In summary

As the country’s demographics shift to include more people of color, Los Angeles provides a model for how to win high-stakes races for progressive change.

By Tim Molina

Tim Molina is a senior political strategist for California Donor Table, a statewide community of donors, tim@californiadonortable.org.

Tina McKinnor, Special to CalMatters

Tina McKinnor is the director of civic engagement at LA Voice Action, a community organization, tina@lavoiceaction.org.

With the Democratic Party engaged in the inevitable post mortems on why the 2020 election didn’t deliver the down-ballot gains people anticipated, Los Angeles offers an important lesson on what it takes to win. 

Two pivotal races in Los Angeles County show the transformative power of building, funding and empowering local organizing networks led by communities of color. 

In the first race, George Gascón defeated Jackie Lacey to become L.A.’s first progressive district attorney. In the second, Holly J. Mitchell, a longtime champion for working families in the California Legislature, defeated political powerhouse Herb Wesson to become county supervisor in District 2. 

In both these races, our organizations supported an unprecedented coalition of faith-based, labor and other progressive organizations led by Black, Brown and other Angelenos of color. We built field programs led by people from South and East L.A., many of whom have been impacted by an unfair criminal justice system. We pooled more than $3.5 million from progressive donors, labor, institutional partners and grassroots fundraising to reach mostly young voters and voters of color in multiple platforms and multiple languages. And we relied on local voices, ensuring that 250,000 voters were contacted by someone who lived in their region.

Los Angeles County is larger than 41 states. Each supervisor represents nearly 2 million people – also larger than many states – and the board oversees a $35.5 billion annual budget and more than 112,000 employees. With this size and scale, what works in Los Angeles to deliver wins for communities of color can also work across the state and country. 

These also aren’t strategies only for deep blue communities and states. L.A.’s voting history may be primarily Democratic, but the city and county’s history has been far from progressive. Changing this requires an investment in deep organizing networks that support bold, transformational candidates. 

For generations, Angelenos, and particularly residents of color, have paid a steep price for “law-and-order” criminal justice policies, police violence, political corruption and racist governance. Entrenched political factions, backed by powerful interests like police unions and big business, have been used to calling the shots on who runs for office and who gets elected before a single vote has taken place. 

The L.A. District Attorney and District 2 supervisor races this year were no different in many respects. In both cases, millions from police and corporate interests poured in to sway the outcome. Usually, these monies go mostly to white consultants who use them to develop TV and mail campaigns to persuade white likely voters. 

This year, we set out to disrupt this paradigm by organizing progressive donors to back grassroots efforts to get out the vote and win the election. The result: progressive candidates won big against an entrenched political establishment.

Los Angeles is a microcosm of the shifts we’re seeing around the country: 10 million people, growing populations of people of color, a surging Latinx population, suburban electorates shifting from red to blue, and urban electorates shifting from blue to progressive.

Turning these population trends into progressive election results requires investment in organizing. By lifting up community voices, and getting their people to the polls, these communities grabbed hold of the political conversation instead of being relegated to the margins. Now, they have elected powerful politicians who will be accountable to their needs and their interests.

As the country’s demographics shift to include more people of color, Los Angeles can truly model how to win high-stakes races where progressive change is on the line. It happens from the ground up, and it has to be led by the communities that have been most impacted by the status quo.

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