I am a progressive woman who ran for office and lost. The day after the election my e-mail inbox was flooded with notes of congratulations on a good run, pleas to continue the fight as a write-in candidate, and well-intentioned supporters who were quick to remind me that “Barack Obama lost in his first primary race, look how that turned out!”
It’s true that 2018 has been a banner year for first-time candidates, especially for women. As a progressive, half Jewish, half Latina, working mom, my campaign for a seat on the Washington, D.C. Council was grounded in the belief that our government shouldn’t work for the few at the expense of the rest. That every single voice in our community matters.
Even though I wasn’t able to unseat an incumbent who was given institutional support and cover from our local version of the Old Boys’ Club, every voice in our community still needs to be heard. That didn’t change because I lost.
The surge of new progressive candidates has already changed our country for the better. New ideas have been introduced to our communities, many of which will eventually become laws. People have rallied around progressive messages and policies like Medicare for All, stronger unions, paid family leave, and immigrants’ rights. Many incumbents – from Republicans to moderate Democrats – have had to change their positions on key issues because they were forced to realize the old way of doing things was no longer acceptable to their constituents.
The progress we have made has been hard-won, and will continue to be felt for decades. But for all of the energy we are collectively pouring into November 6, we haven’t yet considered the reality that not all of these new progressive candidates will win. So, what happens then?
That’s up to us. My suggestion is that we keep going.
A number of national groups are doing a tremendous job changing the political landscape and supporting new candidates with diverse backgrounds and experiences who are challenging a political system that has been built to keep them out. Run for Something, Get Her Elected, Emerge America, She Should Run, Democratic Socialists of America, and others deserve credit for investing in emerging leaders (including yours truly) who had the courage to put themselves out there, fight for a better community and challenge the status quo.
As a candidate, this infrastructural support was critical to building a credible campaign. For example, through Get Her Elected’s national network of more than 2,000 volunteers, I was linked with a public speaking coach who offered her in-kind services to train me for upcoming events, interviews, and debates. Because of Run for Something’s endorsement, our campaign attracted a local volunteer who took our homemade website and helped elevate it into a first-rate, branded communication and organizing platform. And, on a personal level, the leadership from these organizations stood behind me during a contentious primary race in which my opponent’s supporters – mostly older white men – often resorted to leveling sexist comments against me and suggested I “wait my turn.”
These organizations deserve credit for seeing through the bullshit of the kiss-the-ring patriarchy to change politics for the better. It’s up to us to support the work they’ve taken on in 2018, and make sure we build on it in the years ahead.
And, as far as these organizations have propelled new leaders, win or lose, they will need help in whatever happens next. We ought to be prepared to support them.
If elected, progressive leaders will need to prepare for life in office. In a political system where financial influence and shadowy deal-making is seen as business as usual, newly elected progressive leaders will be counting on our support so they can stay true to their ideals, values, and community. It is up to us, as progressives, to continue to support these leaders as they transition to governing so they don’t ever feel the need to fall into place within the current system.
Of course, some candidates will lose on November 6, and we must continue to nurture and cultivate their work into the future, whether or not it means another run for office down the line. It is up to us to make sure we support these leaders because they just might change the world someday. This is a good time to remember, once again, that Barack Obama lost his first race. We can help by keeping former candidates engaged in politics so that our system reflects a bigger, more inclusive, tent, through local advocacy and activism. We can support and encourage these leaders to chart out next steps, either as a future candidate or as someone who helps propel and recruit the next community leader into office.
For those of us who are former candidates who were unable to win our races, it is our obligation to not un-see the poverty, disparities, inequality and struggle in the communities we worked so hard for during our campaigns. We also have an obligation to not un-see the broken political systems that in many ways have been shaped to keep people like us out. And because we’ve been given the opportunity to get these views from within, we cannot abandon our ongoing obligation to help make things right.
In the time since my campaign wrapped up, two local fires have displaced the very community members our campaign sought to elevate, many of whom are still without stable housing and are suffering from health issues months later. Affordable, safe housing is a challenge faced by many across the US, and in the community I sought to represent I still see it as my obligation to hold my local elected officials – the “winners” – accountable to the voiceless and marginalized individuals living in these communities. And I’m grateful that so many progressive advocates and allies in my community have taken it upon themselves to make it their obligation as well.
At a recent event for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she stated that the “antidote to despair is action,” and I agree wholeheartedly. Since losing my race, I’ve been focused on engaging in activism wherever I can. I testified at a hearing in September ahead of a DC Council vote to repeal a ballot initiative that voters overwhelmingly supported (Initiative 77), which would have raised wages for tipped workers. I brought my daughter to protest the Kavanaugh confirmation on Capitol Hill. I’m knocking doors for Leslie Cockburn (VA-5) and Abigail Spanberger (VA-7), and organizing phone banks for Lauren Underwood (IL-14) and Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND).
This activism has been therapeutic, and it has been contagious. It has also made me realize that the work doesn’t end on November 6, 2018, and in many ways it is just beginning.
I don’t have all the answers, but one thing is certain: if we are to view ourselves as a progressive movement, rather than a moment, we have an obligation to continue to invest in those first-time candidates who stepped forward this election cycle, from School Board to Congress.
We can get to work now by supporting organizations that survey candidates’ needs and future plans; provide a platform that highlights the ongoing work leaders are doing to improve their communities; maintain infrastructural support to organize and run voter registration drives; provide mentorship opportunities; develop documents and guidebooks on lessons learned during 2017-2018; facilitate networking support to link leaders with national organizers running issue-based campaigns; focus on the specific needs of women and communities of color; and expand our collective volunteer base to help support and propel these individuals and the movement they helped advance.
This will take time, money, dedication and perseverance. Just like every other movement in the history of our country. Let’s get to work.
Lisa Hunter is a community activist and progressive mom who spent the last decade working in Democratic politics and health policy. Most recently, Lisa ran in the 2018 Democratic primary for the Ward 6 seat on the Washington, D.C. Council. Prior to running for office, Lisa was a health policy consultant, served in the Obama administration on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, worked on Capitol Hill, and served in the Peace Corps.