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Faith Groups Mobilize Down Ballot

POSTED: October 20, 2016, 8:30 am

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With the November 8 election date approaching groups around the country are preparing to mobilize voters to go to the polls. While the presidential election is driving media coverage, ballots in states will have important races for state and local offices, and public referendums that will have far greater impact on the daily lives of citizens than the occupant of the Oval Office. A faith-based network is working feverishly to hit the ground running, with old-fashion personal outreach to drive voter turnout on Election Day.

PICO National Network is a coalition of 45 organizations in 150 cities and towns that is committed to bringing about social justice through faith. This week PICO conducted a media call to outline its plans for Election Day and the months afterward. Joining the call were several PICO National Network affiliates. The participants included Rev. Dr. Troy Jackson, Executive Director of the Amos Project in Cincinnati; Molly Shack, Lead Organizer for the Ohio Organizing Collaborative in Columbus; Rev. Canon Shannon MacVean-Brown of Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis; Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould, Pastor of Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church in Jefferson City Missouri; Bishop Dwayne Royster, the PICO National Network’s Political Director; Eddie Carmona, LA RED Campaign Director for PICO; and the Chief of Staff for PICO, Denise Callazo.

Bishop Dwayne Royster, the group’s political director framed the group’s focus. “When it comes to presidential elections, our nation often looks to political parties, labor unions and other advocacy groups to lead the way in terms of voter engagement and voter turnout. For faith leaders, however, our beliefs compel us to action.”

PICO National Network is concentrating its efforts on the ground, utilizing a network of 15,000 volunteers in communities across the country to educate voters and persuade them to vote on November 8. The strategy is to use the obvious energy of the presidential race to tap voters’ concerns and make them aware of important ‘down ballot’ issues. Chief of Staff Denise Collazo said, “We are working to have one million face-to-face conversations with voters in 20 states to make personal appeals.” Collazo identified some of the issues that voters in states are likely to find important and compelling to motivate their casting ballots. Among the issues she cited were juvenile justice reform in California and a referendum to remove references to slavery in the Colorado constitution. She said a special focus will be on African-American, Asian-American and Latino voters.

In many states ballot initiatives or referendums are focused on major policy areas but are often overshadowed by races for elected office. Often these ballot questions are approved without significant public education and the public unknowingly ignoring proposals that have budgetary and quality of life implications. Rev. MacVean Brown out of Indianapolis referenced a transportation ballot initiative that is the focus of efforts in that city. She said the goal is to “build a region where people don’t just survive but everyone thrives.” The pastor indicated the “Ticket to Opportunity” campaign has a goal of 80,000 face-to-face conversations with the mission of “taking our prayers to action.”

Molly Shack out of Ohio discussed efforts in that state to redirect resources and compel government to reinvest in programs that keep communities safe. Shack observed that “people have been frustrated in this election and we are working hard to connect to local elections.” She noted the deaths of Tamir Rice, Henry Green and Tyree King as examples of police use of deadly force and the need for a redirection of resources to adopt best practices that will end the cycle of police killings of civilians.

In a later conversation had with Molly Shack, the Columbus based organizer talked specifically about efforts to shift resources away from heavy investments in policing and toward other violence reduction strategies. She pointed out that 70% of the municipal budget in Columbus is dedicated to law enforcement and fire protection, leaving little for other initiatives that could protect public safety. Shack referenced the killing of 23-year old Henry Green by plain-clothed police just blocks away from a high school. She pointed out that the city deploys a “summer strike force” and pay officers, many in plain clothes, overtime to double-down in high crime neighborhoods. The result is almost a self-fulfilling prophesy with an incident(s) inevitable with such a high concentration of police.

Shack said the race for Franklin County Prosecutor is on the radar of the PICO National Network’s affiliates in Columbus. The race involves an 18-year incumbent seeking reelection on a “law and order” platform. She suggested the race was an opportunity to make the case for “what prosecutors should be” and to sever the connection between policing and the criminalization of communities of color.

Rev. Dr. Troy Jackson of the Amos Project out of Cincinnati explained on the call that local organizing efforts in that city are seeing a lot of excitement from residents about voting on issues for children. According to Jackson, 47,000 new voters registered in Hamilton County this year. He called universal pre-school and pre-school expansion as priority issues locally. He said the faith based network is very active in Cincinnati and cited Crossroads Church that has a Justice Team of 300 members that is specifically working on social justice issues.

“People of faith are inspired by this chance to vote for children, for families, and for our shared future this election season,” said Rev. Jackson. “In Cincinnati, Ohio for example, we are witnessing hundreds of volunteers dedicated to doing all we can for children and families by passing a ballot initiative – Issue 44 – to support public schools by making a $15 million per year investment in high quality preschool for children who need it.”

Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould, who pastors Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church in Jefferson City Missouri spoke about the issues resonating in that state. The priority of local organizing there is to defeat a referendum, Amendment 6, that calls for Voter ID, a move that undermines the protections afforded voting rights in the state constitution. Gould believes the referendum has been pushed by legislators in retaliation against the activism around the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and protests by students on the campus of the University of Missouri. She said Amendment 6 would impact 220,000 voters who are registered but do not have ID and 130,000 who have expired identification.

Following the media call, PICO National Network’s political director Bishop Dwayne Royster went into greater detail concerning the network’s longer range plans. He explained, “Back in late summer we brought together in Washington sixty leaders from around the country and met with members of the House and Senate to discuss our priorities.” These meetings, Royster noted, were the beginning of a plan – “Down Payment for American Families” – that spells out an agenda for the first 100 days of the new presidential administration and Congress. Among the priorities is reinvesting federal resources in education and job training and increasing the federal minimum wage. He also indicated immigration and mass incarceration are key issues for the network. The plan is to being together about two dozen leaders after the November election to start meeting with congressional leadership.

Bishop Royster also pointed out the strength of the network’s organizing capacity with 300 staff members and an aggressive digital media campaign. The network touches 150 cities and is affiliated with 40 federations and dozens of individual congregations. He said there were 35 different faith groups connected to the network. The PICO National Network is also reaching out to other organizations such as, the Working Families Party and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to collaborate on agenda items.

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