WASHINGTON — One sunny morning this June, President Barack Obama did something he almost never does: He went to Capitol Hill to save a bill. The legislation at hand: Trade Promotion Authority, which would allow Obama to “fast-track” trade deals — like the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership — through Congress with just an up-or-down vote. Making the situation more remarkable still was that Obama came not to twist the arms of adversarial Republicans — but those of his fellow Democrats.
Most members of the president’s party fiercely opposed his trade agenda. Progressive lawmakers — led by the Congressional Progressive Caucus — waged a ferocious, months-long campaign to halt TPA. As the president’s motorcade made its way across town, and with a trade vote hours away, tensions were at their peak.
Flanked by key administration brass like Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Obama made his pitch in a closed-door meeting to House Democrats. He delivered a speech members recall as forceful, emotionally charged, and at times, angry. The eventual passage of TPP, to which fast-track was crucial, is considered the cornerstone of Obama’s second-term agenda. He wasn’t about to let progressives in the House derail a legacy-making achievement.
Over and over, Obama implored House Democrats to “play it straight.” He urged them to not vote down Trade Adjustment Assistance — a popular program that aids workers harmed by free trade agreements — in order to kill the whole trade package.
Once the president and his entourage departed, the Democrats were left to stew. Amid the tension, Keith Ellison — co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a key leader in the trade fight — went to the podium to address his colleagues.
Ellison, those in the room say, called the president out. “Play it straight?” he asked, incredulously. “He comes up here and asks us to play it straight?” That disbelief resonated with the caucus. It was common to use legislative strategy to accomplish your goals, he said — not a crooked tactic, as Obama seemed to suggest. If anything, the progressives thought, it was the White House that failed to “play it straight” by wedding TPA with TAA in the first place.
Hours later, the visit blew up in Obama’s face. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi would go to the House floor to voice her opposition to the package, and encourage her caucus to do the same — which they did, in droves. TAA suffered a stunning defeat, putting the trade deal in jeopardy.
Eventually, Obama and the GOP would get their victory: House leaders separated TPA and TAA, and each passed. But for a week, a handful of House progressives sent their president and his allies scrambling. That victory, however brief, was the result of weeks, months and years of work to build their Congressional Progressive Caucus into a true fighting force — the kind that could nearly kill a bill jointly desired by the White House, congressional leadership, and the business establishment. And few people were as central to that work as Keith Ellison.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has changed considerably since its founding in 1991, but its core mission has remained the same: to advance a decidedly liberal Democratic agenda in Congress. That agenda hasn’t always been the same, and the caucus hasn’t always been effective at advancing it. But CPC members, aides, political consultants, and activists overwhelmingly agree that now, under the leadership of Ellison and his co-chair, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the CPC is more effective than ever.
Today, the CPC consists of 70 House members, including 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan, and one member of the Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont. It’s grown steadily over the years, and represents a greater share of the overall Democratic caucus than ever — nearly two in every five House Democrats are CPC members. It’s the largest belief-based caucus within the party.
The CPC’s rise represents a remarkable reversal of political fortune. For most of its history, the CPC was a marginal group within the Democratic caucus, founded to counter what the party’s left wing considered a weak Democratic response to the tax cuts and income inequality increases of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies. Progressives also aimed to replace the ailing Democratic Study Group, a once-great organization of Capitol Hill liberals that shut down in 1994.
In the 1990s, the CPC was adept at getting attention, if not results: It held dramatic press conferences in which members denounced the designs of Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congress. They brought Noam Chomsky to testify before Congress to talk about globalization. They didn’t gain very much traction, but they focused early on what is now the CPC’s central cause: economic fairness. In 1995, CPC members introduced the first legislative alternative to Gingrich’s Contract With America, emphasizing stagnating wages, unemployment and education. The tagline for the CPC agenda: “The Progressive Promise: Fairness.”
During the George W. Bush years, the CPC’s attention pivoted abroad, as it adopted a primarily anti-war agenda. For most of Bush’s second term, the CPC was chaired by Northern California Democrats Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee, both known for their outspoken anti-war stances. (Lee was famously the only member of Congress to vote against authorization of military force after Sept. 11th.) Membership in the caucus was roughly two-thirds of what it is now, and the CPC’s platform, while popular as the wars dragged on, led to few legislative victories.
Once Barack Obama took office, progressives were heartened, believing that finally they had one of their own in the White House. However, many members now remember 2009 and 2010 bitterly as a low ebb of the CPC’s influence, mainly because of its failure to push the Affordable Care Act to the left.
With a Democratic majority backed up by a Democratic president for the first time in 14 years, Congress had an unprecedented chance to refashion health-care policy with long-desired liberal ideas, like a government-run “public option” for health care that would’ve competed with private plans. After months of promising progressive congressional Democrats that the ACA would have a public option, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California — herself a former CPC member — ultimately gave in to moderates in the Senate by not including it.
The CPC, Ellison says now, just didn’t have the sway to beat out the more moderate voices in the party. “It felt like we were trying to stop some big car from rolling down an icy hill,” he says. “We were holding onto it but it just kept dragging us.” He said that “of course” progressives ultimately supported the ACA, even though they considered it watered-down.
That November, the Tea Party swept the House, costing Democrats their majority and handing the party its worst electoral defeat in 60 years. A month later, Ellison and Grijalva were elected co-chairs of the CPC. It was a critical juncture for the party — and one that many observers agree Ellison was uniquely positioned to take advantage of to increase progressives’ influence in Congress.
New leadership, new direction
The new co-chairs took the helm in 2011 determined to do three main things, Ellison says: unify the caucus for action, engage more with the progressive community, and grow influence and raise money to elect progressives come election season.
Their success on that first point seems clear. The CPC is a big, diverse group, but leaders have proved adept at wrangling them to mobilize, on trade and beyond. Much of that is due to Ellison and Grijalva’s relentlessness in advancing the kinds of issues that play well with the progressive base — things members of Congress were eager to run with. Some of those issues, particularly key economic fairness points like raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes on the wealthy, and expanding student loan refinancing options, are important to the broader electorate as well as the progressive base.
The CPC’s chief vice chair, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, suggests that’s a substantial help come election time.
“When you go back home, you try to point to successes in work we’ve done as a caucus with a Republican majority in the House,” Pocan says. People aren’t as disillusioned with Congress when you explain this stuff, he says.
What often changes their minds, Pocan says, is when he rattles off a laundry list of what he calls progressive victories in the last three years: pushing for Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, extending LGBT nondiscrimination language to cover those contractors, working with the White House on immigration executive action.
“Keith has been good at finding alternative paths,” he says.
It is that second point, however — connecting with the grass roots — upon which Ellison has focused as co-chair: Members and activists cite his eagerness to connect with the activist community as the signature strategy of his chairmanship.
Historically, Democratic lawmakers have had an uneasy relationship with the progressive grass roots. In 2014, in an article on Ellison, the progressive website Truthout questioned whether congressional Dems were “worth organizers’ blood, sweat, and tears.” Progressives, writes the site’s Sam Knight, “might see finite resources better spent outside of campaigning for a party that has systematically ignored those most in need.”
Ellison and Grijalva have tried to bridge that divide and persuade activists to get on board as partners — recognizing lawmakers’ and activists’ mutual strengths, and acting on them. “There’s a distribution of labor,” Ellison explains. “No member of the progressive community can introduce a bill because they’re not in Congress. No member of Congress can mobilize, educate, create the wave effect that grass roots do.” To that end, the CPC under Ellison has cultivated deep ties with activists, from groups pushing to raise pay of low-wage workers to climate change activists to immigration-reform groups and DREAMers.
Political leverage — and getting things done — springs from the grass-roots relationships, Ellison says. This is something that conservative Republicans do particularly well, and how they’ve managed to push their party’s leadership to the right on many issues. “The GOP is well connected to their grass roots,” Ellison says. “Heritage, Cato, the NRA, are closely connected to those guys. I just think they have more leverage and can apply more than we can,” partly owing to their position in the majority.
“The leverage we have is in the relationships we hold with progressive partners,” he says.
That may hold true for elections, too. For years, Ellison has been a loud voice within the Democratic Party on its turnout problem: its consistent failure to get Democratic constituencies to show up in midterm election years. Low midterm turnout is “killing us,” Ellison said last May, and argued that activist-fueled campaigns focusing on economic issues will help fix the problem.
Big surprise, then, that Ellison is considered a rock star to progressive activists dismayed by what they see as an extremely conservative, money–corrupted Congress. Ilya Sheyman, the executive director of MoveOn’s political action wing, says his group’s members “think the world” of the congressman. “I think he just gets organizing,” Sheyman says. “He has an incredible ability to organize both inside and outside — if a fight is happening in some committee in Congress, it’s relevant to millions of people on the outside.”
To others in the activist community, this represents a new way of doing business. Jeff Blodgett, the founder of St. Paul-based Wellstone Action, calls Ellison’s focus on “strategic, aligned conversations inside and outside Congress” the “missing ingredient” of progressive legislative success, and compared his organizer’s sensibility to that of Paul Wellstone. “He is showing a different model,” Blodgett says. “Maybe it’s taken being the minority in Congress to get people focused this way.”
At no other time was the CPC’s renewed focus and success with the grass roots more evident than during the trade fight. It was the kind of issue Ellison’s vision was built for: The Trans-Pacific Partnership deeply concerned various elements of the progressive base. Labor worried about lower wages and lost jobs, environmentalists were concerned about insufficient protections, consumer-health advocates believed the deal would limit access to cheaper pharmaceuticals. On several occasions, the CPC held conferences, flanked by activists from MoveOn, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO and a host of others.
Would an earlier iteration of the CPC have been able to unite such a diverse array of groups, and come close to scuttling the deal and forcing a long trade debate — mostly on progressive terms — in D.C.? Many progressives doubt it. According to California Democrat Brad Sherman, a prominent voice against the trade deal, “to think that a few of us, together with labor and environmentalists, went up against all of Washington, Wall Street and the White House — we acquitted ourselves well.”
Thinking back on the caucus’ impotence during the ACA public-option fight, Ellison says, “I had these fantasies — what if we could get 10,000 people on Capitol Hill demanding a public option?”
“We can,” he says, pounding his coffee table for emphasis. “We can do that today! We have that power. We didn’t have it then.”
Beyond its grass-roots clout, the CPC is finally being recognized as an incubator for progressive policy that ultimately gets adopted by the Democratic caucus as a whole. Central to that function is the annual Progressive Caucus Budget: Put to a vote alongside the main Democratic budget, the GOP budget, and others, the budget is a mission statement and vision of CPC governance. Ellison calls it the group’s “founding document,” and it’s spoken of in reverent tones within the caucus.
Once written off as a progressive wish list, the budget is now gaining more currency, at least within the party. For the first time since 2010, a majority of the House Democratic caucus — 96 out of 188 — voted for the CPC budget. To be sure, the budget contains some unlikely asks: Its calls for debt-free college, ending subsidies to fossil fuel industries, and giving states single-payer health-care options are unlikely to be taken up in this Congress.
But members like to focus on those elements of the CPC Budget that get picked up on and developed by more mainstream elements within the party. Pocan cites a tax on financial services transactions, an idea endorsed by Ellison that’s sometimes called the “Robin Hood tax.” This year, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, put a version of the idea in the main Democratic budget. The budget’s calls for free preschool and paid parental leave are picking up steam in the party, too.
To Pocan, that’s a clear sign of the CPC’s increased viability within the broader Democratic caucus. “We’re doing the heavy lifting, and talking about issues that resonate with people.” And it’s part of the reason why these days, the CPC is referred to by members and activists alike as the “legislative arm of the progressive movement.”
Who will lead the Democrats?
That isn’t to say there isn’t tension within the Democratic ranks. While the left pines for a stronger progressive presence in Congress, moderates in the party are struggling to keep pace. The rise of the CPC has coincided with the decline of more moderate Democrats, who now organize in the New Democrat Coalition. That group, chaired by Wisconsin’s Ron Kind, is the heir of the Blue Dog Coalition, the once-powerful group of Democrats whose centrist “Third Way” outlook prevailed during much of the 1990s and 2000s.
The New Democrats number 46 representatives and five senators, but have struggled to attract as much enthusiasm among Democratic constituencies as the CPC. The two groups have butted heads — sometimes rather acrimoniously, especially over the trade deal. To some, that episode is exemplary of what Ellison calls the “tug of war” between progressives and moderates for the soul of the Democratic Party.
Moderates and progressives scrambled to sway the same handful of lawmakers on trade, and members of each camp sparred on TV and on Twitter to win the messaging war. In a rerun of Clinton-era Democratic politics, moderates got tarred as agents of Wall Street, and progressives were slammed as out-there obstructionists.
Ultimately, it was the progressives who won the messaging battle, though they lost the legislative one. Rep. Rick Nolan attributes that to the deftness of Ellison and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro at messaging. Ellison, Nolan says, is “fearless — not afraid to go anywhere,” including Fox News. “That’s played a critical role in building support for our progressive agenda.”
The New Democrats’ Kind expressed frustration with the anti-trade camp’s messaging. “It’s easier to oppose than to support, and it’s easier to push buttons and rile people up, especially when there’s so much inaccurate information out there,” he said. “The idea that this was hush-hush in secret is false. That it was large corporations dictating terms — false. It was a false narrative, but that’s what people tended to believe and that’s what gets people riled up.”
Kind, who was a classmate of Ellison’s at the University of Minnesota Law School, says he “greatly respect[s] Keith and any other group pushing the administration to do better.” But he suggested the opposition of the CPC was somewhat knee-jerk, and emphasized that they presented no alternative to how they’d negotiate with emerging trade partners. “Why members feel offended when the president is coming to ask for [trade promotion] authority is beyond me,” he said.
The trade saga is illustrative of the complex relationship between the CPC and Obama. Progressives sense a kindred spirit in the former community organizer now occupying the Oval Office — which makes the cut that much deeper when he acts on his more moderate tendencies, as he did with trade. At points, Obama publicly rebuked congressional progressives on their trade talking points — sometimes harshly. In May of this year, Obama said Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren was “absolutely wrong” when she said the trade deal would primarily aid Wall Street.
Warren is not a CPC member, but the caucus views her as one of its own, and Ellison quickly fired back. Appearing on C-SPAN, he said Obama was “insulting” toward Warren. “If I was trying to persuade a friend, I wouldn’t start out by saying how deficient they were,” he said. Privately, many progressives felt slighted by the herculean lift the White House was making to pass fast-track and TPP. If he had done all this to support the public option, many wondered, would it have been spared the ax?
Ellison was quick to downplay any feud with the president and moderate Democrats, and says he understands the point of view of many of them. But he believed the progressive stance on trade reflects what working people want. “The enthusiasm is not with the Third Way,” he said. “They don’t draw crowds. They meet in small rooms. The passion is with the Bill de Blasios, the Elizabeth Warrens.”
At that, Ellison got up from his chair, picked up a copy of TIME magazine from his desk, and dropped it in front of me. The cover: “Who’s Afraid of Elizabeth Warren?”
Growing the caucus
Despite the magazine covers, the packed rallies for Bernie Sanders, and the increased policy heft, the CPC still must reckon with a lingering stigma surrounding the progressive brand. Due to redistricting and Republican-wave elections that swept out moderates, the Democratic House caucus as a whole is smaller and more left-leaning. Yet there are representatives who share much of the CPC’s politics but are not members. Brad Sherman, Ellison’s erstwhile trade ally, is not a CPC member, though he represents a deep blue Los Angeles district. Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum is not a member, even though her environmental and foreign-policy standpoints are widely shared by CPC members.
If the CPC is to grow to 100 members, as leaders want, people on the fence will have to be won over, whatever their misgivings may be. Ellison thinks that the CPC has “more work to do to make the progressive brand attractive to more people. There are people who call themselves conservative who ain’t all that conservative, but they call themselves that because they think it signals something. We still have room to do that.”
Barbara Lee, the former CPC co-chair and current whip, believes now is the perfect time for that mission. “This country is progressive in many ways,” she says. “A majority of the American people want to raise the minimum wage. Being a progressive is where people are in this country.” To Ellison’s point, she says, “I see people who aren’t progressive saying they are progressive now — maybe they’re more moderate or liberal, but they’re embracing the progressive agenda.”
“You see non-Progressive Caucus members participate in many of our forums, press conferences,” Lee says. “I attribute that to Keith Ellison’s leadership, which has been tremendous.”
In a preview of the kind of clout the CPC could wield in the 2016 elections, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton had a closed-door meeting with the caucus during a mid-July visit to Capitol Hill. Clinton and the progressive wing of the party, of course, have a fraught history. It was the grassroots’ enthusiasm for a certain Illinois senator, after all, that derailed Clinton’s path to the 2008 Democratic nomination.
But for about 40 minutes, Clinton sat, and dutifully spoke with members about inequality and the Fight for $15 Movement and the Middle East. She studied a binder packed with briefings and budget plans the CPC gave her. She joked they were the only group to assign her homework. And there’s reason to believe she’ll actually do that homework: Pocan said that the CPC has been in contact with Clinton’s policy team for months, providing information and urging her to tackle certain issues more strongly.
Ellison said he was “honored” that Clinton came to the CPC. “We’re proud she did. I think it’s a smart move on her part,” he said. He smiles. “I see it as an embarrassment of riches,” he says of the Democratic primary field. “Bernie’s one of our own. Hillary is speaking our language.”
It’s a clear sign that the CPC’s championing of a populist economic platform — inspired by its embrace of the grass roots — is now being recognized by the party establishment as a path to political victory in 2016. “Anyone who wants to be the Democratic nominee knows that, if they’re not talking about raising people’s pay, they’re not talking about nothing,” Ellison says.
So, as it attacked fast-track with gusto, Ellison and the CPC have a full to-do list to attack ahead: push Hillary to the left, reach 100 members, outmuscle the moderates, build a campaign apparatus that somehow puts Democrats back on the path to a congressional majority.
For now, though, power tastes sweet, and it’ll take some getting used to. Mark Pocan recalled a conversation he had on the House floor recently with Rosa DeLauro and Ellison. “She said on the floor to Keith and I, ‘The progressive caucus is a force now.’ We’re in the front right now.”