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Statehouses are the Key

Updated: May 18, 2021

By Kari Peterson.

On May 5, we met Nancy Guy, a state politician from Virginia to discuss her 2021 re-election campaign.

Why would Yolo folks want to meet – let alone support – Virginia House of Delegates member Nancy Guy, who lives 2,905 miles away?

Because Democratic candidates in purple states need the help of volunteers in solid blue states. Paring capable, enthusiastic volunteers (that’s us!) with candidates in must-win campaigns is exactly the formula the Sister District Project has used to great effect in elections all over the country.

And Democratic candidates need that help now. Elections are not won in the few weeks leading up to the vote, nor in a single season; they are won over months and years of strategic groundwork. Just look to Stacey Abrams, who famously spent 10 years working to flip Georgia blue. Her success, which lay in inspiring thousands of voters and volunteers near and far, tipped the balance of power in Georgia and Washington, D.C.

That model helped to inspire the Sister District Project.

Kelly Wilkerson, a teacher at Davis High and a newly elected trustee on the Los Rios Community College Board, understands the long game of politics. Five years ago, she and Meghan Miller, a UC Davis professor, co-founded our local chapter of the national Sister District Project in response to Donald Trump’s presidential victory.

“Sister District CA-3 is a year-round political action group," Wilkerson said. “We, and numerous other political organizations across the country, are following Stacey Abrams’ lead in building momentum over the long haul, where it counts and impacts most. We want to make a big difference in some of these low profile, but absolutely key races.”

Sister District CA-3, (we call ourselves SDCA-3), activates volunteers locally to win elections in “swing” districts across the country. Volunteers in “safe” blue districts, like Davis, offer their grassroots assistance to selected campaigns in strategic, winnable or flippable districts in other parts of the country. The goal is to increase voter engagement, build progressive political power, and win Democratic majorities not just in the high profile races, but at all levels of government.

Katherine Holmes, another volunteer with SDCA-3, who has been guiding voter registration and phone banking efforts locally, echoes Wilkerson’s comments.

"We need to start laying the groundwork now. We are already starting to get to know exceptional district candidates in Virginia — a key target state -- whose wins in midterm elections will go a long way toward shaping policy for decades,” Holmes said. “It’s not sexy, it’s not high profile, but it’s essential political groundwork that really, truly has an impact.”

Why work at the statehouse level?

”Wins at the statehouse level translate to wins for all of us nationally,” Wilkerson says, "You can’t underestimate the power of gaining control of statehouses. Key legislation happens at the state level in areas like sensible gun laws, reproductive rights, climate policy, policing — and often state legislative successes become models in setting national policy.”

Holmes added, "We’re also seeing waves of voter suppression laws implemented state by state; it’s critical that we maintain democratic majorities in statehouses to stave off bad legislation like these horrible bills aimed squarely at suppressing the voice of minority voters.”

For Democrats, 2020 was a big and successful year. We did, indeed, pull off the trifecta: We won back the White House, maintained our majority in the House, and, with the Georgia Senate victories and Vice President Harris' tie-breaking role, eked out a small advantage in the Senate. But with the GOP’s sweeping wins in statehouses across the country, progress in some key areas, like voting rights, is threatened. It is clear that work will have to be done to get back in the driver’s seat at the state level to bring about the just future leaders like Abrams have been fighting for.

With that in mind, SDCA-3 is planning its next moves. SDCA-3 has been on the ground since 2016, was a big part of the 2020 solution, and hopes to play a big role going forward, especially in those critical statehouse races.

Longtime SDCA-3 volunteer Sue Barton said, “We worked steadily for three years… and then, wham, 2020 was upon us and we had the added challenge of a pandemic. It was frenetic but we successfully mobilized hundreds of volunteers locally, all online, via Zoom, and we had a really good time doing it! We became a model for other organizations trying to figure out how to win elections while in the midst of a pandemic. We turned a difficult year into something for the record books!”

Barton summed up her work as a SDCA-3 volunteer this way, “I feel like I’m doing the REAL work of moving the needle in politics. Whether we are writing postcards, making calls, or sending texts, we are talking with real voters who elect real public servants who end up making real differences in their districts. And that has an upstream impact. It’s quite satisfying.”

SDCA-3 plans to build on the skills and capacity we developed over the last four years. Organizers are clear: New volunteers are welcome at any time. Those interested in maintaining the gains made in 2020 and growing progressive power, are encouraged to attend SDCA-3’s monthly meetings and participate on any number of action teams.

Kari Peterson is a member of the leadership team for Sister District CA-3. She is the retired founding executive director of Davis Community Television and a 43-year resident of Davis.

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