In a big year, here’s how Pa.’s progressive groups are making their presence felt | Analysis

‘We’re in it for the long haul, knowing democracy conquers absurdity,’ Michael Pollack of March on Harrisburg said

By: - March 8, 2022 11:15 am

Advocates call on Senate President Jake Corman and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff to pass a legislative gift ban (Capital-Star screen capture).

With the 2022 midterm elections just months away, progressive organizations across the commonwealth say they hope to influence public policy and legislation ranging from the environment, housing, gun violence, health care, gift bans, equitable pay, food and water quality protections, fracking, and voters’ rights legislation.

The Capital-Star reached out to 10 progressive organizations (eight responded, one AWOL, one declined) actively challenging voters, elected officials, and bureaucrats to consider their social justice issues. For context, we also spoke with an academic and a Pennsylvania-based Democratic political consultant.

But first the lay of the political land.

In Congress, there’s the Congressional Progressive Caucus, with 97 House members and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Five Pennsylvania House members are in its ranks: U.S. Reps. Brendan Boyle, D- 2nd District; Dwight Evans, D-3rd District; Madeleine Dean, D-4th District; Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, and Matt Cartwright, D-8th District.

In Pennsylvania, state House Democrats recently established a subcommittee on “Progressive Policies for Working People,” chaired by Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, of Philadelphia, a second-term lawmaker endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Fiedler to chair new progressive panel as House Democratic makeover continues

Regarding voters, progressive groups face an environment in flux.

In general, the ratio  of Democrats and Republicans who switched parties between 2016 in 2020 is 1/10, according to Cornell University sociologist Landon Schnabel, in Harper’s Index, March 2022. The portion of independents who settled on a party over that same time Schnabel measures at one-half.

And according to Gallup at 2020’s start, 47% of Americans identified as Republican, 45% as Democrats. By the end of that year, 39% identified as Republican and 50% as Democrats.

Adding further commentary to voter behavior, Brookings Institution scholars William A. Galston and Elaine Kamarck recently published on the Progressive Policy Institute’s website The New Politics of Evasion: How Ignoring Swing Voters Could Reopen the Door for Donald Trump and Threaten Democracy.

We’re in it for the long haul, knowing democracy conquers absurdity.

– Michael Pollack, March on Harrisburg

They claim Democrats are fooled by three myths: people of color hold monolithic views; economics always trumps culture; and that there is an emerging progressive majority.

It is against this backdrop that Progressive efforts labor. 

Last week, in Harrisburg, the grassroots advocacy group March on Harrisburg took action on its current hot issue – a gift ban for the Legislature

Citing research by the Electoral Integrity Project, March on Harrisburg says Pennsylvania, the nation’s fifth-most populous state also is its fifth-most corrupt.   

“Our other issues are ranked choice voting and public campaign financing,” March on Harrisburg co-founder Michael Pollack recently told the Capital-Star. 

Affiliated with the Poor People’s Campaign, the organization  draws 50 to 60 regular volunteers and hosts chapters in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Montgomery County, Philadelphia, Scranton, Lehigh Valley, Lancaster, and soon, Centre County. 

“A decent number, but not all, would identify as Progressive,” Pollack explained.

“The amusing part of [last week’s] week’s [gift ban] … action is that the objections raised to passage are not actually part of the bill. We carefully negotiated all that. Those opposed know that,” Pollack continued. . 

The group is not involved in electoral politics, but volunteers do canvas door-to-door educating voters on their issues.

“We’re in it for the long haul, knowing democracy conquers absurdity,” Pollack said. .

PA United, Western PA


“We’re in the business of movement building for the long term,” PA United’s director of organizing, Alex Wallach Hanson, told the Capital-Star. 

With chapters in Beaver, Centre, Westmoreland, Crawford, Allegheny, Erie, and Washington counties, Hanson said “the traditional Democrat and Republican parties have abandoned these counties.” 

Fresh from a weekend retreat on Community Organizing 101, Lindsey Scott said “I’m quite the horse of a different color on all this.” 

Formerly a registered Republican, she now rails against the state’s “arcane primary voting system.” 

Scott’s frustrations began in 2016  when she favored Hillary Clinton, but couldn’t vote for her in the primary. 

She laments the severe uptick in culture wars “when economic issues affect everyone no matter their party affiliation. Homeless is homeless. We want elected officials who see social justice through the eyes of who they represent, not an ideology,” she said.

In 2020 and 2021, the group helped more than 75 members take on new community leadership roles and recruited 26 members to run for local office, according to their website.

SOMA Action

Jessica James, SOMA N.J. president, and paid fundraiser for various political and other organizations, is collaborating with groups in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin in an effort called Democracy Strikes Back. 

Essentially, the effort hopes to attract people interested in voting rights legislation. In 2020, a similar group, called Vanquish the Villains, pulled in about 300 volunteers to assist candidates sympathetic to the group’s progressive policy recommendations around racial justice, religious justice, and impediments to participation by all in the machines of democracy.

“DSB is currently organizing three committees for collective phone banking, and canvassing to specifically focus on Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races,” James told the  Capital-Star. 

In a related activity which began last March, SOMA Action members have volunteered with the Hispanic advocacy group,  Make the Road PA, to text 51,932 voters in Pennsylvania, reminding them to vote and to apply to vote by mail.

James said SOMA “asks communities to define their issues on a local level. That way our executive leadership is informed from the bottom up.” She says that “for better or worse we are working within the traditional Democratic Party. But regardless of an individual’s party affiliation we look for voters who share our progressive values.”


Sharing values is a durable glue for CeasefirePA Executive Director Adam Garber told the Capital-Star, We’re not a capital P ‘Progressive’ organization in the same way that organizations are often categorized.” 

CeasefirePA is dedicated to ending the epidemic of gun violence in Pennsylvania. It’s  goal is simple: Everyone in the Commonwealth should live in safe communities. Gun violence, in any form, makes that an impossible reality.

We are the only statewide organization addressing gun violence,” Garber said. 

The organization works through a coalition of 130 other groups it organized statewide. Garber said the coalition has members who are Democrats, Republicans, law enforcement officials, and faith leaders stressing that “We’re all over the spectrum because we need to be in order to achieve our policy goals.

Diverse coalition members agree to support three policies: Universal background checks to curb mass shootings or potential suicides. 

About 62% of gun violence in the state is gun suicide, said CeasefirePA. Second, better tracking of stolen or lost firearms. 

For every 10 guns removed from circulation one life is saved. States with stolen-lost laws saw a 45% drop in traced illegal gun movement, according to CeaseFirePA. Third, extreme risk protection orders, allowing families and law enforcement to remove guns, for example, as a mental health crisis is developing.

Garber notes the diversity of supportive groups reflects reality. “Gun violence presents itself differently in rural, small city, and big city settings,” So groups not supportive of issues – universal health care or housing “are vital to establishing gun-handling policies,” he says.

Food & Water Watch

Like gun violence, safe food and water may also be a broad enough issue bringing together disparate groups. Food and Water Watch is a national, nonprofit consumer protection group, the group’s national political director, Sam Bernhardt, said

“We mobilize regular people to present un-compromised solutions to the most pressing food, water, and climate problems of our time,” he added 

Bernhardt told the Capital-Star that he sees the group as “part of the ecosystem of progressive groups in Pennsylvania, focusing on a narrower set of issues than other organizations, namely the effects of fracking on our water table.” Polling by the Ohio River Valley Institute, which includes Pennsylvania and West Virginia, indicates strong support for addressing issues created by fracking, the process by which natural gas is extracted from the ground. 

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In Pennsylvania, 63% of the respondents agree that fracking is a huge problem. “Right now, we’re rolling out chapters statewide.” the think-tank’s Pennsylvania State Director Megan McDonough said. “We help local communities prepare information on, for example, on zoning ordinances, or meeting elected officials and candidates.”

“We have support primarily in Allegheny County, where the organization has led the fracking fight regarding [the] Mariner East pipeline,” Bernhardt said. 

But that same pipeline also passes through Delaware and Chester counties “where we’re building support around the issue,” Bernhardt continued. 

“Fracking is called a bridge technology but we think it’s a bridge to nowhere,” he said. 

Our Revolution PA

Avoiding bridges to nowhere, Our Revolution PA’s Lisa Longo told the Capital-Star. “We ask individuals and groups at street level to define local problems and to find solutions,” she said.“During early Covid we responded to local requests for help with candidate forums. “We actually pulled in about 200 Zoom participants on a Saturday morning. I didn’t believe it either!” Longo exclaimed. 

Programs on community-based budgeting are also available. “Budgets should be based on who they serve. Not how they add up,” Longo says. A former school board president, Longo is passionate about educational reform. “I believe that high school students should be allowed and encouraged to attend school board meetings. [I] would even like to see the law changed so that high school students could be elected to school boards,” she said

Regarding our tax code, Longo likes to say: You can’t have your cake and eat mine too. “Budgets must be evaluated based on who they serve, not how it all adds up. She said, “We have a simple definition of progressive – it simply means making progress, and moving forward.”

PA Stands Up

Affiliated with a national effort called People’s Action, PA Stands Up is moving forward with 2,000 dues-paying members through chapters in Berks County, the Capital region, Lancaster, Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia, and the Northeastern region. It is affiliated with a national effort called People’s Action.

“We’re changing the game here in Pennsylvania,” Lehigh Valley coordinator Ashleigh Strange told the Capital-Star. 

“Many of our chapters are hybrids, encompassing urban and rural areas. So, we know that the issues we fight for are incredibly popular across race, class, and place,” Strange said.

Strange said the group is “transformative” more than progressive. She means “Our overall system of government is set up for everyday people to fail.” Thus, its efforts reach down to the school board, city council, judges of election, and the constable level of elective office. 

“We know that the systems that we’re living under, capitalism, racism, misogyny, aren’t going away on their own. We need new tactics to combat those systems and bring more people into the movement,” Strange said.

In 2022, Strange said the group is focusing on housing, ballot initiatives, and having local chapters run candidate endorsement discussions. “Chapters develop questions based on how they define issues to insure movement candidates get the information and support they need to win,” she said.

An academic’s take 

Exactly who makes up the pool of voters sought-after by Pennsylvania’s Progressive organizations?

Susan Kang, an associate professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, suggests there are three distinct groups of voters drawn to progressivism.

First, she loosely groups ‘economic Populists’, voters who liked former Ohio congressman and Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich’s progressive opposition to the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. Also, followers of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’, I-Vt.,  populist presidential runs in 2016 and 2020.

“Economic populists are similar to Democratic Socialists in Western Europe,” Kang said. . 

They represent “the limited wing of the Democratic party that wanted to keep parts of the New Deal coalition alive even after it was out of vogue.” 

This group “also includes the ‘anti-globalization’ crowd in the 1990s that challenged free-trade orthodoxy,” she continued.

Second, Kang refers to “the diversity crowd” meaning “People who are inspired by the politics of the social justice movements of the 1960s, like the Black civil rights movement, and more recently today’s BLM, LGBTQ rights, and Dreamers.” 

She also places voters who loved former President Barack Obama unconditionally because of his achievements as our first Black president” in this camp.

“BLM and Dreamers have economic justice agendas, but many identity-politics progressives focus on the diversity and non-discrimination part of the message, and the economic justice and redistributive message gets lost,” Kang said. . 

This portion of voters “believe in the importance of meritocracy and that economic policies only need to ensure ‘equality of opportunity.’ This group includes ‘woke’ sentiments composed  of individuals who are mostly upwardly mobile, metro-region professionals,” she said.

Finally, Kang describes a third group of “newly emerging volunteers – men, women, and youth not traditionally involved in local Democratic parties—who lump together as anti-Trump in their sentiments.” 

This group “is an amalgam of climate change activists, ‘Indivisible’ activists [a group dedicated to resisting Trump’s ongoing agenda], people who may have attended the first Women’s March upon Trump’s inauguration, and resistance groups who organize one-off and/or sustained activity.” 

This third camp, Kang says, “is not necessarily unified on its stance toward economic redistribution and universal social democratic policies.” Some members care about it; others are agnostic about it. 

“In general, most of the ‘anti-Trump’ crowd is more economically progressive than Democratic party leadership and is heavily women-oriented,” she said.

Kang notes as evidence of a shift in voter behavior, “We saw the largest number of women elected to Congress in 2018.”

Evaluating options

But with a slew of progressive organizations out there, how do voters vet organizations vying for their attention?

Mustafa Rashed, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic political consultant, told the Capital-Star that “people tend to vote on what’s right in front of them.” 

Rashed said “it’s fair to say that political priorities are different depending on household income.” 

For example, he noted, “the higher your income, the more time you can devote to political issues between elections and at election time.” 

Understandably, lower-income households are more involved in day-to-day survival. “Not everyone has unpaid time off to vote,” Rashed said.

Are political observers wrong to call late-for-good-reason- voters ‘low information voters?’ 

“Although we call them low-information voters, what that actually means is that they are absolutely interested in voting. But they may not have the time and resources to pay attention any earlier to an election than they do,” Rashed said.

Rashid posits that Progressive is a big brand. “Traditionally, we’ve thought of progressive as younger, white, urban dwellers. This description has not included people of color or elected officials of color, although both groups are working on the same issues., he said.

In other words, like where we began our story, progressive is the word of the hour in current electoral politics but not one with a set definition.

“In so many ways our understanding and knowledge of who makes/does not make someone a progressive voter is inconsistent, incomplete, perhaps unfair,” Rashed said, adding that he doesn’t think that “we can easily know what it means when a voter, sitting elected official, or hopeful candidate means when they call themselves a “progressive.”

Correspondent Frank Pizzoli, the former editor and publisher of the Central Voice, writes about LGBTQ issues for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. 

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Frank Pizzoli
Frank Pizzoli

Frank Pizzoli, the former editor and publisher of the Central Voice, writes about the issues that matter to Pennsylvania's LGBTQ residents.