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How New Virginia Majority is Building Power

by Eoin Higgins/Blue Tent

The New Virginia Majority, an organization dedicated to reshaping the Old Dominion’s political agenda and electorate, has had notable successes over the past few years in the commonwealth’s elections.

Founded in 2007 as a response to the difficulties faced by progressives in legislating at the state level, New Virginia Majority works to activate voters by implementing tactics learned in the trenches of community organizing. The group had notable success in 2017 and 2019, helping to turn both houses of the state legislature blue for 2020.

The group’s leader, Jon Liss, talked to Blue Tent about how he’s worked to develop the group’s mission and what’s ahead. 

Liss has a decades-long career in organizing in Virginia, beginning in the early 1980s, when he helped lead a local taxi drivers association. In 1987, Liss founded Tenants and Workers United, which he led until 2011. Liss later helped found New Virginia Majority and is the group’s co-executive director.  

Your organizing career has taken you from taxicabs to housing to electoral politics. Can you talk a little about that journey?

So some things have been constant. Early on, I recognized the importance of building power, organizing centered on working people, organizing centered on people of color. 

And then it’s gone through different steps along the way, some based in life circumstances. I was working to organize taxi drivers when I was a taxi driver. There was a nascent organization there and I sort of joined in. We were fighting for fair treatment for taxi drivers. You know, that would have been back in the early ’80s. 

And then other things were a more conscious choice. So Tenants and Workers United started to organize residents against the planned mass eviction of 8,000 people in one neighborhood. We sort of built that, over time, and that became an incorporated nonprofit and eventually became my employer. 

And as that work progressed, we realized we needed state-level power if we were going to address housing and other crises that we were confronting. We did a couple years of demographic and political analysis and created the New Virginia Majority as our response to a lack of power at the local level and to transform the state as well as the bigger world. 

New Virginia Majority has had success at the statewide level. What lessons should organizers draw from your approach?

One I would say is use strategic analysis; looking at details like who lives where, anything from voting patterns, to the political economy, to the rising sea level in Virginia—there’s just a bunch of things people should be looking at and not just wing it.

Two is the critical importance of building a base centered on working-class people of color in the beginning and building from there. That’s been consistent.

And then the lesson of the last 10 years and the last three years is the relationship and the need for a relationship between electoral and deep organizing. You need both in relationship to each other. 

That’s been the breakthrough of New Virginia Majority, that approach to organizing. 

There’s no magic formula—if there was, we’d all be doing it!—but I think there’s a methodology, there’s a deep analysis that needs to happen everywhere you are, whether it’s Kentucky or Tennessee. They’re in very different situations, the election world, who the social base would be, but it’s about the constellation of people you want to bring together. 

So yes, it’s very different, but I think the methodology is very similar. People might end up with different types of organizations in different places. 

One thing that’s implied by the name New Majority is that people have to be thinking about how to unite around a new majority, how to pull together that constellation of class, race, gender. It’s about bringing people together with an eye toward building power in their state and a contribution to a larger national effort.

Where do you put New Virginia Majority in the context of the movement in the South? The nationwide movement to address right-wing dominance of electoral politics?

We’ve got dashed-line and solid-line relationships with key state power organizations across the South. Whether it’s New Florida Majority or the work in Georgia, Texas Organizing Project, or One Voice Mississippi, there are relationships and shared learning across state lines. 

I think most of us who do work in the South have an analysis that while the South is seen as a bastion of conservatism, it could actually be a bastion of a progressive movement. The South could be a Solid South for racial equity, a Solid South for income distribution that’s fair and equitable, for healthcare, etc.

Our organization is a co-founder of the State Power Caucus. We have 16 states, roughly 22 organizations, that are doing state-level struggles over organizing power. From New York, to Minnesota, to the states I already mentioned in the South and Southwest, Arizona, and that creates a peer-to-peer space. We’re not creating a whole new network, but a space for learning and building the kind of movement we need. 

That’s a piece of it. It’s not the only answer. 

There are bigger questions—how do we connect with other, bigger movements? There are environmentalists like Sunrise,, how do we connect with those folks in different ways than we’ve been able to do to date?

I think self-organizing the state power organization is part of the answer, but it’s not the answer by itself. 

What are the mid-term/long-term goals of the New Virginia Majority project?

The main thing that we’re trying to do, and our partners around the country are also thinking about this, is how do we move from being aligned broadly with the Democratic Party to line up with folks who would really democratize things and make it much easier for people to vote?

Our sense is if the electorate starts looking more and participating more along lines of who actually lives in Virginia, then we’re going to move a different kind of politics that provides housing, provides healthcare, actually cares about the long-term of the environment, isn’t beholden to the energy monopoly, or real estate developers who just want the sprawl.

Our sense is, how do we develop the next stage of our power? And the next stage of Phase One was getting a fairly narrow Democratic majority. And it’s still uncorked about 60 bills that we’ve helped get through in the past legislative session. 

I think the next phase is really developing a core of deeply aligned elected officials who either come out of or respond to the movement in different ways. And they really can sharpen stuff. 

For example, in Virginia, the $15 an hour minimum wage didn’t get through because there’s a lot of so-called moderate Democrats who are beholden to other interests. There are bills that would severely limit the energy monopoly or replace it that didn’t get through. Bills that would actually transfer resources and create safety nets for low-income folks and working-class folks that didn’t get through. 

There’s a range of things that didn’t get done, and it’s going to take a much deeper and more aligned progressive core to the elected leadership, linked with us and other social movements, to actually move to the next level.

In 2021, we have statewide elections, the entire house and senate as well as governor all up for election. Our hope is that between the primary process and elections in November, we’re going to be in a position that there’s not only going to be a majority, but there’s a core of people deeply aligned with us and will move closely to advance the politics that we believe in. 

So there’s a unity around democracy, making it better and easy for people to vote; and hopefully, the next level will be more around social, racial, economic, gender justice, which are all big leaps from where we are today.

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