A year and a bit after the 2016 elections, we’re still debating exactly what happened. But most of those conversations revolve around the candidates, the parties and their official campaigns. What about lessons for community organizations and their social movements? What did we do right and wrong in that cycle, and what can be learned? What can be done for groups who don’t see a champion on the ballot or who don’t see “hold-your-nose-and-vote-for-the-lesser-of-two-evils” as a convincing mobilizing opportunity?
Two campaigns that we each worked on offer at least one answer to that question. These campaigns, the #ByeAnita campaign in the Illinois state attorney’s race and the #BaztaArpaio campaign in Maricopa County, Arizona, both demonstrated that we don’t need to endorse a candidate to take a terrible incumbent out of office. We can be negative and win.
Every story loves a super-villain, and in both our Chicago and Maricopa races, the incumbent fit the bill.
In Chicago, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was best known for delaying charges in the case of Laquan McDonald, whose death at the hands of police was suppressed for 400 days, in what many believe to be an active cover-up. But the McDonald case was not the first of Alvarez’s misdeeds. Throughout her eight years in office, she earned a “tough-on-crime” reputation by locking up children for life, targeting people who report police misconduct and the attorneys who help them, and routinely failing to investigate officers who murdered and tortured Black people.
In Maricopa County, Sheriff Joe Arpaio built his 23-year career with the title of “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” He placed youth in chain gangs, incarcerated prisoners in an outdoor jail in the desert he referred to as his “own concentration camp,” and most famously, deputized vigilantes to carry out anti-immigrant patrols that polarized the county, all of which resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits.
When up for re-election, both candidates had broad name recognition, negative reputations and a track record of winning elections anyway (Arpaio had won the previous six, Alvarez the previous two).
To beat these incumbents took a variety of tactics, and the victories are in no way ours alone to claim.
In both races, multiple local efforts formed sometimes intersecting and sometimes divergent forces aimed at taking down the incumbents. In Chicago, some groups focused on traditional phone and door-knocking outreach tactics on behalf of Alvarez’s challenger Kim Foxx. In Arizona, an organization received funding to send mailers targeting Republican voters to convince them that challenger Paul Penzone would do a better job at keeping them safer than his opponent.
In contrast, each of us put our energies into grassroots campaigns that did not endorse anyone in the race. Instead, the #ByeAnita and #BaztaArpaio campaigns framed the races as watermark moments and motivated voters to set an example by taking down the incumbents for their racist behaviors.
In these times, voters — especially voters of color — are cynical. (More eligible voters sat out the 2016 election, despite the stakes, than cast a ballot.) We would attribute this low turnout not only to extensive voter suppression efforts by the GOP, but also to decades of promises from Democrats who either fail to fulfill those promises, or campaign with the assumption that voters of color are a captive base. It’s created a broad disenchantment that any challenger has a hard time overcoming.
Some candidates address this by continuing to count out or ignore segments of voters who are seen as notoriously hard to mobilize. Instead, they focus their efforts to tilt the turnout needle in their direction, aiming their messaging strictly at “high efficacy” or “reliable” voters. (Ironically, these “reliable” constituents are narrowly defined as people who have a history of turning out to vote in presidential and midterm elections. It isn’t defined as the Black women who reliably vote for Democrats at a much higher margin than any other demographic.) Others set up town halls and forums to get to know the candidates, particularly when they are lesser known than the incumbents.
To defeat Alvarez and Arpaio, we needed a different recipe than what “common knowledge” in the electoral world had to offer.
Diverging in tactics, budget and demographics, our campaigns shared a rogue strategy: We ran negative campaigns that refused to endorse an alternative candidate. Instead, we wanted to hold accountable the people who were using their elected offices to directly inflict harm on the communities they were expected to represent.
We didn’t promise that Foxx would be a better prosecutor or that Penzone would be a fairer sheriff. (We refused to suggest that anyone in those positions could offer the justice that communities need and deserve.) Instead, we sought to inspire people to feel their power to take down giants — to send the message that we are watching and will not allow an elected official to get away with abuse.
We believed that voters may be cynical, but are not apathetic or unaware. We believed that an honest campaign focused on grassroots accountability, rather than usual candidate-centered promises, could beat the machine.
Anita Alvarez landed in the national spotlight over her role in the cover-up of the murder of Laquan McDonald in October 2014. Chicago erupted in protest and her approval rating tanked. But February 2016 election polls revealed that despite the controversy, she still had a 7 percent lead over Foxx. We were shocked. We had 36 days until the election and $800. Because the state’s attorney is still charged with the role of prosecution — a role we find inherently harmful — we refused to endorse anyone running, no matter how “progressive” they claimed to be. But we also refused to sit this one out. Reviving an old hashtag, #ByeAnita, a coalition of community groups came together to add to the voter engagement efforts of Chicago-based groups like BYP100, the People’s Lobby, Foxx’s own campaign and others with a month-long campaign that disrupted, discredited and ultimately defeated Alvarez.
Internally, whether or not to endorse Foxx was a debate. However, ultimately, we agreed to trust the larger landscape of community organizing and Foxx’s campaign team to do their jobs of promoting alternative candidates.
Our role was to agitate Alvarez and excite voters to turn out and use their vote as a tool for accountability.
We started by publicly interrupting Alvarez by mic-checking her at every opportunity, even paying for $100/plate fundraisers and sending in white allies to take embarrassing photos with her. The direct confrontations quickly proved effective, as Alvarez appeared frazzled, unaccustomed to being at the center of direct action, and less capable of holding public events leading up to the election. All of this we captured with our own media and made public on social media under the #ByeAnita hashtag.
We did “train takeovers” in which volunteers filled the cars to distribute outreach material for riders. We made up new songs. We flyered city-wide and connected Black Brunch (a series of actions at the time, in which participants were interrupting white affluent weekend restaurant-goers with protests against police violence) with the #ByeAnita campaign. We organized consistent and escalating actions that drew increasing attention to the upcoming vote and Alvarez’s abuses of our communities.
Escalating our agitations, we had planned a street shutdown right before voting day, only to learn of a Trump campaign rally happening at the University of Illinois at Chicago. We knew Trump would be the story everyone was talking about, so we scrapped our plans and connected our campaign to Trump. We hooked the masses of anti-Trump protesters who showed up and told them, “If you don’t f**k with Trump, you need to know about Anita Alvarez and help vote her out.” The swarms of media couldn’t help but capture images of our banners and the sounds of our “Bye Anita” chants. With that, we made national headlines.
We knew we needed to keep up the pressure and visibility all the way through to voting day. In the 24 hours before the polls opened, we dropped 16 banners in high-traffic locations throughout the city. And on the day regular voting booths opened, we flew planes with McDonald’s name over downtown Chicago.
In the end, we had organized 16 different actions in one month and had gotten #ByeAnita trending nationally. By Election Day, people we had never met were posting selfies of their “I voted” stickers and saying “Bye Anita.” It was exhausting, but effective. On March 15, 2016, more than 1,000,000 people voted and pushed Alvarez out of office at a margin of 2:1.
The Arizona campaign to unseat Sheriff Arpaio offered a similar but slightly different recipe. Made possible by the preceding decade of community organizing led by the migrant justice organization Puente Arizona and other groups, Maricopa County in 2016 felt like it could be at a tipping point. #BaztaArpaio set out explicitly to expand the electorate, targeting first-time voters (150,000 new voters were registered in 2016 by the One Arizona coalition), as well as low-turnout voters of color who had sat out the 2012 election.
The focus on low-turnout, primarily Latinx voters (who were already overwhelmingly anti-Arpaio) meant that it wasn’t a question of persuasion against the candidate, but persuasion of the communities’ own strength and the possibility of being part of kicking him out. It allowed for spectacular tactics like a march to the polls with a 20-foot-tall inflatable Arpaio in handcuffs at the lead, a bright red bus that cruised through neighborhoods and past high schools with anti-Arpaio corridos blaring, and rallies and protests in addition to daily, disciplined, concerted door-knocking.
The campaign built an organizing team with new and emerging local leaders to invest in and deepen their capacity for long-term local work. We placed op-eds written by people who had been arrested by Arpaio or who grew up living in fear of him. We built a “Bop the Bigot” video game that allowed people to take out their frustration by hitting Arpaio (and Trump and David Duke) with a chancla. LGBTQ volunteers with the campaign pointed out the missed opportunity of engaging queer community more directly, pushing to print LGBTQ-specific literature they took out to the dance floor and volunteering to make a Selena in drag music video that premiered on Fusion the week before the election. High schoolers self-organized walk-outs on Election Day, raising the stakes and the profile of the efforts against Arpaio.
Finally, a national “get out the vote” mobilization to Arizona coordinated by the Latinx organizing hub Mijente had 500 volunteers knocking on 13,000 doors in two days to turn out against the hate that had taken over the 2016 elections. Phoenix became a microcosm of the national fight against racism that felt both manageable and filled with possibility.
Because turnout, not persuasion, was the goal, organizers’ door literature focused on Arpaio’s time being up, and engaged potential voters in a conversation about real safety coming from disinvesting from the sheriff’s policing apparatus and reinvesting in suffering community institutions.
Despite how hard some in the media worked to make the race strictly about financial management of the sheriff’s office, the tactics and first-person narrative of the grassroots campaign framed it clearly as a referendum on Arpaio’s anti-immigrant and cruel policing policies and an example of the shifting balances of power in the County.
Both the #ByeAnita and #BaztaArpaio campaigns served a purpose beyond defeating the incumbents: They raised the stakes for the opposition candidates. Foxx ran as a progressive promising to reform the criminal legal system, particularly the way the state’s attorney’s office deals with police misconduct cases. Penzone played his campaign safer, attempting to avoid controversy and not appear “too liberal” to the Republican voters he would still have to win over. In both cases, we took out the incumbent, but by not focusing on promoting the opposition candidates, we were also able to build specific space for a political agenda for the newly elected replacements to fulfill.
This is an old story about little people taking down giants. These campaigns followed a theory of change built on a belief in community power which is particularly important in these times. It’s a different strategy than candidates who are tasked with providing a compelling platform, but it is viable for community groups who often feel stuck between a rock and a hard place when looking at options on the ballot.
Since 2016, we’ve seen that changing. New possibilities are becoming evident in races with candidates like Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and Andrea Jenkins and Stephanie Gasca in Minneapolis, among others. In recent special elections in Virginia and Alabama, Black women led record turnout to punish far-right candidates.
But as we watch a DNC that seems bent on tacking further to the right, and many philanthropists prioritizing racially coded “fly-over America” voters at the expense of others, the lessons of the campaigns we worked on feel like they remain relevant and necessary. They’re two examples for how to defeat bad guys, whether because they’re the greater of two evils or because there have just been too many good-guys-turned-disappointments to get people excited about anything else.
Co-authored with Page May of Assata’s Daughters. Originally published in TruthOut.