Organizing: The Path Forward for California’s 4th Congressional District

By Sean Frame and Aram Fischer

Hwy 4 near Angels Camp, CA
Hwy 4 near Angels Camp, CA

Preface

I want change. And if you live or have lived in rural America like me, you do, too.

In just the past few years, I’ve faced nearly every challenge that plagues my community from COVID-19 sickening my family to crappy internet hamstringing my business. Environmental calamity caused by climate change hammered my home’s value, lack of economic opportunity means my kids will be forced to live elsewhere to have a career, and disaffection and disinformation has brought out the worst in my neighbors — from hateful Proud Boys to “good folks” callously disregarding those in need.

As civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

What follows is an analysis of how we can win for rural America. Not winning in rural America — winning for rural America. Because nobody is for us except us and, if you don’t know that, you don’t know rural America. Our challenges have solutions and, if we recruit and elect the right people — people from our communities that understand our communities — we could deal with all of our problems and probably thrive, too.

I will lean on my experience as a Congressional Candidate running in California’s 4th Congressional District, an R+10 Congressional District that stretches over 300 miles from suburban Placer County and Truckee in the north to mountainous Kings Canyon National Park in the south. That said, the lessons learned and plan contained below could apply to almost any rural Congressional District in America.

Before diving in, let me take a moment to stress one point: I have profound appreciation and gratitude for the immense investment of time and money by campaign volunteers, local fundraisers, grassroots donors, and the leaders and rank-and-file members of Democratic Central Committees and Clubs. It is out of profound respect for their work that I offer both my criticisms of past campaigns and my prescriptions for our work moving forward — we must devote every hour and every dollar on what works.

Merced River
Merced River
Merced River

Power for Power’s Sake (or How to Lose Over and Over)

An acquaintance in my Congressional District once said that his simple philosophy is that “we run campaigns in order to win elections. And we win elections in order to govern.” And of course, on a very basic level, this is true. For the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, that power-first approach has been the dominant theory among Democratic candidates and Democratic Party leaders in California’s 4th Congressional District as it is in most places.

In that spirit, political power brokers “helicoptered” in two candidates in 2018 and 2020 from outside of the district — presumably because someone thought the local stock is too poor to self-fund, too lacking in connections to get noticed, and too po-dunk to understand politics. Each candidate came ready with strong connections and large donors, and each enjoyed support from the local and state Party.

These candidates shared a victory plan, also: run an inoffensive, centrist campaign and enough moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Placer and El Dorado Counties will vote against our extremely right-wing and particularly unlikable Congressman Tom McClintock. They viewed the key to reaching this mythical middle as moderation, and they tacked hard to the right of the state party’s platform in order to lure GOP voters to vote “D.” They each raised loads of money and spent it traditionally, with the lion’s share going to consultants and tv advertising.

So how did this tried-and-true approach play out in CA-04? Let’s look at the results.

In 2018, Jessica Morse bested two other Democrats to win the party’s endorsement and qualify for the general election. She claimed to be a local with deep roots in the district even though she had most recently been registered to vote in Colorado. She raised and spent over $4 million and had another $500,000 spent on her behalf. She used that money to hire consultants and flood the airwaves of the Sacramento and Fresno media markets with TV ads, even though those audiences largely reside outside of the district (side note: the consultants always make sure they get paid).

How did Morse do? In the highly favorable conditions of the “Blue Wave” of 2018, she lost by nearly 9 points. CA-04 is an R+10 district — a generic Republican is expected to win by 10 points — so Morse did 1–2 points better than expectations. A good enough showing to win a toss-up district, but nowhere close to winning in a deep-Red district like CA-04.

Brynne Kennedy took her shot in 2020. She was even less of a local, having lived most of her adult life between East Asia, Europe, and San Francisco. She had purchased a house near her hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts in October of 2018, and appeared in hometown hero articles in the local Pittsfield newspaper as late as February 2019. She arrived with a flourish in April of 2019 ready to bring her experience as a global tech entrepreneur, London School of Economics MBA, and competitive gymnast to the good people of CA-04.

What motivates somebody to run in a place in which they have never lived and have no discernable connection to? Who knows… But she clearly had deep connections to Silicon Valley money and winning requires money, so why not?

When Kennedy announced her candidacy, I had already been running for 5 months. My campaign had built a considerable grassroots base of support and a solid-if-unspectacular fundraising haul of over $100,000. But when I stepped out of the race to attend to emergency family matters in September 2019, she ran without Democratic competition and received the endorsement of the California Democratic Party.

She raised over $3 million dollars in total and received even more support from the state party than Morse. She hired Stenhouse Strategies, the same key consultant behind the Morse campaign, and they put out a platform further to the right of Morse’s stretching to the far-right fringe of California Democratic politics. To offer a taste, the first issue in Kennedy’s platform is deficit-hawk economics, she regularly made the nonsensical attack that the single payer healthcare favored by California Democrats is harmful to rural hospitals and relied on Republican-lite phrases often like “we start fixing our broken immigration system by securing our border.”

So how did that work for Kennedy? She lost CA-04 by nearly 12 points, roughly 2 points worse than expected in an R+10 district and 3–4 points behind Morse.

Nearly $8 million dollars and tens of thousands of volunteer hours later, this traditional approach is a complete failure.

While it doesn’t take much to know that the right response to banging your head on a brick wall isn’t to bang harder, the notion that this is the correct approach remains solidly in place. An argument has been making the rounds that the answer is the ultimate pander — throw in the towel and endorse a moderate GOP candidate.

I can’t imagine a statement that devalues Democratic organizing more. Think about the countless hours of volunteer time, small-dollar donations, and overall energy that has gone into building Democratic County Central Committees, local Democratic Clubs, and grassroots organizations; running candidates, organizing on important issues, and developing a platform.

What is a “win” worth if it requires that we abandon the values that lie at the foundation of our effort? Where is there any notion of representing the people or addressing their needs?! This profoundly cynical approach — power for power’s sake — is EXACTLY why “No Party Preference” is the fastest growing political affiliation — both in this region and nationally.

If we seriously look at it, were either of our past two candidates truly running to win for we the people of CA-04 or were they attempting to take power for power’s sake? As a close observer of both candidates before, during, and after their campaigns, heartbreakingly, my answer is the latter. I don’t write that lightly. As an illustration of how I came to this conclusion, consider this question: what did their campaigns leave behind for CA-04?

The sad answer is almost nothing. They were so focused on winning that they either did not consider or did not care about what losing well looked like. They did little-to-nothing for down-ballot candidates, left no infrastructure behind for the future, and have offered no vision for building the power necessary to address the needs of the district. Though Morse took an appointment as the Deputy Secretary of Forest Stewardship, I’ve seen little of her in our region since 2018. While Kennedy seems to be planning a second run, her current ask, as she travels the District, is for even more money. If she and Morse were for US, they would prioritize US by focusing on our issues, not on what benefits THEM most.

The path to better representation — the central mission that I am advocating for — can only come from transcending this sort of cynical approach. We must be obviously of the people, inspiringly by the people, and unquestionably for the people.

Amador County Fair
Amador County Fair
Amador County Fair

Organizing for the Future

Paul Wellstone said, “What makes community organizing especially attractive is the faith it places in the ability of the poor to make decisions for themselves.”

It’s possible to think of the word “poor” in an economic sense, but I take it more as “the poorly represented” and, if there was ever a description of rural America, “poorly represented” is it. We lack modern infrastructure (broadband internet, public transportation, electricity, water), lack access to higher education and quality health care, lack the government coordination to manage public lands or adapt to climate change, and lack the investment to build a diverse and strong local economy.

Nobody in office seems to understand us, let alone be fighting for us. When was the last time you heard any politician talk about any rural issues? The Republicans exist to advance the interests of the power-broking titans of extraction industries near and far, and the Democrats burned their bridges by largely writing off rural America as unwinnable too long ago. When urban Democrats decry “people voting against their own interests,” it rings hollow because what exactly are the Democrats offering us? As it stands, Democrats largely ignore rural areas and Republicans largely win by rightly pointing out that “the Democrats don’t care about you” while doing nothing for the people themselves.

You might notice that, though CA-04 is a geographically rural district, the population resides largely in the suburbs of Placer and El Dorado Counties. This is not an uncommon issue in rural districts because low population density in rural areas means that the only way to create a district is to add part of a city or suburb to reach the proper number of people. This can create a challenge when it comes to organizing. The needs of suburban people are often seen as quite different than those of their rural neighbors. Still — those needs often go unmet or unnoticed by candidates focused on power for power’s sake. Places like Roseville and El Dorado Hills lack affordable housing, infrastructure, and well-paying jobs, just like their rural neighbors. Though these needs may play out differently, the fact that nobody is addressing them has the same impact.

When people look around in places like CA-04, they see a nation and a government that has abandoned them. They pay their taxes only to see them never return. Their elected Representatives spend all of their time building power for themselves, grandstanding on ideological issues, and generally making no difference in the lives of their constituents. If people in these regions have a jaundiced eye toward the government, it is not without good cause.

The result in many of these regions is a “walking away” from party politics that’s clearly seen in the growing numbers of No Party Preference voters. There’s a shift toward either complete non-participation in the political process or toward latching onto a couple of key issues and using those as a stand-in for representation — usually guns and God in rural areas and taxation in wealthy suburbs and gated communities. In CA-04, registration and voting percentages are among the highest in the state, so our issue is not non-participation, it is issue-driven voting as a stand in for actual representation.

Based on the aforementioned results in Congressional Elections, the situation appears very bleak in CA-04. The assessment that a Democrat cannot win CA-04 in the current political climate is right — so we must change the current political climate. We must look beyond the shallow left-right spectrum of the Beltway and change the game altogether. We must compellingly show people what they will get if they do something different if we aim to convince them to do something they have never done before and vote for a Democrat. They need and deserve a good reason to change their voting behavior.

Organizing is the way to realize this future and we are already seeing the success of this approach.

When we founded El Dorado Progressives in 2016, we quickly realized that we were far from success in electoral politics. Voters didn’t have a single clue what progressive policy and values could deliver for them. The brand “Democrat” was so toxic that most elected Democrats avoided party endorsement and tried to be as coy as possible about their party affiliation — often re-registering as No Party Preference to increase their chances of winning.

This led us to a strategy of organizing around local issues and hyper-localized versions of national issues. We initially focused on public lands (environment), local reproductive healthcare, being allies for immigrants, worker’s solidarity (labor support), LGBTQ issues, civil rights in our community, and community discussions on single payer healthcare. We decided to NOT endorse candidates and to not be directly affiliated with a political party because we thought it was most important to focus on making noticeable change and building power.

This strategy has proven quite effective. Our group has grown from 7 people consoling each other over coffee post-Trump, to a vibrant community of over 2500 people in a staunchly conservative county. We have accomplished more than I could have ever imagined possible. We distributed thousands of reproductive health information cards in English and Spanish to our community, supported the first Placerville Pride Parade in 2019, distributed “Know Your Rights” information throughout the immigrant community, and held citizenship workshops. We also partnered with several other agencies and organizations to create a housing alliance to provide shelter and eventually housing for the unhoused, we partnered with local youth to create Climate Friday events, and held multiple peaceful rallies and marches in our community.

Perhaps the most notable indicators of our success is that we have spawned new groups to take on additional organizing in our community and that the local Democratic Party has become energized by our efforts and mimicked our issue-driven approach. Our approach naturally also led to us organizing on behalf of candidates running for offices up and down the ballot, providing volunteers, money, and energy to campaigns large and small. Some candidates have won and others have lost, but every campaign has strengthened our organizing capacity and skill. We have built a bench of prospective candidates and campaign staffers that will pay off more and more over time. In short, we’re building power and that power will continue to deliver results as long as we continue organizing.

Though it was not our initial focus, anti-corruption has emerged as a central focus. Unchallenged power inevitably leads to corruption and Republicans across CA-04 are no exception. This is a wide open lane for candidates across the district. One of El Dorado Progressives’ Steering Committee members won election to the Georgetown Divide Public Utility District Board on a reform agenda and he has since helped to energize a complete takeover of that Board in the name of reform.

Outside of El Dorado County, the activists at Tuolumne County Indivisible (TCI) have built their power and become a force to be reckoned with in their community. Instead of focusing on national and statewide races, they decided to take on the “old boy network” at the county level. After a left-leaning candidate won a County Supervisor seat in 2018, TCI found candidates to run in all three open County Supervisor races in 2020. By focusing on corruption and local issues that matter in their communities, all three candidates won in the same year that Congressional Candidate Kennedy lost the county by nearly 20 points.

In Placer County, the Alliance for Environmental Leadership (AEL) is organizing around sustainable development, better community planning, and affordable housing. They “tackle big development projects and policy initiatives to address climate change more effectively” and “believe planning should start from a basis of understanding the natural systems of the land, caring for the environment and working within it, instead of seeing nature as a blank canvas for development.” By organizing around these issues, they are working to build a better community, and there is no doubt that future leaders in the region will emerge from this movement.

The formula is simple — organize around government by, of, and for the people and support candidates that run to advance that vision. Why would you want to trick voters by pandering on ideology when you can more effectively rally them around common purpose? Organizing around the local issues that fire people up works and, If you’re looking for proof, consider that as Kennedy was losing Tuolumne County by 19 points, Jaron Brandon and David Goldemberg were winning their Supervisor seats by 18 and 16, respectively — roughly a 36 point gap.

Ebbets Pass
Ebbets Pass
Ebbets Pass

The Path Forward

So what do we do now?

First, organize, organize, organize. Then organize more. Build grassroots support by identifying the people with whom you can create common, passionate cause. Remember that local issues count most. Don’t play by the defined rules, change them as needed. Don’t worry about mistakes — the status quo is not your friend so a misstep is just a low-cost lesson. If we stay committed to organizing, our communities will improve. Our organizing will improve, too, and that will lead to us winning elections because people will know who we are and what we stand for.

Second, find the issues that matter most to EVERYONE in your community — the ideas that transcend ideology. When I was running for Congress, I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about fire danger and particularly the related homeowner’s insurance crisis. This was not a lliberal, moderate, or conservative issue — it was a people-loving-their-homes issue. When you find these issues, embrace them and propose bold solutions that can realistically be accomplished. Demonstrate that you understand both people’s pain and how to address it. Show that you will fight for a solution with all the passion that your prospective constituents feel. Begin every election cycle by identifying these important issues and the solutions to them, not by identifying potential candidates and courting them. If you focus on the issues, the right leaders and candidates will emerge.

Third, build power from the bottom up, not the top down. Grassroots power is infectious and undeniable, and the best context for good candidates to emerge. Once they do, focus all efforts and resources on them, especially to the exclusion of those who would come into your community to take power and co-opt it. There is a never-ending battle between those who make power and those who take power — aggressively align yourself with the make power side.

Finally, take joy in the work. Working with your neighbors in service of your community is the highest and most joyful level of the human experience. Together, we can move mountains.

In Solidarity,

Sean Frame, Co-Founder, El Dorado Progressives

Founder, The Six PAC, supporting Rural Progressive Democrats

I am a progressive organizer, communications specialist and public education advocate. I ran for Congress in 2019 for California’s 4th District.