Blueprint For An Insurgent Campaign

Originally posted on and written by William S. Bike

Incumbents always have held an advantage in elections, but that advantage has now become practically insurmountable. Over 90 percent of incumbent Congressional candidates are re-elected every two years. Percentages among incumbents farther down on the ballot sometimes are even higher, as often nobody even bothers to run against incumbent State Senators, State Representatives, and City Councilmen. 

It would be good for everyone, however–even supporters of these incumbents–if competitive elections were restored. Because competitive elections make all candidates, even the winners, more responsive to the average Joe or Jane who just would like his or her street cleaned, pothole paved, or garbage picked up. Candidates who have to fight to win and hold on to public office have to respond to regular folks; elected officials who win with ease can pretty much do what they want.

A blueprint for how to run successful insurgent campaigns comes from, of all places, Chicago, the capital of machine politics. Despite Chicago’s reputation of iron-fisted political control, there have been two successful, insurgent, anti-machine Mayoral candidacies in the last 30 years: Jane Byrne’s 1979 race and Harold Washington’s 1983 run. Byrne’s win was more of a snowstorm-based fluke, so Washington’s is the one to study for insurgents who hope to run an actual, honest-to-gosh campaign.

Organizers of such a campaign should read every book out there on Harold Washington. They also should involve in their campaign as many of the types of people who got Washington elected as possible, and by those people we mean the workhorses, not the showhorses like Don King and Jesse Jackson Sr. who did little but stand on the podium on election night.

Stealth voter drive

Back in 1982, when he was approached by people and organizations wanting to beat Byrne, Washington refused to run without a drive to register more voters. This was done cleverly and stealthily, almost secretly. It was the Come Alive October Five (Oct. 5, 1982) campaign to register tens of thousands of new voters. Yet, brilliantly, it was advertised only on Black radio stations and in Black newspapers, so it operated almost completely under the radar of machine pols who paid no attention to those media outlets. That was the key.

This approach still works. Pundits around the country were stunned when millions of Hispanics and other ethnics marched against punitive immigration laws in 2006. The marchers were organized by Hispanic and other ethnic radio stations, and the powers that be had no idea they were coming.

It’s vital that those who would run a credible alternate campaign register a bunch of new voters not currently in the system, like the Washington campaign did in 1982, and stealthily, if possible.

Today, the great, untapped treasure trove of new voters is not necessarily the Black voters–it is the Hispanic voters. The McColloch Research and Polling organization several months ago compiled a poll of Hispanic/Latino/Chicano voters. That poll showed Hispanic voters don’t vote much and feel government does not represent them well. In short, their demographics are much like those of the black and progressive voters of 1982-83 Chicago who elected Washington.

Let us also not forget that Washington was not some crazy lefty radical out of nowhere. He was a machine politician who decided to break with the machine, and this is what credible opposition needs.

If those who would run a competitive campaign against the machine come up with some minister or community activist whom the vast majority of people in an area have never heard of, they are going to lose. If they come up with a politician with name recognition looking to short-circuit the pecking order to get to the top, they’ve got a chance.

A candidate who can win

Candidates who actually have won before and who have name recognition may not meet the Chardonnay-sipping liberals’ and lefty radicals’ litmus test, and if those who would organize opposition are going to be turned off by that, they will lose. If the lefties can hold their noses, like the movement did in Chicago in 1982-83, and pick someone who actually has won an election in his or her life, those who would run a competitive campaign have got a shot.

The other possibility is a well-known person who is loved for achievements in entertainment. The Republicans have done it with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger (actors) in California, JC Watts and Steve Largent (football players) in Oklahoma, and Jim Bunning (a baseball player) in Kentucky. For a political group that actually wants to recruit an electable candidate, an ex-athlete or local TV figure may be just the thing.

Those running an alternate campaign also should not forget that the Harold Washington campaign, although remembered as such, actually was not a Black campaign. It was a progressive campaign.

If he had gotten only the Black vote, without the Chicago’s lakefront liberals and other progressive voters, Washington would have lost. His being Black appealed to Blacks, but his progressive stance on the issues appealed to progressives and, more important, allowed him to raise money outside of the local area, as his opponents had all the Chicago money locked up. Black candidates for Mayor of Chicago since then basically have run campaigns that essentially said, Hey Black voters, vote for me because I’m Black, whereas Washington’s campaign was, Hey everybody, vote for me because I’m progressive.

Again, if an alternate campaign runs some unknown activist, he or she will get a few thousand votes and no money. If it runs a politician who can boast of the combo of being Hispanic, opening up the treasure trove of Hispanic voters who currently don’t vote, and being an actual politician who knows what he or she is doing and how to raise money, the alternate campaign will have a chance.

Serious business

The alternate campaign has to come off serious, not as a group of Don Quixotes tilting at windmills. The campaign has to look like it knows what it is doing and that it can win, instead of looking marginal. Washington didn’t think he was doing his job as a candidate, and Byrne didn’t either, if they merely managed to get a cute comment against their opponent on the evening news. Instead, they took care of the real business, which was winning the election. If an alternate campaign looks like it is going about the business of winning, the voters will take it seriously.

Besides forging issues that will appeal to the average voter, the alternate campaign should be quietly forming alliances with some chamber of commerce types and business leaders, discreetly working with the big money boys and downtown types who may be nervous about the way things have been going locally.

Focusing on what’s currently wrong is fine, but the campaign has to move forward quickly to what its candidate can do better. Candidate Gery Chico based much of his 2004 Illinois U.S. Senate campaign on running against incumbent Senator Peter Fitzgerald, but when Fitzgerald dropped out, Chico continued to criticize Fitzgerald. Chico came in a distant fifth in the Democratic primary to Barack Obama, who actually offered a vision of what he would do, not of how he would not be Fitzgerald.

Lastly, when Fiorello LaGuardia, who had been a Republican Congressman, won as Mayor of New York decades ago, he did not win the office as a Republican; he won as the Fusion Party candidate. A group running an alternate campaign needs to create a fusion group–again, not just running a Quixotic lefty or racial campaign as so many failed candidates have done, but a true coalition of progressives, nervous big money boys, Hispanics, Blacks, and White ethnics who are fed up with high taxes, failing services, and corruption. A lot of police officers, firefighters, and government workers have more reason than anyone to want to see change in local government. Attract them with a candidate who can win, and the alternate campaign has a shot.

While dusting off those old books about Harold Washington, a campaign’s intellectuals also should read every book there is about how La Guardia won.

And then, a political race would be competitive. The insurgent might win. Or the incumbent might win–but be more responsive to the average voter, as he or she was when the longtime office-holder first was elected. In any case, voters would see what they see less and less of all the time–democracy. Many feel it’s about time. Here’s the blueprint. All an alternate campaign has to do is give it a try.

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