Dear Salty #8: Wild and Precious

Dear Salty,

Last week you talked about some ways to help save the country. (Which is the rest of the planet, too. Because nukes, proxy wars, oil, the climate. Not to mention women in poor countries who need pregnancy terminations.) But I kept noticing how much of what we can do seems limited by gerrymandering. Working around gerrymandering seems like trying to run a marathon with heavy weights bound to your ankles. How the hell did it happen, who did it, and what can be done about it? (Which I guess means what can we do about it. Which I guess I mean, me.)



I was telling a friend the other day how for a while when I was younger I did some theater. Here’s what I loved—making theater is about building something gorgeous and powerful with other people. Together. Writing can be lonely. Programming in your cramped pre-fab cube with the polyester fake-tweed half-walls can be deadening. Even managing a room full of two-year-olds with no other adult, no one who speaks in complex sentences—this is a head-cracker. So much of modern life is solitary. But political and social justice work is, well, social. You’re helping the world but you don’t have to carry the whole stage. Old lefties used to talk about mass struggle—what a cliché that seemed to me then. It sounded like language out of a can. Yet here we are now, and so–si se puede! This effort to make the world move is too tough to do by yourself.

Last week I wrote about Swing Left. Here’s another group with a similar purpose, but with a crucial laser-focused difference.

Sister District says,

“If you live in a solidly blue (or red) place, you might feel frustrated trying to figure out what you can do to fight back. The Sister District Project can help you find a place to channel your blue energy where it will actually make a difference. When you join the Sister District Project, you will be connected with your local home district team. After the primary elections in June, your team will be matched with a strategic, winnable race that needs your support. In 2017, your Sister Race will be a down-ballot race that is critical to helping Democrats defend or take back control of the states and bring fairness back to redistricting. As 2018 approaches, you will be matched with a swing congressional district, or other strategically important race, so that we can take back the House of Representatives and the State Legislatures. Sister District will be in direct contact with the campaigns we support and we will have specific action items from the campaign for volunteers to take on.”

So far it sounds like Swing Left. But notice the key phrase, “bring fairness back to redistricting.”

Here’s something terrifying—Republicans are now just six states short of having the power to amend the Constitution. Imagine. This would mean that every right you take for granted—separation of church and state; equal rights regardless of sex, sexual orientation, color, religion, disability; the right to free speech and assembly and governmental transparency; clean air and water laws; public space; the basic structure of government; even the right to vote, and more—could be erased. Hello, The Handmaid’s Tale. Hello, Turkey/Venezuela-style kleptocracy.

And they know it. Boy, do the Republicans know it—that they are so close to wielding this weapon. And by the way, they also know quite well that most progressives do not know it. Did we become complacent during the Obama years—disastrously so? Would we have continued to be complacent if Hillary Clinton had been elected President? I am sorry to say that I think—yes, maybe. (I myself did not know about this threat to our constitutional rights until a couple of smart women put me onto it.)

How could all this be happening? Indeed, partly via gerrymandering.

State governments—legislatures and governors—have the power to draw congressional districts. As Sister District tells it:

“After President Obama was elected in 2008, Republican elites enacted a plan called REDMAP where they began spending millions of dollars to take control of what is now 32 state governments. Their plan worked, and gaining control of state governments allowed them to gerrymander congressional districts, pass voter suppression laws, and grasp a disproportionate amount of power in the House of Representatives and state legislatures.

“As a result of these tactics, the majority of American voices are being silenced on both the state and federal levels. The geographical separation of blue and red voters and the ‘packing’ of progressive voters into dark blue districts leaves many blue voters feeling helpless. Those who live in dark blue areas are often choosing between two progressive candidates; those votes feel wasted and volunteer efforts are not particularly necessary.”

As well, once a red district is drawn using gerrymandering, right-wing politicians there have no progressive opposition to contend with and fight. Their struggle is no longer with us. They can ignore Democrats entirely. Instead, this sets up a race-to-the-bottom dynamic where Republican candidates compete with each other to be more religious-nut-toadying, more woman-and sexytime-hating, more race-baiting, more gender-behavior-policing, more environmentally-destructive, more corporation-catering, more poor-people-humiliating than the next right-wing guy.

So how to fight gerrymandering at its root?

I talked with Rita Bosworth, Sister District’s founder, and this is what she told me–we have to win back more state governments. So Sister District focuses strictly on state races, especially state legislatures and governors. There are several reasons.

To begin with, these are the political actors who draw district lines and have gerrymandering power. They draw district lines both for state and national elections.

Even if a state often goes blue for presidential elections, it can still be dominated by red on the state level. So these state legislatures make key decisions that influence national politics.

Also, politicians often start their careers at the local and state levels. They learn there, develop skills and networks there, and then move up to national office. This is important and oft-overlooked, because progressives need to develop more excellent people to represent us in the years to come. That means nurturing them now, in down-ticket races, for jobs that may seem mundane and unglamorous and small-town and un-sparkly. And guess what? The right wing does this work and they’re very skilled at it and they’re way ahead there. They’re winning at it. Progressives need to do lots more grassroots-level organizing.

Bosworth told me that Sister District has grown to 20,000 members nationwide, and that’s with little or no funding. How do you decide where to deploy these volunteers? I asked. “We get involved,” she said, “when we see a margin of five points or less”—that is, in the most recent race for a particular seat, the winner made it by a very slim lead. I also asked Bosworth about similar progressive groups. She said yes, we collaborate with Swing Left and Code Blue when we are all working on the same state race.

As I write, the far-right, racist, nativist, Putin-supported politician Marine Le Pen has just cleared a hurdle to face off against the liberal Emmanuel Macron, for the presidency of France. The final election is the first week of May, and I fear the worst. But I have hope. For France and for Europe. For all of us.

Mary Oliver’s words come to me now. What will we do with our wild and precious democracy? She writes, “Tell me, what else should I have done?”



Stand up be counted with all the rest For everybody knows about Mississippi goddam I made you thought I was kiddin’ Picket lines School boycotts They try to say it’s a communist plot All I want is equality For my sister my brother my people and me And


Susan Nordmark’s essays, poetry, and fiction have been published in Roar, EntropyPeacock JournalDraft: The Journal of ProcessPorter Gulch ReviewMatrix, and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, California.


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