By Mike Rhodes
Loretta Kensinger is the vice president of the Central Valley Progressive PAC and has led some of the discussions within the group about developing a local electoral strategy around the 2016 elections. The CVPPAC strategic plan builds on the Power Structure Analysis of the political landscape in Fresno and points us in the direction of focusing resources on upcoming races where progressives can win.
The opportunities and challenges in the next year are enormous— we will be electing new Fresno County Board of Supervisors, several Fresno City Council members, a new mayor for the City of Fresno and Fresno Unified School District trustees. If you want to know what races progressives will focus on and why, read on.
Rhodes: You led the discussion about developing a strategic plan for the 2016 elections. Tell me about that discussion, what was decided and why.
Kensinger: It is important for the organization to periodically look at what we are doing and set some concrete goals. I facilitated the conversation, but one of the strengths of the organization is that it is democratically oriented. It was a conversation whose results were the result of everyone’s impact who attended the meetings. That is the group’s strength, that lots of people come together and said, “Well, what do we want to focus on?” The focus is really on trying to figure out how to better meet the needs of candidates so candidates can be successful in the Central Valley.
Rhodes: Why is it important for progressives to have a strategic plan around the upcoming elections and what races are of particular interest to you?
Kensinger: It is always important for us to have a strategic plan. As much as I would like to say we have all of the money in the world, we don’t. If more progressives gave, we would have more power! Right now, we want to be good stewards of the trust the progressive community has given us, so it is important for us to have a lengthy and democratic discussion about what are the races where we can be most effective, where we can see that we can actually win, but also see where we can maybe even turn the tide by getting a strategic vote on the [Fresno] City Council, to bolster the wins we have had in the past, so that those people are not lone voices.
Rhodes: Can you describe the process that the CVPPAC uses to decide who to support in a race?
Kensinger: The way in which we make that decision is that everybody gets together. Whoever is a member gets to show up at the meeting. You have to be a member in good standing at the time we have our meeting. You show up. It is like a Town Hall meeting on the east coast where you show up, you have your say, sometimes you win, sometimes you think that is not where I wish that had gone, but most of the time it is incredibly democratic. You have to be able to think about who you want and be willing to come in and actually argue for those people in the room. Most candidates also fill out forms for us. I really love how we have a really interesting survey we send to the candidates. That too is democratically developed through meetings. Usually, two meetings before we develop the questions and then the next meeting we make sure the questions are the way people wanted them. We send them out to the candidates so you get to find out what the candidates’ stands are on things like the Independent Police Auditor, the Fulton Mall downtown, air quality, police in schools, dropout rates in the local schools and Jesse Morrow Mountain. We asked about all kinds of pertinent, directly local issues. The questions change every year because the issues change. We then use those forms in this big meeting where people have to talk to their neighbors and come to a decision about both who we are going to support, how we are going to support them and how much money we are going to give them. How much money we are going to give them is decided by the members at that meeting.
The other thing that I think is important is that the threshold to gain CVPPAC support is actually very high. You have to win two-thirds of the votes of the members present at the meeting to get an endorsement.
Rhodes: What do you feel are the biggest challenges for progressives in local electoral politics and why are you optimistic that we will have some victories in 2016?
Kensinger: I think the biggest challenge in Fresno is people believing that Fresno is progressive. When you look at the registration in this town, it is just stunning. It is getting over our own cynicism about our ability to win. I think that is our biggest problem. I think our second biggest problem is encouraging good candidates to run and to have the kind of resources that could make it possible for really good candidates who may not have a lot of their own finances to be in the race. Those are the things we really need to work on, and that is why I think the CVPPAC is so important. The group pulls together the resources so that good candidates can get into races, and it helps people believe that things can change.
I’m hopeful but not Pollyannish. To make real change in this society, it is going to take efforts everywhere. I don’t think the electoral system is the only place to make change, but I think that it is a place that needs focus and attention. We are not going to be able to change the system without having some people inside it. What makes me hopeful is the defeat of Measure G (the mayor of Fresno’s effort to privatize sanitation workers’ jobs) and the increased coalition work I have seen that has held in spite of people having some serious differences. There has been a move to try and create coalitions in this community, and I think that is really important. The Fresno Partnership has been a good move.
I’m hopeful because I don’t see what else there is—the planet is too much at risk and people are dying here in the Central Valley. What choice is there? You can sit on your couch and do nothing or you can try to make the world a better place. I’m also hopeful because of the people who are in the PAC who have been doing this for a lot of years. They haven’t given up yet. I don’t think they should give up! There is a lot of new blood out there. I think it is what progressives do. We hope for better days and then we work toward them.
Rhodes: Some people believe that the CVPPAC is a part of the Democratic Party, but that is not the case, right?
Kensinger: I’m one of the people that tries to fight that illusion. The CVPPAC is not a Democratic Party organization. We try very hard to be open to anyone that has progressive values, and dare I even say radical values, in the Central Valley.
Rhodes: What would you tell someone who is on the left side of the political spectrum about why they should join and be an active member of the CVPPAC?
Kensinger: What I would say to someone who is thinking about joining or is on the fence about joining is that if we don’t start putting serious money into politics, then we are going to lose; we are going to lose bad, and then the planet is going to die. That is how strongly I feel about it. It is hard sometimes to see the direct connection in Fresno, at local level races like school board, but those school boards are affecting what kids are learning in the classrooms. The school boards are affecting whether we are going to have public education in 10 years that has any meaning to it. That City Council is making decisions of life or death for our immigrant community, for people of color in this town, for the police in this town.
I don’t see us having an ability to influence those areas only from the outside. We have to have people on the inside making good laws, making good policy, having a direction, being able to be pressured by the progressive side because they are with the progressive side. And being able to go to their colleagues and saying “no, I can’t do this that way because all of these people are going to have my back.” I say, pooled resources are always better than trying to do it on your own. I think that is the ultimate issue for the left. We have to figure out how to be communal, how to be in community. This is just one little part of that. I understand there are a million different parts. We offer you active ways to engage in elections. We offer you less active ways to engage in elections and still be effective. Giving us your money actually helps. So, if you are busy doing other progressive work, yeah, let’s be in coalition together.
The next Central Valley Progressive PAC meeting will take place on Saturday, October 10, at 3:30 p.m. at the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, 1584 N. Van Ness Ave.
For more information, contact Pam Whalen at 559-994-9390 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.cvppac.org.