Taught Progressives How to Win and Deliver
by Hans Johnson
President, Progressive Victory
Contributing Editor, In These Times
When labor and climate-change activists from across North America converge
on New York City next month for the largest joint gathering ever held, many
will be crossing a bridge built by Jim Jontz. Fifteen years after losing
reelection for a House seat from Indiana, the former Congressman remains the
architect of a tough, inclusive populism that combines class and ecological
awareness with electoral action. Call it the path to attainable prosperity
and sustainable majority.
Now ensconced in Portland, Oregon, Jontz can savor both national and
state-level victories by Democrats he helped bring about. Last November, in
addition to retaking Congress, party candidates won closely fought battles
to recapture the state House of Representatives in both Oregon, where he has
lived for the past 10 years, as well as in his hometown: the Hoosier
capital, Indianapolis. Two other states where Jontz has invested much of his
time since 2003, Iowa and New Hampshire, also saw Democrats take control of
the state legislatures, retain the governorships, and pick up two seats in
the U.S. House.
But how did one man do so much to make this happen? What's his magic touch?
The answer is a passion for bringing candidates and constituents together in
unfiltered settings. Jontz, an unapologetic liberal, claimed a seat in the
Indiana legislature by 2 votes in 1974 when he beat the Republican majority
leader of the state House of Representatives. He built his political career on walking in small-town parades,
shaking hands at church socials, and fielding questions at veterans and
union halls. He won nine elections, three of them to Congress, in
conservative districts through relentless firsthand contact with voters who
shared his stance on some decisive issue, reinforced by professional
follow-through from his talented staff.
Since leaving the House after three terms and then losing a race for the
Senate in '94, Jontz hasn't abandoned his blueprint. For the past four
years, he has led the Working Families Win project of Americans for
Democratic Action, now celebrating its 60th anniversary. Starting before the
'04 presidential primaries and continuing through the '06 mid-terms, he has
conducted scores of candidate forums in the little-known but vote-rich
cities of the Northeast and Midwest. The main issues have been restoring the
wage base in America through reviving manufacturing, resisting outsourcing,
and reining in federal trade pacts. Crowds in the '04 cycle that numbered in
the handfuls swelled into the hundreds during the '06 cycle as the issues of
lost jobs and stagnant earnings caught fire.
Jontz, using e-mail but no cell phone, has worked with organizers in 6
states to make these debates and candidate forums happen. His craftiness and
credibility, more than any other single activist, have united farmers,
foresters, millworkers, machinists, teachers, scientists, writers, union
leaders, conservationists, ministers, and students into a cohesive voice
that put the "fair trade" movement on the map. Like a dating service for
disenchanted progressives with like-minded candidates, he introduced local
activists to viable Democrats who championed their cause―and won. Bonds born
of face time and friendship increase the long-term accountability of the
newly elected Democrats. The forums themselves have been recruitment outlets
for future rounds of candidates.
Jontz knows what to do with a microphone. He can be masterful as an emcee,
creating a sense of fair play even with foes in the proceedings and urgency
in the fate of legislation, such as stopping the Free Trade Area of the
Americas (FTAA). Among fellow progressives, he is impatient with fake
disagreements, reminding autoworkers and environmentalists alike that the
UAW was a sponsor of the original Earth Day in 1970.
For Jontz, labor's heritage is not behind us, but all around us: in the
observance of weekends, in looking for union labels on apparel and durable
goods, in having college as an option as much for teens as forty-somethings,
in keeping the promise of Social Security and a safety net for everyone.
Unions and their idiosyncrasies are not inside baseball. They are the
difference between working one job or three, being able to enjoy a secure
retirement or being left holding the bag.
In deference to Jim Jontz's knack for bringing movements together, it would
be a shame if that union-enviro conclave in New York deviated from his
recipe for successful movement organizing. The North American Labor Assembly
on Climate Crisis, taking place in Manhattan May 7 and 8, should let the
politicians in. Yes, of course, progressive officials and candidates can
emit their own hot air, no matter how precious the time of conference-goers.
Yet one lasting lesson of Jim Jontz's success is that, with an artful
moderator, constituents can exert a curious power over even the most
scripted and long-winded vote-seekers. And seeing the candidates' grasp or
gaps on issues can prove strangely demystifying about their own potential
for public leadership. It can motivate rank-and-file activists to one day
throw their own hats into the ring. It can spark their passion to serve in
government and help deliver a better future for others.