loyalty to the corporate donors than to their constituents.

Everyone knows about the AOC effect. It wasn’t just that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knocked out a powerful Democrat – 10-term Democrat, fourth in power in the hierarchy within the Democratic party. It’s that her victory has scared a lot of Democrats in office – that they better start paying attention to the progressive impulses and needs and wants and desires of their constituents more than their corporate donors.

So you have the exciting AOC from Bronx-Queens, Ayanna Pressley who knocked off a 10-term incumbent in Massachusetts. Ilhan Omar in Minnesota. Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American from Detroit, the city I grew up in. And you have these congressmembers, women, people of color and they don’t fall in line behind the corporate leadership of the party. They actually owe their allegiance to the progressive activists that are the base of the Democratic party.

So it’s very exciting. You could go further to people that have been in two terms. Not, first termers but two terms like Ro Khanna from California, who leads on so many peace issues. Pramila Jayapal from Seattle and she’s been a real leader on a lot of corporate regulation issues. So there’s this exciting thing happening in Congress where you can see what it would be like if the Democratic party stood up for working class, middle-class and poor people, fought for the environment and rejected this kind of a alliance with corporate donors and Wall Street donors.

So it’s an exciting period that we’re in and the idea behind this report – and anyone can go to bad blues.org and read the 15 profiles. We just want to keep that process going of churn and bringing young progressive voices into the Democratic party and getting rid of some of the dead weight, these congressmembers that have been in there term after term and really either they serve corporate interests pretty strongly or they once fought for racial, social, economic justice and they’ve just grown tired. Those are the kinds of people we’re targeting among these 15 that we chose. And we pointed out there’s far more than 15 that need to be primaried.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jeff, as you note in the report, many of those candidates who come up to challenge incumbent congressmen or congresswomen, won’t win. It’s just that’s the track record. Incumbents are very hard to defeat. They have name recognition. They have lines to a lot of campaign cash. What’s the argument against folks who say, “Hey, don’t rock the boat. Let’s keep the Democrats in power regardless of the very big tent that the Democratic party is. Let’s not engage in a circular firing squad. It’s time for unity.”

What’s the benefit? What’s the long run benefit for the progressive movement by challenging these corporate Democrats?

JEFF COHEN: First of all, some of these challengers will win and it’s that crop I described earlier. AOC, you know, Ilhan Omar, Ro Khanna. Pramila. They’re shaking things up, so some of them will win. But even if you don’t win, and you asked a great question, even if you don’t win, a progressive challenge helps unify activists. It teaches electoral skills. So even if you don’t knock off the incumbent corporate Democratic member of Congress, it helps you get organized. You can win later elections. It sometimes puts a scare into the Democrat to pay more attention to the constituents – working class and middle class people – rather than the 1 percent corporate donors. Any strong progressive campaign has a lot of good impacts. Even if the corporate Democrat wins out.

For more information on Roots Action, visit RootsAction.org.

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