Nov 14, 2012/01:59 PM

From Margin to Center*: Virginia and the New Southern Battleground

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by Jon Liss

For 50 years Virginia and the South have been relegated to political backwater on the margins of history.   With our racially polarized voting patterns, systemic disenfranchisement of people of color, relative absence of unions or social justice institutions, and two dominant political parties generally competing for the same mythic white middle class male voter – no one outside the region really cared.  Every four years since LBJ’s election in 1964 you could pencil in the Republican candidate for Virginia’s Electoral College votes.

Over the last few months, Virginia has jumped to the center of political / electoral universe.  Believe me, it feels good to be loved!  Even mainstream Republicans know the story – a bloc of voters of color spearheaded by a powerfully united African American community, combined with women voters outraged by attacks on women’s health and reproductive rights, young voters and urban white voters  – just won the state for Obama by 100,000 votes.    VNM was in the mix – we moved massive field campaigns mobilizing immigrant and Latino/a voters, African American voters, women and newly registered voters as well as some work with elderly voters.  All told we talked to 141,000 households across the states main urban regions.

As the dust settles, what should be done?

1)      Press OUR agenda – our opponents are relentless and ruthless, the President’s natural inclination is to compromise.  Let’s not repeat what happen d four years ago where we kicked back and basked in the warm feelings of our collective victory.  In Virginia, this means fighting to actually implement Obamacare.  In Virginia 400,000 low-income are being denied access to Medicaid because Governor McDonnell and the General Assembly won’t move.  This seems like the best place to insert a fired up populous – our state has twice vote for Obama and Obamacare – now lets put some marching boots on the ground and demand it.

2)      Let’s fight for free, fair, efficient and democratic elections – In Virginia we coordinated 200 Election Protection volunteers who largely prevented or quickly addressed most election administrative problems.  The State Board of Elections was fairly responsive to our complaints and concerns.  That’s not enough.  When thousands of voters waited two, three, and four hours to vote that’s a systemic failure.  If our polling places cannot accommodate massive voter turnout –then let’s permit early voting, let’s permit no-fault absentee voting, and let’s extend voting hours to well past 7pm so that working people, trapped in commuter traffic  can vote.

Even better, let’s re-enfranchise the 350,000 Virginian’s who have lost the right to vote because they are formerly incarcerated.  As we registered 15,000 voters across the state we encountered hundreds of potential voters who were stymied because of Viriginia’s archaic requirement that the formerly incarcerated be ‘pardoned’ by the Governor.

3)      Social Justice Infrastructure – Virginia, like much of the South, has a very thin and weak social justice infrastructure.  Just as national support was critical to the Civil Rights movement it is important that national institutions including unions, foundations, and churches step up and lend a hand as we build a Virginia portion of a new Southern majority.

4)      In the first few days after the election it is already clear that both political parties are going to move to pass some kind of comprehensive immigration reform.  As Virginia and the South move inexorably toward a majority people of color population – we can expect renewed efforts to differentiate good and bad ‘immigrants’ or good and bad people of color.  Fault lines will be discovered and magnified to separate Latino/as from African Americans, Indians from Vietnamese.  There will be attempts to ‘break’ off certain communities through favored treatment.  Like old apartheid South African —honorary whites will be invented —for privileged treatment.  As organizers we need to up the ante and big to build unity around a program that we co-develop, understand, believe in and fight for.  What is the role of government?  What is the appropriate relationship between government  and private business?  As Sandy, made clear, what needs to change in our current model of development to halt climate change?

Let’s savor our immediate victory – we beat back millions of corporate dollars, laws designed to prevent voting, and a unified Republican Party – and lay the ground work for the 21st Century Virginia that we so desperately need.

*thanks to Bell hooks
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