On Election Day in a spare, bright room in Charlottesville’s Glass Building, dozens of young Democrats worked phones in a last-minute push to coax voters to the polls. But the young volunteers and staffers of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a PAC founded by two UVA alums, weren’t calling Charlottesville residents. Their calls were going out to Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Ohio, and a handful of other areas where hard-fought House and Senate races were coming to a close.
Created in 2009, PCCC supports unabashedly left-wing candidates with dollars and operations help—a busy, if quiet, liberal answer to the Tea Party movement. But while the collective Tea Party shriek seemed to blow itself out around the time of the Republican primaries and lost ground in last week’s elections, PCCC’s star is rising. Since Charlottesville native Stephanie Taylor and UVA Law grad Adam Green founded the PAC three years ago, it has raised more than $11 million from a membership base that’s now near 1 million.
Taylor, 33, grew up immersed in the language of progressive politics. Her mom, a medical secretary at UVA hospital, spearheaded an effort to unionize colleagues while Taylor was still a student. She tagged along to rallies and meetings. “It let me see firsthand the importance of being able to negotiate for better wages,” she said.
After graduating from college in three years, she left her MFA program at Columbia early, troubled by what was happening in government after George W. Bush’s election in 2000. “I couldn’t stay at Columbia writing when there were things that needed to happen in the world,” she said.
She moved to Columbus, Ohio to become a labor organizer, but she felt like her victories getting workers to unionize were being undone many times over by high-level government decisions. So she went to Washington.
“I started thinking about Congress the way I’d think about any workplace,” she said. “Congress can be organized like any other group of people, and they can work with other members to push forward.” In 2008, she worked as an advisor to Tom Perriello, an old friend who was making an unlikely bid for a House seat in her home district. Taylor and Green, the former communications director for MoveOn.org, had been tossing around the idea of forming a political action committee, and helping guide Perriello to victory crystallized things for Taylor—and for others who worked with her on the campaign, like Charlottesville native Michael Snook, now 27.
“One day we were in the boiler room”—command central in the final days of a campaign—“talking about things that were more difficult than they should have been,” Snook said. “And Stephanie kind of said, ‘Hold that thought until after the election.’”
Their win behind them, they recruited a staff of other 20- and 30-somethings and started filing paperwork. Their goal: build up the power of the Progressive Caucus by seeking out and advising candidates, and supporting them with donations from a vast membership also active in advocacy campaigns.
The amount of money they’ve brought in has turned heads, especially considering the millions have been raised mostly in $3 donations through ActBlue, a web-based service that makes it easy to trace and report funding. But they also offer manpower.
Running for office is hard and unfamiliar work, said Taylor. “It’s the equivalent of opening up and running and then shutting down a small business over the course of 18 months,” she said. PCCC started stepping in early, helping their picks hire staff and strategize.
At the same time, they stirred up their liberal membership with campaigns that kept a foot on the throats of lawmakers, and even the Obama administration. When White House officials hinted they might abandon the public option in the health care debate in 2010, PCCC organized a petition and protest, prompting then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to rant about “f—ing retarded” liberal groups. The PAC started getting profiled in major media outlets, and Taylor and her cohorts were pleased to be on the receiving end of some Democrats’ wrath.
“We used to joke to each other and say, ‘I guess we’re not being invited to the White House Christmas party,’” she said.
As Election Day approached this year, PCCC shifted its operations center to Charlottesville and hunkered down for a last-minute push. Many of the core staff of 20 have connections to the area, Taylor said, “and it’s nice to be able to get out of D.C. and be doing the intense organizing in a battleground state.” They hired 70 temporary workers and hit the phones, placing more than 2 million calls to potential voters with the help of their members.
And then, exhausted, they watched the results come in. Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. Sherrod Brown in Ohio. One after another, 30 Senate and House candidates PCCC had put its weight behind became victors.
Far from resting on its laurels, Taylor said PCCC is readying for a fight against expected attempts to cut Medicare funding during the coming lame duck session of Congress, and they’re scouting for a new crop of progressive candidates.
But the wins are sweet, and Snook said there’s a fundamental difference between working for a single successful campaign and striving to pull off elections nationwide.
“We’re here to win elections, but we also know we’re building an activist base that will carry on into the future,” he said. Campaign volunteers work incredibly hard, but after Election Day, their cause gets yanked out from under them. With PCCC’s work, he said, “win or lose, you know you’re building something better.”