Trailblazing Congressman 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.





Former Congressman Jim Jontz
photo by Samantha Clark