How do you take on the political establishment in one of the bluest places in the country, all during a global pandemic that upends your campaign’s best laid plans? Michelle Whittaker, a veteran organizer and the campaign manager for Janeese Lewis George’s successful insurgent campaign in the District of Columbia, did just that. She spoke with The Forge about how the right candidate and a core team of allies did the long-term organizing necessary to create a grassroots groundswell and secure victory. We also talked more broadly about how elections can help build progressive infrastructure and consolidate the progress made by social movements, what the pandemic reveals about the strengths and weaknesses of the tools organizers currently have at our disposal, and how we can do more to combat the biases in our data that hurt people of color. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

You just finished managing Janeese Lewis George's campaign and delivered a major upset here in DC. Tell us about the race and what you think a victory like this makes possible. 

Janeese was the right candidate at the right moment. She was speaking truth to power and not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. Early in the campaign, Janeese was vocal about the need to divest from the programs and policies [like over-policing and underfunding schools] that are hurting our communities and reinvest in the things that really matter like education, transportation, and housing. Our campaign brought together people from different parts of the Ward around a common interest. 

I'm a former Ward 4 DC resident. I really love the community —  my husband and I got married in our backyard in Ward 4. That's the place that I still very much call home because my aunt lives there, and I  have friends in the community. Sadly, because of where we were with our jobs and growing family, we had to find more affordable housing and that moved us out of DC. We should be able to find affordable housing that's near transit and near communities. That was one of the top platform pieces that [Janeese] talked about. It resonated with a lot of people [who] were having to make these hard choices between staying in a community that they loved, but making sure that they could afford childcare, education costs, whatever it may be. That was the driving force behind a lot of people's passion [for the campaign]. People realized that we need someone who is willing to take those risky stances. We need bold, visionary leaders who are willing to do what's necessary to make sure that we have a community that's whole and safe and healthy. 


Sometimes leadership is about standing up for a popular issue when it's under attack. We know that the current Councilmember was part of the effort to block the passage of paid family leave. That was a widely popular issue, but it took someone like Janeese to really stand up and go after him for that. Defunding MPD is an issue that is newer to a lot of folks — and sometimes leadership means bringing people along with you. It's helping people understand the issue and mobilizing and organizing that support, even when, at the moment, it might not appear to be politically advantageous. 


Could you tell us about the response to defunding MPD that you got on the doors? How do you bring voters along with you on an issue that's so important when they might not be there with you?

This goes to the core of how the campaign was doing its outreach and looking to have real conversations with voters. A core organizing principle is meeting people where they are and creating that common understanding. Our conversations at the doors weren't like, "Here's the policies that Janeese is putting forward and this is what you need to get behind." It was, "What are the issues that matter most to you?" And really listening to what that was and then saying, "Well, here's where Janeese is and where she's bringing her expertise." And Janeese would always say during our meet and greets: "Here are the five main things that are my priorities, but I want to hear what matters to you. I want to hear what ideas you have, what you're seeing on the ground." Another component was really leading with stories. Every time [Janeese] talked about her experience, it was a story about what was going on in her life. And she also shared the stories of others who she knew were experiencing similar housing or health issues.

But it’s important to note that most of the conversations on defunding MPD came later in the campaign. Our conversations with residents focused on housing, education, and transportation — those were the top three issues. Defunding MPD did not become a larger discussion point until about three months away from election. An outside, corporate-backed group attempted to twist Janeese’s statements to stoke fear in support of the incumbent. Janeese had been clear from day one of her campaign that our budget was a moral document. If we spend half a billion dollars a year on a department, we should expect results and accountability. 


Could you tell us about some of the biggest challenges that the campaign faced and how you overcame them? If you were running it again, are there things that you would do differently or try differently?

If you're running against an incumbent, you're constantly answering a question, whether the voter asks it directly or it's inferred: "Why is there a change needed in leadership?" That's always something that you have to be ready to respond to and have really strong messaging to make the contrast, which we did often throughout the course of the campaign. The other piece is building name recognition. Part of it is around these established norms that people have. Who do they know and how do you build a comfort level with people to say that change is okay?

Seniors were a big focus for us. There are needs that seniors have in the community and they don't want to lose [their security]. You have to make sure that you're offering people a sense of security that the things that they are expecting from their leadership, in terms of making sure that there's someone protecting them from scams or making sure that there's access to healthcare … those have to be essential to the conversation, along with talking about the issues that are priorities for the candidate.

I think that's important to ask yourself and understand, whether we're talking about seniors, talking to parents, talking to any community groups, what are their essential needs? Especially if you're going against an incumbent, how are you going to continue to meet the needs they have, as well as bring something new to that table? There's a lot that goes into that. One key component is having volunteers or allies or advisors give those insights. You also need to be listening to what's going on the ground and be adaptive. We were doing that prior to COVID and definitely during COVID. 


Tell us about the role that technology played on the campaign.

One thing I think about, especially with COVID,  is that there has been a large reliance on technology. We need to recognize how the [new digital] tools are useful in expanding the way we're reaching out to voters, but also may be blinding us to the ways we're leaving out certain groups. So being aware of how we're bringing in data and what evaluations we're making based on that data that may be excluding the very people we want to reach out to. If we're bringing in volunteers, we recognize that not everyone has the same access to technology. 

When we come up with technology solutions, we must make sure it is expanding our outreach to those most impacted and not leaving people out. We miss having conversations with certain people because they're excluded in our data file or they're not online. So you have to be flexible. How are you reaching out to people? How are your volunteers able to engage and are you bringing a variety of tools that allow people to connect? And again, that goes back to the first principle: you're meeting people where they are. 

There was definitely a ramp up that we had on using technology, but we also had these other great activities for people like writing postcards to voters. We sent out 10,000 postcards during the campaign. It's a low touch. You don't really know what the response will be, but it was a great way to get some people involved who could drop one off at their neighbor's door. We also did traditional tele-town halls in connection with some of our Zoom meetings. I think that's part of being adaptive, making  sure that we're not leaving anyone behind.


Janeese's campaign was endorsed by just about every grassroots, progressive, and labor organization in DC — and then also some historic endorsements from organizations that have never endorsed before, like Black Lives Matter DC and the DMV Sanctuary Movement. How did the campaign go about building support to earn those endorsements? And then, once you were endorsed, how did you coordinate across all those organizations to maximize the impact that they could have?

On getting all of those endorsements, I'll give credit to our campaign chair, Zack Teutsch, who did a lot of work fostering relationships. It was an intensive process. There were some early endorsers, which included Black Lives Matter, Working Families, DSA, DC for Democracy, and the Jews United for Justice Campaign Fund. We made the case to them that, if we are able to come together early behind a candidate and bring our resources, we have a real opportunity to win this race. After we had those five endorsements, we did one of our first large-scale canvases. We had 62 people come out in December to canvas across the ward. 

For every group that we brought in, we met with them prior to them endorsing. And then once they did endorse, we talked to them about what they were able to do for the campaign, whether it was bringing people, resources, doing announcements, or whether they had other support that they could offer. We did weekly calls with our partners on the field program. It was an opportunity to collaborate. It wasn't just, "Here's where we're going and that's where we're sending you." It was also a conversation: "Hey, we're hearing this in this neighborhood." Having those conversations early, talking about our shared vision and what we want to accomplish, really does have an impact.


Can you tell us about your process during vote-by-mail? How did you follow up with voters to make sure they were getting their ballots in? What was your process to track ballots once they went in so you could effectively and efficiently mobilize your resources towards voters who you still needed to persuade or turn out?

Whether you're using the straight data file from the Board of Elections or you're using VAN or other tools, do an evaluation of what information you'll get and how often you’ll get it. We looked at what information we were going to have in the voter file and then what we needed to track regularly on our own.

For DC's election, every voter had to request a ballot. And then once they got the ballot, they needed to turn it in. We had contingency plans because we knew this was the largest scale use of mail-in ballots for DC. There were some hiccups in terms of how the online application process was working, and we created our own system for tracking people to make sure that we were able to assist with getting their ballot requests in. We did a lot of work to make sure that we had the right email address to send in the ballot request. We also contacted the Board of Elections to confirm that those requests were in. 

In terms of the tracking process, we created some survey questions. We were using a CallHub for our phone calls. We had a texting system — we were using Spoke — and then we also had an app, Reach, on our phones. All three of those [systems] had the same survey questions so that we could sync all that data back into VoteBuilder and run reports to show, "Okay, here's where everybody that we've contacted is in the process." That became a helpful tool, not only during the election, but even post-election because if there were any folks that had an issue that didn't get resolved, we could bring that information to the Board of Elections. That's part of the Election Protection Program that we also set up for our campaign. 

Ultimately, there were folks who requested a ballot and they never received it. We were stressing the importance of having a vote plan. "You need to go to a polling place and vote." During that process, we were sharing, "Here's the times that polling places are open. Here's some of the information we're getting about who has the fastest line." For the primary, voters could vote at any location. We were stressing, "Okay, if the nearest voting location was really backed up, you can also go to this one. Yes, it takes a little bit longer, but it's only a 15 minute wait, as opposed to an hour-long wait." Google Studio was a really great tool for us to be able to visually see where different people were on their voting track — and then going back into the data, pulling all those folks out and doing calls. 


How did you pivot from door-knocking to remote organizing after COVID hit?

We relied heavily on calls and that was really a credit to all of the organizing groups. Many of those groups were so geared to do door knocking, and then that wasn't a possibility. We made the case that the best way to do that same kind of activity was over the phones. Texting is helpful, but it's not as relational. Our calls weren’t just focused on getting people out to vote for Janeese; we focused first on where people were. We asked questions about how they were doing very early in COVID: "How is your health? How is your safety? Do you need access to resources? Here's the links and here's the numbers to call for different services." We were connecting people to services that they needed immediately to address issues in their life or in their community. We heard a lot of positive feedback, not only from our volunteers but from voters. We built a positive connection and then we were able to come back a second or third time when we were asking them to commit  to vote for Janeese.

Even beyond times of crisis, we should be thinking about how our phone calls, our text messages, our in-person door knocking build those relationships so that [voters] understand that we're interested and invested in them, not just in this moment of a transaction. I really credit the 67,000 calls that we were able to make with helping to build a positive relationship with voters, starting in March and running straight through June. I think that was a credit to us being able to build those relationships and reinforce what we wanted people to be able to do, which is know how to get their ballot, know when to return their ballot, and know who to vote for.


That's a really valuable lesson. You called your folks to check in how they were doing so when they got the second call from the campaign, you'd already established a little bit of a connection there. It also positioned Janeese almost as the acting Councilmember. 

Can you talk about how the campaign has helped build progressive infrastructure? This was not a transactional campaign; it was a campaign that really focused on building community and having this community organizing approach, from those check-in calls, to town halls, to night schools, to everything in between. I think the challenge that a lot of electoral campaigns experience is all this energy goes into the election and then the day after, it sort of evaporates. 

We were practicing advocacy during the campaign. We were in conversation with our endorsing partners, who are policy experts on these issues. The five groups that initially endorsed, they haven't always worked together, and it was great to see them come together behind Janeese. 

The other piece that we see — and hopefully we'll continue to build this out — is how we train new leaders and bring in different groups that haven't traditionally been part of campaigns. I believe bringing more people of color into the work on data will be a tremendous benefit to the progressive movement. I've been an advocate of recognizing how our limitations with data impacts who we're talking to. Having more people of color who can make sure that we're not making assumptions that take out the people we want to be part of the process is a continuing lesson — and hopefully something that we can build on, not only in DC, but across the nation.

The last piece is just, we have to be willing to take risks. We have to be willing to step out and say, "If this is what we want to accomplish, then how do we get to that goal?” And thinking about the organizing that we have to do. Who do we have to bring on? What people do we want to have on our side who are in the trenches knocking on doors, making calls, donating? If we don't organize, we don't win. When you organize, you will win. That's what we saw in this campaign.  


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