Changing the Rules

February 4, 2015

Our democracy is under siege. Laws are written to disenfranchise millions and our voices go unheard. Progressives organize but are drowned out by radical billionaires. Lines are drawn to divide communities and weaken our power. Too often, our courts are politicized and fail to protect our democracy against these attacks.  

The rules of the game are stacked against progress. And the very foundation of America’s democracy is at stake.

Case in point? Sam Brownback, the ultra-conservative Kansas governor won reelection by 33,000 votes. Yet, according to the Brennan Center, over 24,000 Kansans tried to register but were held in “suspense” because they “failed to present documentary proof of citizenship.” And the state’s Voter ID law turned away 17,000 citizens on Election Day.

Put simply, the margin of victory for conservatives is less than the number of voters their policies disenfranchise. It’s a similar story in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and countless other states.

The last, and most crucial line of defense for America’s democracy is our courts. They read, they enforce, they define the scope of the rules. They are the referees. So the conservative game plan is to take over the courts. Instead of appointing judges on merit, conservatives have them elected in partisan campaigns or appointed by a conservative governor.

So as Wellstone fights to reclaim and expand our democracy, we’re starting by defending the courts. We’re doing it by strategically marshaling our movement’s resources, innovating alongside leading organizations, building coalitions, and raising our voices. We’re doing it the Wellstone Way. 

Wellstone partnered with Justice at Stake, a national leader on fair courts, to turn the tides of this corrosive strategy. We’re building national capacity in convenings, and then we’re diving into the toughest on-the-ground battles to win fair courts starting with the states where our democracy is most at risk.

As Debra Erenberg, Justice at Stake’s Director of State Affairs, says, “Wellstone’s approach works really well in this field. Too often, fair courts work is isolated to the legal community or good government groups. Wellstone’s focus on building ground-level capacity by bringing diverse stakeholders together is what we needed. That kind of movement-building work is Wellstone’s forte and it’s critical to our success.”

One example: we partnered with the Kansas Values Institute and Kansans for Fair Courts to stop Governor Brownback from systematically destroying the state’s impartial courts. In a deep red state, with Sam Brownback backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, the work couldn’t have been harder, or more important.

“We don’t have the luxury to waste our finite resources,” said Ryan Wright, Kansas Values Institute’s Executive Director, “The beautiful part of this work is everyone has a big a role to play: nonprofits, advocacy groups, unions, individual citizens, we all had to work together.  Wellstone helped us figure out how to bring everyone to the table, give everyone a voice, so we could best utilize our resource, and grow power in a diverse coalition.”

“We stopped Sam Brownback from unseating independent Supreme Court Justices that he, and his Super PAC allies, had targeted with millions of dollars in false and misleading ads. Bottom line: Wellstone helped us build an enduring coalition. This is not a top-down strategy; this is about bringing folks together and getting buy in on the ground floor. That’s how you win long term.”

Wellstone also helped lead two national convenings with Justice at Stake and representatives from groups in 25 states and the District of Columbia. “Working with Wellstone allowed us to move forward quickly and boldly.” Says Erenberg, “With Wellstone, we’re turning these groups into movements, building capacity, and thinking strategically about a path to power.”

Our courts are the last bastions of defense for our democracy. So funders like Piper Fund are working to build a national campaign in their defense. To do it, they’re working with Justice at Stake, along with other leading communications and movement organizations, and they are relying on Wellstone as the innovator in this field:

"Wellstone has helped statewide fair courts organizations across the country to deepen their strategic thinking, build more powerful coalitions, and learn concrete skills to advance their campaigns. Bringing Wellstone in has been a game changer for the field nationwide.” - Melissa Spatz, Program Director, Piper Fund

Progressives are losing, and it’s not because our ideas are worse or our campaigns are poorly run; it’s because the rules are written, and enforced, to tear down our communities. Too often, our movement sees fair courts, voting rights, money in politics, and voter turnout as important but separate issues. Not us. These issues are woven together to define the strength of our democracy, the fairness of the rules.

That’s why we’re committed to reclaiming our democracy, starting with the courts. Adriana Barboza runs this work as our Movement Building Principal, “We’re connecting the dots so we can proactively play offense to reshape the rules of the game. We’re driving forward a sense of collaboration and empowerment that, state-by-state, is strengthening our democracy by integrating a series of separate campaigns into a cohesive movement. We’re making our courts fairer, and the rules of the game more just, the Wellstone Way.”

We’re making the rules of the game support our communities, our values, and our future. And we’re doing it the only way we know how, strategically, as innovators, with diverse coalitions, and with an eye towards that America where everyone’s in, nobody’s out, no exceptions. 

(Photos thanks to Justice at Stake)