Grassroots activists propel progressive wins in L.A. as California reform efforts fail

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Progressive-leaning grassroots activists upended establishment favorites in California on Election Day, most notably Los Angeles’ first Black district attorney, who was targeted by Black Lives Matter protesters because of her close relationship with police officers and their unions.

Yet the failures of several statewide measures, including one to repeal a ban on affirmative action and another to give enhanced labor protections to ride-share drivers, show that there are still limits for California’s growing left-of-left movement.

In Los Angeles, the victories of reform candidate George Gascón for district attorney and Nithya Raman for City Council, along with the passage of Measure J, which will provide new funding for social services, reflect a more progressive vote in the state’s most populous county compared to the rest of the state.

“L.A. is massive and huge, but it’s also a testing ground for lots of policy,” said Kendall Mayhew, a board member of Ground Game LA, an activist group that endorsed Raman and recommended voting for Gascón.

Claire Donahue, a Sunrise Movement activist who volunteered for Raman’s campaign, predicted that the progressive wins in Los Angeles will be replicated nationwide, particularly in other large cities where Democratic politicians have long held power without serious challenges.

“It will be studied and used as a template for people all around the country for local elections that really affect people’s lives,” Donahue said. “I think more and more, people are seeing the importance of city council and local races.”

Gascón, a former police chief who emigrated from Cuba to the U.S. as a teenager, promised to shake up the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office by creating more transparency and holding law enforcement officers accountable for excessive force and fatal encounters.

His victory was a clear win for Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, which had protested weekly demanding the ouster of District Attorney Jackie Lacey because she had not prosecuted more law enforcement officers who killed civilians. The group has already arranged to meet with Gascón this week.

Meanwhile, Raman, an urban planner who was born in India, ran on a platform of pushing to expand the number of Los Angeles City Council seats, empowering city ethics watchdogs and creating a system for rent forgiveness. She also refused to take money from the real estate or fossil fuel industries.

Her campaign won the admiration of the Democratic Socialists of America, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and a slew of actors like Tina Fey and Natalie Portman in defeating incumbent David Ryu, who was backed by Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Los Angeles voters also endorsed statewide ballot propositions to allow for an increase in commercial property taxes, remove the state ban on affirmative action and allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries. Each failed statewide.

The difference in Los Angeles, activists and experts say, is the coalition of progressive grassroots organizations that were active before 2020 and got an immense boost in enthusiasm and support in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement.

“What these two things did was direct focus to our city,” said Mayhew, of Ground Game LA. “This is an incredibly informed and educated uprising, and that is because of the very deep organizing work.”

Ground Game LA, a member of the progressive activist organization People’s Action, tapped into its national network for help from people around the country to staff phone banks for Raman. The Los Angeles branch of the Sunrise Movement, a climate activist group, endorsed Raman early and supported a group of middle and high schoolers who canvassed for her.

In the end, more than 2,000 people volunteered for Raman, according to her campaign. Volunteers coordinated using the communications app Slack, with separate channels for each neighborhood in the district, to round up volunteers within minutes of a request’s being posted.

“This was a campaign built on the work of organizers and movement leaders who have been fighting for a better LA for years, and so many energized people who were just realizing their power to shape the city,” Raman, who previously served as executive director of the anti-sexual harassment organization Time’s Up, said in a statement.

Progressive activists aligned with Sanders’ presidential campaign and local groups like Ground Game LA and the Sunrise Movement have become “very skilled and sophisticated political organizers,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, who spent four decades on the City Council and then the county Board of Supervisors.

“It’s a political earthquake,” Yaroslavsky said of Raman’s win. “It should wake up City Hall and the political community to what’s going on. She has a movement behind her. She’s not just a sole practitioner. When she decides to propose something in City Hall, it won’t just be her. It’ll be the organization behind her.”

Grassroots activists also helped fend off Proposition 20, which would have toughened sentencing in criminal cases and reduced the number of inmates eligible for early parole.

The initiative lost statewide by more than 1 million votes, including in counties that voted for President Donald Trump. Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, credited the measure’s defeat to years of canvassing up and down the state.

“We started to organize eight years ago — knocking on doors not during an election season, just to see what people needed,” he said. “People said it was the first time officials knocked on their door not asking for a vote.”

Still, in a state that overwhelmingly voted for former Vice President Joe Biden over Trump, California voters rejected a number of measures that would have pushed the state further left.

Among them was Proposition 16, which would have repealed the state’s ban on affirmative action, enacted in the 1990s. Backers of the initiative worried in recent weeks that support among voters was low, in part because of a rushed election season.

Democratic lawmakers put the measure on the ballot in June following the death of George Floyd in May and the nationwide outrage that followed. Supporters of the initiative pointed to his death while in police custody in Minneapolis as evidence of the barriers facing Black Americans and communities of color.

Across the state, 56 percent of voters rejected Proposition 16. But Los Angeles County voters favored it by a narrow margin, 51 percent to 48 percent.

California voters also snubbed measures that would have allowed for the expansion of rent control and increased taxes on commercial landlords, and they nixxed a proposal that would have given greater protections to drivers for ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft.

Despite the defeats, observers say California progressives are on track to continue passing reform-minded measures in the future.

“I’m very encouraged,” Greg Carr, chair of the Afro-American studies department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said during a Facebook Live conversation with Black leaders across the country. “California is doing what California is always supposed to do in the state, which is show us the possibilities of the [nation] we live in.”