I conducted this interview in December 2011 and originally published it for a now defunct blog on third party politics. Phoenix Woman’s recent diary on the Tea Party, Greens and third party politics got me thinking about these issues once again so I decided to re-post this article here at FDL.
The point I am trying to make is under the radar of mainstream media and even most progressive political discussions there have been long-term efforts at electoral politics from a left and progressive perspective that have been successful. The Vermont Progressive Party is one such example and I think their organizing and strategic decisions deserve a close look if leftists and progressives are seeking ways to break out of being marginalized in US politics and progressive voters are tired of lesser evilism in politics.
Model for Change: http://www.progressiveparty.org/organize/model
The Vermont Progressive Party is America’s best-kept secret of a third party which has become successful as a force to be reckoned with in Vermont state politics. According to its Wikipedia page the Vermont Progressive Party has elected officials in local town governments and local boards in Vermont; various offices in the city of Burlington, including its mayor, two ward clerks and several seats in City Council; seats in the Vermont House of Representatives and Senate. And of course, current U.S. Senator Bernard Sanders is a founder of, and is largely identified with the Vermont Progressive Party.
I recently corresponded with VPP Party Director Morgan Daybell and he was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions for Third Party Independent. Chief in my mind was finding out if there is a formula for the VPP’s success in Vermont and if it is possible for other political parties and organizations which seek to challenge the Republican-Democrat duopoly to duplicate that success elsewhere.
Q: What would you say are the key factors to the VPP’s approach to electoral politics that has established it as a force in Vermont state politics and which sets it apart from other efforts by third parties who have not been as successful?
The major difference between our approach and those of many other third parties is that we have stayed focused on local/state races. In those elections corporate money has a smaller influence, and over many one-on-one conversations with voters, you can begin to overcome the brand-awareness the Democrats and Republicans enjoy. You can’t do that at the Federal level without huge amounts of money.
Q: No doubt that the VPP has encountered the argument that portray non-mainstream candidates as spoilers in elections where they split the vote between the two parties who are closest ideologically to allow the opposing, major party to win the election. How do you deal with that argument in convincing voters to vote for VPP candidates?
No doubt! It is the challenge of having three viable parties in a two-party system. It has helped that our standard-bearer came in second, behind the incumbent Republican, in the 2008 Governor’s race. There is also an increasing awareness that the Democrats and Republicans who get elected are not that different in some fundamental ways. People are waking up to the fact that they are forced to choose between one candidate who will support policies that help corporations at the expense of the middle and working classes while telling you they will protect your gun rights, and another candidate who will support policies that help corporations at the expense of the middle and working classes while telling you they will protect your abortion rights. Abortion rights and gun rights are not going to be changed in Vermont any time soon. Budgets and tax bills get passed every year, and both the Democrats and Republicans currently worship at the altar of austerity and tax cuts for the wealthiest.
We also are trying different things tactically to neutralize that concern. In some cases, our candidates have entered, or won by write-in, other parties’ primaries in order to make the general election a two-way race. Sometimes we can keep an opponent out by announcing early with a strong candidate. In every 2010 Statehouse race we mounted, we were the major party opposition. This is hard to explain with our multi-seat districts, but where we ran in one-seat districts there were only two major party candidates—all a Republican vs. a Progressive/Democrat. In all multi-seat districts, for every Progressive that ran, there was one less candidate of the other two parties. That might have been two Progressives and two Democrats contesting a two-seat district, or three Republicans, two Democrats, and one Progressive/Democrat contesting a three-seat district.
Q: How does the party identify, nurture and develop high-quality individuals who will make compelling candidates to run in elections?
In terms of identifying candidates, there is no magic bullet. We have some come to us through the party and our members out in the towns. We work with many activist groups and labor unions in the state and try to recruit people from those ranks. Sometimes it is as simple as paying attention to the people speaking up at town meeting and writing to their local paper on issues important to us, and then encouraging them to take their advocacy to the next step.
Q: Does the party require a candidate pledge for every candidate who runs on the VPP banner? If yes, how does it enforce the pledge?
We have major party status in Vermont, which means that we have an open primary. Anyone can file signatures to run in our primary, and run under our banner if they win.
While there is no specific pledge, we only recruit candidates who support our principles/platform, and can choose which candidates receive party resources.
Q: How does the party decide which electoral races to enter and which not to?
For Statehouse and municipal elections, we look at a lot of factors—open seats, bad incumbents, strong Progressive candidates, districts we think progressives will do well based on Bernie Sanders’ past races and other statewide progressive races).
To maintain major party status, we need to get 5 percent in one statewide race. Generally we have done that in down-ticket races. In 2009, we laid out three issues that we would evaluate all gubernatorial candidates on: closing our aging nuke, supporting single-payer healthcare, and not balancing the budget on the backs of working Vermonters. The eventual Democratic candidate addressed those issues to the extent where we decided to stay out of that race. He won a close victory, and our entrance in that race likely would have reversed the outcome. As Governor, he has followed through on the first two, but done poorly on the third. We are evaluating that strategy, and whether it makes sense to stay out again.
Q: Does the VPP take positions on electoral reform issues — e.g. IRV or range voting, ballot access, inclusion in televised debates for independents and third parties, etc.? Is there a component of working for these reforms in VPP’s activism?
Absolutely! While the press is getting better at including Progressives in debates since we secured major party status, they and the legislature continue to exclude independents. We’ve long supported increased ballot access and argued against turning our elections over to Diebold. We’ve also been fighting for IRV statewide, although the irony is that the more we find ways to run without “spoiling,” the less incentive the Democrats have to move this issue forward.
Q: What do you think of the Occupy movement? Has the VPP approached or been approached by the Occupy chapter in Vermont or elsewhere about the possibility of working together?
We are supportive of the movement, and many Progressives are involved here and have made trips to NYC to protest there. We have been hammering on the themes of corporate control of our democracy and economy for decades now, and are glad this awareness is spreading.
OWS clearly does not want any outside groups co-opting their movement, and so our institutional involvement has been limited to encouraging our members to be involved. I have had some discussion with people involved locally with OWS, but not with us, who do want to see OWS challenge elected officials. Those are conversations between individuals, but we’d be proud to work with some of those folks on campaigns in the upcoming election.
Q: If you were to give advice — based on the VPP’s record of success in Vermont state politics — to the nationwide Occupy movement and other fledgling political reform efforts that aim to directly challenge the dominance of the two major parties in U.S. electoral politics, what would it be?
Get politically active outside of the two parties. Run locally.
Run locally for partisan office as a Progressive or Conservative or Green or Whig or Socialist or Independent or whatever.
Right now we can’t compete against the money from either party at the Federal level. But in a way, we don’t have too. We are a small state, but we abolished slavery as a state, and that eventually led the nation. We led the nation on civil unions for same-sex couples, and then we were the first to pass marriage equality without court order; the nation is slowly following. We may well be the first state to have a single-payer healthcare system. That won’t happen nationally until one of the states gets it right and serves as a model.
So, don’t run for President or US Senate or US House. Run for City Council. Or School Board. Work your way up to State House. That is where individuals can still make a difference.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say to readers regarding the Vermont Progressive Party?
Did I say run locally enough? I guess I’d just add a pitch to visit our web site, comment on what we are doing, and support us so we can continue this work for another 30 years.