Welcome to another meeting of Bay Area Tech Solidarity! Tonight, for the first time, we'll be devoting our evening to a political candidate, Jess King, who is running for Congress from the 16th district of Pennsylvania.
So many of the issues we care about come down to politics. Whether it's labor, housing, monopoly, diversity, privacy, net neutrality or just the basic physical safety of some of our colleagues and neighbors and friends, we have to engage with the political system if we want lasting change.
But that political system is broken. The only voice being heard out of the tech industry belongs to large corporations lobbying for their parochial interests—making sure the surveillance economy stays unregulated, that labor remains weak and unorganized, and that they can continue to avoid paying taxes.
Since the election in November, much of the organizing in the tech has been around the theme of resistance. I am proud of the role Tech Solidarity played in the tech resistance. We campaigned to keep tech CEOs from collaborating with Trump and his family, we stood together against a Muslim registry and the multiple attempts to impose a travel ban, and we raised over a quarter million dollars in support of organizations like NILC, the Asian Law Caucus, CAIR, and many others nationwide. We also worked with journalists and activists to better secure them against online threats.
But as important as it is, resistance is not a platform. Resistance is not a program. If we want to win and make effective use of our victory, we also need a positive agenda for exercising power.
That's why I'm so excited to have Jess King speak to us tonight. When I visited Lancaster, I heard her lay out an unabashedly progressive platform that can actually win in 2018, a platform that recognizes the political realignment taking place across the country, and doesn't concede victory in advance even in a traditionally "red" district.
We all know that more people voted for Clinton than Trump in the 2016 election. But more people than voted for either of those candidates didn't vote at all.
Some of these people were prevented from voting. Some of them were discouraged from voting, including by very targeted messaging on Facebook and in other social media.
But many of them these people didn't feel their vote mattered, or that it would translate into any kind of meaningful change.
All these votes are worth fighting for. But right now, the DNCs plan is to mobilize voters around Trump scandals and outrage. This is a reactive program that is going to lose us the House, like it lost us the Presidency, unless we do something to change leadership's minds.
We need Jess and progressive candidates like her to win their primaries. Winning red state primaries will show the DNC that the path to victory does not lead rightward towards an imaginary center, and does not mean making concessions to authoritarianism. The way to win is by campaigning on a bold, progressive vision.
But reaching out to new voters takes time. It requires people from within the community community, willing to go door to door and organize, cajole, and have the kinds of in-person conversations that change minds. It's not something we can automate or build apps for—it has to happen one voter at a time.
There are people out there doing this work, but they're not getting the funding they need.
Instead, a lot of political money is being poured into apps and social media. We are still trying to win elections at scale with technology, even after the disaster of 2016 showed us the danger of neglecting this kind of patient outreach.
What's frustrating is the amounts of money needed are small compared to the funds that will pour in to the battleground states next fall. All of those dollars are going to be wasted on TV ads and expensive political consultants.
One way or another, we are going to spend millions in the swing districts of Pennsylvania. It's up to us to choose—do we invest that intelligently right now, or spend indiscriminately at the last minute, and lose?
A congressional district has about 700,000 people.
In 2016, there were 53 districts where a congressional candidate ran unopposed.
Republican candidates won in 28 of those. That's bigger than the margin needed to control the house—24 votes.
Running candidates in every district will teach us how to reach voters that we have otherwise written off. And it does not require vast sums.
In Appalachian Kentucky, for example, it would cost $100,000 to mount a Democratic primary campaign. A campaign like Jess's in Lancaster needs about half a million.
This is within our capacity to fund.
This group, of all people, should understand the importance of funding early stage experiments. If a progressive message can resonate profoundly with these voters, as I believe it does, it would be a disaster to see it fail for simple lack of money.
So tonight, after you listen to Jess speak, if you believe in her message, I want to ask all of you to make the largest donation you can to her campaign.
And I want to ask all of you reading the text version of this online to do the same.
The good news is, the most you are allowed to donate is $2,700. The bad news is, that's lot of money. And I am going to shake you down for as much of it as you can stand. I know that in this room we are not tech millionaires. We are tech thousandaires, and some of us are tech hundredaires or just plain broke.
But the money that you donate will get spent directly on grassroots organizing work in Jess's district. Every dollar will count. So I am going to ask you not just to donate tonight, but to go out and spread the word far and wide among your friends.
Let me explain tonight's format. We have two speakers, Jess King and Professor Dave Parry, chair of the Digital Media department at St. Joseph's University, who consults on the King campaign.
Jess will talk to us about her district and her campaign. Dave will talk about the nuts and bolts of organizing in this district.
I've set up an ActBlue page and afterwards, if you want to donate to the campaign, write your donation on a slip of paper, or give a check. And we'll have a tally right away. Then we'll have an opportunity to have Q/A with Dave and Jess, after which we'll pass the hat one more time, and go eat donuts together.
With that said, it is my great pleasure to introduce tonight's special guest. Jess King is a working mom, a small business champion, and a leader in local economic development in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Hers is a fascinating district—it's smack in the middle of Amish country, but also has the greatest per capita concentration of refugees in the United States. It straddles the divide between city, country, and suburbia. It's a district that should give us hope.
Jess has graciously agreed to travel all the way here to tell us about her life, her campaign, and the vision for a better America that has compelled her to run. Please give her a warm welcome!
If you asked me 10 months ago how I would participate in the resistance to the current administration, I would not have pictured running for office.
After last year’s election, I was committed to doubling down in my job, creating an economy that works for all of us in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I never imagined I might run. But I began to realize that if I was really going to better the lives of my neighbors and do right by my kids, I needed to step up.
The path that led me here started generations ago with my Mennonite and Amish forebears, whose traditions shaped my commitment to service. Like many Mennonites, my family made a commitment to unpaid voluntary service in lieu of enlisting in the military. This meant moving away from our insular rural communities and contributing to the common good, often as teachers, medical workers, laborers. And so after I graduated from college, I chose to follow family tradition and moved to a diverse, working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s East End.
For the next decade of my life—the formative 20s—I cut my teeth on organizing, community development, and affordable housing. Together with neighbors of different races, economic backgrounds, and countries of origin, we transformed an abandoned church into a job-creating arts and enterprise incubator. With a remarkable amount of elbow grease and a couple million dollars from old philanthropy, the project became an essential component of life in Pittsburgh’s East End – helping to knit together diverse neighborhoods and create greater access to jobs. And it thrives today—over 15 years after its inception.
I never thought I’d end up in Pennsylvania long term, but I fell in love with that work. I fell in love with my Pittsburgh neighbors: Sons and daughters of steelworkers trying to figure out what kind of jobs could replace those union gigs. Haitian, West African, and Vietnamese refugees & immigrants, trying to find their place in a black and white Rust Belt city. Former crack addicts, working daily to stay clean. Pastors and rabbis, trying to be of service to their depressed and divided communities where unemployment rates hit the same levels as the Great Depression.
Pittsburgh showed me that with creativity and hard work, possibilities and rebirth—even in the hardest hit places—really are possible. And Pittsburgh taught me that the values of my rural, deeply religious white family were not too different from the steelworker’s daughter or the Vietnamese immigrant or the former crack addict.
My Mennonite ancestors fled persecution in Europe and built isolated, religious enclaves in Pennsylvania’s agrarian center. And from those enclaves they passed on the tradition of voluntary service, and that tradition led me to the work of joining together across race and religion to make things better for folks struggling to make ends meet. The vision of America my ancestors saw 400 years ago—a land where they might escape oppression, make a better life, and live peacefully alongside people of every creed and color—that vision is still alive today. The promise of this land, an America that might belong to all of us, is real if we make it real.
But realizing the promise of this country is hard, and we’ve faced a lot of setbacks. As I continued to work in hard-hit communities beyond Pittsburgh, I quickly realized that virtually all of America’s cities have faced these cycles of disinvestment and reinvestment—and most of the reinvestment benefits only a few.
After the birth of our first daughter ten years ago, my husband and I moved to Lancaster, a dense city of 60,000 people with a poverty rate of 30%—higher than Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. For the past seven years, I worked as the Executive Director of ASSETS, a nonprofit focused on equitable economic development, supporting women and people of color to start businesses.
In this work, we’ve helped Ramon, an immigrant restaurant owner, by providing access to credit-building microloans, helped him formalize his business and tax filings, and grow his business to the point where he could buy the commercial building his restaurant is in.
We’ve helped Pete & Brian and their paint company that’s been around for 30 years to reimagine their role in the community. They started the business when they needed to pay bills in college, and now they’ve become the only certified B Corp Painting Contractor in the world, and are motivating their peers to follow their lead.
We’ve helped Jennie and her business that makes Dutch stroopwafels. Jennie focuses on hiring refugees at good wages, and providing benefits like English lessons on lunch breaks. This is particularly important in a place like Lancaster, which the BBC recently called “America’s Refugee Capital” because we resettle TWENTY TIMES the number of refugees per capita than any other community in the country.
At ASSETS, our goal is to hit parity among women and people of color in business ownership and reach the highest density of B Corps in the country while cutting that 30% poverty rate in half.
You might not expect this from a place like Lancaster County, where Trump won by 40,000 votes. But when I see Jennie hire the refugees who are settling in as our neighbors, when I see Pete’s employees buy homes with the money they made painting houses, when I take my family to eat Dominican food at Ramon’s restaurant, I see the promise of an America that belongs to all of us.
And I know that the values of hard work, service to the common good, and community across class and race and religion—the values I see in Pete and Ramon and Jennie and my own family from the farm fields—I know these values can transform the politics of this nation, even in Trump country. I know we can do better. We can build an America that belongs to all of us.
But here’s the thing. If our government isn’t working toward the same goals—of helping working families and small business owners achieve the American dream, of ensuring that workers have good jobs with health care, of welcoming immigrants and refugees to our communities and stabilizing the conflicts that caused them to flee in the first place, then all the work we’re doing will be like band-aids on a broken system.
Whether I was sitting with my mom at the dinner table figuring out how to run the family business, working to revive a neighborhood in Pittsburgh or helping Pete and Jennie and Ramon grow their businesses in Lancaster, I saw every time that we’re all better off when we’re all better off. We all benefit when we invest in the common good. U.S Federal policy can be one of our biggest tools in creating an economy that works for all of us—or it can be a tool that the wealthiest and most powerful use to shut the door of prosperity behind them
I’m running for Congress because the wealthy and the powerful abuse Federal policy for their own gain. If we don’t change our politics, all our work in Pennsylvania can be undone by a system that stacks the deck more and more in favor of the biggest players.
I’m also running because I know that communities like Lancaster, swing districts in swing states, the so-called heart of Trump Country, are winnable if we put forward a progressive vision that working families, immigrants, and young people think is worth voting for.
We’ve got what it takes in the 16th District. We’ve got the votes and the donations of the business owners like those we’ve worked with at ASSETS.
We’ve got the imagination, the volunteer time and the votes of millennials who have come back home to help change our regional politics.
We’ve got the enthusiasm of independents who changed their registration to vote for Bernie Sanders in last year’s primary.
But we needed a candidate who could put forward that progressive vision. And when no one stepped forward, two young organizers—native Lancastrians—asked me to run, and I accepted.
Pennsylvania’s 16th District has been held by a Republican since the 1940s. It has never been held by a woman. In fact of PA’s delegation of 18 representatives to Congress, only one is a person of color and NONE are women.
Only 5 out of 18 are Democrats despite Democratic Congressional candidates winning as many votes as Republicans—a testament to the power of gerrymandering.
Over the past decade, Democratic candidates in the 16th district have run as some kind of Republican-lite, hoping to seem like a better version of the incumbent. But it hasn’t worked. We’ve kept losing this district.
We need to change our strategy.
We need to see that underneath Trump’s win, underneath the Republican’s grip on this seat, there is a growing progressive majority of working families, farmers, immigrants, and young people. Folks in the establishment don’t believe it’s possible to bring those groups together.
But if someone like me can come from a rural, Mennonite family, born in the farm fields and raised in the tradition of voluntary service for the common good, and come to find common cause with immigrants and working people in Pittsburgh’s black and brown neighborhoods. If refugees can settle down as my neighbors, working in a business my friend Jennie helped start, if my kids can come to love the Dominican food at Ramon’s restaurant. If this community that spans across color and creed can thrive in Lancaster, PA, then I know that a different kind of politics - a politics that says America belongs to all of us - can win in this district.
PA-16 is a R+5 district, meaning on average Republicans have a +5 point advantage. The district leans young, with the median age about 3 years younger than Pennsylvania overall.
Nearly 25% of the population is non-white. 18% are Hispanic, 6% are Black. The GOP incumbent has only held the seat for one year and is behind on fundraising
The Opportunity is hacking gerrymandering & investing in field organizing.
Five districts in Southeastern PA are heavily gerrymandered to give Republicans an advantage.
The gerrymander works by carving heavily Democratic cities - like Reading and Coatesville - into conservative, rural and suburban districts.
The GOP’s strategy relies on depressed turnout in cities and working-class rural communities. But this leaves the Republicans vulnerable: a wave of turnout from Democratic constituencies, especially in dense cities, can flip the district.
Previous Democratic candidates have not invested in a field & digital operation that can turnout immigrants, young people, and working families. The conventional Democratic strategy is to build up a big war chest of cash and drop it all on TV ads in the last month.
Jess King’s Strategy to create a blue wave and boost turnout:
Invest early in field and distributed digital infrastructure: a grassroots army of trained leaders who can knock tens of thousands of doors, persuade voters to support Jess, and boost turnout on election day.
Run a field and digital voter contact operation every day, every week, every month between now and the election.
Open two canvass offices, and train an army of volunteers to canvass thousands of voters across the entire district.
Target and mobilize the vast Democratic constituencies who are not moved to vote by TV ads.
Bring together the best of the Obama model - a volunteer-driven field machine that contacted more voters than any other campaign in history - with the newest digital tools of voter mobilization, including integrating the Voter Activation Network (VAN) with peer-to-peer texting software like Relay.
A sophisticated field and distributed digital operation doesn’t cost as much as hundreds of TV ads, but it does cost some money.
We are likely to be flooded with money when it gets closer to election day and Democrats across the country start paying attention to swing districts.
But flipping districts like PA-16 requires building a winning majority of voters many months before election day. We need to invest now to build the infrastructure needed to win.
At this point in the Tech Solidarity event, we passed the hat collected just over $25K in donations for the King campaign from an audience of 70.
Please join us in donating to Jess today! All donations are valuable, and no amount is too small. By giving, you're showing Jess that she has allies in the tech industry, and that we care about her message, her district, and wish her success.
In the coming weeks, we'll have opportunities for other kinds of volunteering, including tech projects, for people who can't donate money. But the important thing right now is to raise as much as we can to fund the organizing efforts that require time and feet on the ground.
Please give, and please help spread the message to others!
Our next BATS meetup will be on October 18th, featuring the Coalition on Homelessness and Jonathan Smucker. Join our low-volume mailing list to be notified of future BATS events.