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Grassroots progressive coalition takes shape in Pennsylvania

February 29, 2020 GMT
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Dom Holmes, a canvasser for Capital Region Stands Up, speaks to a woman at her door as he goes door-to-door asking people to sign a petition for a $15 minimum wage and to come to the organization's meetings, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. With the 2020 presidential election barreling toward Pennsylvania, grassroots progressive groups that largely rose from deep distress over Donald Trump's 2016 victory are trying to amplify their sway in the battleground state by joining together. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)
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Dom Holmes, a canvasser for Capital Region Stands Up, speaks to a woman at her door as he goes door-to-door asking people to sign a petition for a $15 minimum wage and to come to the organization's meetings, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. With the 2020 presidential election barreling toward Pennsylvania, grassroots progressive groups that largely rose from deep distress over Donald Trump's 2016 victory are trying to amplify their sway in the battleground state by joining together. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — With the 2020 presidential election barreling toward Pennsylvania, grassroots progressive groups that largely rose from deep distress over Donald Trump’s 2016 victory are trying to amplify their effect in the battleground state by joining together.

What they are forming is something that looks like a hybrid of a political party and an issues advocacy organization whose political outlook, some members say, is best embodied by Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The new organization, Pennsylvania Stands Up, has stitched together a state umbrella office with a political action committee, fundraising strategies and nine chapters that have moved to fee-based membership models.

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Collectively, they employ 21 staff members and, in a week, chapter representatives will meet for the first time in Philadelphia to adopt a policy platform for their statewide work.

It’s not clear how far the model can go — whether it can continue to expand its membership and become a permanent fixture on Pennsylvania’s political landscape beyond the 2020 election.

It is coming together at a time when many mainstream Democrats fear that Sanders will emerge as the Democratic Party’s nominee.

It is also coming together in a state that shook politics by backing Trump in 2016, marking the first time a Republican presidential candidate had won Pennsylvania since 1988.

Still, its leaders say the problems it wants to solve will not come down to a single candidate or a single election, or simply defeating Trump.

“It’s not just about Trump,” said Jane Palmer, who helped start the group Indivisible Berks, which became Berks Stands Up. “He’s going to go someday. But the ideologies and the money and the forces that put him there are still going to be there, and there are a lot of us that understand that now. And one of the messages now is, ‘Let’s win in 2020, and don’t you dare fall asleep after that.’ We all made that mistake with Obama.”

The idea of a broad-based issues organization starting up with a sort of political party structure is, in many ways, novel, political scientists say.

To some extent, the post-Trump explosion of progressive groups reminds political scientists of the explosion of tea party-aligned groups that emerged after Barack Obama’s election. Those groups never formed a wider structure and disappeared after several years, political scientists say.

One key talking point for Pennsylvania Stands Up is designed to cross political ideologies: the idea that the economy is rigged for the rich, and everyone else is at the bottom.

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That very much sounds like a Sanders or Warren campaign theme.

But, the organization’s members say, Pennsylvania Stands Up is not designed to become a 2020 campaign organization for Sanders or, farther down the road, even its own political party, independent of the Democratic Party.

Two chapters have thus far endorsed Sanders, but that may not necessarily be in the cards for the state umbrella organization.

Beyond national or state politics, chapters can be flexible enough to take on local issues, respond quickly and be present even when there’s no election afoot, members say.

“To actually win real improvements in your life, this isn’t about about winning an election,” said Dan Doubet, the organization’s political director. “This is about saying, ‘We need something in our city or in our life, and we’re going to figure out how to do it.’”

There is some cross-pollination between the Democratic Party and the progressive groups. Some members became Democratic committee members. Many have volunteered on campaigns and plan to keep helping Democrats run for office.

There is also friction. They might draw from the same pool of volunteers and, in Philadelphia, two leaders of the chapter there, Reclaim Philadelphia, are challenging sitting Democratic lawmakers.

For the volunteers who worked long hours to start and sustain a local group, signing a 35-page chapter agreement made sense. They get help with back office functions, such as legal, accounting and fundraising, but keep autonomy on local issues.

Many members see strength in numbers.

Hannah Laurison, the organization’s executive director, started her own volunteer effort called PA Together after Trump’s election to try to help new activists develop an organization, attract new members and start canvassing.

The groups numbered at 500 at their peak, but many struggled with the challenge of getting off Facebook and felt isolated in rural or conservative areas, she said.

Still, their emergence made Laurison and others believe they could appeal to people not just in cities, but in deep-red areas where conservative media dominates the message and Democratic Party organization is weak.

Lancaster Stands Up, begun in a county where Republicans outnumber Democrats 3 to 2, might prove the theory.

Its founders — including two who have gone on to senior posts in Sanders’ current presidential campaign — helped run Jess King’s surprisingly competitive congressional campaign in 2018.

“Progressive forces have systematically disinvested from so many areas in the state,” said Jonathan Smucker, who helped start Lancaster Stands Up, “and that helps explain how Pennsylvania went for Trump in 2016.”

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Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter

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