Students contribute to Democratic movements in state and local elections

Aug. 17, 2020, 9:00 p.m.

Stanford students are contributing to the growing progressive movement in the United States by working for state and local campaigns that align with their hopes for the future of American politics. 

Last Tuesday’s primaries proved that grassroots efforts across the country are working — riding on the progressive wave propelled by Black Lives Matter protests and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-Vt.) former presidential campaign, progressive candidates like Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) won huge victories, reflecting the rising left-wing flank of the Democratic Party. 

During his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, Sanders ran on a platform of democratic socialism that highlighted what he and his supporters deemed the failings of American capitalism. Sanders’ movement proved especially attractive to young voters, many of whom grew inspired by this political discourse and sought to involve themselves in progressive and anti-capitalist movements. 

Included in this group of young people is Andrew Hong ’24, who recently helped Kirsten Harris-Talley win a primary battle for a seat in the Washington state legislature through his work as her field organizer and youth team director. 

“We need to elect progressives because they are more likely to enact anti-racist and anti-capitalist policies,” Hong wrote in a statement to The Daily. “Politicians who are progressive and refuse corporate donations will listen to the people more, and organizing people is fundamentally what it takes to pass progressive policy in this country.”

Hong’s concerns are echoed by many others who fear that the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) unleashed corporations to spend millions of dollars pushing their political interests. 

Josh Cobler ’20 wrote in a statement to The Daily that he felt that the powerful influence of corporate money in politics was corrupting elections and policymaking, leading him to volunteer for Lorenzo Sanchez’s campaign for the Texas House of Representatives. As a postcard writer, he is reaching out to voters every week about Sanchez’s commitments to expanding healthcare, funding schools and rejecting corporate PAC money.

“My hope is that all of us who are sick of both parties’ corporate-friendly politics that fuel massive levels of wealth and racial inequality in this country will replace the elected officials who uphold that system,” Cobbler wrote.

As more and more candidates discuss the ways in which American politics often fail vulnerable communities, many students have been driven to fight for marginalized parts of the body politic. Lindsey McKhann ’24, who worked for Angie Craig’s congressional campaign as an intern making calls to voters, volunteers and donors and conducting various research, social media and fundraising projects, said she holds a “fundamental belief” that governments exist to better the lives of their citizens.

“The representatives and candidates that, on one hand, have shown consistent dedication to promoting justice for all and, on the other hand, effectively author and implement solutions to do so are the ones I will fight for to get elected to government,” McKhann wrote in a statement to The Daily.

In advocating for marginalized communities, many have focused on environmental justice and ecological racism, noting how climate change has primarily impacted people of color. Predominantly Black neighborhoods are exposed to 1.5 times more particulate matter than the general population, and studies show that race is the single biggest factor in determining how close someone lives to a hazardous waste facility. Hoping to address some of these concerns, Divyesh Khatri ’24 served as the director for environmental policy at Raj Salhotra’s campaign for Houston City Council At-Large Position 1. Salhotra lost his race last December.

“Environmental policy is specifically important to me because the burden of pollution often falls on racial minorities,” Khatri wrote in a statement to The Daily, citing complaints amongst the Houston Latinx community that Texaco and other fuel refineries have dumped dangerous chemical toxins into their neighborhoods. “Over many years, the Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a study that found that many in these neighborhoods suffer from poor health and higher levels of cancer.”

“It is necessary to shift the balance of power to those that have historically been on the short end of the stick,” Khatri wrote. “Power to the people should truly mean power to the people.”

Likewise, Hong was pushed to become involved in progressive electoral campaigns by recognizing the issues that marginalized communities around him faced.

“I saw gun violence, homelessness, ICE and, most importantly, gentrification ravage my community in south Seattle, and it brings me to tears because of how angry I am at the systems that led to such oppression and violence in my community,” Hong said.

While many students are fighting to enact change on a state and local level, these elections are not as widely glamorized and followed as national campaigns, leading to very low voter turnout. Across the United States, only about 27% of eligible voters vote in municipal elections, and this number decreases as the elections get smaller and more local. Despite this, Cobler emphasized the importance of local elections in shaping the lives of millions of people.

“On the statewide level, the Republican Party currently controls every chamber of government,” Cobler said. “Having [Lorenzo Sanchez] in place of my ultra-conservative state representative can help stop some of the right-wing policies that were being pushed at the state level, like the attempts to close every abortion clinic in Texas in 2014 that originally got me involved in statewide politics.”

The comparatively smaller electorates of local elections also allow students to connect with voters in their community as they fight for progressive local candidates. For many, forging these relationships is a big reason why they are so committed to their work. McKhann appreciated the opportunity to talk with members of her community about issues that were important to them.

“I am continuously inspired by the authentic, heartfelt conversations I have been able to have with voters about what they want from their government and the things they find most important in their lives,” she said. “In a culture that is starkly disconnected, both in partisan ideology and in physical distance, genuine and open discourse is what gives me hope that these challenges can be overcome.”

Aside from these conversations, students also introduced voters to new political possibilities and visions. Hong used his involvement in local elections to spread progressive ideas in his community that he feels will aid a political revolution toward a better future.

“Working for electoral campaigns isn’t just about electing a candidate for me, it’s about engaging in community and spreading radical ideas from door to door,” he said. “Doing field work for progressive campaigns gives me an opportunity to reach out to my neighbors and inform them about progressive ideas. Transforming people’s minds helps us all move toward a progressive future, and it’s my way of contributing to the collective anti-capitalist, anti-racist revolution.”

The headline of this article has been updated to better reflect the political positions of the candidates.

Contact Jessica Zhu at jesszhu ‘at’

Jessica Zhu '24 is the executive editor for Vol. 264 and 265 and was formerly head copy editor and a desk editor for news. She studies international relations, human rights and French, and can probably be found at CoHo with a quad espresso.

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