Close your eyes and imagine for a second: What might happen if Oakland's college kids could choose their own city councilor?
Are you picturing something like Wild in the Streets II: Taking on the Zoning Board? Are you imagining Pitt students crafting ordinances to create a "no-pants zone" on the Cathedral lawn? Or something truly reckless, like a living wage for city workers, better health benefits for university service workers?
If the League of Pissed-Off Voters has its way, all that could happen -- and more. The League, which just wrapped up its convention in Oakland, may fail in its goal to mobilize young voters on the local, state and national level. But it won't be for lack of pragmatism or principle.
During an Aug. 5 press conference, for example, League supporters talked about seizing a unique political opportunity next winter: a special election to fill the city council seat that will be vacated by Gene Ricciardi. (Ricciardi is pursuing the lofty post of district justice, presumably because it offers expanded gavel-banging opportunities.) Already, the usual suspects -- a staffer in Ricciardi's office, some guy in public works -- are lining up to replace him. But as City Councilor Bill Peduto pointed out at the Aug. 5 event, Ricciardi's district includes Pitt's Litchfield Towers dormitory. Some 4,000 residents live in the voting precinct that encompasses the Towers. Most are Pitt students.
Theoretically, those students could elect anyone they wanted. In a February 2003 special election, winner Leonard Bodack needed only 1,200 votes to win a council district. The problem is getting the students to want it. In this year's May primary, only 21 votes for mayor were cast from within the Towers. This despite hopes that activists could build on last year's presidential election, when 1,500 votes were cast in the Towers.
Then again, the May primary is held after school lets out, while next year's special election should take place while the Towers are full. Peduto's own mayoral bid got all but four of the Towers votes this spring, and his Aug. 5 speech lauded the youthful idealism that helped usher in the civil-rights reforms of the 1960s. He even quoted Bob Dylan.
Of course, passing civil-rights legislation needed more than just brash young people: It required the caginess of the ultimate party hack, Lyndon Johnson, and a Democratic political base decades in the making. Perhaps the most significant thing about the Pissed-Off Voters is that they seem to know that.
Lefties are often plagued by the "reform or revolution" conundrum -- the fear that a halfway measure or partial success may siphon off long-term zeal for the cause. Clearly, this isn't something the right worries about: You didn't see the GOP's 1990s takeover of Congress dim their enthusiasm for the reclaiming the White House, for example. The fear doesn't seem to trouble this group of lefties either.
For example, some activists I met expressed actual enthusiasm for Bob Casey, the presumptive Democratic nominee to contest Sen. Rick Santorum's re-election bid next year. To a person, everyone I spoke to was disappointed with Casey's pro-life Catholic stand on abortion. But to a person, they didn't feel the "political infrastructure" existed to get their kind of progressive elected. The state just isn't ready for it. And strangely, "Pissed-Off" attendees didn't seem terribly upset by that. They seemed content to build a coalition that can compromise without being compromised...to fight over the party's future while fighting for it.
For me, the point came home most forcefully while I moderated an Aug. 4 public forum on coalition building. Predictably, Casey got support from a unionist, Gabe Morgan of SEIU Local 3, but he also received warm words from a local gay activist, Scott Safier. Casey supports civil unions for same-sex couples, and while that's arguably a halfway measure, Safier noted that halfway is a long way from where Casey used to stand on the issue. It's even further from where Santorum stands now. Safier says Casey's shift came about after repeated discussions with gay activists; it'd be a tragedy if Casey's openness on such issues ended up rallying Santorum's voters alone.
Lefties might worry that such pragmatism -- a willingness to bend for a party that has bent so far already -- will undermine the progressive cause in the long haul. Right-wingers, though, should worry about what it could accomplish in the meantime.