By Mike Rhodes
With the help of organized labor, grassroots community groups and a whole lot of ordinary people who worked long hours, the Central Valley now has more progressive elected officials than anytime in recent history. Daniel O’Connell, executive director of the Central Valley Partnership (CVP), knows why.
According to O’Connell, “In recent years, and particularly since the 2016 national election, the San Joaquin Valley has begun to move in ways that have not been seen in a generation.
“Specifically, the outcomes of the 2018 election are attributable to both decades of demographic change (due to and encouraged by the agricultural industry’s need for labor) and the region’s unique history of racial segregation and economic exclusion where people of color, farmworkers, laborers, immigrants, women and their allies, cognizant of the institutions that have oppressed them, have awoken to see the ballot and voting as an organizing opportunity.
“Given its history of oppression and struggle, there are few places with organizing traditions as rich as the Valley. It was therefore a matter of adjusting tactics to a new strategy, and harnessing the already present desire for change, to voter engagement and get-out-the-vote efforts.”
Many people are saying that the election of down-ballot candidates was a result of a national Blue Wave that saw Democrats win in races that have been held by Republicans for many years. In Fresno, we now have a majority of Democrats on the City Council.
Veva Islas, a progressive community activist, ousted a more conservative incumbent on the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD). There are so many progressives up and down the Central Valley who won their races that people are starting to talk about a political shift of power in the region.
What has changed? People used to complain about how conservative the Central Valley is, but it might be time to reexamine that long-held belief. What is the CVP and how did the coalition come together that led to this outcome? O’Connell says that “the Central Valley Partnership is a progressive network spanning the southern San Joaquin Valley. It was founded to bring people together around issues and campaigns they agreed upon and to put differences aside. Elections are always going to be a barometer of the movement’s progress.”
“The success of our work is illustrated by the maturation of the progressive movement—there was, for example, little internal friction between moderates and progressives during this election cycle. Years earlier, there were hard lessons learned, and it took time to put aside long-standing feuds and historic divisions.
“Today, emerging leaders are not likely aware of past grievances and differences, they are simply taking the reins and galloping into the open terrain ahead for the movement. Newly politicized constituencies, such as immigrants and youth, have now joined together with long-standing capacities within labor unions and historic progressive institutions.”
A turning point was Measure G, an effort in 2013 by then Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin to privatize city workers, which was defeated when community groups and organized labor united.
Simone Cranston Rhodes worked on that campaign. She said that “No on Measure G has been one of the high points of my political and electoral career. Not only because it was an amazing underdog victory against Mayor Swearengin (we won a citywide race by 801 votes) but also because being a part of this effort truly felt like being a part of a community-wide progressive movement.
“It was not only labor who were invested in saving strong union jobs, but community members who were invested in keeping quality services at market prices for the City of Fresno. The labor movement has the most power in creating political change in the electoral arena.
“When community groups and labor groups can bridge together and find mutual ground to work on it can be potent, and together we can take on some of the most powerful figures. Swearengin seemed to pull a lot of political clout, but she still could not win against the labor and community allies working together. Seeing this glimpse of power transformed how Fresno labor and community allies moved forward.”
At the CVP meeting in November, several victorious candidates were in attendance, and the community debriefed the election outcomes. Veva Islas, who won her race and is now an FUSD trustee, said, “I think a growing movement between labor and community partners is incredibly valuable and necessary. We cannot allow our political system to be run by the rich or by corporate interests. Groups like the Partnership are our primary hope to counter the history of buying elections and having elected officials who truly represent our communities.”
Nelson Esparza, who was elected to the Fresno City Council, when asked about the role the CVP played in his election said that “the CVP is an incredible networking resource in that you won’t find a larger coalition of individuals and organizations dedicated to the shared goal of moving our valley forward.”
There were also important issues brought up by people attending the meeting that need attention. D’Aungillique Jackson, a member of the NAACP at Fresno State brought up the fact that the 25,000 students on campus do not have a polling place at the university. This problem was brought to the attention of Brandi Orth, the Fresno county clerk/registrar of voters, and according to Jackson she did nothing.
This is what voter repression, perhaps the Republicans’ only hope for winning future elections, looks like in Fresno. See more about voter repression elsewhere in this issue of the Community Alliance.
Pam Whalen, who works as an organizer for the Dolores Huerta Foundation, is on the executive board of the CVP. She is optimistic about what the CVP has accomplished and what the future holds. Whalen said that “the CVP has provided a space for members of a myriad of progressive institutions in the Valley to share information, strategy and coordinate voluntarily with each other. This has proven to be a winning strategy.
“We don’t always agree on everything, but we pull together on what we do agree on. This broad, tolerant, generous spirit of solidarity can serve us well in the future.”
O’Connell, looking at the road ahead, said, “It is important to recognize that the 2018 election results in the San Joaquin Valley were not incidental, they were structural—each seat that was taken by progressives is likely to be retained moving forward. And in each succeeding election, it is likely that subsequent candidates and elected representatives will be more progressive than their predecessors.
“Over the next decades, the region is likely to arc from being one of the nation’s most reactionary toward being one of its most progressive. This potential is before us, and we must drive forward toward this outcome as an objective.”
The next meeting of the CVP is Jan. 15 at 5:30 p.m. at SEIU 521 (5228 E. Pine Ave.).
Mike Rhodes is a journalist, was editor of the Community Alliance from 1998 to 2014 and is the author of Dispatches from the War Zone (a book about the homeless in Fresno). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.