For Ellie Pfeffer ’23 and Alec James Martinez ’18, October was a busy month. From her dorm room on North Campus, Pfeffer launched a write-in campaign for the 3rd Ward seat on the Ithaca Common Council against incumbent Rob Gearhart, advocating for increased resources to be put towards the Ithaca Green New Deal. In his hometown of Laredo, Texas, Martinez co-founded Red Wing Laredo, “An organization devoted to ensuring tierra, democracia, y libertad for everyone,” in response to a clean water crisis in the town almost three times the size of Flint, Michigan that resulted in a boil-water notice in late September.
You’d be easily forgiven for not knowing about these efforts, given that they occurred in the context of an escalating impeachment inquiry in the House. In fact, that impeachment inquiry may have distracted you from the fact that there were statewide elections this year in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia, as well as local elections across the nation (including the one that Pfeffer participated in in Ithaca itself).
And yet, if you’re a Democrat at Cornell who thinks Donald Trump and his presidency are aberrations, these elections and movements are exactly the kind of politics you should be paying attention to. A year out from the 2020 election, Democrats should permanently shift their focus from the top of the ticket to the bottom in order to win nationally in 2020 and beyond.
It’s true that no statewide or local official can declare a national emergency or prompt the mass migration of benevolent lawyers to airports with the stroke of a xenophobic pen. However, the consequences of state and local politics for people’s everyday lives are even more immediate. In the Mississippi gubernatorial election, Lt. Governor Tate Reeves beat Attorney General Jim Hood by about 47,000 votes. In a state where nearly 300,000 people would get health insurance if Medicaid were expanded, Reeves is an adamant opponent, whilst Hood made expanding the program a central plank of his platform. In jurisdictions in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Mississippi, candidates for prosecutorial positions won on platforms of never seeking the death penalty, not using cash bail and raising the thresholds for what counts as a felony, decisions that keep people both in their communities and alive. These tangible effects breach even the bubble that is Cornell’s campus. While canvassing door-to-door in North Campus dorms, one student told Pfeffer that she wanted a crosswalk between Balch and Risley, where there are two bus stops but no easy way to get to them on a curved street with bad visibility.
State and local elections also have significant impacts on who has access to political power. In Kentucky, Andy Beshear appears to have beaten incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin for the governorship. Upon entering office in 2016, Bevin rescinded an executive order signed by Beshear’s father — then the governor — that restored voting rights to about 100,000 formerly incarcerated individuals in a state that otherwise permanently disenfranchises anybody convicted of a felony. The younger Beshear has promised to restore the rights of about 140,000 people when he enters office. In Virginia, Republican electoral victories in 2009 led to state legislative districts which were struck down last year (a decision reinforced by the Supreme Court this year) and congressional maps which were ruled unconstitutional in 2014. After Tuesday’s elections gave Democrats total control of state government, they will be able to create a non-partisan redistricting commission, ensuring that all citizens can fairly exercise their rights to political power.
Often, consequences for day-to-day life and political power go hand-in-hand at the state and local level. One consequence of Democrats gaining power in Virginia is that the state is now poised to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, after it failed to reach the floor by one vote earlier this year. Having political and civic equality enshrined in the constitution would have pressing real-life consequences, including for rape and sexual assault victims on college campuses. In Laredo, this is true in multiple respects. In addition to the obvious importance of clean drinking water, Martinez described how people in his town who posted negative comments on the Facebook posts of local politicians would shortly thereafter find parking tickets on all of the cars on their street. When I asked him why the movement he started had such an expansive agenda despite aiming at this incredibly localized politicking, he argued that “the violence of the current political economic system is very real when you operate on the local level as opposed to the state or national level.”
These problems — Medicaid expansion, prosecutorial discretion, voting rights, equal rights, clean water and beyond — are all affected by political decisions made at the national level, and there’s certainly no other jurisdiction on the planet that can muster the resources that the federal government can. But the fact that we experience the impact of those decisions on a local level makes the impact of local politics even more important.
In one of my government classes last fall, a professor recounted a conversation she had with her brother before the 2016 election. When she asked him if he had voted yet, he said that he not only hadn’t voted, he wasn’t planning on voting because whether it was a Democrat or a Republican in the White House didn’t affect the interactions that he or the people around him had with the police and other local actors. A candidate for Senate in South Carolina, Jaime Harrison, released an ad last Monday recounting a conversation the candidate had at the door of an old man living in a rural area on a dirt road. Pointing to the road, the man described how the road had gone unpaved since Reagan was President, and until a Democrat or a Republican paved the road, he didn’t want to talk to either of them. In both of these cases, political decisions about law enforcement and road funding made at state or national levels are filtered through local actors and actions, leading to distrust of or disengagement with politics more generally. A politics centered on national issues can never combat this effect. If organizing around local issues occurs more frequently and engages broader ranges of citizens more consistently, those same citizens will then be more trusting of efforts to mobilize them to vote and be politically engaged in other ways.
But that additional political engagement doesn’t just happen on its own. Organizing helps build the power to be politically active within communities, so that when ambitious electoral or legislative efforts to challenge the status quo are attempted, individuals and communities have a fighting chance to counteract the efforts of deeply entrenched groups interested and advantaged in maintaining the status quo. After results were in, Pfeffer described her campaign as having “reinvigorated the democratic process,” despite its unsuccessful final outcome. When I asked her what that meant, she told of a friend who had never thought of herself as politically empowered before, whose involvement on Pfeffer’s campaign completely transformed her mindset about how much her own political voice mattered. In addition to securing structural political power, empowering people to fight for themselves is a crucial ability that state and local elections can unlock.
The importance of these more local efforts makes it maddening when they aren’t prioritized, especially given the disproportionate amount of resources devoted to national politics. From July to September 2019 alone, six Democratic presidential candidates raised nearly $150 million for their campaigns. In Virginia, spending at fractions of the level was touted as “unprecedented” and having “flooded the Commonwealth” with cash ahead of Election Day. If this resource distribution were reversed to fund the consistent efforts that made Tuesday’s results possible in Virginia, those results might actually be possible nationwide.
One reason that such a high level of resources is available to candidates for state legislative and presidential office alike is the Trump presidency. But for all the damage President Trump has done, state and local issues are a reminder that politics aren’t less important if Trump loses. The climate crisis that Pfeffer’s candidacy sought to address will still be occurring. The clean water crisis that prompted Martinez to take action will still be occurring in thousands of communities across the nation. Instead of being dismissed as an exception, the Trump presidency should be a reminder that politics has had and always will have high stakes, even if a presidential tweet doesn’t (mis)spell it out.
What can Democratic Cornellians do to recognize these high stakes and take action on the state and local level? In the short term, register to vote in Ithaca. The Democratic nominee in Ithaca’s congressional district lost by just under 21,000 votes in 2018, less than the total number of students attending Cornell. Although some students already vote in the district, any decrease in that margin can help future Democratic nominees get more attention and resources from national organizations. After 2020, students can get engaged in local politics. One alderperson from each of Ithaca’s five Common Council Wards will be up for re-election; with only a few hundred ballots cast in each ward during this year’s elections, student votes could make a decisive impact. After only two weeks of campaigning, Pfeffer managed to get 19% of the vote. With a longer campaign, a student could get elected to Ithaca’s Common Council.
You can take action even if you’re graduating a month from now. Wherever you move with your newly received accreditation, get involved with local politics there. As Martinez told me, “When you get off campus, when you start talking to people who are actually working class or part of these identities who are oppressed, you can’t escape it. You just see it, it’s raw, it’s there.” Chances are that if you follow Ellie Pfeffer and Alec Martinez’s models of unflinchingly advocating for what you believe in, you’ll be able to make an outsized impact on your community, yourself, and the nation in 2020 and beyond.
Giancarlo Valdetaro is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Far Above runs every other Monday this semester.