Former Senator Russ Feingold recognizes that need and was moved to make his first endorsement in a Democratic primary since leaving the Senate. On Tuesday, Feingold pledged his support and that ofProgressives United—his recently formed group focused on opposing corporate power—to Ilya Sheyman, a 25-year-old community organizer running in Illinois 10th District for a shot at the incumbent, Republican Representative Robert Dold.
While some Democratic candidates might look to co-opt the spirit and convictions of the Occupy movement, Sheyman is authentically of, by and for the 99 percent, ready to go to Washington and work with a strong grassroots to rebuild economic opportunity and fairness.
“Ilya knows that being a true progressive is more than a slogan. His campaign has mobilized and united hundreds of volunteers demanding a fresh, strong voice in Congress,” said Feingold. “This is exactly the type of candidate we as progressives must support, and with the primary almost here, now is exactly the time to step up and take action.”
Sheyman and his family came to Illinois from the former Soviet Union as Jewish refugees when he was 4 years old. His family worked its way up from living in a motel on the north side of Chicago, to eventually owning a home in the town of Buffalo Grove. His dad worked as a pizza deliverer before finally starting two small businesses with Sheyman’s mom.
In high school, Sheyman became involved in progressive politics. He was an outspoken leader against the war in Iraq from the outset. He led a walk-out from his school and founded a local chapter of Patriots for Peace.
After college he worked as a community organizer to address a broken public education funding system and help citizens gain access to government and social services. He later served as the national mobilization director at MoveOn, where he led their campaign for healthcare reform with a public option.
Sheyman told me his own story wouldn’t be possible without the assistance of core public programs.
“From the public schools and federal Stafford Loans that allowed me to get a world class education, to the Medicare and Social Security benefits my 94-year-old grandmother depends on every day—it’s clear that my own story is only possible because alongside our hard work, at every step of the way, my family received the support of our community and government. That’s why I’ll fight to defend the safety net that built the middle class in this country,” he said.
Sheyman’s endorsements reflect his progressive authenticity. In addition to Feingold’s support, the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs, Representatives Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison, have both endorsed. He’s the only candidate to receive endorsements from members of the Illinois delegation, with the backing of Representatives Danny Davis and Jesse Jackson Jr.; former Democratic National Committee Chairman, Governor Howard Dean, has also endorsed. Other notable supporters include Democracy for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Citizen Action/Illinois; and the vast majority of labor support including AFSCME Council 31, Illinois Federation of Teachers, Sheet Metal Workers Local 73 and the International Longshoremen’s Association-AFL-CIO.
The March 20 primary is shaping up to be a real bellwether for what happens when a truly progressive candidate runs against a so-called “moderate” Democrat endorsed by the party establishment. In this case, Sheyman’s main competition is businessman Brad Schneider, endorsed by House minority whip Steny Hoyer.
Schneider is struggling mightily to re-brand himself as “a solid progressive” after giving thousands of dollars to Republicans including Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns, Utah Senator Robert Bennett and Representative Mark Kennedy of Minnesota.
But according to Daniel Mintz, national director of coordinated campaigns for MoveOn.org Political Action, that record of supporting “hard core Republicans” hasn’t stopped Schneider from sending a slew of direct mail to voters showing “picture after picture” of the candidate with tags like “progressive,” or “experienced progressive” or “progressive Democrat.”
“Clearly that’s how his polling showed him he needs to run to be competitive,” says Mintz. “But what kind of progressive has given thousands of dollars to right-wing, anti-choice Republicans? His strategy has been to pitch himself as a progressive and at debates begin every other phrase with, ‘I really agree with what Ilya just said.’ ”
Indeed, polling in early January indicated that when choosing a Democratic candidate voters in the district were more than twice as likely to pick someone “more progressive” over someone “more moderate” by a margin of 64 percent to 25 percent.
“As a result, this race is being fought all on progressive, 99 percent issues,” says Mintz. “Ilya’s been running on 99 percent issues from the start—talking about the fact that the good jobs have all gone away and the playing field just isn’t level anymore, and that Washington isn’t paying attention to any of that. He’s been talking about putting the American Dream back in reach for the middle-class and those who aspire to it, and protecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.”
The district is an economically diverse one—some neighborhoods are suffering 12 to 18 percent unemployment and others are among the wealthiest communities in the country. But polls show that of these four issues—Wall Street and corporate accountability, social issues like choice, jobs and Israel—Wall Street accountability and jobs tie as most important to the district’s voters (37 percent) with social issues (12 percent) and Israel (4 percent) far behind.
Sheyman attributes a shift in the district’s political conversation to the success of Occupy.
“When we started this campaign with house parties and coffees back in March , the first question would invariably be, ‘How do you deal with the deficit? What program do you want to cut?’ ” Sheyman said. “Now the first question is, ‘How do we put people back to work?’ and ‘How do we restore some fairness to the tax system?’ No matter what happens from here on out Occupy Wall Street has already succeeded, they’ve shifted our national dialogue to the conversation we need to have.”
While Schneider got in the race early and had a strong first quarter in fundraising, Mintz says “ever since then, once people realized there was a real progressive in the race, Schneider has been unable to show any fundraising growth.”
On the other hand, Sheyman’s fundraising has grown every quarter and topped Schneider’s fundraising in every report since June. His report for the first two months of this year was his strongest yet, and unlike Schneider, none of his contributions came from his own pocket. He now has over 16,000 individual contributors—one of the largest donor bases of any non-incumbent in the country—and that’s sure to grow with Feingold’s endorsement.
The naysayers are pointing to a recent poll conducted by the Schneider campaign that shows him with a 29 percent to 14 percent lead over Sheyman, and as “lead[ing] Sheyman on being progressive on the issues.” But even this poll shows a plurality of voters undecided and it was conducted right after a massive mail campaign by Schneider to increase his name recognition. Mintz says more recent private polling indicates that any lead of Schneider’s “has evaporated.”
With the March 20 primary less than two weeks away, this is the moment to use new media to contact voters directly in the district, and tap into movement energy to support a progressive candidate who will represent the people without mortgaging himself to the special interests.
Sheyman certainly sees the stakes and the opportunity for a movement win.
“We can send a message that when Democrats stand up with backbone and conviction for the progressive values that built the middle class in this country, we win,” he told me. “This is our moment to send a new generation of proven, progressive leadership to Washington to focus on how we put our people back to work, how we restore fairness to our tax system and how we invest in America again. This election is not just about turning a red seat blue, it’s about rebuilding our middle class and restoring the American Dream.”
The original aritcle may be found on The Nation