Reese: Progressives Need to Think Local Before Taking On Moderates Like McAdams


Congressman Ben McAdams (left) stands with U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Isaac Reese, Opinion Writer


Many centrist Democrats are facing progressive challengers in 2020, inspired by the wins of progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar. Rep. Ben McAdams has attracted a challenge from progressive Daniel Beckstrand, a first-time political candidate. I applaud the guts it takes to run for any office, but Beckstrand’s campaign has highlighted the need for progressives to focus on local positions rather than solely looking to coveted high-profile races, especially when it may undermine national progress.

While I am all for challenging incumbents who aren’t the right fit for their districts, I am wary of challenging a moderate Democrat like Ben McAdams in such a conservative district. McAdams is the closest thing to representation that liberal-leaning Utahns have had since 2015. Primary opponents should challenge incumbents who are not representing their constituents well, like in the case of Ocasio-Cortez’s challenge against former Rep. Joe Crowley. McAdams represents a district that leans Republican by 13% — Ocasio-Cortez’s district leans Democratic by 29%, Omar’s district leans Democratic by 26% and Tlaib’s district leans Democratic by 39%. For a district as conservative as Utah’s fourth, a moderate Democrat like McAdams is the best ideological fit for his constituents.

In Ocasio-Cortez, Talib and Omar’s districts, the primary rather than the general election is going to effectively decide the district’s next member of Congress. Their elections are unlike McAdams’ 2018 election, when he barely defeated incumbent Mia Love in the general election. Considering the partisan leanings of the 4th District, it is too risky to “primary” McAdams. It was hard enough to get a moderate Democrat elected in Utah. Just imagine the difficulty of electing a less-experienced, more progressive Democrat to such a conservative seat

I don’t agree with McAdams on everything, but I do agree with him on some of the things most important to me. McAdams is the only member of Utah’s current Congressional delegation who truly advocates for the rights of LGBT+ Utahns. As a gay man who grew up in Utah, it matters to me that McAdams cosponsored and voted in favor of the Equality Act and that the Human Rights Campaign supported his election. He is the only member of Utah’s congressional delegation who has ever advocated for my rights as a gay Utahn. It is important that Utah’s voices in Congress advocate on behalf of all of their constituents. I am not willing to give up on a representative who passes some things I want when the alternative is another Republican representative who will never fight for the issues important to me.

Some of the best ways to bring change are local, where many laws can have the greatest effect on people’s daily lives — such as the tax reform bill that has become so unpopular in recent weeks. While some might argue that if progressives can’t win large races they would not be able to win locally, that is entirely untrue.

Salt Lake County has progressive local representation with Salt Lake County Councilmember Shireen Ghorbani. She sought two different positions before successfully winning her current office. First, she ran to unseat Rep. Chris Stewart. She was more than qualified to represent Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, but Ghorbani was unable to win as a progressive in a deeply conservative district. As a county council member, she has been able to fight for progressive goals and continues to be a great advocate for her constituents. For example, Ghorbani was able to work with her fellow council members to commit Salt Lake County to the goal of using net-100% renewable energy by 2030. This would not have been had been possible she tried to pass a similar bill in Congress. Ghorbani’s track record shows that progressives can win locally, and their actions can make a great difference in their community.

Utahns are governed by a state legislature with a Republican supermajority. In the long-term, this supermajority can  — and should — be broken. In 2018 Utah Democrats held on to their seats and flipped a fair amount in the process. Utah Republicans did not flip a single seat. On top of these losses for conservatives, Utahns voted in support of three progressive ballot initiatives. Conservative ideas do not always have a death grip on Utah politics like it sometimes seems. Progressive legislation can pass in Utah. But first, we need to elect more progressives to the offices that can propose laws.

Progressives in red states, like Beckstrand, should focus on offices in city, county and state government. One of the points in Beckstrand’s policy platform is raising educators’ wages, something most often addressed at the state and municipal levels rather than the national level. Beckstrand could most effectively pursue his policy solutions by running for state or local office in Utah instead of aiming for a seat in DC.

There has been a lack of change coming out of DC for a while now. Progressives who have been clamoring for change should not solely focus on trying to overcome Republican and moderate Democrat congressional majorities. First, they should focus on creating grassroots community coalitions that work to make a tangible change for the constituents they wish to represent.

Progressives have always used grassroots methods to bring power to the people. If progressives build support locally, they can move the political needle to the left and eventually surpass city, county and state offices to reach the national government. Making changes in your own community will have a far greater impact on Utah than running to join a hyper-partisan, gridlocked Congress. Change has never come overnight. It has always been slow at coming, but that doesn’t mean there is no hope for a progressive future. All progressives, including me, need to start building the community we wish to see.


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