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Democracy Is Not Built on a Convention Stage

How local leaders are pushing for progress at the Democratic National Convention.
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“All politics is local — it really is,” United States Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) preached to the group of municipal elected officials gathered in Philadelphia on Tuesday morning, day two of the Democratic National Convention. “You guys are in the position to make [people ’s lives] better.”

That’s certainly the idea behind Local Progress, a coalition of liberal-minded local elected leaders hosting the morning’s panel. As the event invitation read: “Right now, progressive leaders in cities across the country are getting big things done — at a time when D.C. can’t or won’t.”

Though the people who sat inside this conference room know that much of America’s critical governing happens at the local level, that’s not exactly the case outside of it. Voter turnout in local elections is notoriously dismal, comprising a mere 36.3 percent of registered voters in the 2014 mid-term elections. A Pew Research study revealed that only half of Americans know the political affiliation of their congressional representative; it’s reasonable to imagine that even fewer Americans know that much about their local representatives. Politics is presidential for most of America.

This week, all eyes have been on national political superstars like First Lady Michelle Obama, Former President Bill Clinton, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, as they delivered primetime convention speeches. (“Michelle Obama was just otherworldly,” New York City Councilman and Local Progress chair-elect Brad Lander gushed to his nodding colleagues on Tuesday morning.) Also this week, the Democratic Party officially adopted its national platform, which Ellison had helped shape, and which even Sanders hailed as the “most progressive platform in party history.”

But outside of the Wells Fargo Center, leaders from around the country — the politicians who create legislation affecting schools, minimum wages, and even access to menstrual products in prisons — scurry between meetings on the fringes of the DNC. Among them is Helen Gym, vice chair-elect of Local Progress and a newly elected at-large member of the Philadelphia City Council, who has earned a reputation as a fierce advocate for school reform, the soda tax, and social justice. To her, the DNC is another opportunity to press forward a progressive platform — at the local level.

Gym knows everyone in every room she walks into, or at least it seems that way when she’s traveling in progressive circles. At the Local Progress event, she strode back and forth across the small auditorium at the Philadelphia Ethical Society to greet the vice president of Harrisburg’s city council, the president of the Democracy Alliance, immigration activists, and union leaders. The councilwoman has only been in politics for six months, but for decades she worked as a community organizer fighting overdevelopment, gentrification, and racial injustice in Philadelphia.

Only half of Americans know the political affiliation of their congressional representative.

“I knew when I was elected that the Democratic National Convention was coming to town and I’ve always felt very strongly about the importance of elevating Philadelphia issues to the national stage,” she says. “When the eyes of the nation are on our city, we have a responsibility to push up all the organizing we’ve done on the grassroots level and bring it up to a broader space.”

It’s the theme of the morning, really: How can municipal leaders connect with the grassroots desires of their districts? Any beyond that, how might they create policy that, if successful, can be pushed into the national political conversation?

In his address at the Local Progress event, Ellison pointed out that it’s not so unusual anymore for politicians to come from activist backgrounds. Indeed, many politicians in the room, including Gym, Landers, and Speaker of the New York City Council Melissa Mark-Viverito, were marching in the streets before ever running for office.

That’s why Ellison wasn’t too alarmed by the Sanders supporters whose protests against Clinton garnered national headlines. “You can give voice to that change,” he said. He holds the Democratic Party platform up as an example of how grassroots activists drove certain issues to the point where Sanders was able to place progressives—like Ellison himself—on the platform committee to push for, say, a $15 minimum wage. And though Clinton could have blocked those progressive planks, she didn’t. “She knows what time it is,” Ellison said.

Ellison further argued that local officials, who are truly steeped in their communities, can help keep their representatives in the U.S. Congress informed about what their constituents really want. “Who would like a close relationship with your member of Congress?” he asked the room. To everyone who raised a hand, including Gym, he offered to facilitate that relationship. And he urged them to actually take him up on the offer. “We’ve truly got to build partnerships,” Ellison said. “We’ve truly got to lock arms.”

Twenty minutes later and a little more than a mile away, Gym took her seat behind a table at the front of yet another conference room. She sat just to the right of Mignon Clyburn, commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, who stressed that this panel was not a part of the DNC but was instead a politically neutral listening tour. Rounding out the panel were a slew of local (and one New York-based) officials and experts on digital inclusion—discussing the importance of ensuring that the Internet is accessible and affordable for everyone.

Keith Ellison speaks at Local Progress.

Keith Ellison speaks at Local Progress.

Like Ellison, Clyburn emphasized the important role local political leaders play in finding policies that will help America bridge that digital divide, admitting that even her own agency is in need of a re-calibration, to place more emphasis on meeting with local leaders. Only then, she said, can the FCC hear a community’s needs or advocate for specific solutions like an expansion of its Lifeline program, which provides low-income consumers with discounted telephone and broadband services, “You need to push me to do more,” she said.

Philadelphia, incidentally, has been a leader in some aspects of digital inclusion, having recently forced an expansion of low-income Internet access into the city’s 15-year franchise contract with Comcast. Seeing that outcome — and how, as several members of the panel put it, Philadelphia’s City Council didn’t allow itself to be “bullied” by the behemoth — Seattle’s municipal government followed suit. As the Seattle Times reported, the city swore it wouldn’t approve its pending Comcast deal “until the city gets what Philadelphia is getting.” In the end, Seattle achieved discounted Internet service for low-income seniors and an expanded grant to provide laptops to housing-insecure youth.

Gym is just six months into her job, but she’s already thinking about ambitious issues like shifting from a reliance on private companies like Comcast to instead provide discounted Internet access—essentially treating the Internet like a public good. “Going through the private market will only get us so far,” she says. That’s the message that she wants Clyburn to take with her back to Washington, D.C. It’s a message she wants everyone in D.C. to hear.

Before Gym’s staff whisked her into a black SUV to attend yet another event, she paused for a moment to reflect for a few minutes on her role as a grassroots politician. It’s an ongoing job, and it means small, often thankless change. Because after the Convention stage is dismantled and the big speakers leave town and the protests die down, someone will still need to push for fees on plastic bag and petition for more green jobs.

“I feel very strongly that in the streets is where democracy is also built, not just on the Wells Fargo stage,” she says. “Presidential politics is obviously very exciting and active and engaging. But that isn’t where it starts, nor is it where it ends.”