Sue Altman and Meredith Meisenheimer are board members of South Jersey Women for Progressive Change (SJWPC), an 8,000 member, all-women group formed after the T.rump election. Promoted by Rosi –
The recent proposed redistricting legislation in New Jersey pitted progressive activists against establishment Democrats in the legislature. And, to the astonishment of many, the Progressives won, and the bill was rescinded. This battle illustrates the power and strength of grassroots groups and the impressive endurance of activists who thrust themselves into politics after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. This broad influx of energy and sunlight into politics is a great thing; a push for better democracy is much needed in New Jersey. A dispersed, diverse, networked movement built on deeply held values is incredibly difficult to stop. Perhaps by accident, or perhaps because it is long overdue, the Blue Wave has created a local tsunami.
Much to advocates’ frustration this month, New Jersey Democrats attempted to fast-track legislation that would have amended the state’s constitution in order to give politicians more sway over the redistricting process. This was an obvious power grab, but one that was admittedly wonky and complicated, and Democrats surely thought that they could sneak it through both the Senate and the Assembly during the holidays.
They could not have been more wrong. About a hundred Progressive activists from across the state, working in concert with nonpartisan good government groups, were able to mobilize on short notice to go to Trenton to testify against the gerrymandering legislation. Activists spoke about how they had worked hard to help push the 2018 Congressional Democrats into elected office, and that they had done so because of their steadfast belief in the power of democracy. To see their own party to turn its back on democratic values and marginalized pepole was not the change they had fought for in CD-3, or 7, or 11. The backlash, helped by a welcome blitz of national media coverage, forced sponsors of the bills in both the Senate and the Assembly to pull it, marking a resounding victory for progressives.
No longer only fueled by opposition to Trumpism, these groups have turned their aspirational gaze towards local issues and state politics. Much to their surprise, the process of transposing their (seemingly basic) democratic values into local politics has been fraught and stubbornly difficult.
As they worked with each other to pull the Congressional seats to Blue in 2018, advocates from across the state swapped stories of Democratic shenanigans that felt at odds with good governance. We heard of purposefully unfilled County Committee seats, and “loyalty first” ethos among party members. Activists spoke of County Party offices where, after the election, volunteers were relegated to licking envelopes for a $2,500 a plate fundraising dinner, an event to which none of them were invited or could afford to attend. Others had managed to get a seat on their municipal Committee, only to find out meetings never seemed to happen, and when they did, voting was perfunctory. They found out the shocking fact that the Democratic Party in NJ has neither a convention nor a platform.
These newbies to politics also learned that the most significant barrier to ‘outsiders’ in NJ politics is The Line on the primary ballot, where County Chairs choose their preferred candidate and give them a position on the ballot that is so favorable it ensures a victory. This means that a few powerful people control large swaths of representatives in the state legislature, and the government has no incentive to be responsive to their constituency. None of this represents what grassroots activists organized and fought for in 2018.
Advocates from across the state are expressing frustration at the gap between how they imagined democracy works, and the ugly reality on the ground in NJ. To optimistic advocates, this represents an incredible untapped opportunity to improve our practices as a state.
The state legislature could be a dynamic place, a laboratory for ideas where over 500 municipalities could be encouraged and incentivized to test bold new plans locally. Where we prioritize building a strong bench of smart policymakers, talented political figures, and civically-engaged young people. New Jersey is home to incredibly talented, smart, well-educated people from a panoply of backgrounds and ethnicities. Our legislature should reflect this diversity of background and ideas. Engaged, knowledgeable, and empowered activism is the new normal. Groups in this progressive grassroots coalition are strong in part because they are fueled by values and vision- particularly around improving democracy. And that puts them on a collision course with many long-standing, antiquated political structures and traditions in NJ.
Democrats need to start walking the walk and embracing the same values that their constituents do, and that means changing the structures that empower the very few, and welcoming progressives to the Party as equals. Last week in Trenton provided reasons for hope. Now it’s time for Democratic officials to get on board and join the movement.
Follow us on Twitter: @suealtman @MeredithMeisen. Below SJWPC at a rally against Holtec exec CEO Krishna Singh, who used insulting and racist stereotypes to slur the men & women in Camden’s workforce, after taking a huge tax break at the expense of the rest of us NJ taxpayers – including Camden residents – to locate in Camden.