You could have mistaken the packed hall of Citizens for Community Improvement’s annual gathering yesterday for one of the larger Bernie Sanders rallies during the 2016 Iowa Caucus. Or you might have thought it was the Democratic Party’s state convention (it was held in the same room) – except this might have had more people. Well over 1,000 progressive activists filled the chairs for Bernie Sanders’ afternoon keynote address, but it was nearly just as crowded for the early morning issue advocacy training sessions.
Saturday’s event highlighted the exponential growth that progressive advocacy groups like CCI have seen since the 2016 election. Their annual convention in most past years saw turnouts of 250 to 300 people. Even CCI’s presidential forum in 2016, which had both Sanders and Martin O’Malley at it, brought in 850 people.
“I think it’s definitely a sign that grassroots folks who were inspired by Bernie are hungry for the next step, ready for the fight back,” said Adam Mason, CCI’s state policy director. “We’ve seen it throughout the year. The Women’s March. The Climate March. The fight back at the Statehouse, Planned Parenthood resistance, labor resistance. People are fired up and wanting to know what to do next. That’s what we’re trying to give people today, the next steps we think are needed in Iowa.”
Not all in attendance were old Sanders volunteers. Some were complete newcomers to the political scene, like Paola Perec of Ankeny, who supported the Vermont senator, but didn’t attend the caucus in 2016. And it was noticeable when CCI director Hugh Espey tried some 2011 Occupy Wall Street call-and-responses, there was a significant portion of the audience unfamiliar with it.
“I feel optimistic, it’s empowering to see so many people together like this,” Perec said. “It’s the first time we’re getting involved. It’s the first event we’ve been to.”
Perec was intrigued by the progressive policy agenda items that CCI has been promoting and wanted to get newly involved this year. And there was also a noticeable number of former key volunteers for Hillary Clinton’s campaign at the convention, many of whom had come to organize around collective bargaining, education and healthcare issues.
Others, like Shae Wild, 25, of Des Moines, were continuing on in their past activism that waned after Sanders lost the nomination. She interned for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, caucused for Sanders, but didn’t do as much for the 2016 general election.
“Originally I was very sad and hopeless, so this is kind of a nice, reinvigorating event, where you’ve got people here that are very positive,” she said. “I haven’t seen a lot of that since November. It’s giving me a more optimistic view of the future.”
And while some in attendance would like to see Sanders come back to Iowa often as a presidential candidate once again in 2020, some were ready for a fresh face, though still with the same ideals.
“I’d like a clone of him, someone 30 years younger,” Wild said.
Overall, it was a day that showed clear momentum and growth for progressive activism, policy ideas and Sanders’ legacy in the lead-off caucus state. That could have major impacts for the 2018 Democratic primaries and general election, as well as for future presidential contenders in 2020.
Four Democratic gubernatorial candidates – Todd Prichard, Cathy Glasson, Jonathan Neiderbach and Fred Hubbell – showed up to the event and introduced themselves to attendees. Glasson and Neiderbach stayed for the entire event, attending workshops and listening through the speeches. Staff for Nate Boulton and John Norris were on hand as well.
The turnout and energy also provided an interesting contrast to the organizing styles of groups like CCI and the Democratic Party. The state party has gone through new state chairs – and often new staffs – every two years (or even more often, as is the case currently), and organizes largely around elections, caucuses and candidates every two years. Meanwhile, CCI has 17 full-time staff, most of which are issue organizers or canvassers, and the group has stable, long-term leadership. Their focus is largely around ongoing policy projects, and they don’t simply ramp up during the last six months of an election.
But CCI is looking more and more at translating that grassroots base into actual election outcomes.
“We want to be much more explicit about making the connection to elections and using elections not as the end point, but really as the starting point to advance our issue organizing,” Mason explained.
At one point during the convention Espey listed off every one of their members who were running for local office in 2017 – well over a dozen. And several state legislative candidates worked the crowd during lunch to pick up potential volunteers.
Throughout his speech Sanders praised the activists in attendance for staying involved in the long-term movement they’ve built in Iowa. He made no hints either way as to whether he’s considering another national run, but there will be an active base of support if he does. And if he doesn’t, it’s a big group that’s up for grabs for whichever candidates seek out the party’s progressive left in 2020.
by Pat Rynard