November 6, 2008, from wire services, San Francisco: Addressing a Mark Hopkins ballroom packed with dignitaries, Democratic Party operatives and the international news media, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi conceded defeat to her Green Party challenger, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan last night. Pelosi’s concession capped a hard fought campaign setting progressives against an increasingly embattled Democratic Party leadership seen as complicit in the Bush administration’s decision to widen the American involvement in the Middle East beyond Iraq into Syria and Iran.
In scoring an unprecedented victory over a sitting speaker, the Sheehan candidacy was bolstered by its early alliance with the Greens. The insurgent party has become a formidable presence in San Francisco politics, holding two seats on the Board of Supervisors and on the School Board. Also notable was the support offered by former Board of Supervisor’s President Matt Gonzalez. Gonzalez’s 2003 mayoral campaign, which fell short by just over 14,000 votes, is widely viewed as having set the stage for Sheehan victory. Gonzalez’s decision to share his database of volunteers and financial supporters in exchange for a commitment on Sheehan’s part to run as a Green is credited with providing the electoral muscle which was key to the electoral landslide.
Also key to Sheehan’s victory was the early support of nationally known progressive journalists who made the campaign a central focus of several columns introducing the campaign to a national audience and attracting their support. One of these, syndicated columnist Norman Solomon waxed effusive on the Sheehan victory: “Many of us were chastened by our failure to support the Mayoral campaign of Matt Gonzalez. We came to recognize the Gonzalez near victory as a major missed opportunity for progressives as this would have provided us a legitimate, electable candidate for the presidency in 2008. We were sure not to duplicate our mistake with Cindy and recognized the importance of her campaign immediately after its announcement in July 2007.”
The success of Sheehan’s challenge was vexing to mainstream liberal publications which were generally lukewarm towards the Sheehan candidacy. Their failure to respond positively angered many progressive readers and as a result some have suffered significant losses in their subscription base. Most notable among these was the Nation magazine, though a contributing factor in the publication’s demise was a grassroots boycott in the wake of its endorsement of Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. The periodical is now operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
The broad coalition behind Sheehan surprised veteran political observers and Democratic Party strategists in extending well beyond her core supporters in the anti-war movement. Civil rights advocates displeased with Pelosi’s failure to move on impeachment proceedings against an administration it saw as routinely demonstrating contempt for the constitution were forthcoming with substantial donations. Others contributed pro bono legal services necessary to defend the Green Party against harassment from a legal team turned loose by the national Democratic Party. Food and farm advocates, disgusted with Pelosi’s support for the 2007 Farm Bill derided as a sham and an environmental atrocity lavished volunteers with locally produced gourmet meals. San Francisco residents with longer memories who have never forgiven Pelosi for her engineering the delivery of the decommissioned Presidio military base into the hands of cronies of Pelosi’s husband’s real estate empire opened their apartments to out-of-town supporters who put in long hours on the campaign.
While national unions, as expected, endorsed Pelosi’s candidacy and contributed to the Democratic get out the vote effort, this was markedly less successful than in previous years. Unconfirmed reports indicate that union members aware of Pelosi’s key role in ramming through job destroying free trade agreements called in sick, refused to participate or, in some cases, actively sabotaged the campaign operation. Some phone bankers would, according to anonymous sources, substitute endorsements of Sheehan for the script provided by the Pelosi functionaries.
But perhaps most decisive was the intangible factor of personality. Ordinary voters appeared to develop a strong attachment to Sheehan, a divorced working class mother of three, whose entry into politics was precipitated by the death of her son Casey in what is now universally understood to be a the greatest foreign policy disaster in US history. Sheehan’s awkward, unschooled and plain spoken manner stood in stark contrast to the smooth manners, impeccable dress and polished rhetoric of Pelosi. Pelosi’s privileged background, the daughter of a big city mayor and her marriage into a billion dollar real estate empire while not figuring Sheehan campaign materials, appeared to become a serious liability among voters.
Pelosi is only the most visible casualty of a political tidal wave whose repercussions are only beginning to be understood by political analysts.