There Is No Civil War

Centrists in the suburbs and progressive upsets in the cities? This is what (local) democracy looks like.

By Lara Putnam

Tagged DemocratsElectionsgrassroots activism

Southwest Pennsylvania seems to be causing Hot Take whiplash these days. Just two months ago we were told that Conor Lamb’s special election victory showed weak Democrats could only win by embracing a Republican-lite agenda. Now landslide upsets by two progressive women in state legislature races are supposed harbingers of a far left hell-bent on torching the system. Not surprisingly, both claims look equally absurd from here on the ground.

What Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary results really demonstrate is that any analysis of the current political moment that sees “the energized base” as an ideological unit is going to miss the point. Luckily, voters and volunteers on the ground don’t have time for such foolishness. There is no either-or civil war underway in southwest PA. No cage match of diverging strategies pits mobilizing diverse urban coalitions against regaining Obama-Trump voters against offering suburban centrists a moral alternative to Trump. All three of these are happening at once, and organized grassroots women are contributing to each.

Let’s start in the suburbs and exurbs. Ten greater Pittsburgh-area state legislative districts held by Republicans since 2010 face Democratic challengers this cycle. In the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections, barely half of these seats even had Democratic challengers on the ballot. In contrast in 2018, there were fully 15 Democratic primary contenders spread across these ten districts. Of the ten who emerged victorious from this week’s primaries, seven are women.

What about in the coal and steel regions of Conor Lamb’s special election? Here, in the new PA-14 (a Trump +29 district created by court-ordered redistricting), former Ford Motor executive Bibiana Boerio—preaching a barely partisan message of community and service—bested three male challengers well to her left to become the Democratic nominee. From start to finish, Boerio’s campaign was powered by women-led grassroots groups in Westmoreland and Washington counties, who collected 1,900 signatures in 100 hours to get her on the ballot, then drove house to house along grassy ridge roads all spring long to introduce Bibie to fellow voters.

Meanwhile, in a state house district only five miles from Boerio’s PA-14, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)-endorsed progressive challenger Summer Lee not only ousted ten-term incumbent State Representative Paul Costa, but did so by a gob smacking 68-32, winning 67 out of 78 precincts the old-fashioned way: massive, months-long door-to-door canvassing that persuaded voters across the district that her vision matched their values. Even in the precincts she lost, she took 42 percent of the vote. As a result, Western Pennsylvania is sending an African-American woman to Harrisburg for the first time in history, and from a district whose population is 74 percent white.

In turn, on the other side of the city, first-time candidate Sara Innamorato, likewise endorsed by the DSA, ousted five-term incumbent Dom Costa (Paul’s cousin). Here too, results show no polarization or old-guard backlash: Innamorato carried 60 out of 69 precincts, as she won the district by 64-36. Again, large-scale, sustained, volunteer-led canvassing won over voters far beyond what had looked like her natural base. Neither race had a Republican challenger: Summer and Sara are both headed to Harrisburg.

How to properly reconcile this range of recent results? Tuesday’s primary victories only look contradictory if ideology is your sole metric for politics. James Carville famously stuck to the mantra “It’s the economy, stupid,” as Bill Clinton slogged to victory in 1992. To understand the political outcomes we are seeing across America in 2018, let’s try starting from this truth instead: It’s the relationships, stupid.

Full disclosure. Late last week, I found myself hand-inking postcards, asking voters to write in the name of a lawyer I’d never met, for a state legislative contest she may well not win, because an indefatigable mother of three I met just once but “know” via Facebook reached out asking me to help with one last push. My hand was cramping. It was 1 a.m. Yet all this felt totally normal.

I didn’t meet the candidate, Terri Mitko, until she stopped by the polling place where I was handing out cards on her behalf on Election Day. But people I cared about knew and trusted someone who cared about Mitko’s candidacy, and so there I was in Raccoon Township talking to voters on her behalf. This truth here is so mundane it is easy to miss its power. People may step in to activism because of Trump and his policies, but they stay because of the connections they forge. As one major organizer admitted sheepishly, “I haven’t made this many new friends since freshman year in college.”

Primary victors Bibie Boerio, Terri Mitko, Summer Lee, and Sara Innamorato are ideologically diverse. That’s what you would expect when ramped-up personal ties and local organizing start impacting electoral outcomes. Apathy—and AstroTurf—look everywhere the same. Hands-on action looks as varied as the communities acting.

Tea-leaf readers may spin this week’s Pennsylvania primary results as proving a narrative in complete opposition to the March special election that carried Conor Lamb into office. But on the ground, March and May tell the same story. Connection and organization win elections. The panorama of Democratic possibility is increasingly diverse because…This Is What (Local) Democracy Looks Like.

Read more about DemocratsElectionsgrassroots activism

Lara Putnam is Professor and Chair in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is active in grassroots political organizing in southwest Pennsylvania.

Also by this author

Rust Belt in Transition

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus