A learning experience for progressive politics

The weekend before the Aug. 8 Missouri primary, about half a dozen St. Louis volunteers went to Kenett, a small southern Missouri “Boot Heel” town, where a historic state representative race was going on. We volunteered to help Pat Allen, who would have been the first African American woman state representative in southern Missouri. She and her opponent, Tom Todd, were campaigning for the Democratic Party nomination in the 163rd District.

Though her opponent won the primary, the campaign was an important learning experience and in many ways a victory.

That a progressive African American woman ran at all in southern Missouri, where sexism and racism are very real, signifies a significant shift in the political balance of forces.

Allen’s campaign also laid the groundwork for future base-building and mobilization, including in the Claire McCaskill campaign for U.S. Senate. McCaskill, who is in a neck-to-neck race with right-wing Republican Jim Talent, may be able to pick up some extra votes in southern Missouri, Talent’s strongest base, which would be a real victory for the fight against racism and sexism, as well as for rural voters.

While canvassing was very positive in general, we did have some negative experiences. For example, we came to two houses where women were identified as Democrats. Both women’s husbands refused to let them come to the door, while another woman’s husband said he would not “allow his wife to vote for Allen,” a progressive Black woman.

Allen’s opponent, the incarnation of the stereotypical southern good ol’ boy, campaigned hard for the support of the mostly white, male-dominated southern political machine. Even though he had no previous experience in politics, he got their support.

While Todd articulated no real campaign platform (nor did he put party affiliation on his literature or signs, but we’ll get to that later), Allen’s platform included standing up for women’s reproductive rights, access to affordable health care for seniors, better schools and better jobs with living wages. She also had years of experience in local politics as a teacher and member of the school board.

A poll conducted days before the election projected Allen as winning the primary. So we were optimistic. And Allen had a vision that inspired us. Why else would volunteers from St. Louis drive three hours — each way — to canvass in the 100 degree summer sun with local volunteers and then head home?

We did the grunt work, knocked on the doors, talked to the voters and articulated a progressive, working class message that resonated with working class rural voters. Many of us spent every weekend for a month and a half in the Boot Heel.

And we were getting a lot of good feedback.

So the first lesson we learned was that rural voters are working class people too and that working class values will resonate if we take the time to articulate a working-class message. Progressives can’t give up on rural voters. If all they hear is the right-wing, Republican message, then that’s the message they’ll believe.

Shortly after the primary was over, it was discovered that Todd, who was running as a Democrat in a Democratic primary, was actually working the Republican base and telling voters that Allen was a Black radical. The reason most registered Democrats had not heard of Todd is obvious. He was proving his credentials to the registered Republicans.

Unfortunately, Missouri voters don’t have to indicate party affiliation when they vote in primaries.

According to Margarida Jorge, Allen’s campaign coordinator, “turnout in this primary was higher than anticipated. It was more like a presidential year than an off year.” In fact, well over 1,000 extra votes were cast during this year’s primary than in prior off-year primaries. “We thought that since there was no Republican primary, the Republicans would stay home,” she said.

“What we didn’t realize is that, in reality, our Democratic challenger was the other Republican in the race and that he was turning out the Republican base to vote for him on the Democratic ticket while we were quite naturally talking to our base — Democratic voters.

“Todd was able to secure more votes than Allen,” said Jorge, “by appealing to the Republicans and turning them out to vote. The good ol’ boys on both sides of the aisle cut a deal in the Boot Heel to make sure a real progressive, working class Democrat didn’t get elected. They knew they couldn’t win in a fair game, so they changed the rules.”

So the second lesson is this: though we have to make tactical and strategic alliances with Democrats on an individual basis, we can’t be naive enough to think that all Democrats are the same. The Pat Allens of the political world — people with integrity, a working-class vision and the determination to challenge racism directly — are hard to come by.

In the upcoming November elections, we should identify and help the local Pat Allens. At the same time, we should realize that ending Republican control of Congress will give momentum to the Pat Allens across the country. We should fight like hell to build the broadest coalitions possible, defeat the Republicans, change Congress and, having won that victory, push forward progressive, working-class candidates who reflect our values.

Jocelyn Cochran-Biggs is a member of the Missouri/Kansas PWW bureau. Tony Pecinovsky (tonypec@cpusa.org) is the district staff person for the Communist Party in Missouri and Kansas.