The next high-profile elections aren’t until next year. And when the first few fellows from a brand-new voting group called the New Pennsylvania Project started knocking on doors in places like Norristown or lower Bucks County this summer, they weren’t pushing a candidate — merely asking unregistered or infrequent voters what’s on their mind. No wonder executive director Kadida Kenner says the main reaction so far has been “surprise.”
“We can talk about [federal COVID-19] funding not being used [by Pennsylvania], or economic justice and raising the minimum wage, or education justice and the large spending gaps between schools,” Kenner said of the group’s early door-knocking efforts. “These are the ideas and issues that engage low-participation voters, or those who have not registered to engage in the political process. We have to overcome all these barriers to entice certain folks to go out and register.”
Only in existence since early May, the for-now Harrisburg-based New Pennsylvania Project — if the name sounds familiar, it’s a riff on the wildly successful New Georgia Project launched by Stacey Abrams in the 2010s — is on the cutting edge of what’s emerging as the Democrats’ main strategy for 2022 and beyond to fight GOP intransigence on voting rights and outright suppression laws enacted in some Republican-controlled states.
The Republican plan for the next batch of elections hinges heavily on a blueprint of making it more difficult for people, but especially young voters and Black and brown folks, to cast ballots — rolling back mail-in voting that flourished in the 2020 pandemic or making it harder, eliminating drop boxes, or curtailing early voting hours. The Democratic response — inspired by the Georgia success of Abrams and other voting advocates behind shock victories there for President Biden and two Democratic Senate candidates — is to get more Black and brown and young voters jacked up about elections, then get them to the polls despite these obstacles.
“You’re not asking them for a vote — that’s really important,” Kenner said of the method. What she means is that the New Pennsylvania Project aims to have door-knockers working in underserved communities year round, with a more issues-oriented approach, as opposed to traditional method of a politician showing up a few weeks before Election Day.
Kenner, who’d been director of campaigns for the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said the new effort came together amid the frustration of among top Democrats about the 2020 election results, when statewide success for Biden didn’t translate into gains in legislative races, and the party endured surprising defeats for state treasurer and auditor general. Not surprisingly, Kenner and the idea’s chief backers — including the former auditor general, Eugene DePasquale, as well as Bucks County donor and defeated 2018 congressional candidate Scott Wallace and Karl Hausker, husband of failed 2016 Senate hopeful Katie McGinty — looked south to the Peach State for inspiration.
After Republicans gained total power over Georgia politics in the Tea Party era and enacted some of the nation’s most regressive voting restrictions, amid large-scale purges of voter rolls, Abrams — then a Democratic legislative leader — hatched a plan for fighting back. Founded in 2013, her New Georgia Project went door-to-door talking about that state’s failure to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The idea was that many people don’t need to be sold on the Democratic Party or a specific candidate, but the more fundamental case that voting even makes a difference.
Progress from the New Georgia Project, a second group later founded by Abrams, called Fair Fight Georgia, and a wave of related efforts mostly led by Black women was slow at first, but the drives signed up 200,000 new voters in 2018 (when Abrams ran for governor and fell just short) and a whopping 800,000 in 2020-21, when Biden became the first Democrat to win the state’s electoral votes since 1992 and January run-off wins by Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock gave the party control of the U.S. Senate. One of Kenner’s first acts in leading the New Pennsylvania Project was to travel to Atlanta and meet with Abrams’ lieutenants, to learn what she called “the secret sauce.”
In Pennsylvania, Democrats have held a registration edge, but in 2020 Republicans closed their deficit from 800,000 to just 600,000 voters — partly because of Donald Trump’s ability to woo working-class former Democrats, and partly because the GOP didn’t suspend its door-to-door efforts as Democrats did in the worst of the pandemic. Kenner believes the key to reversing the statewide trends can be found in some key urban and suburb areas — greater Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, northeastern Pennsylvania, parts of Bucks County and urbanized Philadelphia suburbs like Norristown or Chester — and among under-40 voters, especially non-whites.
Kenner said one of her first challenges is selling some big-ticket donors on the New Pennsylvania Project’s unconventional mission. “We’re asking that you give it to a group that’s not going to knock on your door with a “D” or an “R” on its chest,” she said. “They’re going to knock on the door and talk about issues there people care about, and organically these folks will understand and vote their values, and realize they need to come out in every election, twice a year here in the commonwealth, and become super voters.”
Earlier this month, Vice President Kamala Harris announced from the White House a similar, $25 million voter registration effort backed by the Democratic National Committee.. Veteran Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore described in a New York magazine piece as “part of a fallback strategy for voting rights” — because two major pieces of federal legislation to thwart Republican voter-suppression efforts are blocked by a GOP Senate filibuster.
The situation is paralleled in Harrisburg, where hopes of building on 2020′s pandemic changes that led to a modern record for Pennsylvania turnout have been thwarted by gridlock between Republican lawmakers who want new restrictions and the veto power of Democratic Gov. Wolf. Without new voting rights laws, turnout-boosting schemes like the New Pennsylvania Project might not only be the Democrats’ best shot, but its only path.
In the Keystone State, this effort is led by an activist, in Kenner, with the zeal of a late-life convert. A Pittsburgh native who was raised in suburban West Chester and — after a successful career as a retail manager — went back to Temple for a mid-life degree in journalism and a new life in Charlotte producing sports telecasts, Kenner was thrown a curveball in 2016. Struggling to find work as college sports boycotted North Carolina over its anti-transgender “bathroom bill,” she took a job with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But Clinton’s defeat and the arrival of Trump convinced her that political change was now her calling.
Kenner, 46, also feels the quest for equity is in her blood. Her great-grandfather, M.L. Clay, was freed from slavery to become one of most prominent African-American businessmen in Memphis at the turn of the 20th century — a bank vice president and industrialist who associated with the likes of Ida B. Wells and Booker T. Washington — only to be gunned down on Beale Street over his wealth. Her modern hero is Bayard Rustin, who was also raised in West Chester and went on to organize the massive 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Kenner has a large poster with Rustin’s image and his words, “The proof that one truly believes is in action” — that she carries around Pennsylvania. “He literally travels with me,” she said. “He’s currently in the back seat of my car so wherever I go he can go with me.”
She marvels that Rustin organized the 1963 march — where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech — “without email, without Facebook, without social media, and he got 500,000 people to the Mall, and to know he had to do that behind the scenes because they kept him literally in the closet as a gay man.” Fifty-eight years later, Kenner will have to combine those modern tools with old-school organizing to put up similar numbers in the voting booth, in an era when increasingly it’s the fate of democracy itself that’s on the ballot.
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