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Fresno Progressives: Developing a Unified Voice to Win Political Power
Jim Hightower inspired many in Fresno to work on building a strong progressive movement. Photo by Howard Watkins
Is it possible to build a movement in Fresno and the Central Valley that amplifies the message of progressives and develops a strategic plan to win local political power? Activists in the Progressive Network of Central California (PNCC), formed soon after national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author Jim Hightower spoke in Fresno on Oct. 1, 2011, thought they could.
Connie Peterson, one of the key organizers of the Hightower event, said she and fellow activists were motivated when “we realized that although there are a large number of progressive organizations in the Central Valley, there was little formal connection between the groups.”
Peterson, who was active in Volunteers for Change, an organization that emerged out of the 2008 Obama campaign, said a motivating factor for her involvement was that “many organizations were working in isolation around specific issues. We saw the potential for much more effective action if all of these groups could coalesce—could identify and act on issues that impacted values held in common even if the respective group retained their primary purpose.”
Michael D. Evans, chairperson of the Fresno County Democratic Party and a member of the PNCC steering committee, had similar motives for getting involved. He said, “There has long been recognition in the community that we have a strong progressive base, but that it is fragmented. Most local progressive organizations tended to work in silos and/or to be focused on a single issue. The idea of trying to unify those disparate groups just made good strategic sense.”
The Hightower event resulted in many of the 350-plus people attending to become excited about building a stronger and more unified progressive movement. Follow-up meetings were held to build on the momentum, clarify goals and develop a plan of action.
A few broad categories of agreement emerged.
The newly formed group wanted to develop an “action alert” network to mobilize progressive activists to take unified actions, for example, around events like the proposed destruction of Jesse Morrow Mountain.
There was an acknowledgment that a strategic plan around electoral politics needed to be developed.
The importance of bringing progressive activists together was seen as important, although it was never agreed how exactly to implement the idea. A monthly breakfast? An annual motivational speaker? Something else?
The group wanted to develop a community calendar, much like the Peace and Social Justice Calendar in this newspaper.
The leadership of the emerging PNCC recognized that there were dozens (probably more than 100) progressive groups in Fresno, but that those organizations were not working together on a unified strategy that would further their collective goals or achieve political power. Most progressive groups work in their own “silos” and tend to focus on a single issue, such as environmental justice, peace, LGBTQ, organized labor or immigration.
Within the PNCC, there were forces that wanted to create a new paradigm that would result in progressive activists getting to know each other better, work together on one strategic project every month or two and develop an electoral strategy that would get progressives elected to local office. A stronger, united and more strategic progressive movement in Fresno, it was argued, could and would take political power.
Howard Watkins, who was an active member of the steering committee of the PNCC, identified an early success of the group as having “helped to mobilize community opposition to corporate conglomerate Cemex’s efforts to mine/destroy Jesse Morrow Mountain (JMM) east of Fresno.”
Watkins said that “large attendance was generated at Fresno County Planning Committee meetings, which led to the Commission voting it down. At the Board of Supervisors, it was again ultimately defeated.”
Several PNCC steering committee members interviewed for this article cited the “action alert” sent out by the organization on JMM as evidence that unifying progressive groups around an issue could have a profound impact on local issues.
Not everyone was pleased with the PNCC’s action alert to mobilize around the Jesse Morrow Mountain issue. Representatives from the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council (CLC) let it be known that organized labor did not support the group’s position on JMM. The proposed mine would have brought jobs to the area, and the CLC was hoping that some of those would be well-paid union jobs.
The CLC also objected to progressive environmental justice groups’ position on moving Darling International, a rendering plant in southwest Fresno. The reality of building a unified progressive movement with groups that have different perspectives and priorities was starting to emerge.
Another challenge facing the PNCC was local progressive groups’ single-issue focus. There is a long tradition of each group addressing its one issue and not working in solidarity with other groups, let alone forming a network to coordinate political action.
Pam Whalen, president of the Central Valley Progressive PAC (CVPPAC), said that “in order to solve all of the problems that different groups in Fresno are addressing, the real solution to solving those problems is by having political power. If there is no leadership with a plan to get the political power, then you are caught in this cycle of never being able to resolve the problems.”
By June 2012, when Peterson left Fresno, the PNCC was being led by 10–15 activists from some of the larger progressive groups in the Fresno area. There was an attempt to bring another big speaker to Fresno, which was not successful. Action alerts went out about a trail in Clovis, Fresno City Council meetings on the General Plan Update and in opposition to the mayor’s effort to privatize residential sanitation workers.
It was the work around Measure G (the privatization of city sanitation workers) that brought organized labor and the PNCC back together again. The powerful labor/community alliance that emerged to challenge Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and her attack on organized labor led to a huge victory for the garbage workers and the realization that unity was possible.
Shortly after the Measure G victory, the Sierra Nevada Opportunity Political Action Committee (SNOPAC) began organizing in the Fresno area. SNOPAC is a group working regionally on electoral politics with close ties to organized labor and an understanding of the importance of building a broad coalition and developing a strategic plan to get progressives elected to local offices.
SNOPAC, known locally as the Fresno Partnership, has organized numerous candidate forums, including the Fresno City Council candidate forum held at Fresno City College in January. The January forum was a huge success, bringing together organized labor and progressive community groups to ask questions of the candidates. The Fresno Partnership followed up with a candidate forum for the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and District Attorney races—both of which were wildly successful. The District Attorney forum was standing room only.
There is now hope that an alliance of labor and progressive community groups can win a majority on both the Fresno City Council and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. The Fresno Partnership, the CVPPAC and the Democratic Party are all working toward that goal.
CVPPAC President Whalen says she is hopeful of victory because “we know that we have a majority of people who live in the city of Fresno that support our progressive values and issues like having a living wage for all workers and just immigration reform.
“By having the leaders of our community in the labor and progressive movement working together we have the potential to bring that majority of support for progressive values and issues and form that into an actual plan to govern Fresno.”
Evans, who was on the steering committee of the PNCC and is with the Democratic Party, said that “continued coalition building and the expansion of collaborative efforts are critical to progressive activities. At this time, the Fresno Partnership seems the best avenue for that.”
Stephen Sacks, a PNCC steering committee member representing the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Church, summed up why the group ended, saying that the “monthly meetings of the PNCC tended to have a continuous conversation about ‘Where do we go from here’ with some great ideas. The biggest problem was that the PNCC leadership members were all actively putting their energy into other worthy groups. For that reason, the great ideas, which involved lots of work, never materialized.”
The PNCC sent out its last Action Alert in May, has given the money left in its treasury to the Community Alliance newspaper and will give its e-mail list to the Fresno Partnership. The effort to amplify the voice of the progressive movement, build greater solidarity among local groups and develop a strategy around electoral politics has advanced, but the work is far from done.
[This article first appeared in the June 2014 Community Alliance newspaper]
Mike Rhodes is an independent journalist and frequent contributor to Indymedia and the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at mikerhodes [at] comcast.net.