Unity and Healing for Everyone!…Except Progressive Democrats, BLM and Socialists

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Last week leaked audio of remarks made by Virginia Representative Abigail Spanberger, while on a House Democratic Caucus conference call caused something of a stir. The gist I got through the media-land ether was that she said calls to “defund the police” and the fact that some Democratic office holders refer to themselves as “democratic-socialists,” had ruined the Democrats’ chances to increase congressional majorities and had even cost several Democratic House members their seats. This charge was echoed by South Carolina Rep Jim Clyburn and others. But I decided to focus on the Spanberger audio clip, since it has been so widely discussed. I started by listening to exactly what she said.

Here’s it is verbatim:

I would request at some point in the future, as a caucus, we spend some time watching the attack ads, the millions upon millions of dollars that were spent shellacking so many of us across our districts, that we look a the things they say about us, that they say about the Democrats, that they say about the way we talk to people and the way we talk about things. Because whether we think it’s just an attack ad and that’s what it does, et cetera, et cetera, it doesn’t matter because it works. And the thing that people brought to me in my district, that I barely re-won was defunding the police. And I’ve heard from colleagues, who have said, oh it’s the language of the street, we should respect that. We’re in Congress. We are professionals. We are supposed to talk about things in the way where we mean what we are talking about. If we don’t mean we defund the police, we shouldn’t say that. And, so when there are millions upon millions — members [what she actually says here wasn’t entirely audible to me] and people in our communities concerned we need to recognize that that is on us. Trump is on the ballot. Trump was always going to be a challenge, to overcome being on the ballot with him. But he’s going to go away after this election, even when Joe Biden wins. And we need to get back to the basics that brought us to the finish line in 2018 because he was there at that time as well. And for the people who flipped districts that he had won and certainly for those who won Hillary districts, we did it by being hyper [bleep]. If we want to talk about funding social services and ensuring good engagement and community policing, lets talk about what we are for. And we need to not ever use the words “socialist” or “socialism” ever again. Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of that. And my background [laughs a little], I know you all know it, coming from CIA, the first thing you do, is always do an after-action and you dig into everything you did right and everything you did wrong.

Now there’s an awful lot to unpack here, including the irony, apparently lost on Rep Spanberger, about “after-actions” carried out by an organization that has interfered in dozens of elections, helped to outright overthrow legitimately elected governments or assassinate their leaders, since its founding in 1947. But I want to focus on the issue of attack ads because Spanberger specifically credits those with having damaged Democratic prospects in 2020. Before we get into this, let me also make it clear that I actually agree with some of what Spanberger said. Campaign messaging and the words used by candidates for elected office are important and candidates should mean what they say. However, the issue here is whether the phrase “defunding the police” and the words, “socialist” or “socialism” contributed in large part toward the Democrats’ somewhat lackluster performance. And here I think the evidence to support this contention is decidedly mixed.

Lets take a look at incumbent Oklahoma Democrat Kendra Horn’s loss to Republican Stephanie Brice. Did the language/messaging of “defunding” the police or “socialism” play a role in Horn’s defeat? Maybe but look what else I found out about this race. The Oklahoman the largest daily newspaper in Oklahoma, reported on October 11, 2020 that Horn was “battling Pelosi ads,” while her opponent was shifting her emphasis away from Trump support. The report goes on to say:

Out-of-state groups have spent millions of dollars attacking Horn, D-Oklahoma City, for voting with Pelosi, D-Calif., nearly 90% of the time. A poll released last week shows why Republicans have adopted the strategy: 59% of those surveyed in Horn’s district disapprove of the speaker.

Earlier, in September, KOCO News 5, an ABC-affiliate in Oklahoma reported on another attack as against Horn for failing to support the state’s oil and gas industry. The ad refers to Horn as a “liberal” (not a socialist) and pictured her standing net to Nancy Pelosi. OK, we’re just beginning but so far, nothing about defunding the police or socialism.

Net up is the Texas’ 23rd District race where Republican Tony Gonzales beat Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones. This race was identified by a CNN report as a “top pick-up opportunity” for the Dems. Ortiz Jones is a Filipino-American, former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer, who is also gay. She first ran in 2018 but narrowly lost to incumbent Republican William Hurd. On October 14, 2020, LGBTQ Nation reported that the GOP was launching anti-LGBTQ attack ads against Ortiz Jones. The report continued:

A new 30-second ad released by the NRCC deems Ortiz Jones as “too liberal for Texas.” It’s entitled “Death Sentence,” suggesting that electing Ortiz Jones would be disastrous for the state’s oil industry. It also puts her side by side with Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even alleging that Pelosi “pays” Ortiz Jones’ bills and that she would “pay her back” if elected.

OK, we finally got a mention for AOC! But, curiously, still nada about socialism or defunding the police, so my search continued. We heard a lot about Florida, the latinx vote down there etc., so let’s take a look at freshman Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell’s loss to Republican Carlos Giménez. Here’s what the Miami Herald had to say in an October 24 report:

In Florida’s most competitive congressional race, the allegations are coming fast and they’re personal. Corrupt. Dangerous. Dead wrong for Miami.

But in ads posted by groups supporting Carlos Gimenez and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in the multimillion-dollar fight for Florida’s 26th Congressional District, some of the fiercest attacks are not focused on the candidates themselves, or their records, but on their families.

Gimenez, the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County, is going after Mucarsel-Powell’s husband for his work with a publicly traded company that took — but then returned — federal Paycheck Protection Program money meant for small businesses at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and for his previous work for two Miami businessmen accused of money laundering by the Justice Department.

And then there’s this:

Mucarsel-Powell, the Democratic incumbent, has aimed at Gimenez’s sons, attacking one of them for his red light camera lobbying work and another for his previous job working at the company that built the pedestrian bridge at Florida International University that collapsed in 2018, killing six people.

And while both candidates say they want to talk about policy issues like the ongoing Obamacare lawsuit by Republicans that threatens to tank a program providing health insurance to about 100,000 people in the district and the composition of the Supreme Court, ads run by groups aligned with Mucarsel-Powell and Gimenez tell a different story. The gloves are off — and they were never really on.

So, look folks, at this point I’m starting to get tired from all of this and maybe you are too (but THANKS for hangin in there with me!) maybe attack ads about defunding the police and socialism did have an impact on some races. Former NYPD officer John Cummings, who ran as a Republican against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, definitely used the word “socialist” in one of his ads and I heard from an in district friend that Cummings also ran one where he attacked AOC for calling to “defund the police.” But, of course, Cummings was the one who got shellacked in NY’s 14th Congressional District. One race where it may have made a difference was in NY’s 1st Congressional District, comprised of a large portion of Suffolk County, where Democrat Nancy Goroff mounted a first time challenge against incumbent Republican Lee Zeldin. But Goroff made the cardinal mistake of running an ad where she kept repeating, “I’m not for defunding the police” (see progressive political language/ messaging expert, George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, for more on why that’s a BIG no, no).

To conclude, once again, let me stress that I’m not necessarily saying defunding the police and socialism didn’t play a role in the Dems lukewarm showing in 2020. And if you can show me specifically where it did, aside from the Gofoff-Zeldin race, I’ll buy you a drink. But why is their so much focus on these two particular items, that by their very nature call progressives, socialists and independent movements outside the control of the Democratic Party like Black Lives Matter, into question, when there are CLEARLY a LOT of other explanations for Democratic losses?

Why are we not talking so much about them?

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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