In 2009, members of the Grassroots Collaborative, a community-labor coalition representing more than 120,000 members in Illinois, led a five-day hunger strike and blockade of state legislative offices to stop “doomsday cuts” that threatened to slash social services and education by forty percent across Illinois. More than 5,000 home health care workers, educators, community leaders, and service providers took action. Together, we stopped the worst of those cuts and eventually won an increase in the state income tax. But while raising the state’s flat tax was critical to stopping further disinvestment in Black and brown communities, we knew we also had to create a path to taxing the wealthiest individuals and corporations in Illinois.

For the past 11 years, Grassroots Collaborative, with our members and allies, has organized to stop austerity measures in Illinois and Chicago and to raise the demand that our elected officials invest boldly in brown and Black communities — and pay for it by taxing the wealthy, along with big banks, Wall Street, and corporations. In 2020, we appealed directly to voters through a ballot initiative to enact the Fair Tax Amendment, which would eliminate the flat tax and implement a graduated state income tax. The legislature set new progressive income tax rates in anticipation of the amendment’s passage, and we were poised to raise an estimated $3.4 billion each year in new state revenues by increasing taxes on only the richest three percent of Illinoisans. But on November 3, Illinois residents voted down the ballot measure by a margin of 53 to 47.  

As many states and cities face structural budget shortfalls made worse by the current economic and public health crises, more of us find ourselves grappling with the challenge of how to win campaigns to tax the rich. Statewide revenue campaigns are tough. Across the country, we lose much more often than we win. Yet, nationally, the majority of people believe that the wealthy and corporations are not paying their fair share. In Illinois, a 2014 statewide non-binding referendum calling for a state millionaire’s tax to fund public education won sixty percent support from Illinois voters. At least twenty percent of those voters supported the Republican candidate for Governor in the same election, showing some amount of bi-partisan support for taxing the rich. During 2020, polling by our allies showed support for Fair Tax at 58 percent at its high point, and 53 percent at its lowest.  

Why are we losing these fights, and what can we learn from them?

Three different ballot committees waged the “Yes on Fair Tax'' effort in Illinois. Our coalition, working under the Vote Yes for Fair Tax Ballot Committee, united 34 organizations in a coordinated field program, in addition to coordinating a “validators” program and a modest digital ad program. We were advised by national experts that neglecting voters of color had been a critical error in other revenue fights, so our coalition made the strategic decision to focus the majority of our field program in Black and Latinx communities, knowing that the Democratic Party would target “swing” (read: white) voters. Coalition partners like Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and Jewish Council on Urban Affairs engaged additional constituency groups. To compliment this field strategy,  we focused our digital ad program on Black and brown voters, centering Race Class Narrative messaging as well as messaging that focused on investment and building thriving communities.

This focus proved successful. We won big in Chicago, with 73 percent of the vote. In majority Black wards in Chicago, we won 81-to-85 percent of the vote. But we lost the state 47 to 53. Four main factors contributed to our defeat statewide. First, our field program was severely underfunded. Veteran power-building organizations received less than three percent of total campaign funds (the bulk of which came from the Governor himself). Second, progressive organizations have not built enough organizing infrastructure outside of Chicago. Third, the majority of the messaging in favor of the Amendment was too milquetoast; it didn’t successfully connect the graduated income tax with a hopeful vision for the future nor did it convey a sense of the crisis the state would face without the additional revenue a tax on the wealthy would bring. Finally, the opposition campaign successfully defined the narrative around the amendment, which they painted as benefitting a corrupt state government.    

 

It is critical for organizers fighting austerity to understand why we lost in Illinois and to incorporate these lessons in future campaigns. Here are the key lessons we learned from the Fair Tax Amendment fight.

 

Lesson #1: Anticipate your opposition and inoculate early! 

We predicted that the opposition would try to convince voters the amendment would raise everyone’s taxes. We were partially correct. They branded the ballot measure as the Tax Hike Amendment. We were ready for this, and our message was simple and clear: the Fair Tax Amendment would raise taxes on only the richest three percent of Illinoisans (those with an income over $250,000), and would generate $3.4 billion for our communities.     

But in mid-August, the opposition campaign got an infusion of $20 million from the billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin. This mega-donation turned a relatively mild opponent into a fierce operation that ultimately spent more than $59 million ($50 million from Griffin alone) on a highly sophisticated and aggressive campaign, which included both an air war and a field program. 

The opposition began to spread disinformation, claiming that the amendment would give Illinois’s politicians broad new taxing powers and harm ordinary Illinois residents by taxing retirement incomes. Both of these claims are false, but as we have all so painfully learned these last four years, it is difficult to combat lies that fit perfectly in the grooves of voters’ existing fears and frustrations. The opposition’s most successful messaging was a simple question: Do you want to give these corrupt politicians more money? They agitated people’s distrust in government and, in particular, their anger at the seemingly never-ending string of corruption scandals involving Illinois’s elected officials.

We adjusted our messaging to try to combat the disinformation. Our coalition partners did earned media work featuring seniors to challenge the lie that the amendment would tax retirement income. We found that one-on-one conversations were particularly effective in combating disinformation and confusion. Stories rolled in about volunteers winning over undecided voters who were confused by contradictory ads and mail.   

But we didn’t reach enough voters before the opposition dumped millions of dollars into ads in mid-August. We found ourselves responding to attacks instead of defining the issue. In hindsight, we should have put more resources into play earlier in the campaign when the digital airwaves were less congested. The same was true for our voter contact program. Most of our phone banking took place between August and November, when we were going head to head with the opposition campaign’s messaging. Earlier voter contact — and the funding to resource it — would have allowed us to reach tens of thousands more voters before the opposition did. 

 

Lesson #2: Build power outside of big cities. 

Population and demographic shifts have changed the power map in Illinois. Fifteen years ago, strong organizing in Chicago could determine a win or loss statewide. That is no longer true. As more Black and Latinx folks are being pushed out of gentrifying cities, they are moving to the suburbs, where there is less progressive organizing infrastructure. Too many voters in these areas only received information about the Fair Tax via commercials, which opponents were brutally effective at. In locations where there was a local organizing project or hub focused in communities of color, such as Peoria and Bloomington, we were able to significantly reduce the loss margin or even win a majority of votes.

We also have minimal organizing infrastructure downstate, where there are larger numbers of conservatives and a deep, racialized resentment of Chicago. Many voters downstate believed that the Fair Tax Initiative would only benefit Chicago, not their own communities. In the wake of our campaign loss, many members of our coalition are considering undertaking a scalable base-building effort in three-to-five key cities beyond Chicago, Peoria, and Bloomington. Doing this in partnership with local progressive-leaning unions would set the stage for future coalition work on large-scale campaigns. With investment from national funders, blue states like Illinois could see significant wins that break open strategies to dismantle racist austerity across the country.  

 

Lesson #3: Skill up during the slow times

We made heroic pivots early in the pandemic to use new tech tools and switch to remote organizing and voter contact. But we lost a significant amount of capacity during a critical period in our campaign because we were onboarding new tools and training organizers and leaders when we should have been operating at near peak capacity. While some organizations had the resources to make this transition themselves or with help from a national organization, the majority of our coalition partners needed intensive training and technical assistance. We trained leaders and staff to use tools like OutVote (the relational organizing app) and ThruText; to lead phone banks and trainings over Zoom; and to navigate predictive dialers from home. One of our key learnings is that we must figure out how to integrate digital skills training for our member leaders and staff so that we are not left scrambling when a crisis hits.

One path to the kind of statewide impact we need to win is through integrated digital organizing strategies. Much of the work we did to scale up our digital organizing programs during the pandemic was aimed at replacing door-to-door canvassing. In the future, we need to employ digital strategies that supplement our door-knocking programs by enabling more decentralized organizing models and online political communities. 

That being said, we are more convinced than ever that there is no replacement for door knocking. We were unable to reach approximately thirty percent of our targeted voter universe because we didn’t have a phone number for them. After an early bump in contact rates during April and May, when people were eager to talk, our phone bank contact rate dropped to seven percent by June, meaning there were huge numbers of voters we never had conversations with. And without them seeing us coming down the street in our organizational shirts, they couldn’t wonder to a neighbor: Who was that? What did they want? As a result, the word of mouth effect that canvassing often has was cut off as well. As our members and communities struggle with increasing precarity, traditional phone banking and text banking methods will exclude large percentages of our base. Investing in door knocking is critical to winning.

 

Lesson #4: Overcoming growing polarization and distrust in government is necessary to win revenue fights. Combatting the distrust and polarization sown by our opposition requires effective messaging (like the Race Class Narrative project) but also significant investment in deep canvassing and long-term organizing by base-building organizations. We ran a deep canvassing project (via phone) that successfully moved ninety-one percent of voters with a neutral or negative view of government to support the Fair Tax Amendment. Having deep conversations about the role of government in making big changes (like passing the Civil Rights Act or establishing Medicare) proved powerful in transforming people’s skepticism about the Fair Tax ballot measure. This was especially true when we coupled this with stories of collective action and people power. For example, conversations in which we talked about a recent example of local organizing wins had the most success in moving people from a negative or neutral view of government to a hopeful one. If this type of organizing had been invested in at scale, over multiple years, we would have been better positioned to meaningfully combat the effects of the opposition’s corruption messaging. Coalition partners are now considering how we might develop a cross-organization deep canvassing practice that builds support for progressive revenue and ambitious public investments over the next two-to-three years — before we’re in another revenue fight.   

 

Conclusion

Wealthy elites and small government advocates of all parties will use the pandemic to push austerity, with our city and state budgets as the battleground. We have the opportunity to organize for a program of massive public investment, but we have to simultaneously win the argument for taxing the rich. The defeat of the Fair Tax Amendment in Illinois could have a lasting impact on our chances to win progressive revenue unless we brush ourselves off, learn from our loss, and move more powerfully into the next fight. 

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