Sister District Is Doing It For Itself

With Democrats representing nearly the entire Bay Area at the state and federal levels, one nonprofit channels surplus enthusiasm to elect progressives elsewhere.

“The number of volunteers who have my cell phone number is probably too high,” says Lala Wu, director of engagement and partnerships for the Sister District Project, although it’s highly doubtful she’ll be changing her number anytime soon. “We do a little bit of a matchmaking process. We know our organizers and volunteers very well.”

Wu, along with four other Bay Area women, most of them attorneys, quit her corporate job in 2016 to devote herself full time to the task of electing progressives around the country (and giving out her number to likeminded people hungry for change). Distressed by the plummeting ranks of Democratic state officeholders around the country since the party’s peak strength after the 2008 election, they wanted to capitalize on an imbalance between the number of left-leaning voters in the Bay Area and the dearth of them elsewhere. The Sister District Project was born.

“Sister District really helps to fill the gap when it comes to ‘Well, I live in San Francisco, and I want to help,’ ” Wu says.

While 2016 was, of course, grim, 2017 was better — and not just for the psychological impact of winning consequential races in a handful of states. The Project concentrated its efforts on 13 districts in Virginia’s House of Delegates, where seasoned veterans thought flipping somewhere between five and eight GOP-held seats was within the realm of possibility in a chamber the Republicans held by a daunting 66-34 margin. No one foresaw a turn of events in which the Democrats picked up 15 seats outright. As recounts pushed into late December, the 16th seat resulted in a perfect tie, requiring a livestreamed drawing of lots to determine control of the chamber.

Definitively speaking, every little bit helped.

“We raised 16 percent of Cheryl Turpin of Virginia Beach’s total cash contributions,” Wu says of one low-profile candidate. “It was $38,000. That’s not a ton of money, but it was 16 percent of her total. We made 19,000 phone calls for her and knocked on 3,000 doors — and she won her race by 394 points.”

This cartogram visualizes the massive shift toward the Democrats in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, a trend that was felt equally in the House of Delegates.

This is proof of the underlying logic of former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean’s “50-State Strategy,” which is to leave no seats uncontested. But it’s also a testament to what the Sister District Project does, which is focus on a comparatively large number of races and hammer at them through fundraising, phone and text banking, postcard mailing, and even neighborhood canvassing. Some 10 dedicated Northern Californians physically traveled to Virginia to knock on doors, coordinating with a Sister District chapter in Washington, D.C.

The group focuses on state-level races for three reasons. First, they’re smaller and cheaper to compete in, so an infusion of donations and volunteers can have a measurable impact on the results. Second, state legislatures are where talent is nurtured, so for purple-to-red states to generate qualified, seasoned candidates for higher offices, they’ll first have to deepen their benches at the state level. Third, gerrymandering happens state legislatures. So if a state like Virginia flips from red to blue in time for the 2020 census reapportionment, it can then redraw its congressional districts more in line with the state’s overall demographics, instead of “packing and cracking” Democrats into dubiously shaped districts for the sake of artificially perpetuating Republican control. (In an ideal world, every state would turn district maps over to a nonpartisan citizen commission, as California does.)

We don’t live in an ideal world, though, and the hard part about getting there is getting people to care about a midlevel governmental body on another coast. Caroline Nassif, manager of Sister District’s San Francisco group, notes that “we have the nerdiest volunteer base in the resistance,” but getting people fired up about something geographically distant and a little abstract is a significant obstacle.

Caroline Nassif

It’s far from insurmountable, though. Bringing what Wu calls “out-of-state capacity” involves basic stuff like setting up phone banks — which can be notoriously discouraging to novices or sensitive personality types. So Sister District worked with veteran Bay Area activists from Democracy in Action to do plenty of that. There are also text banks, which provide the campaigns with more thorough information than phone calls tend to yield. And people threw house parties with Virginia-themed cocktails and “gerrymandered cookies,” creating a “party-in-a-kit” Google doc with helpful pointers like, “Always make sure guests have a drink in their hands when you solicit donations.”

“It turns out San Francisco has a lot of money, and they like to party,” Nassif says. “Our average donation was $48 per person, but that translated to 20 percent of Lee Carter’s budget and 4 percent of Elizabeth Guzman’s budget. She was the second-biggest fundraising machine in the Virginia races, so even to produce 4 percent was quite a feat.”

Carter is the candidate who was also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Written off as a long shot, he refused corporate money and still won by more than nine points. When she heard the results, Nassif says she was so happy that she “screamed for 10 minutes,” double-checking to make sure the returns hadn’t come in wrong.

“To say this is grassroots is almost an understatement,” Nassif says. “We were seedlings. We weren’t even roots yet.”

The Project evaluates candidates based on several criteria, chiefly whether or not that chamber of a state legislature is seen as flippable to the Democrats, it’s in danger of flipping to the Republicans, or if — in the case of very conservative states — it would be possible to chip away at a Republican supermajority.

“We’re on the coordinating side, and we’re going to try as hard as we can to stay that way,” Wu says. “We started out thinking that way because we want to help, but it’s building a lot of trust with our volunteers: This is the campaign that we vetted, and this is the candidate that wanted our help, and this is what they wanted our help with.”

Sister District works with existing groups so as not to duplicate efforts — and also because it’s important not to be perceived as interlopers swooping in. Not every winnable race calls out for hundreds of people from the conservative dystopia that is San Francisco to stick their noses in.

“We had a candidate in Delaware,” Wu recalls, “who said, ‘There’s kind of an accent here, let’s not do phone-banking,’ and we said, ‘No problem.’ ”

Consequently, more established wings of the Democratic Party apparatus have taken note, including the DNC and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). For 2018, the Sister District Project is looking at a total pool of about 6,000 candidates nationwide, beginning with a special election in a Florida House district centered on Sarasota.

“It’s a Trump district by four points,” Wu says. “We think the candidate is a good match, a woman who’s an attorney with strong ties to the community. She won her primary with 72 percent, and we’re super excited to be working with her.”

That race is on Feb. 13. The so-called Blue Wave seems to be gathering strength, and activists would be wise to harness the power of the tide as much as possible. But there’s another, scarier impetus to being what Wu calls “the light money to the dark money.”

Republican strength, in terms of the number of state legislatures the party controls, is at historic highs. The GOP controls 26 states outright, while the Democrats control only six, and the remaining eighteen states are split. It takes only 34 states to call for a new constitutional convention, something many activists — Nassif included — believe to be the real goal of politically involved billionaires like the Koch brothers. Such a move could permanently reconfigure the United States as an oligarchy, something we’re perilously close to already.

At the same time, she says, she got involved because she was “tired of losing.”

“If we are San Franciscans who care about voter disenfranchisement, if we care about LGBT issues, and we care about Black people and Latino people, then the state level is where it’s at,” Nassif says, adding that the Sister District Project “would much rather support a first-time political candidate, somebody like Lee Carter. He’s 30 years old, he’s in school, he’s a vet, he’s not rich. Before we interviewed him, his 5-year-old daughter threw up. We know this person! He could be our friend.”

“It’s much more about how we do build long-lasting wins and rebuild our party,” she says, “so it’s not wealthy people who’ve been in politics forever.”

Read more of this week’s feature on the political earthquakes we can expect in 2018.

A Return to the Ballot
June’s local election was expected to be a quiet one — but then the mayor died, the YIMBY party drafted a ballot measure, SFPD pushed for tasers, and an eviction law was introduced that could change the future for every renter in the city.

The Future Is Female
Shocked into action by the presidential election, woman’s strength as a political force will grow in 2018.

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