Forging Our Political Agenda

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

interview with Claire Cohen

DR. CLAIRE COHEN is a member of Solidarity who is active in Pittsburgh with the Campaign for a New Tomorrow (CNT) and with a network of African-American community activists. Their work ranges from independent politics to the issue of police brutality (recently manifested by the police killing of Johnny Gammage, which received national attention only because his cousin Ray Seals plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers). David Finkel of the ATC editorial board interviewed Claire Cohen on local and statewide political initiatives.

Against the Current: You recently attended a conference on the issue of proportional representation (PR). The issue of PR has received somewhat more attention from the controversy over Lani Guinier, but I understand it’s been an ongoing campaign. What does PR mean and what’s its relevance for your work?

Claire Cohen: This conference took place November 11-12, put on by the Center for Voting and Democracy. It’s a mixed kind of organization–people who are mostly liberal, certainly not revolutionary, but who have been convinced that PR is a meaningful reform of the political system on the local, state and federal levels.

The director is Rob Ritchie. Some of the people on their board, none of whom I knew before the conference, include Matthew Cossolotto, author of the Almanac of European Politics, who’s the board president; Howard Fain, president of the Fair Ballot Alliance of Massachusetts; and David Lampe, editor of the National Civic Review. The advisory board ranges over the map, from representatives of the NAACP to the Libertarian Party and New Republic, as well as activists like Arthur Kinoy and Michael Parenti.

There were 250-300 people at this conference, in Boston–a good turnout, but at most half a dozen people of color.

ATC: What motivated you to attend, and whom were you representing? What was the substance of the discussions on PR?

CC: There had been a workshop on electoral reform at the National Independent Politics Summit, held here in Pittsburgh, which was co-led by Rob Ritchie and Gwen Patton. I was excited by it. I’m on the Summit continuations committee, so we decided that I and also Arthur Kinoy would represent the Summit at this conference.

Of the several forms of PR discussed at the conference, the most radical form is called “party-list PR” (in which seats are distributed strictly on voting percentages, as in the Israeli parliament–ed.). But PR can mean anything from preferential voting (a system used in Australia–ed.) to what Lani Guinier was talking about or the kind of mixed system used in Germany, with some winner-take-all seats but with votes for losing candidates distributed according to some formula to fill other seats, so those votes aren’t “wasted.”

It’s not that any of this would mean radical social change. But the thing that is obvious for progressives and particularly for African Americans is that PR is a way for people to get a foot in the door to get more political representation. The way things are now, if you can’t get 50% of the vote you have no representation. PR would broaden the public debate and produce broader representation.

These ideas aren’t new; it turns out that there’s a whole history of attempts to get PR. For short periods of time during the beginning of this century, for example, a number of cities used it. The biggest arguments used by the power structure to get rid of PR was “too many niggers getting into office.”

Recently, what’s happened in little towns down South have been a lot of challenges under the Civil Rights Act about the effective denial of Black representation. Since neither the people bringing the complaints, or the towns, have the money to pursue or defend the court challenges, they’ve settled out of court for some kind of PR, usually cumulative or perhaps preferential voting.

A study was done of thirty-six municipalities in Texas that had gone since 1987 to some version of PR, all around settling these voting rights cases, to find out whether they really did “empower” minorities. (I really dislike that term, but I’ll use it here since that’s the language used.) All these were small towns of 2-3000 people, some Latino and others African American.

The study found that going to PR all by itself, without voter education, made no difference. But where minority voters were educated on how the process worked and getting out the vote, it did produce more African-American and Latino representation than the usual winner-take-all system.

Surveys of voter satisfaction in these towns–did people find the system fair? did it work?–also found that 87% of African Americans liked PR, found it was fairer and gave more satisfaction. So did 78% of Latinos–but only 45% of the whites liked it. A majority of whites thought it was “unfair.”

There was a workshop on Cambridge (Mass.), where they’ve had a system called “single transfer of vote” for about fifty years. Eighteen percent of the population there is Black, and they’ve always had two out of nine on the city council–and they actually have three Black members of the even-member school board.

For the Latino community of Cambridge, however, it hasn’t worked. People attribute this to the lack of voter education due to the language barrier, whereas the Black community is mobilized. So PR could be an important political reform, though it surely doesn’t guarantee anything.

ATC: Now, you’re also working locally in efforts at independent political action. What are some of the experiences and lessons you’ve drawn?

CC: I work with Campaign for a New Tomorrow (CNT). There’s been a lot of work around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal (the African-American journalist and former Black Panther activist on death row in a notorious 1982 frameup murder conviction–ed.). We’ve also been working around activating elected “community advisory boards,” which exist on paper in the city charter but don’t really function.

Right now we have a test case in the Hill district, which is 97% African American, where community people ran for the board. Not all the candidates were CNT members, but it was a CNT member who spearheaded it by getting block and neighborhood groups to get it together to run candidates as write-ins.

We’re sure they won; but the county Board of Elections is taking its good time counting the votes. Then we will be trying to activate some of the other advisory boards. We’ll be having a forum in February about getting more people involved.

In another area, which is primarily white, there’s a progressive guy who’s willing to run as a third-party candidate for a city council seat. A group of people in the Independent Political Action Network (IPAN) is working around that.

There’s a statewide coalition, initiated by IPAN, which now has a life of its own but hasn’t been named yet. We’ve worked on what needs to be done to open up the system for state elections. We formed a committee called the Ballot Access Campaign Committee, and are in the process of finishing a draft bill that would change the state electoral law.

Right now, to get permanent ballot status you need either 15% of the voter registration in the state–meaning about 900,000 signatures, which is impossible–or there’s also a more complex formula, based on votes cast in the last election and requiring signatures from a number of counties.

The bill we’re going to introduce–and we have actually found some state legislators willing to introduce it–would require only 1% of registered voters, which would bring it down to about 60,000 signatures to secure permanent ballot access. Or, on the county level (we have “county parties” in Pennsylvania), the requirement would be 0.1%, which in Allegheny Country would mean seven or eight hundred people.

This will certainly not be popular among the powers-that-be, so we are in the process of launching a project called “Voters Choice–the One Percent Solution.” This is a statewide effort, in which African Americans and white progressives  work together, though it’s not as racially mixed statewide on the local level.

This effort includes the Consumer Party in Philadelphia, a number of Green parties, some of whom have run candidates before, and many other groups. The meetings have 20-25 representatives from around the state.

In 1994, a progressive African- American candidate named Rick Adams running for city council got 32% of the vote. That’s a really good showing for an independent candidate. He came in second–we were a little disappointed of course that he didn’t win, but nevertheless that’s an achievement since the Democratic Party apparatus was trying
to keep him off the ballot by legal maneuvers, to drain the campaign’s energy.

As I mentioned before, a progressive white candidate will be running in a south side area.

ATC: Let’s talk about the Mumia Abu-Jamal defense campaign. How much grassroots interest has it generated?

CC: In Pittsburgh, we’ve had a pretty good steering committee around the case, a significant proportion of whom are African-American activists. We had a demonstration of 250 people way back in June (shortly after the state governor signed Mumia’s death warrant–ed.); we’ve taken a couple of busloads of people to demonstrations in Philadelphia.

We have tapes to show people–for example, of a show on the case from the British Broadcasting Corporation–and we put out information newsletters.

When Judge Sabo made his ruling denying a new trial, a decision that came down after 5:00 on a Friday, we mobilized in eighteen hours a demonstration of 100 people in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. We have CNT activists who will do 50-100 phone calls on a minute’s notice.

We got over 200 people to hear Mumia’s attorney Leonard Weinglass on the Carnegie-Mellon campus, and on November 6 we had a teach-in with another strong turnout of 150-200 people.

We’re really emphasizing the connection between the racism and class bias of the system, police brutality and the death penalty. The people involved in this work aren’t necessarily socialists, but they all see the race and class issues at stake.

ATC 60, January-February 1996