What Really Happened: The Final Chapter
The last installment in my story from when I worked as a field organizer for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Though time didn’t seem to be moving any faster, fall blended together and finally, we arrived at election day. The finish line was in sight. The previous weeks and months had been spent preparing for Get Out The Vote (GOTV) and we were operating at peak numbness. Fires sprang up and were promptly extinguished. All we wanted was for it to be over.
GOTV was an all out, door knocking offensive. We each needed enough volunteers to knock all the targeted doors in our communities two and a half times over. That’s what headquarters in Brooklyn said would guarantee a victory and polls were giving Hillary a 71% chance of winning. In Norristown, our operation was so well implemented that we hit each door four times, sometimes five. I got a concerning number of reports that some blocks in the neighborhood had just a single door-front plastered with election notices, while all the other doors on the block remained bare. But oh well, “Brooklyn says”. Sometime after sunset we submitted the very last of our data and sat down in front of a TV tuned to CNN.
That night was…...
I only remember fragmented details but the overwhelming sentiment still lingers. I wasn’t surprised, more just deeply disturbed by the realization that, oh... this country is evil evil.
The results came in and Pennsylvania went red.
After a day of mourning, organizers convened at the field office in Ardmore to recoup. We listened in on a conference call in which Pennsylvania State Director Corey Dukes, holding back tears, said, “We did not lose, we got beat.” The arrogance almost made me choke on my free pizza, this was all so hilariously sad. Later that night I posted a one page reflection, far more innocuous than this one, looking back on what I learned from my time on the campaign.
I didn’t name names but I criticized campaign leadership for being out of touch with organizers in the field. I implored liberals to think harder about the ideals they claim to stand for. The strategy that required organizers to make a minimum of 300 nightly calls was ineffective and only ensured that we would burn out. Inexplicably, identical methods were applied to the city streets of Norristown as to the farmlands of York County where Clinton lost heavily. A sheer lack of effort to persuade anyone who wasn’t identified as a known democratic supporter fed into the demise of an inadequate blueprint.
That night, Nina and I joined the Philly Socialists in a march that started off in the hundreds and continued growing until thousands of us flooded the streets. Energy radiated off of the crowd as we moved together up Broad Street, taking swigs from a bottle of wine with Nina’s friend Julie. Waves of armed police followed and tried to contain us on the ground while helicopters tracked us from up above. They could’ve snuffed us out in an instant if given the order. People were furious and the fact that the party had ignored their anger in favor of calls for civility and moderation was staring us straight in the face. We should’ve been in the streets a long time ago.
The following morning on our way to clean out the office, I got a call from my boss who told me I needed to take down what I had written. She was very upset but... we lost. It was over and I didn’t have to listen to her anymore. I said no and she hung up. I looked at Nina who was at the wheel of her Ford Focus. “That felt pretty good” I said.
Soon I got a call from my boss’ boss, the Deputy Organizing Director, who urged me to remove my post out of concern for people who might read it and feel badly. I said something like, “Maybe people need to feel bad, look who’s president”, and declined to take it down a second time. That's when Nina and I went off. We told him how backwards our strategy had been from the very beginning and asked for a real answer to the question of whether there is any actual data to show the efficacy of having a field team.
The answer: No.
We told him about just a few of the countless racist and classist things we witnessed within the campaign, and how mining low income communities for their data does not count as organizing. He listened, or at least he didn’t hang up, but he had nothing to say. And we understood. He was only two rungs above us organizers, just another pawn.
Later on at the office I got a call from the State Operations Director. She was livid. She threatened that the DNC would pursue legal action against me if I didn’t remove my post, citing my criticism of our campaign strategy as a violation of the non-disclosure agreement they made us sign back in July. That seemed more legit so I took down what I had written. They got their way that time, but the DNC had put a battery in me and I was determined to use it while it still had some charge left.
The truth is that organizers were worked to the point of exhaustion. It was routine to work 14 hour days and a typical work week was between 85 and 95 hours. I worked every day for four months straight but some people had been there since long before the primaries. In return, we received a monthly salary that came out to slightly less than minimum wage in Pennsylvania, and about half of the $15 minimum wage laid out in the party platform.
The day after the election, another Pennsylvania organizer named Bethany Katz filed a class-action lawsuit against the DNC for failing to pay its organizers for working overtime. The lawsuit sought fair pay for fair work and to hold the Democratic Party to the same ideals that progressives historically have fought for on behalf of American workers. However, a U.S. district judge concluded that campaign workers were not engaged in “interstate commerce” or the production of goods, and consequently were not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act.
As we suspected it would be, the case was dismissed and we didn’t get our overtime pay. I recalled how, in the closing weeks of the campaign, entire evenings were dedicated to calling into other battleground states like Florida and North Carolina in order to solicit voter data. In doing so, we were undoubtedly crossing state lines, so the court’s ruling must have hinged on what technically counts as commerce.
In 2015, Barack Obama gave his campaign email list, valued at nearly $2M, to the DNC as an in-kind donation. Obama’s organization, Organizing For America, made similar donations in 2013 and 2014. In April of 2018, however, The Intercept published an article in which they showed that the Democratic National Committee had paid Hillary Clinton’s new group, Onward Together, $1.65M for access to the email list, voter data, and software produced by Hillary for America during her 2016 presidential campaign. They also detailed how the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (D triple C) has also paid more than $700,000 to rent the same email list.
The very same commerce that a district judge had ruled we did not produce was being sold for more than $2M, and organizers will never see a penny of it. Nor will any of the communities we were supposed to serve. This was indicative of a much larger problem.
A major concern we had during the campaign was how we were being funded, and how those funds were distributed, specifically amongst democratic candidates. According to POLITICO, The Hillary Victory Fund was a joint fundraising committee that consisted of Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and 32 individual state party committees. This allowed Hillary to solicit checks exceeding $350,000 from rich donors, as she would have access to that money through the numerous arms of the victory fund. As an employee of Pennsylvania’s state party, I was part of the “coordinated campaign”, which meant that we campaigned not only for Hillary, but for all democrats up and down the ballot. In reality though, there was a running joke that if democratic senate candidate Katie McGinty had walked into our office, none of the organizers would have recognized her because we were barely educated on candidates other than Hillary. This was the case for most down ballot democrats and for an obvious reason, the campaign put all its eggs in one presidential basket. When Hillary lost, so did most democrats at the local level.
According to that same POLITICO article, “less than 1% of the $61 million” raised by the Hillary Victory Fund stayed in the state parties’ control. This was no secret to state party officials. One in particular called the setup “a one-sided benefit” but declined to speak further on the record for fear of consequences that criticizing the campaign might bring.
The single greatest priority was making Hillary president and this kind of one track thinking engendered a culture of perverted opportunism. In the final weeks before the election we received boxes full of placards with slogans like “Asian Pacific Islanders for HRC” or “Mujeres por Hillary” that blatantly touted affinity groups like mascots. Other posters had lame, meaningless slogans like “Do the most good” or simple buzzwords like “Forward” or “Stronger”. As Jon Favreau pointed out on “The Wilderness” podcast, when an organization tries out its slogans on focus groups and uses only the ones that test well across all demographics, often what is left sounds generally agreeable but says absolutely nothing. Favreau can often be insufferable but I agree with him on this.
I remember once riding in the passenger seat of my boss’ light green Prius when I decided to ask her what she thought of Hillary’s racist “super predators” remark. That’s when she told me, “Yeah, that wasn’t the best but Af-Ams still love HRC”. I nearly died from secondhand embarrassment. ‘Cause like, damn. She really just said Af-Ams. Is it at all surprising that these people would also genuinely believe, “we didn’t lose, we got beat”?
Fast forward to today.
I look around and see democrats doing the exact same thing as last time. In an election with two choices we must always choose the best option available, but being the least regressive is not the same as being a champion of progress. Opposing a figurehead president is not the same as having a unifying message. The party is trotting out moderates with their pleas for a return to normalcy and decency, and many fearful liberals are eating it up. We’ve forgotten who we are. The democratic party is the party of the working class and under no circumstances should we be appealing to our base from the center, our appeal must always come from the left.
Candidates with platforms like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should represent the new standard that democrats must meet before we even consider supporting them. Anyone who falls short is lying to us about what can be achieved. The U.S. has 58% of the world’s millionaires but represents only 4% of the global population. Our standards are so low that we acted like Bernie was a radical, when in reality he would have been a relatively standard New Deal liberal. American politics today is little more than right-wing infighting. Wealthy donors support republican candidates as well as their moderate democratic counterparts for one reason, they’re on the same team.
President Obama himself admitted this at the late John McCain’s funeral. In a stirring eulogy he said, though they had their differences, “We never doubted we were on the same team”. What team was that exactly? Politicians who refused to punish white collar crime and were funded by absurdly wealthy super PACs? Americans in favor of criminalizing human migration and deporting brown people back to the countries that our own government destabilized? Leaders who presided over military operations that killed innocent civilians and called it collateral damage?
What are we even doing?
Any candidate who will not plainly say that ICE should be abolished is not worth our time. Any politician who does not vow to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs is not worth our time. Any person running for office who doesn’t support healthcare as a human right, tuition free college, or a federal jobs guarantee is not worth our time. If I'm being really honest, any candidate who doesn’t at least acknowledge the need for a discussion around reparations for slavery and genocide is not worth our time. We’re the base. We run this shit and we can tell democrats to do better. Just look at what the republican base did to their party.
November is just around the corner and I urge liberals, beware. Human life on this planet is facing critical and imminent danger and we’re the only ones who can save us from ourselves. Our reflection and our action must be simultaneous. When we fail to engage in praxis, we doom ourselves to the way things have already been.
HFA / PA Victory Staff:
Bethany Katz Class-Action Lawsuit:
Intercept article - Onward Together Selling Voter Data:
POLITICO Article on Hillary Victory Fund: