Currently, the Mid-Missouri DSA is unable to run candidates in our community directly. However, we have had a surprising amount of success with an alternative strategy, working in coalition with community partners on an issues-based campaign to influence local election results. This writeup covers in brief the course of this multi-year campaign.
Mid-Mo DSA is not a large chapter. At a given monthly meeting, there may be only 10 people in attendance. Some months, the chapter membership and the five person Facilitating Committee are one and the same. Even in a city such as Columbia, MO, there are not enough people in the chapter to directly field an electoral campaign for local office. Instead, the chapter has pursued a more indirect path to political influence in the community.
The Neighborhood Pledge is a project of Missouri Jobs with Justice (JwJ), a coalition organization made up of labor, faith, student, and community groups. In Columbia, those groups include Missouri Faith Voices (a progressive faith alliance), LiUNA Local 955, Columbia NEA, Our Revolution MidMO and Mid-Mo DSA.
In 2018, representatives from each of these groups and more came together to write a policy agenda by and for working class people in Columbia, Missouri. The final document focused on three main planks, around which specific policy positions were oriented:
- Protect & Expand Housing
- Strengthen Infrastructure in Columbia Neighborhoods
- Address Structural Inequality
The Pledge is a living document, and is subject to yearly updates by the constituent JwJ organizations, but these primary tenets have remained consistent across three municipal elections. The current iteration of this document can be found here.
Once the Neighborhood Pledge was finalized, we set out to make it the basis for successful political campaigning in Columbia. In our first campaign, we targeted the Ward 1 city council election. Ward 1 is, by far, the poorest Ward in Columbia, with a median household income of less than $19,000. It is the most racially diverse ward in the city, has the lowest percentage of the population with advanced degrees, is the most progressive and heavily Democratic ward, and receives the least attention and services from the city. Ward 1, in many places, is literally falling apart. The infrastructure needs of Ward 1 residents have been ignored to prioritize and feed corporate developments like the large student housing complexes downtown. For these reasons and more, the ward forms the base for any Jobs with Justice or DSA organizing work, and was the natural starting point for our progressive campaign to change the city government.
During this initial campaign, we canvassed Ward 1 and had conversations with 144 of our neighbors. At each household, we opened conversations with the Neighborhood Pledge and its grounding values. We explained that this was something we hoped to hold every candidate for office accountable to, and that until we knew where they stood on the pledge, we were not out to support or oppose any candidates. At a town hall meeting we would request every candidate to show their support for the working families by signing on to the Neighborhood Pledge. Voters also signed a pledge card to show their support for the pledge and demand that the candidates agree to this policy agenda.
At the town hall forum, working people, including labor members, construction workers, and bus drivers, asked questions related to the platform planks of the Neighborhood Pledge. At the end of the town hall only one candidate, progressive community activist Pat Fowler, signed. Subsequently, we went back out into the community, and by phone or at the doors, we informed the voters of which candidate had signed the pledge, and which ones hadn’t. Pat Fowler won her election that year with 657 total votes, 68.94% of the vote.
Two years later, we focused our efforts on Ward 2. Largely a mix of working class and middle class families, with just a few affluent neighborhoods, Ward 2 has seen a good deal of development in recent years. Infrastructure is generally better than in Ward 1, but residents are still deprived of many basic services, particularly in any area off of the main thoroughfare. The candidates seeking to represent this community included Andrea Waner, Columbia Commission on Human Rights Chair, Jim Meyer, a conservative realtor, and Bill Weitkemper, former Sewer Maintenance Supervisor.
Once again, our first step was to hit the doors. Along with our JwJ partners, MidMo DSA members talked to Ward residents ahead of the town hall meeting and gathered 218 signatures in support of the Neighborhood Pledge. Due to COVID-19 precautions, this town hall was live-streamed and recorded. We again invited every candidate to our community town hall, which Jim Meyer refused to attend. Workers and Ward 2 residents asked the candidates where they stood on the issues and asked them to sign the Neighborhood Pledge. Andrea Waner was the only candidate to sign the Pledge, which we spent the final weeks informing the voters of. Waner won her election with more than 52% of the total vote.
By the 2022 municipal elections, the Neighborhood Pledge campaign was a proven formula, and it showed in our organizing and the response. This year, three city council seats came open: Ward 3, Ward 4, and the office of the Mayor. To reach more voters, we would need even more effort and more buy-in for the Neighborhood Pledge than in previous years.. Our coalition welcomed Mizzou YDSA as a crucial partner in this effort. Together, the two DSA chapters talked to 265 voters, and gathered 193 signatures of community support for the Pledge.
At the town hall, held in the cafeteria of a Ward 3 elementary school, every candidate for office that year was in attendance. While our first town hall forum was sparsely attended, more than 160 people packed the small space, which was standing room only. Working people once again asked questions of the candidates, focusing on the issues embodied in the Pledge. In response to these questions, candidates expressed support for increased bus routes, additional public housing, and unionization of the public library workers. However, two candidates were more ambivalent toward the tenets of the Neighborhood Pledge. Mayoral candidate Randy Minchew and Ward 4 candidate Erica Pefferman each expressed a desire to center private developers in solving the city’s housing crisis. It is worth noting that both Minchew and Pefferman are business owners. Both candidates were also confronted with their own previous remarks regarding privatizing the city’s sanitation services — something Pefferman refused to walk back. At the end of the town hall, seven of the eight candidates forcefully voiced their support for the Neighborhood Pledge. Pefferman sat alone as the only candidate to not support the Neighborhood Pledge. Mid-Missouri DSA promised Pefferman that the “working class voters of Columbia will remember that on April 5th.”
Once again, we went back out into the community and knocked hundreds of doors. Some of our members continued to canvass with Missouri Jobs with Justice, while others worked with LiUNA Local 955, who had endorsed Nick Foster for Ward 4 over Pefferman and Barbara Buffaloe for Mayor over Minchew. Despite funding well in excess of either of their opponents, both Minchew and Pefferman lost their elections by significant margins. Columbia elected Sustainability Manager Barbara Buffaloe as Mayor, and former Voluntary Action Center director Nick Foster to represent the 4th Ward on city council. Both had signed the Neighborhood Pledge.
This was a triumphant moment for the Mid-MO DSA and our Neighborhood coalition. After four years of campaigning, 5 of 7 members of the Columbia City Council are now signatories of the Neighborhood Pledge, a policy platform co-authored by socialists, rank-and-file union members, and community leaders, with a focus on justice and equity for working people. This would have been almost unimaginable just a few years ago in a town nationally known for pro-business corruption. While our chapter, like many, is generally suspicious of electoralism in affecting change, the local elections in our community are far from symbolic. Defeating candidates like Pefferman and Minchew in this election was the difference between the unionized solid waste workers keeping their jobs, or yet another city service sold off piecemeal to private interests. Moreover, the overwhelming community support for the main planks of the Pledge embodied by this electoral success makes progress on these issues far more likely, and ensures that the DSA-JwJ coalition remains an influential force in local politics.
While the DSA must continue to build independent electoral success and run candidates in winnable races, this will not be an option available to all chapters at all times. The Neighborhood Pledge model, focusing on issues ahead of candidates, and reliant on a small, dedicated team of organizers and activists, is one that other small DSA chapters can look to and replicate in their communities in order to shift the environment and conversation ahead of direct electoral pursuits.