I am thrilled at the attention the post about the recent city council election in Morgantown, WV has received. This whole story makes me think back to The Little Engine that Could. We pulled together and got a great, diverse group of candidates elected. We are a small but mighty group of progressive organizers who pulled together and did it. And people are playing attention.
But how did we do it?
I’m going to outline the process that I perceive we went through, with some caveats. I am new to the progressive scene in Morgantown. I’ve been a committed and active organizer since November and am on the leadership team of Mountaineers for Progress (MFP), a local organization committed to a progressive agenda (but one that did not support/endorse/recruit the candidates). But I’m still new. And though I personally donated to campaigns and volunteered for a couple of them, I was not involved in the strategy or organization. This is an outsider’s perspective.
Here’s what I saw.
But first a brief sidebar. Morgantown is a college town so naturally more liberal than the rest of the state (though our county still went Trump). We have a strong progressive base. West Virginia also has a long track record of unions and voting Democrat. Yes, that’s shifted in recent years, but many recent Republican voters have been Democrats.
More brass tacks: our city is divided into seven wards, with at-large voting. Like many towns, our conservative candidates vote for (and are backed by) developers, like guns, and are against diversity. Cool.
Back to how we did it. In November 2016, local progressive folks started having discussions about how we can change the story in our town. We were desperate for a change and for good news so we identified the city council election as a place to harness that energy.
Many progressive candidates had already decided to run for city council. In wards where there weren’t progressives planning to run, individuals set about identifying people who would run. My own friend Jessica was briefly a candidate (as she wrote about). With a deadline of the end of January approaching, we had little time identify them, but the deadline kept us focused. This may sound vague, but in a town of about 40,000, the pool of likely candidates is relatively small. And social networks get us far. So, if you’re trying to replicate, start organizing, meeting, and networking. Change won’t happen on your computer.
It’s also important to note that this was a non-partisan election. The Democratic party in the county also was not (and hasn’t been) helpful. I’ll leave that there for now. We also had former Bernie and Clinton folks helping out. We ignored differences and bitterness to get. It. Done.
Once candidates were identified, they found their own campaign managers, treasurers, and campaign committee. I’m friends with a couple of campaign managers (and on the podcast we’re interviewing a recently elected councilor and campaign manager next week!). The campaign teams were busy. Although a small city council election, they fundraised, set up yard signs, canvassed. They asked for volunteers to help canvass, make donations, or distribute signs.
Media and public outreach also were critical components. MFP held a candidate forum for all candidates, asking questions more pertinent to sustainability and smart development. All candidates were invited and most came. The event also was videotaped and shared via social media. There were numerous other forums across town, which all candidates also attended. And, finally, no campaign would be successful without some good social media outreach, of which there was plenty, and ads in the local news paper. The local radio station also hosted debates and interviews; again candidates attended. Over a hundred of individuals were involved.
In the final days of the campaign, there was also a strong push to get out the vote. Although turnout was only at 15% on election day, it was much higher than previous elections. We know this is such a critical component of elections and one that Democrats often fail at. This wasn’t a mistake our candidates would replicate. There was a huge social media push. My friends and I were constantly reminding everyone to GO VOTE!
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the excellent candidates. These seven people who ran and WON are highly committed public servants. They have integrity, dedication, an incredible work ethic, and — and to me this was the most inspiriting — a vision.
So there wasn’t anything particularly magical about what we did. Late nights on the part of campaigns, conversations with constituents, and lots of involved and committed individuals. I don’t think there’s a magic bullet to replicate elsewhere. We know we’ll need to work diligently with the support of organizations and individuals to flip seats next year.
I would also be remiss if I failed to mention my 6-year-old daughter. She and I canvassed for a candidate one rainy afternoon. She was the keeper of the postcards. I had the clipboard. She knocked and I talked. She also came to vote with me for Hillary Clinton. She saw my tears when Clinton lost. So on the morning after the city council election, I woke her up and told her that the good guys won. And she helped. Her face lit up. Our brief stint canvassing didn’t win this election, but there is power in being proud of and committed to a cause and sharing that with your family. My girls regularly choose the Hillary Clinton picture book to read in the evening. They wear “Future President” and “Lil Feminist” shirts to school. They love the pussy hats their grandma gave them. I saw this same dedication on the part of the candidates and their families. They were not running alone. No one can. To win, we don’t run as individuals. We run — and win — as families and communities. That’s how we did it.