It's hard to find a more demoralizing scene than the one that was supposed to be an election day victory party for the SLO County Democratic Party.
What was initially slated to be a celebration for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's victory quickly soured as her opponent Donald Trump rode to an unexpected win, leaving Democratic voters shocked.
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- PEOPLE POWER : Hundreds of SLO County Democrats lined up in the rain Jan. 7 to help elect a slate of 14 local progressives to represent them as delegates to the state-level Democratic Party.
While Trump's victory left some questioning the effectiveness, values, and even viability of the Democratic Party, it spurred others to take action, organize, and attempt to revitalize the left. That appears to be the case in SLO County, where a group of self-styled progressive Democrats have risen from the ashes of the election and are pushing to make their voices heard within the local and state levels of the Democratic Party.
"There's got to be more than one idea," progressive Democrat Erik Baskin said. "Because obviously what took place in November isn't good for Democrats as a whole."
Baskin, a firefighter and former president of the SLO city Firefighter's Union Local 3523, is one of 14 area residents who ran on a "SLO Progressive Slate" of candidates to represent SLO and Santa Barbara counties within the state's Democratic Party. The party uses the state's Assembly districts to divide up the state into territories, then allows its membership to elect seven men and seven women from each district as delegates. Those delegates help shape the positions and priorities of the state party, including its platform and who it endorses in elections.
The progressive slate swept that election, mobilizing area Democrats to show up in droves and vote them in over their opponents Jan. 7. Now those seven men and seven women will have a say in shaping the direction of the party.
"After November's devastating election results, it's now time for new transformative leadership," a flier for the SLO Progressive Slate read. "One that stands for bold progressive change, representing the people, not the 1 [percent]."
Baskin, along with the other 13 SLO progressive slaters who ran for the delegate spots, want to work on refocusing the party's principles on "people-centric" issues.
"I think we need to get back to the core values of the Democratic Party, which stands for the middle class, labor, and equal rights," Baskin told New Times. "I think once we get back to those, maybe things will start to change in a more positive direction."
Many of the members on the slate are also members of a recently formed SLO County Progressives Democratic Club. The club was organized by Nicholas Andre, a self-described "lifelong" progressive Democrat who ran Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders SLO Campaign office and attended the Democratic National Committee as a delegate for the Sanders' failed bid for the nomination. In a statement on the SLO Progressive Slate's website, Andre said he co-chaired that club, whose membership he described as "fast growing." His statement echoed a commitment to many of the social and economic issues that Sanders made the focus of his campaign.
"I will be a champion of progressive causes, fighting for the removal of big money from our electoral process, and promoting single-payer health care, bold climate action, tuition-free public college and university, support for labor unions, and opposition to trade deals that are detrimental to American workers," wrote Andre, who also worked as campaign manager for newly elected SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon.
The split between Clinton and Sanders supporters that surfaced during the 2016 primary seems to have only grown more apparent in the aftermath of the general election, revealing a rift between the progressive, grassroots populism of the left rallied by Sanders and those in the party's "establishment" as represented by Clinton.
The SLO Progressives Democratic Club appeared to have its own brush with the "establishment" in late November, when the group began to gather signatures on a petition urging the SLO County Democratic Party Central Committee not to enact bylaws that would have prevented groups like theirs from independently endorsing candidates or measures. According to the group's website, the bylaws were tabled.
"With over 100 people showing up to our last meeting and the over 125 signatures on our petition, the Central Committee saw our strength, passion, and willingness to make SLO County a more progressive community," an announcement on the website read.
It's this kind of "people powered" politics that progressives like Andre, Baskin, Harmon, and others want to help usher back into the Democratic Party.
"I think that locally, and all across the United States, we are seeing a huge shift from what is maybe called traditional establishment Democratic politics and politicians to folks like us, that are not only showing up with people-centric values, but showing up period," said Harmon, who is also ran and won one of the 14 Assembly District delegate spots as part of the SLO Progressive Slate. "We are working hard every single day. We are showing up to events. We are creating marches. Creating movements. We are showing up at city council and supervisorial meetings. Really doing the hard work."
Not everyone is happy about the newly energized progressives' enthusiasm and activism. When word got out that the group was rallying members to attend a Jan. 10 SLO County Supervisors meeting to sway the board's three-vote conservative majority from breaking with tradition and naming freshman supervisor John Peschong as chairman over liberal Supervisor Adam Hill, the influential and conservative Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB) urged its members to show up to challenge them.
"Far left actvists [sic] to flood meeting on 10th to intimidate new board majority," COLAB's newsletter stated. "Minute men and women- where will you be?"
Peschong was still named chairman, but despite the failure of their efforts, Hill indicated he felt impressed and optimistic about the progressive group's energy and ability to organize.
"They made a strong showing," Hill said.
SLO's progressive movement is likely just beginning its work. Baskin believes that 2017 will bring more visibility and action from like-minded individuals spurred to become politically active.
"I think with [Harmon's] election, and Bernie Sanders' progressive movement over the last year, we've seen things start to change," he said. "Individuals and people are starting to get more involved at a grassroots level."
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.