For social change advocates, progressive community organizers, activists and those who want to see big, meaningful structural change in our communities without leaving anyone behind, the lessons from the recent primary election are hard ones. We lost, mostly.
Incumbents had home-field advantage and mostly swept their primaries, and elsewhere “leadership” (a.k.a party-backed contenders) fended off challenges from outsiders — i.e., candidates who were not already elected officials, with a few discrete exceptions. Entrenched power doesn’t go quietly or quickly. Politicians like to hold onto their jobs as long as they can, and name recognition helps them do so.
Exhibit A: Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson has now twice bested all manner of Democrat-leaning and opposition efforts to oust him, even though he is a “Democrat in name only,” or DINO. Why did his progressive challenger and former legislator Ozzie Fumo lose by 15 points? Money, for one: not having a lot of it limited the Fumo campaign.
But it wasn’t just that. Nobody effectively attacked Wolfson for his arguably inappropriate decisions, such as justifying the killing of a political protestor by the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, or influencing the Legislature last session by spooking leadership into dropping the bill to ban the death penalty. That “leadership,” by the way, was made up of his own party bosses: Gov. Sisolak, who campaigned for its prohibition, and Wolfson’s own deputy district attorneys.
Both deputies (or former prosecutor-legislators) — Democratic Sen. Melanie Schieble who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzarro — have since resigned after several of our state Supreme Court justices recently argued against prosecutors being able to concurrently serve as legislators, in violation of the state’s separation of powers clause–a situation they describe as “repugnant to the constitution.”
The national “Smart Justice” initiative of the ACLU of Nevada educated voters on the differences between the two candidates, without taking a partisan stance. With plenty of grounds to question the legitimacy of the incumbency with which we are now saddled for another four years, many groups played it safe.
One voter – a 30-year-old from Las Vegas – remarked to me how the political mailers sent to voters’ homes highlighting the two candidates for district attorney were at times unclear or ambiguous. “Even though I knew they were not pro-Wolfson,” he shared, “they were ineffective at sending a strong message.” In other words, they were neither compelling or convincing.
Additionally, in North Las Vegas, the progressive pick for city council candidate was Jovan Jackson, a mental health advocate and service provider and longtime member of the local Mass Liberation Project who was inspired to run after championing re-enfranchisement of people stripped of the right to vote because of particular criminal infractions (of which he personally benefited).
Jackson’s campaign fared poorly against the incumbent and Republican-backed-by-a-former Democrat-party mayor, Scott Black. To his credit, Jackson garnered almost 18x more votes than the previous primary challenger from the left, Ender Austin III. Keep that up and it’s in the bag next time.
The most prominent contest of a relative newcomer losing was former Bernie Sanders presidential campaign co-chair Amy Villela in her bid to replace a sitting congressperson for the second consecutive time. Casual viewers might opine, even without knowing that Bernie recently endorsed Villela over his longtime House colleague, Rep. Dina Titus, that both tries were a flop in light of the disastrously poor showing for the branded “insurgent” and would-be “Squad”-mate (alongside other avowed Democratic Socialists in Congress) who was featured in a Netflix documentary alongside Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.
So why the sh*tshow for the Villela squad? Well, what do you expect when you spend most of your money on consultants and textbanking instead of a sound ground game (with any paid canvassers?) and airtime and TV ads in a district where nearly nobody knows you — and your opponent has the resources of a small political army? In her defense, I have never managed a candidate’s compaign for public office, but I do analyze them.
Villela, while earnest, refreshing, and heartfelt in her ongoing advocacy on serious issues facing working-class people (ignited by the loss of her daughter who was denied needed healthcare via a lack of access), also failed to secure the endorsement of the Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America (LVDSA) chapter, even though she applied for it — and even though LVDSA swelled in size amid the frenzy of the 2020 presidential caucus and Bernie Sanders’ big Nevada blowout.
In the end, the whole disappointing ordeal defused much of the remaining electricity or movement to the political left that surged after Sanders’ decisive showing here two years ago — i.e., the alleged “socialist takeover,” as Indy founder and CEO Jon Ralston frequently calls it.
Titus will likely present herself as even more moderate to win in her redistricted general election.
Is anyone even voting, anyway?
In a primary, not really. Only 22.6 percent did here in Clark County.
Maybe the biggest takeaway is that a giant number of registered voters in our state did not and cannot participate in the very process that is utilized to narrow down and determine candidates for partisan elected office. Because of closed primaries, one-third of Nevada voters, more than half-a-million people, sat out the most recent election because they are essentially legally disenfranchised–on purpose, by law.
Currently, the two major parties and registration system shuts people out of the political process to a large degree merely because of their preference to not align with either the Democrat or Republican party (or a minor one, for that matter). A ballot initiative in the November general election looks to change that in a big way, but wait! A coalition of progressive groups, as well as the most visible Democrat-party figureheads like Gov. Sisolak and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, oppose the initiative. Gee, opposing the expansion of the electorate, in effect expanding voting rights, is not often a thing the Democrats are (fervently) against.
Even with a historical and still-holding registered-Democrat advantage statewide, the results of June’s primary could portend doom in the form of bitter, exasperating defeats come November. If the national political winds are any indicator, it’s not looking good for Dems. To be clear, the outcome that polls portend–of a political “bloodbath” for Democrat-party members in the House of Representatives–will be disastrous.
We cannot afford to cede any ground to the Right. Ending mass incarceration, maintaining our diminishing religious and personal liberties, ensuring the preservation of our planet — all of these are on the line if Republicans sweep seats this fall. Not to mention that a future in which an ostensible democracy even still exists in this country is at stake. Just ask U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt (if he gives you a straight answer) and the gaggle of opponents to legitimate transfer of presidential power crowding around him.
June’s results are a wake-up call for those on the left, of all stripes. Leftist, progressives, whatever simply have to do better if they want to win. They have to run campaigns like they want to win. They have to raise money, hire staffers, recruit volunteers, implement effective strategies, take positions, and go after their opponents like they want to win. Only after winning can they really challenge the power brokers and govern.
Nathaniel Phillipps is a homegrown community organizer from the Historic Twin Lakes neighborhood of Las Vegas. He is a board member of the Mass Liberation Project of Nevada as well as a member of the Las Vegas chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (LVDSA), where he was recently elected to the Steering Committee. Nathaniel teaches fourth grade during the day. You can find him on Twitter at @wokebloke2 as well as at phillippsnathaniel.contently.com