Creating a Political Un-Party

by Alan F. Zundel

“Happy un-birthday to you!” the Mad Hatter congratulated Alice. He explained that un-birthdays are better than birthdays because they give you 364 days to celebrate on each year instead of just one.

Nick Brana, a former staffer for Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign, is trying to persuade the Senator to help create a new political party to run with in 2020. For now Bernie seems to be sticking with a strategy of working inside the Democratic Party. His followers are conflicted.

This issue of which party is the best vehicle to carry forward a progressive agenda has been roiling the troops since Bernie lost the 2016 Democratic nomination. The Democratic Party? A new People’s Party? An existing party such as the Green Party or the Working Families Party? Which is most promising?

But why must we all work in the same party? Why not create an un-party instead?

Think of the chief functions of a political party. It gives voters a common identity for their political orientation. It holds an organizational structure to mobilize people to support candidates in elections. And it offers a path to get candidates on the ballot.

All of these can be done without needing everyone to choose a single party or create a new one.

A 501(c)4 “social welfare organization” can engage in activities such as voter education and candidate scorecards, and an affiliated political action committee could organize voters to support particular candidates. This kind of hybrid organization could give members from any or no political party a common identity. It could offer an organizational structure to mobilize voters on behalf of the candidates most in line with their agenda, regardless of the party affiliation of the candidate. And its members could support good candidates in the different party primaries while helping non-affiliated candidates get on the ballot where desired by gathering signatures for them.

The one thing it cannot do, a least in a closed primary state such as Oregon, is get all of its members to vote together for the same candidate in a specific party’s nomination process. But the attempt to get everyone on board with joining the same party is based on a fruitless hope, driving people apart instead of pulling them together. Given the nature of our two-party electoral system and the difficulties of reforming the Democratic Party, people will take different paths on the party question for justifiable reasons.

I propose accepting the reality that people will join different parties and create an un-party so those of us who are willing can work together.

The building blocks of an un-party are a common political orientation, an attractive name that reflects its orientation, a sound organizational structure, and trusted leadership. It is well worth taking the time to attend to these fundamentals so that the un-party can hold up under the inevitable internal and external pressures it will encounter. “Politics ain’t bean bags,” as some wise person once said.

Although at some point in an organization’s growth it will be necessary to raise money, it would be best to maintain a focus on organizing people power with somewhat less emphasis on fund raising. This is because it is harder to divert a committed membership than to divert a pot of money to purposes in conflict with an organization’s founding vision.

So rather than picking one party to engage with and putting all of your energy into that, why not join together and work to elect the best candidates we can regardless of their party? It is worth working to elect progressive Democratic candidates, but it is also worth supporting alternative candidates when a nominated Democrat does not live up to our principles.

Having 364 days to celebrate is better than having just one. And having multiple pathways for moving forward together is better than having just one.

If you are interested in this concept, let’s talk.

Oregon Non-Spoiler Electoral Opportunities

by Alan F. Zundel

For independent and alternative party candidates who would challenge the policy agendas of the major parties, running for office is a good way to promote different ideas. But running can also raise the prospect of acting as a “spoiler” by increasing the chances that a “greater evil” major party candidate will defeat a “lessor evil” major party candidate. This prospect dampens the willingness of voters to vote for alternative candidates, and can inhibit the decision of potential candidates to run. As a result, the political debate is narrowed and the choices available to voters are reduced.

However, there are many electoral opportunities to run with no or a very low chance of acting as a spoiler. And I am not talking about low-level nonpartisan offices, but partisan offices in the U.S. Congress or the state legislature.

Some seats have an uncontested candidate, usually an incumbent, and so it would be impossible for another candidate to act as a spoiler by challenging them. Other seats are regularly won with very high margins and so gaining votes that would have gone to the leading candidate will not be enough to cause some other “greater evil” candidate to win.

For example, in the 2016 election for the Oregon House of Representatives, eleven of the sixty seats were uncontested. In the Oregon Senate, five of the sixteen seats up for election were uncontested. And in many more, the leading candidate won by over a two-to-one ratio over the second-place candidate.

Here are some of the seats to watch for the 2018 election, which judging by recent history may present good opportunities for non-major party candidates to run without being accused of being a spoiler.

U.S. Congressional Seats

In the 3rd Congressional District in the eastern Portland area, Democrat Earl Blumenauer won with 71.8% of the vote in 2016 and 72.3% in 2014, making this seat relatively safe for alternative candidates to run without the concern of being a spoiler.

In the 2nd U.S. Congressional District covering the eastern half of the state, Republican Greg Walden won with 71.7% of the vote in 2016 and 70.4% of the vote in 2014. However, his role in the effort to replace the Affordable Care Act may have given the Democrats an opportunity to make gains, so this may not be an ideal seat for alternative candidates trying to avoid acting as spoilers.

Oregon Senate Seats

In the Oregon state Senate, fifteen seats should be up for election in 2018. (Each of the thirty Senate seats are up for election every four years, half of them each election year.) Potential candidates should keep an eye on whether candidates for both major parties file for their districts.

In Oregon Senate District 7 in the northwest Eugene area, Democrat Chris Edwards was uncontested in 2014. However, Democrat James Manning replaced Edwards by appointment and will likely attract a Republican challenger in 2018.

Democrats Richard Devlin in District 19 (south of Portland) and Rod Monroe in District 24 (eastern Portland) were also uncontested in 2014. As incumbents they might again scare off Republican challengers; however, in 2010 their share of the votes were each below 55% when they were challenged.

Three Oregon Senate candidates won with high margins in 2014, all of them against minor parties challengers with no other major party candidate in the race, but only two of these seats will be up for election in 2018. In District 10 (south and west Salem), Republican Jackie Winters won with 87% of the vote and in District 16 (northwest of Portland), Democrat Betsy Johnson won with 70%. Against major party challengers in 2010, they received 68.3%, and 54.4% respectively. Winters’ seat would seem to be safe for challengers who wish to avoid being spoilers.

Oregon House Seats

Turning to the Oregon House of Representatives, in which all sixty seats are up for election every two years, the following seats were uncontested in 2016:

  • District 2 (Roseburg), Republican Dallas Heard. In 2014 Heard won about 63% to 31% against a Democratic challenger, nearly twice as many votes. (All the percentages below are rounded to the nearest whole number.)
  • District 4 (Grants Pass), Republican Duane Stark. In 2014 Stark won against a Democrat about 68.5% to 31%, over twice as many votes.
  • District 6 (Medford), Republican Sal Esquivel, who was also uncontested in 2014.
  • District 27 (Beaverton), Democrat Sheri Malstrom. In 2014 Democrat Tobias Read won against a Republican challenger with nearly 81% of the vote.
  • District 43 (Portland), Democrat Tawna Sanchez. In 2014 Democrat Frederick Lew ran uncontested.
  • District 45 (Portland), Democrat Barbara Smith Warner. Smith Warner was also uncontested in 2014.
  • District 46 (Portland), Democrat Alissa Keny-Guyer. She was also uncontested in 2014.
  • District 49 (Troutdale), Democrat Chris Gorsek. This seat was more competitive in 2014, with Gorsek winning about 60% to 39% against a Republican.
  • District 57 (north central Oregon), Republican Greg Smith. He was also uncontested in 2014.
  • District 58 (Cove), Republican Greg Barreto. In 2014 Barreto won with about 73% to his Democratic challenger’s 25%, nearly three times as many votes.
  • District 60 (Ontario), Republican Cliff Bentz. In 2014 Bentz won with over four times as many votes as his Democratic rival, about 82% to 19%.

All of the above seats, with the possible exception of District 49, would be unlikely to be affected by any spoiler dynamic. The following seats had candidates who won with high margins in 2016, and were either uncontested or also had decisive winners in 2014:

  • District 3 (Grants Pass), Republican Carl Wilson, about 73% to 27% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 64/26% against a Democrat.
  • District 7 (Roseburg), Republican Cedric Hayden, 64/24% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 78% of the vote against a Libertarian candidate.
  • District 8 (Eugene), Democrat Paul Holvey, 69/27% against a Republican. In 2014 he ran uncontested.
  • District 13 (Eugene), Democrat Nancy Nathanson, 66/30% against a Republican. In 2014 she won 69/30% against a Republican.
  • District 15 (Albany), Republican Andy Olson, 83/17% against a Progressive Party candidate. In 2014 he was uncontested.
  • District 16 (Corvallis), Democrat Dan Rayfield, 58/21% against a Republican. In 2014 he won 72/27% against a Republican.
  • District 17 (Scio), Republican Sherri Sprenger, 79/21% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 she won 74/26% against a Democrat.
  • District 18 (Silverton), Republican Vic Gilliam, 66/32% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 66/34% against a Democrat. In early 2017 Republic Rick Lewis replaced Gilliam by appointment, and so may face a more competitive race.
  • District 31 (Clatskanie), Democrat Brad Witt, 81/19% against a Libertarian. However, in 2014 he won only 54/40% against a Republican.
  • District 33 (Portland), Democrat Mitch Greenlick, 70/30% against a Republican. In 2014 he won 82% of the vote against a Libertarian.
  • District 36 (Portland), Democrat Jennifer Williamson, 89/11% against a Libertarian. In 2014 she won 85% of the vote against a Libertarian.
  • District 38 (Lake Oswego), Democrat Ann Lininger, 70/30% against a Republican. In 2014 she was uncontested.
  • District 39 (Oregon City), Republican Bill Kennemer, 65/32%. In 2014 he was uncontested.
  • District 41 (Milwaukie), Democrat Karin Power, 72/28% against a Republican. In 2014 Democrat Kathleen Taylor won 70/29% against a Republican.
  • District 42 (Portland), Democrat Rob Nosse, 89/6% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 he won with 91% against a Libertarian.
  • District 44 (Portland), Democrat Tina Kotech, 81/19% against a Pacific Green Party candidate. In 2014 she won 85/14% against a Republican.
  • District 47 (Portland), Democrat Diego Hernandez, 67/33% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 Democrat Jessica Vega Pederson ran uncontested.
  • District 48 (Happy Valley), Democrat Jeff Reardon, 63/28% against a Republican. In 2014 he won 67/32% against a Republican.
  • District 53 (Sunriver), Republican Gene Whisnant, 68/32% against a Democrat. In 2014 he was uncontested.
  • District 55 (Powell Butte), Republican Mike McLane, 76/24% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 72/22% against a Democrat.
  • District 56 (Klamath Falls), Republican E. Werner Reschke, 82/18% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 Republican Gail Whitsett ran uncontested.
  • District 59 (The Dalles), Republican John Huffman, 71/29% against a Democrat. He ran uncontested in 2014.

Altogether over half of the Oregon House seats could be safe for independent and alternative party candidates to run in without concern of being a spoiler.

Potential candidates interested in running should keep an eye on who files for the spring 2018 primaries to run for office in their districts. The filing period runs from September 7, 2017 through March 6, 2018. Filings are listed on the website of the Oregon Secretary of State: https://secure.sos.state.or.us/orestar/CFSearchPage.do

Which Way Forward?

by Alan F. Zundel

Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Presidential campaign activated a tsunami of people willing to work for fundamental political change, but the wave split apart when he lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton.

Since then I have seen countless online debates among progressives, socialists, and disgusted Democrats over how to best move forward. Reform the Democratic Party from within? Join an existing alternative party such as the Green Party? Create a new party? Work with any one of a number of citizens organizations such as Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Indivisible, or Democratic Socialists of America? Focus on advancing an issue, such as single-payer health care or voting reform?

Here is my opinion, based on my decades of observation and political experience. Stop arguing over which path is better and just pick one (or more if you can handle it) and get to work.

The oldest trick of those trying to maintain power is “divide and conquer.” Arguing over which way is best is just another way of dividing people who should be allies. Time and energy spent arguing among ourselves is time and energy wasted.

That’s because there is no definitive answer to the question of which way forward is the best. All of the various paths offered have obstacles in their way and histories with failures as well as successes. All of us have different perspectives, assumptions and experiences which bear on our judgment. Better to accept that there will always be different opinions and stop criticizing those we don’t entirely agree with.

For those who have settled opinions about the different options, stop trying to recruit people from one path to another. Instead limit such discussions to respectful and honest assessments of the pros and cons of different paths—including the cons of your own favored path–for the benefit of those who still thinking things through.

And for those who are unsure, tune into respectful and honest discussions and tune out debates over the (nonexistent) one right way. And of course do some research of your own. I would advise checking out the organizations that most attract you, realizing you will never be 100% sure which has the best strategy, and picking one of them go with until you learn more and see a good reason to change horses.

A few key things to consider are:

  • Who runs the organization? What do you know of their background and political associations? Who vouches for their integrity? Do members have means such as periodic elections to keep leaders accountable?
  • Funding. Where does it get money from? Big donors or small? Individuals or organizations? Are they transparent about big donations and where they came from?
  • Budget. Is their budget transparent and easily accessible? How much is spent on administrative staff and overhead versus program activities?
  • Do they cooperate with organizations having similar goals, or are they focused on competing for members and money? Are they working to build a movement or just their own organization?

A final caveat. I’ve been talking about strategies of how to move forward, not about short-term or long-term programmatic goals. The latter doesn’t have definitive answers either, but the more consensus building around this the better. Agreeing on where we are heading is not the same as agreeing on how to get there.

Coalitions are stronger with agreement on goals but a diversity of strategies. If one path becomes blocked, others can still move forward. Such diversity keeps opponents off balance and makes it harder for them to know where to focus their resources.

In other words, let’s not put all our eggs in one basket. But do let us agree that we all want unbroken eggs.