Major battles await new Congress

News Analysis

Although hopes to wrest the House and Senate from right-wing Republican control were not realized on Nov. 2, the Bush administration may find some stumbling blocks in pushing their agenda through Congress.

The stage is set for major battles, given majority public opinion in opposition to privatization of Social Security, tax breaks for the wealthy, the war on Iraq, and appointment of extremist judges. The labor movement and new voter coalitions have vowed to hold Congress accountable.

Republicans increased their majority in the House as a result of manipulative redistricting in Texas orchestrated by Tom DeLay. In the Senate, Republicans successfully targeted Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle for defeat and won open seats previously held by Democrats in the South, while Democrats won previously Republican seats in Illinois and Colorado.

Right-wing ideologues like Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will have a firm grip, but they are not the only newcomers in the Class of 2004.

Also on the roster are new progressive voices including Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) in the Senate. Obama, the fifth African American to ever serve in the U.S. Senate, announced he will fight to expand health insurance for those who lack it, and change the tax code to help working families.

In the House, the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and pro-labor women increased their ranks, while progressives targeted for defeat were all re-elected.

First-term congressman and community organizer Raul Grijalva of Arizona’s 7th District won 61.5 percent of the vote, despite a vicious smear campaign from his Republican opponent.

For the most part, these victories are a result of strong labor and grassroots mobilizing to get out the vote. Former NAACP President Al Green overwhelmingly won election to an open seat in Houston, as did former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver in Missouri.

State Sen. Gwen Moore (D-4) became the first African American elected to Congress from Wisconsin after winning a spirited primary with broad labor and community support. In Pennsylvania, Allyson Schwartz (D-13) and in Florida, Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-20) won highly competitive open seats with the support of Emily’s List and Progressive Majority.

In Illinois, Melissa Bean (D-8) defeated entrenched Republican incumbent Philip Crane and in South Dakota, Stephanie Herseth was elected to a full term four months after winning a special election. Senators Patty Murray, Barbara Boxer and Barbara Mikulski were re-elected, as were all progressive incumbents in the House.

Union members and civil rights workers made history by joining together in Georgia to defeat a Republican incumbent and elect John Barrow (D-12). “As our congressman, John will be a strong voice for protecting overtime, creating jobs, and making sure that health care is affordable for all Georgians,” said Richard Ray, president of the Georgia AFL-CIO.

In the adjacent district, Cynthia McKinney (D-4) regained her seat after having been targeted for defeat in 2002 for her outspoken opposition to Bush’s foreign policy. She returns to Congress no less determined to fight for human rights.

“This campaign represents a movement to bring America together,” said McKinney on election night. “Blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, together. Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, together. Those who still hum Dinah Washington tunes, together with those singing Tupac. ... Tonight is a victory for the people ... and for a new way of thinking.”

The heavy-handed thuggery of Tom DeLay can be challenged, even though the Republican majority in Congress has increased. Some moderate Republicans, like Lincoln Chaffee (R-R.I.) are even wondering if they should switch parties.

Street heat and pressure from the local level on the new Congress will be key to blocking privatization measures, appointment of right-wing activist judges, and forcing a change in foreign policy.

Democratic governors were elected in New Hampshire, Montana, North Carolina and West Virginia. In Colorado, Democrats won control of both the state Senate and the state House, while electing Ken Salazar to the U.S. Senate and his brother John Salazar to Congress from the 3rd District. Dozens of labor and community activists were elected to state and local office across the country, from Washington to Minnesota to Connecticut, spurred on by organizations like Wellstone Action, Emily’s List, and their own unions.

In New York, the Working Families Party emerged as a strong independent force, electing eight newly endorsed candidates, including David Soares for Albany County district attorney, who ran in opposition to the punitive Rockefeller drug laws.

While the right wing will use the results of referenda against gay marriage in a divisive way, the overwhelming passage of referenda in Florida and Nevada raising the state minimum wage by $1 an hour shows that grass roots organizing and unity building can prevail.

Joelle Fishman is chair of the Political Action Commission of the Communist Party USA, and can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com.