February 7, 2021
Pearl River There’s no question democracy is under attack all around the world, and, sadly, we are all engaged in a battle to protect the semblance of it that’s left in the United States as well. In a weird way I was a passing witness to a how strong the heartbeat of democratic practice, with all of its challenges and inspiration, is at the grassroots level. Spoiler alert: it was wonderful, but it was real work!
My companera, a community organizer, political activist, and committed feminist, over recent years joined a local political organization called the IWO, which I believe stands for Independent Women’s Organization. The membership is of course all women, and only members are allowed to vote within the organization including on political endorsements, which they make in some races. Not surprisingly, I am a long way from an authority on the organization. I’ve listened to her talk about it from time to time, but I’m not sure I would get more than a passing grade on a pop quiz about all its activities.
Nonetheless, even though for most of America the political season is over, we have a race in New Orleans to replace Cedric Richmond who represented the 2nd Congressional District for a decade until recently joining President Biden in the White House as a senior advisor. There is more than a baker’s dozen candidates offering themselves from all walks of life and experience, which is a footnote to little “d” democracy as well. Some of course are marginal. Some are newcomers with flair and verve. On my drive to work some days I pass an abandoned house spray painted dark pink that celebrates the candidacy of one young woman. I know well a labor activist who was a delegate to the local AFL-CIO from the postal workers when I was the secretary-treasurer of that body and is an around-the block-neighbor of mine. Two of the leading candidates are longtime professional politicians, whose paths have frequently crossed our organizations over the years, both of whom are termed out state senators now in the Louisiana legislature looking to move up with this unexpected opportunity since Richmond at 47, might have had another 30 plus years, had he chosen that route.
Back to the IWO, my son and I got out of the way, as mi companera signed onto a Zoom call to be part of the process at 9AM sharp on a Saturday morning. We checked on her from time to time, not believing as the hours passed that she was still on the call. She would report that candidates were speaking or different IWO members were advancing their causes. Noon came and went, and with hardly a break, she was still wedded to computer, which we could hear clearly whenever we passed near the room where she was ensconced.
Finally, in the early afternoon there seemed to be bustle back there as a rollcall began for the first vote, in what seemed an interminable procedure. When she ran out for a glass of water, I asked where things stood. The IWO rules require a 60% vote for an endorsement. On the first vote one of the state senators, a woman, had polled in the mid-50%, while the other, a man, was 2nd in the 30s. The pink house young woman hit the teens. My neighbor was at 1%, and so forth.
A second vote was required, and the next report indicated the vote leader has still short of the 60%, perhaps missing by as little as a single vote. Failing to endorse on the 2nd ballot, the IWO rules indicated that the members would vote on a dual endorsement. Dual endorsements in grassroots politics are always less than happy events. The leading vote getter is sometimes disappointed, while the second and their supporters are usually happy to not get shutout. In the final report 59% approved a dual endorsement and though my son and I listened to none of this, we gathered there had been some back-and-forth efforts to jiggle the rules, but the workhorses of the IWO were clear that the rules were the rules, and they had to abide by them.
This wasn’t Congress. Rules were rules in the organization, and they had to be followed. Somewhere between 150 and 200 women had hung in on this process from gavel to gavel over seven hours. Do endorsements really determine the outcome of political races, perhaps not, but we were proud of mi companera for her endurance, whether we understood how she had voted or not.
She ran outside when it was over like a prisoner finally winning freedom. We drove off to pick up dinner down the road without hesitation, our small part in supporting grassroots democracy. This is what it takes in America. It was the least we could do.