Ground Game: How a Diverse Patchwork of Grassroots Leaders and Volunteers Came Together to Re-elect the Only Democratic Governor in the Deep South

Ashley Shelton, Will Harrell, and Raegan Carter at a Power Coalition meeting. Photo credit: Lynda Woolard

THE POWER COALITION

Grit and power are the two words Ashley Shelton, Executive Director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, attaches to the team of people who work alongside her. She is quick to point out that it was the organizers, the boots on the ground, who deserve the credit for boosting voter turnout.

The Power Coalition has field offices in Shreveport, Alexandria, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Houma, and Jefferson Parish/West Bank.

This year, more than $80 million was spent on a governor’s race. Yet, for a fraction of that, Shelton’s coalition continued on its path to building a permanent infrastructure of black-led organizations that work at scale to turn out the best candidate for the issues that matter to their communities.

Their intentional focus is on low-propensity voters in neighborhoods who often feel forgotten.

“We knock on doors, and it’s like Christmas. People tell us no one has knocked on my door before,” Shelton tells me, illuminating just how starved for engagement many of these voters are. This busts the myth that voters don’t turn out simply because of apathy.

People do care about healthcare, better jobs, higher wages, and equal pay, Shelton explains. She is guided by the belief that when you can show someone how their voice can make a difference, they show up.

The Power Coalition’s modus operandi is to connect with voters and solve their real problems in real time, whether it’s paying fines or procuring proper IDs. Continuous engagement for them means not just electing candidates, but, importantly, also holding elected officials accountable on the issues that are meaningful to their base.

According to a press release distributed by the group’s Communications Director Peter Robins-Brown, in this election year, member organizations made 1.1 million attempted voter contacts, with the approximate split being 325,000 door knocks, 310,000 phone calls, and 510,000 texts.

While a significant portion of the coalition’s work was concentrated in black neighborhoods, they also connected with communities that are often overlooked. VAYLA’s (the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association) field work included Vietnamese communities in New Orleans East, and Asian American and Pacific Islanders statewide.

The Workers’ Center for Racial Justice connected with Spanish language voters in Kenner. Jericho Road worked with students at Xavier University, reaching out to college-aged voters who, by definition, don’t have a history of voting.

While Democratic candidates can point to black women as their most reliable voting block, Women with a Vision focused their integrated voter engagement program on black women, specifically those who are registered to vote but do not tend to show up at the polls, in a hyper-targeted set of New Orleans districts.

The Power Coalition also served as a convener for other groups looking to do this community work. They hosted statewide organizational calls once a week for churches and faith groups, exploring ways they could activate their congregations. They worked with fraternities and sororities across Louisiana to strategize how they could be most effective this year. When nonprofits who were doing non-partisan voter outreach needed printed materials, the Power Coalition was there to make sure they had ballots, flyers, and push cards. They helped groups write their press releases, and hosted regional community forums.

Unlike the old guard political machines, the Power Coalition has invested heavily in technology and data, so that they can have a smart, modern, targeted strategy that provides them with feedback on where they are making the most advances.

Their goal has always been slow, sustainable growth, and Ashley Shelton identifies a 10% voter increase in the primary that she feels they contributed to, but believes that was offset by low-propensity conservative voters who may have been motivated to vote by Trump. Therefore, they knew they needed to accelerate their efforts for the runoff.

In addition to their year-long non-partisan (c)(3) canvassing efforts in all the cities in which they work, they also activated their (c)(4) political arm and supported its endorsement of John Bel Edwards through canvassing in Caddo, Orleans, and East Baton Rouge. Additionally, they ran radio ads on urban radio stations in all of the state’s major media markets.

For those who are looking for hope for the future of Louisiana, this is where it lives.

There is talk of breaking the political machine, of guarding against supermajorities and oppressive gerrymandering, and of making sure no seat goes unchallenged in future elections. With all these great organizers awakening the political passions of voters, the next step is leadership development and building the bench for future generations of progressive candidates.

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