At pre-midterm conference, the Democratic left is in the driver’s seat

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At pre-midterm conference, the Democratic left is in the driver’s seat
August 4 at 8:03 PM

Attendance was up, and high-profile politicians were onstage, but something was missing from this year’s Netroots Nation conference.

Nobody got interrupted by a loud, angry protest.

The largest annual gathering of liberal activists, now in its 13th year, has reclaimed its place as a showcase for candidates — from the White House on down — and for activists who see elections as life-or-death chances to dismantle the conservative movement. Democrats, they said, could get on board and win, or resist and be replaced. The only disruption came when a group of black protesters demanded that next year’s conference include more community members from the host city.

“No longer should we just allow someone to stand before us and give their vision for our lives,” Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the 35-year-old mayor of Jackson, Miss., said in one of the weekend’s best-attended speeches. “We have to dictate the policies. We have to draft the leadership that represents our interests. We are looking to push forward a solidarity economy.”

The Netroots conference began in 2006 as a gathering for bloggers, activists and writers who had been energized by opposition to George W. Bush’s presidency. The first attendees were largely white, as were their candidates — Ned Lamont, who challenged then-Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, came from a wealthy political family and earned Ivy League degrees.

Thirteen years and an Obama presidency later, the conference has grown more diverse, and more interested in electing what New York gubernatorial hopeful Cynthia Nixon called “better Democrats.”

This year’s convention program urged Democrats to “abandon the myth of the white swing voter and invest in the multiracial, multicultural, progressive coalition.” Conference attendees, who once heckled Vice President Joe Biden over immigration policy and protested Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) over his perceived lack of a black agenda, gave warm receptions to this year’s elected Democrats and candidates. Then, in breakout sessions, they chewed over ways to keep driving the party to the left.

“If we pressed Obama harder, we would have gotten more,” Marvin Randolph, the president of the Southern Elections Fund, said at a Saturday morning session. “We said he was the organizer in chief, so we just thought he was gonna do it.”

There was less talk of President Trump himself than of the Republican Party’s agenda and funders, and the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. Shirts and swag were more prevalent than any anti-Trump gear. Among the potential 2020 presidential candidates in attendance were Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), and Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), but the only election they discussed was the midterms.

A Thursday speech by billionaire activist and fundraiser Tom Steyer, in which he talked up the 5.5 million people who had joined his campaign to impeach Trump, was greeted with polite applause. The reception was louder when Democrats warned against distractions — and when nonwhite congressional candidates, such as New Mexico’s Deb Haaland and Texas’s Gina Ortiz Jones, came onstage.

“The politics of division tells Americans to distrust each other, to fear each other, to hate each other — and while we’re busy doing that, Mitch McConnell gets to raid the Treasury to give a trillion bucks to their rich friends,” Warren said in a Friday afternoon speech. “They want us pointing fingers at each other so we won’t notice their hand in our pockets.”

The Democratic Party’s leftward shift, a source of concern for some Washington-based and red-state groups, was taken for granted in New Orleans. The potential 2020 candidates there jumped at the chance to talk about immigration rights and discrimination.

Harris told attendees that criticism of “identity politics,” a term usually deployed to suggest that Democrats are focusing on race and gender instead of economic issues, was used to “minimize and marginalize issues that impact all of us.”

At an off-site “town hall” at Dillard University, Warren talked up her prison reform legislation with Booker and said that laws had been designed, over decades, to punish nonwhite Americans more than they punished the country’s racial majority.

“Here’s the hard truth about our criminal-justice system: It’s racist,” said Warren. “I mean, front to back.”

There was little worry at the conference over how the man in the White House might respond to that agenda. This summer, as he’s endorsed Republican candidates on Twitter and at rallies, Trump has accused Democrats of favoring “open borders,” crime and gang activity.

On Saturday, before heading to Ohio to campaign for the GOP nominee in a Tuesday special House election, Trump said that Troy Balderson was “strong on crime, the border & loves our Military, vets & 2nd Amendment” — a suite of issues that Trump associates with nearly every candidate he supports.

At Netroots, Democrats and activists argued that those issues could be overwhelmed if Democrats simply turned out nonvoters, and if they spent the time talking to skeptical swing voters who backed Obama in his two elections and then backed Trump in 2016.

“You don’t have to choose between either focusing on diversity issues or focusing on the economy,” Ryan said. “You do both. If you have progress on issues of systemic racism, but you don’t have economic growth, people of color aren’t getting jobs, either.”

There were risks to courting the party’s left. After his speech, Booker posed with pro-Palestinian activists and held a sign reading “from Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go” — though his office later explained that he did not realize the sign was partly referring to Israel.

But Trump’s persistent unpopularity convinced many attendees that they could keep moving ahead with the demands they made during the 2016 Democratic primary. Jennifer Palmieri, who was director of communications for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, said Democrats could continue motivating their increasingly nonwhite base without writing off persuadable white voters. Without a clear enemy to focus on, she said, Republicans seemed to be flailing in their attacks on the left.

“The country was so polarized that some people just would not hear Hillary,” said Palmieri. “We’ve realized that it’s possible for Donald Trump to be elected president. We’re living in the worst-case scenario. That’s freed up people who might have otherwise been holding back.”

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